Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Modern Monetary Theory is really Magical Monetary Theory

In my quest to understand things economic, I have run into Modern Money Theory (MMT) a number of times, and have adopted the habit of calling it "Magic Money Theory" because it seems to bestow magic properties upon money issued by governments. Feeling that I, perhaps, just didn't understand what MMT theorists were talking about, I searched for their responses to Weimar inflation--something that would seem hard for MMTers to explain. As a result, I stumbled upon L. Randal Wray's series of articles at EconoMonitor, entitled Zimbabwe! Weimar Republic! How Modern Money Theory Replies to Hyperinflation Hyperventilators (Part 1)Not Worth a Continental! How Modern Money Theory Replies to Hyperinflation Hyperventilators (Part 2), and These articles did nothing to change my views of MMT, and actually makes me wonder if "Maniacal Money Theory" might be more appropriate.

Wray starts his defense of MMT by stipulating 'that government spends by “keystrokes”, this is a description'--no argument there. But then he goes on to state, 'If critics were correct that government spending by “printing money” necessarily leads to hyperinflation, then most developed nations would have hyperinflation all the time.' As far as I know, no critic says printing money "necessarily leads to hyperinflation," but they generally would say that it risks hyperinflation. The claim is hyperbolic as governments can and do reverse inflationary policies. The concerted actions of Reagan and Volker in the early 1980s illustrate the point.

The claim is made that "gold and silver coins were the Sovereign’s IOUs that happened to be recorded on metal (rather than on paper or electronic balance sheets)," but sovereign IOUs on paper, such as Tsarist bonds, are now generally worthless, while a Tsarist rouble will, even if melted down, its sovereign connection (and collectibility) broken, purchase a nice dinner for two. A gold coin is no one's debt--it's an asset.

A clear indicator of the falsity of what the MMTers call "nominalism" is that sovereigns began coinage with precious metals and then debased the coinage, producing greater numbers of coins and inducing inflation. Without this credible beginning, coinage would have had virtually no value. The MMT narrative also fails to explain the use of cigarettes as currency in POW camps, although this article attempts to discredit the idea as irrelevant. Note that Menger only argued that money was derived from the most liquid commodity, with reference to why that commodity was the most liquid (see Carl MengerPrinciples of Economics, p 257-262). After all, he was one of the founders of the marginal revolution and the concept of subjective value. MMT also fails on the private coinage front, described in George Selgin's Good Money.

It is correct that governments who claim to be on a gold standard go off it in crises. However, this reaction is generally to a specific class of crisis--war. Wray implies that money-printing constraints are removed to cope with financial crises, but this phenomenon is more closely related to interventionist and, later, Keynesian policies that came into vogue in the 20th century.

What I admit that I do not understand, is why currency boards or a gold standard would present a problem. The country that creates its own money through keystrokes should be able to buy the foreign currency it needs on the deep foreign exchange markets or, likewise, acquire gold. Perhaps, gold markets are not deep enough, but surely the forex markets are. How could there be "imprudent expansion of these IOUs relative to ability to actually deliver the foreign currency or gold," when currency may be created without limit to acquire these assets?*

Near the end of the second "reply" we find the following aside: "(If you think about it, calling in all the coins to melt them for re-coinage would be a very strange and pointless activity if coins were already valued by embodied metal!)." But this recoinage makes perfect sense, as it is the method by which the sovereign may default on its debts. Reducing the amount of gold or other valued commodities and replacing them with base metal, while declaring the coins "legal tender" enabled the sovereign to pay of debts and purchase more commodities. This circumstance takes advantage of the non-neutrality of money as the sovereign was the first to use the debased money at current prices--prices that would increase as the new money flowed into circulation.

In the last segment there seems to be a slight-of-hand--the fact that reserves are not lent is paraded as a reason inflation cannot occur; but the reality, which is glossed over when the deposit multiplier is mentioned, is that 10 times reserves (as much as 30 times by investment banks before the financial crisis) may be lent. The fact that the Fed pays interest on excess reserves (reserves that reduce the ratio of lending to reserves) reduces the incentive to make loans, reducing inflation.

Finally, Wray suggests that unemployment will keep inflation down, ignoring the data from 1961 to 1984, along with "rational" increased net savings by firms and households. The latter, of course, increases reserves and, without the demand or the incentive (due to interest being paid on excess reserves) reduces the deposit multiplier and, hence, inflation.

MMT seems to rest on assumptions that are easy to criticize, and it seems to have a very limited following (Bernie Sanders seems to be their political champion). It contradicts our view of the state as incompetent at best and evil at worst. Did some bureaucrat invent money, or was it that a monarch saw the possibilities of wealth extraction that coinage provided? Was it Menger's evolution or political fiat?

So, what do we have here? Primarily, I would say that it is an argument that creation of money by the state does not necessarily lead to hyperinflation. On this point we can agree, as that is rarely the argument. But is money the creation of the state, or simply the commanding of an instrument created by individuals in order to enslave them? The latter is the view of economists in the Mengerian tradition.

* It has come to mind that the MMT people must think that the population of a country, no matter how little confidence they have in the money still must use it to pay debts and taxes, while people of other countries do not need to purchase, causing a collapse in the foreign exchange markets. However, in Zimbabwe, my understanding is that the US$ was being used in private commerce as the currency collapsed. In When Money Dies, Adam Ferguson documents the fact that farmers in Saxony would not accept German paper currency for produce (p 151). The fact is that unlimited production of fiat money can and will produce hyperinflation, even without the mistakes MMTers claim are required.

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