I’ve just read Steve Waldman’s post on “net financial assets” and am connecting it up with Michael Pettis’ excellent discussion. (See also Cullen Roche’s comment on the issue.)
Steve discusses the decomposition of financial positions on which MMT is based. He points out that the term “net financial assets” is used for the “private sector domestic financial position” which refers exclusively to the aggregate netted financial position of both households and firms and explicitly excludes “real” savings such as any housing stock that is fully paid up. By definition, if the “private sector domestic financial position” is positive, then it must be the case that on net the private sector holds claims on either the government or on foreign entities. Of course, the value of such claims depends entirely on the credibility of the underlying promises — this is the essential characteristic that distinguishes a claim to a financial asset from a claim to a real asset.
For Steve, there is a tradeoff between holding financial claims and holding real claims, and a principal reason for holding financial claims is to offset the risk of the real claims. Thus, Steve goes on to claim that to the degree that such a positive private sector financial position is due to claims on government, the government is using its credibility to provide a kind of insurance against real economy risk.
This is where I think Steve both gets what happened in 2008 right, and gets the big picture of the relationship between the financial and the real, and between the private sector and the public sector wrong. Steve is completely correct that in 2008 the issue of public sector liabilities played a huge insurance and stabilization role. But Steve extends his argument to the claim that: “The domestic private sector simply cannot produce assets that provide insurance against systematic risks of the domestic economy without the help of the state.”
The key point I want to make in this post is this: the financial and the real are so interdependent that they cannot actually be divorced. The same is true of the private and the public sectors. Financial activity and real activity, public sector activity and private sector activity are all just windows into a single, highly-integrated economy. Thus, I would argue that it is equally correct to state that: “The domestic public sector simply cannot produce assets that provide insurance against systematic risks of the domestic economy without the help of the private sector.”
That financial activity and real activity are two sides of the same coin is most obvious when one considers that the credibility of private sector financial liabilities depends fundamentally on the performance of the real economy. But it is equally true that the credibility of public sector liabilities (when measured in real terms) depends fundamentally on the robustness of the real economy as well. Those countries that have very highly rated debt did not achieve this status ex nihilo, but because of the historical performance of their economies and the robustness of their private sectors.
Thus, it is entirely correct that the public sector can temporarily step in to provide insurance for the private sector when it is struggling, but the view that it is the public sector that is the primary provider of insurance fails to capture the genuine interdependence that lies at the heart of a modern economy.
Indeed, Steve recognizes the danger of framing the financial and the real and the public and the private in this way in his last paragraph, where he acknowledges that this publicly-issued insurance is in fact provided in real terms at the expense of a segment of the private sector — the segment that does not hold the claims on government.
Michael Pettis on Creating Money out of Thin Air
Now let’s turn to Michael Pettis (whom I’ve never met, so I’ll call him by his last name). Pettis has long stood out as an economist with a uniquely strong understanding of the relationship between the financial and the real. He argues that “When banks or governments create demand, either by creating bank loans, or by deficit spending, they are always doing one or some combination of two things, as I will show. In some easily specified cases they are simply transferring demand from one sector of the economy to themselves. In other, equally easily specified, cases they are creating demand for goods and services by simultaneously creating the production of those goods and services. They never simply create demand out of thin air, as many analysts seem to think, because doing so would violate the basic accounting identity that equates total savings in a closed system with total investment.”
His two cases are a full employment economy (without growth) and an economy with an output gap. He argues that it is only in the latter case that the funding provided by banks (or government) can have an effect on output. In a comment to Pettis’ post I observed that his first case fails to take into account Schumpeter’s theory of growth. An economy is at full employment only for a given technology. Once there is a technical innovation, the full employment level of output will increase. Schumpeter’s theory was that the role of banking in the economy was to fund such innovation. Thus, there is a third case in which bank finance in a full employment economy does not just transfer resources to a different activity, but transfers them to an innovative activity that fundamentally alters the full employment level of output. Thus, it is not only when the economy is performing below potential that bank funding can create the production that makes savings equal to investment. When banks fund fundamental technological innovation, it is “as if” the original economy were functioning below potential (which of course if we hold technology constant at the higher level, was in fact the case — but this deprives the concept of “potential GDP” of its meaning entirely.)
Schumpeter was well aware that the same bank funding mechanisms that finance fundamental technological innovation, also finance technological failures and a vast amount of other business activity. Indeed, he argued that even though the banking system was needed to finance innovation and growth, the consequences of the decision making process by which banks performed this role included both business cycles and — when banking system performed badly — depressions.
In short, there is very good reason to believe that even in a “full-employment” economy when banks create debt, some fraction of that process creates additional demand. The problem is that the fraction in question depends entirely on the institutional structure of the banking system and its ability to direct financing into genuine innovation. It’s far from clear that this fraction will exhibit any stability over time.
How Did We Get Here: The Fault Lies in Our Models
So why do economists fall into the trap of treating the financial and the real as separable phenomena? Why do macroeconomists of all persuasion look for solutions in the so-called public sector?
The answer to the first question is almost certainly the heavy reliance of the economics profession on “market-clearing” based models. In models with market-clearing everybody buys and sells at the same time and liquidity frictions are eliminated by assumption. Of course, one of the most important economic roles played by financial assets is to address the problem of liquidity frictions. As a result, economists are generally trained to be blind to the connections between the financial and the real. People like Michael Pettis and proponents of MMT are trying to remove the blindfold. They are, however, attempting to do so without the benefit of formal models of liquidity frictions. This is a mistake, because the economics profession now has models of liquidity frictions. The future lies in the marriage of Schumpeter and Minsky’s intuition with New Monetarist models.
The answer to the second question is that we have a whole generation of macroeconomic policy-makers who think that the principal macroeconomic economic debate lies between Keynesians and Monetarists, when in fact both of these schools assume that the government is the insurer of last resort. The only distinction between these schools is whether the insurance is provided by fiscal or by monetary means. (To understand why our economies are struggling right now one need only understand how the assumption that the government is the fundamental source of liquidity has completely undermined the quality of our financial regulation.)
The concept of liquidity as a fundamentally private sector phenomenon that both drives the process of growth and periodically requires a little support from the government (e.g. giving the private sector time to weather a financial panic without the government actually bearing a penny of the losses) has been entirely lost. Only the future can tell us the price of this intellectual amnesia.