What is Modern Monetary Theory MMT?

by Bill Black Naked Capitalism Feb 1, 2019

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) continues to advance rapidly.  We are past the first phase of reaction (first they ignore you), deeply into the second phase (then they attack you), and expanding the ranks of the third phase (then you win).  We are very early in the third phase, winning with increasing numbers of people, but still a minority view.

One of the proofs of MMT’s advances is a nearly respectable treatment by the Wall Street Journal as the feature of a news article.  The other major proof is the pathetic efforts of MMT critics quoted in the article to attack MMT.  The article, implicitly, admits MMT scholars repeatedly proved correct in their predictions the existing and projected U.S. fiscal budget deficits would not trigger damaging shortages of real resources that will cause damaging levels of inflation.  The article, implicitly, admits nations with fully sovereign currencies are vastly less vulnerable to economic injury from budget deficits.

The article implicitly admits MMT opponents’ predictions failed and reality repeatedly falsified their archaic monetary theories that described nations living under the gold standard and therefore, lacked a fully sovereign currency.

In theory, high debt levels should cause interest rates to rise. That’s because investors will demand higher returns to compensate for the risk they take on when the government borrows at unsustainable levels or because they worry so much debt could trigger inflation. The need to finance such high levels of debt also makes less money available for other investments.

In practice, investors are happy to keep lending to the U.S. in good times and bad, regardless of how much it borrows. In 2009, for instance, when the Obama administration’s stimulus efforts sent federal deficits rising to almost 10% of GDP, the highest since World War II, the interest on 10-year Treasury securities remained below where it had been before the recession.

Many Republicans warned the U.S. was pushing itself to the brink of a fiscal crisis and pressed Mr. Obama to rein in spending. Economists debated how much debt a nation could hold before it crimped growth. In one paper, Harvard University economics professor Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, found countries with debt loads greater than 90% of GDP tended to have slower growth rates.

Those three paragraphs demonstrate the falsification of archaic monetary theory:

First, in the most important policy predictions in the lifetime of virtually all living economists, the archaic theory failed every predictive test and led to policy proposals that were spectacularly harmful.

Second, and even more implicitly, MMT’s predictions proved correct and MMT scholars’ policy advice proved accurate and exceptionally helpful in reducing the severity and length of the Great Recession.  Yet, the article reports as if there were only one monetary theory – the archaic one.

Third, the article does not explain Reinhart and Rogoff’s ‘finding,’ as MMT scholars predicted and demonstrated, was false.  The journalists should have given special kudos to graduate economic students at U. Mass for demonstrating the falsity of what Reinhart and Rogoff “found.”  Their data also show, consistent with MMT and contrary to Reinhart and Rogoff, nations with fully sovereign currencies show far greater resilience.

Fourth, the first paragraph of the article quoted above inadvertently demonstrates the key weakness of archaic monetary theory substituting conclusory adjectives to ‘prove’ the point their theory asserts.  What are “high debt levels?”  How much “higher” interest rates do government bond investors supposedly demand in response to “high debt levels?”

Note the archaic model piles undefined adjective upon adjective to build their strawman arguments. What supposedly represents “unsustainable levels” of government debt?  Again, the one effort to convert these vague adjectives into a real standard produced Reinhart and Rogoff’s embarrassing fake fiscal cliff.

Fifth, the last sentence of the first paragraph quoted above wins the prize for piling on vague adjectival ipse dixits as a substitute for any evidence.

The need to finance such high levels of debt also makes less money available for other investments.

One, MMT shows governments with fully sovereign currencies do not “need” to “finance” their debt.

Two, what does the phrase “such high levels of debt” mean?

Three, how much “less money” is “available.”

Four, what “other investments” supposedly will lack “money?” MMT makes clear a nation with a fully sovereign currency cannot lack “money” to undertake “investments.” MMT makes clear real resource constraints actually can serve as constraints.  Scholars, and finance professionals, overwhelming agree with MMT on the issue of real constraints.

Five, the journalists did not inform their readers MMT scholars correctly predicted the fiscal stimulus program responding to the Great Recession would not “crowd out” access to finance.  The reality is corporations are sitting on unprecedented amounts of cash and engaging in record stock “buybacks” – so the “crowding out” prediction of archaic monetary theorists was, again, falsified.

The journalists then create two false contrasts – status and ideology.  They note “prominent” economists agree MMT scholars’ predictions proved correct.

Now, some prominent economists say U.S. deficits don’t matter so much after all, and it might not hurt to expand them in return for beneficial programs such as an infrastructure project.

“The levels of debt we have in the U.S. are not catastrophic,” said Olivier Blanchard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

The journalists implicitly contrast Blanchard with Stephanie Kelton.

Some left-wing economists go even further by arguing for a new way of thinking about fiscal policy, known as Modern Monetary Theory.

Note that MMT scholars are not “prominent,” even if like Kelton they have held high positions of authority and even if like Kelton, Randy Wray, Mat Forstater, and Scott Fullwiler they have predictive records, demonstrated for two decades; that are the envy of the most “prominent” economists in the world.  It is no insult to Blanchard to point out that each of the four MMT scholars that did key work at UMKC got the most important macroeconomic issues of our lives correct, while the IMF leadership largely got those issues wrong.

Note that Blanchard is at the Peterson Institute.  Pete Peterson is a Wall Street plutocrat who created an institute to push his ultra-right wing deficit hysteria and odes to austerity in order to push for the privatization of Social Security – Wall Street’s greatest dream.  Blanchard’s macroeconomic conversion based on reality falsifying Peterson’s worship of austerity speaks well of Blanchard.  The journalists treat Blanchard as free of any ideology, while defining Kelton as exemplifying “left-wing economists.” Ideology does not define MMT or the scholars who identify with MMT.  MMT began as an accurate description of how fully sovereign, partially sovereign, and non-sovereign currencies actually operate and the implications of those differences for proper policy.  MMT does not answer whether we should fund particular government projects – it addresses the capacity and results of funding such projects.  These are common, but unworthy journalistic tactics.

Here is the journalists’ response to Kelton’s explanation of MMT.  The response grudgingly admits that MMT scholars’ predictions about the most important macroeconomic issue of all living economists’ lives proved correct.

So far the runup in government debt has not led to steep price increases. Inflation has stayed at or below the Federal Reserve’s target for most of the past quarter century.

Yes, “so far” (over a decade), but hyper-inflation might be right around the corner!  Of course, interest rates on U.S. debt and inflation are both low and the Fed has been consistently unable to meet its (very low) inflation target goal because inflation and interest rates have been exceptionally low for over a decade despite increased federal debt.  Notice that the journalists revert to misleading adjectives – “the runup in government debt has not led to steep price increases.” It has not led to any meaningful “price increases.”  Indeed, inflation, for a decade after stimulus, remains so miniscule that the Fed views the inflation rate as too low – not too high.  The Fed, despite aggressive monetary policies designed to increase inflation to the Fed’s target rates, has consistently failed to do so.

The best part of the article, however, was its implicit demonstration that MMT’s severest critics have nothing.  Ad hominem attacks demonstrate that economists follow lawyers’ guidance – when the facts are strongly in my favor I pound the facts, when the law is strongly in my favor I pound the law, and when the facts and law are against me, I pound the table.

Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, says the MMT view “is just silly” and could lead to unwanted or unexpected inflation.

Here is the great thing about attacking scholars’ theories that are “just silly” – it is simple to point out the theoretical and recurrent predictive failures that a “silly” theory inevitably produces. Auerbach had his chance, but he pounded the table because he has nothing.  The truth is that Auerbach has never read the MMT scholarly literature. We know this because Auerbach, like Blanchard, has moved increasingly into greater agreement with MMT’s precepts and policies.  Auerbach’s attacks on MMT are purely ad hominem because they are based on a strawman view of MMT of his own creation not informed by reading the scholarly MMT literature.

Next, the WSJ article went to the laziest critique – one that ignores MMT precepts to attack MMT.

Meantime, Greece and Italy are two recent examples of countries that appear to have hit thresholds where high debt loads lead to higher interest rates and economic pain. The U.S. may have such a threshold too, just not yet seen.

Greece and Italy do not have sovereign currencies. MMT scholars, particularly Kelton, predicted that the creation of the euro would cause great harm to European nations with weaker economies such as Greece and Italy.  Japan, which has had debt levels nearly three times recent U.S. debt ratios, cannot produce even modest inflation despite stringent efforts. The WSJ reduces itself to the equivalent of warning that there “may” be dragons beyond some point on the map!

The journalists end with a ‘parade of horribles.’  If the dragons were they real, they would falsify ‘modern macro’ rather than MMT.

By continuing to run large deficits, says Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the U.S. is slowing wage growth by crowding out private investment, increasing the amount of the budget dedicated to financing the past and putting the country at a small but increased risk of a future fiscal crisis.

Market interest rate signals can be misleading and dangerous. By blessing the U.S. with such low rates now, he says, financial markets just might be “giving us the rope with which to hang ourselves.”

Goldwein has no known relevant scholarly record.  He is a minor Pete Peterson operative.  His “crowding out” assertion is bunk in general and his compounding assertion that it explains weak wage growth compounds its baseless nature.  Nothing has crowded out private investment. Despite record low interest rates for over a decade, deliberate management choicesnot to invest in new plant and equipment and R&D and instead to do unprecedented levels of stock buybacks designed to raise the value of corporate CEOs’ shares have limited private investment. Goldwein does not even attempt to support his assertions with data or logic.

Instead, the facts force Goldwein into a startling charge that falsifies all of his neoclassical economic nostrums, not simply his Pete Peterson debt hysteria.  Neoclassical economics and finance predicts that creditors’ anticipation of future inflation largely drive present longer-term interest rates.  This is essential for modern macro’s bedrock rational expectations theory.  In his desperate effort to resurrect the validity of his debt hysteria in the face of supposedly catastrophic debt levels producing exceptionally low long-term interest rates, Goldwein tosses neoclassical economics’ most sacred cows (efficient markets and rational expectations) into the trash by pronouncing that “market interest rate signals can be misleading and dangerous.”

Put aside for the moment the hypocrisy of the fact that debt hawks have proclaimed for decades that nearly every small increase in interest rates is a clarion signal that the markets believe that government debt has reached such high levels that severe inflation is imminent.  In every modern case, reality has falsified these myths.

My colleagues and I have been making the point for decades that “market interest rate signals can be misleading and dangerous.”  Interest rates for extremely risky and fraudulent loans are, prior to financial crises, frequently glaringly too low.  First, the overall level of interest rates for lending becomes too low when an asset-pricing crisis is growing.  Second, the risk ‘spread’ between highly risky and low risk assets typically falls to ludicrously low levels as an asset-pricing crisis nears the “Minsky moment.”  The problem is not the capital markets’ inability to take into appropriate account future inflation, but the fact that markets encourage asset-pricing bubbles that render “interest rate signals … misleading and dangerous.”  Markets are frequently grotesquely inefficient and rational expectations theory is irrational.

It would be wonderful if Pete Peterson’s operatives joined us in fighting neoclassical fictions that Peterson has long spread.  It would be wonderful if Pete Peterson’s operatives joined us in fighting epidemics of “control fraud and predation” and warning against the bubbles that those pathologies hyper-inflate.  It is these fraud epidemics that hyper-inflate bubbles that are the Achilles’ “heel” of capital markets, core neoclassical theories, and financial crises. The firms that finance the fraud-inflated asset bubbles fit the metaphor about giving the private sector the “rope” with which they will hang the economy.

Capital markets have not displayed recurrent critical failures in modern times about anticipated inflation.  The opposite is true.  One of the best predictors of serious recessions are inverted yield curves.  Yield curves invert overwhelmingly based on future expectations of overall interest rate movements, rather than asset-specific credit risks

Bill Black is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and a co-founder of Bank Whistleblowers United. 

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