Sean Corrigan Crucifies MMT

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While hardly needing a full-on onslaught by an Austrian thinker, when even some fairly simplistic reductio ad abusrdum thought experiments should suffice (boosting global GDP by a few million percent simply by building a death star comes to mind), Diapason's Sean Corrigan has decided to take MMT, also known as "Modern Monetary Theory", to the woodshed in his latest missive in a grammatical, syntaxic (replete with the usual 200+ word multi-clause sentences) and stylistic juggernaut, that only Corrigan is capable of. So sit back in that easy chair, grab your favorite bottle of rehypothecated Ouzo, and let the monetary hate wash through you.

Money, Macro and Markets

by Sean Corrigan of Diapason Commodities Management, and author of the excellent Santayana's Curse

As regular readers of these scribblings have hopefully come to appreciate, this is not the place to come to slake your thirst for mechanistic ‘models’ and fancy-dan macro-correlation studies (for the technically-minded, this is precluded by the subjectivist, methodological individualism of the Austrian School to which we adhere).

The only exception to this—if, indeed, an exception it is—is to be found in out penchant for mapping out developments in money supply and, in particular, real money supply and relating these to potential changes in the revenue stream percolating through the economic structure and, hence, to their implications for income, returns on invested capital, and the supportability or otherwise of the accumulated debt burden.

To an Austrian, the credit cycle IS the business cycle, while, more generally, the many disruptions to the progressive delivery of greater material satisfaction we suffer —outside of those forcefully visited upon us by the political process—are almost inevitably the result of some unlooked-for departure in the rate of provision of new money from that to which people had become accustomed. Just occasionally  it is not the supply itself, but rather some unwonted alteration to the eagerness with which money’s recipients hold on to that which comes their way which brings about these changes. In other words, every once in a while it may be a question of a changed appetite for, rather than a changed helping of, cash-at-hand which occasions a disruption. Such departures are hard to pick up from an inspection of the raw data, making their interpretation both more challenging and more a matter of inference than of brute manipulation of a  spreadsheet. Either way, once ‘monetary disequilibrium’ breaks out, look out below!

If there is one incontrovertible thing about monetary matters, it is that they offer a field rich in misunderstandings, obtuseness,  half-reasoned suppositions, and outright crankdom—much of it a wearily reworked canon of old fallacies dressed up in (terminologically)  new clothes by a profession which has long since decided that mathematical dexterity and political expedience is far more important than an awareness of its own history, meaning it never manages to build cumulatively on past insights, unlike the physical sciences which its practitioners so envy, alas!

Among the latest vogues is the so-called ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ - a truly laughable epithet, given that Mises was deriding its Chartalist-founding father Knapp’s vainglorious use of exactly the same term almost exactly a century ago.

Among its supposed ‘breakthroughs’ is the truism that a government which issues its own fiat currency can never go bankrupt—at least  in an accounting sense—and so should never shrink from commandeering ever more resources from its subjects (we shall overlook the mere trifle that it may well be able to set the nominal terms of its actions, but has little control over the real ones; or that there do, in fact, exist limits to its seigniorage, not least of which the one which arises when the mass no longer accepts the money which it has so determinedly debauched, whether or not taxes are to be paid in it!)

One of the classic examples of faux reasoning disported by this soi disant school of innovative thinkers is one which leaps from the tautological observation that a flow-of-funds reckoning of an economy—conveniently, if rudely, carved up into vast, faceless blocs labelled, ’Public’ and ’Private’—must see a net private surplus offset by a net public deficit (ignoring the external ’sector’ for the moment) and hence, that the overspending state is doing all its subjects a favour by living beyond the means honestly voted to it, otherwise their aggregate desire to acquire net new ‘assets’ (i.e. retaxed claims on taxes!) could never be fulfilled!

On this reckoning, the Greeks, far from being the most fiscally benighted and sorely afflicted of peoples, should rejoice in the effulgence  of their status as beacons of true MMT enlightenment and prosperity!

Suffice it to say that we can put this canard—one equivalent to saying that we benefit from paying protection money to the Mob if only the Capo holds the monthly dinner party for his lieutenants in our pizza parlour—firmly to rest after carrying out only the most trivial of disaggregations.

Absent the predations of the Provider State, individuals may well, on balance, engage in saving (with a view to better providing for their future needs) by acquiring claims on entrepreneurial endeavours, these latter being happy to put the funds so raised—and, by extension,  he resources so spared—to a hopefully profitable, productive use.

Under these circumstances, the consolidated balance sheet of the private sector will certainly still show a zero balance but the twin  aggregates which comprise this will show an expanding count of genuine capital accumulation, even without some insistent spendthrift in office to ’remedy’ the associated joint lack by throwing a good war, or an equally useless Olympics!

Moreover, MMTers also bruit about the ludicrous idea that such grossly confiscatory measures as are entailed by government spending and borrowing are easily justified because they ensure that an otherwise elusive medium of exchange is called into existence. In effect, they are asking us to believe that, short of having this paternalistic blessing conferred upon us by our selfless Platonic Guardians, it would be utterly beyond the wit of Acting Men to devise some alternative means of lubricating their frequent, voluntary, and so value-enhancing transactions. Risible!

As part of their insidious idea that no government can be too big, no deficit too wide—saving only that Leviathan has not foolishly ceded control of the printing press to some party beyond the reach of his coercion—the MMTers also insist that the gargantuan programme of monetisation being undertaken as part of the global bank rescue attempt has not and, moreover, cannot, under any circumstances, lead to ‘inflation’ (by which they conventionally mean sustained price rises in goods and services, of course).

Well, let us here quote the words of an early 20th century thinker on such matters, Harry Gunnison Brown, in the slightly different—but still relevant— context of denying that there can ever be such a phantasmagorical creature as a ‘liquidity trap’:

“...it has been argued… [that] it is impossible for banking policy - or any purely monetary policy devoted to increasing the circulating medium - to bring business back near to normal in any reasonable period, once depression has become acute. For, it is contended, the increased money will in any case merely be hoarded. Depression psychology will prevent borrowing from banks for business expansion, however large... reserves become through favourable Federal Reserve policy. Depression psychology will prevent any person or persons from whom the Federal Reserve banks purchase securities, from either investing or spending the money so received! And if the federal government directly supplements Federal Reserve policy, printing billions of dollars of new money which it then pays out to buy back or redeem federal government bonds, this new money will also be hoarded, every dollar of it, and so will have no effect toward increasing  the demand for goods and restoring employment! “

“In this view it would appear that if each person in the country, during a period of depression, were put into possession of more money than before whether twice as many dollars or 100 times as many or 10,000 times as many-there would nevertheless be no appreciable  increase in spending, no increased demand for goods and no stimulus to business and employment! Instead, production would remain low or even sink lower, spending would remain low or even become less, prices of goods would remain low or fall even lowed All this, of course, is preposterous nonsense but it is to such a conclusion that those economists must inevitably be driven who do not admit that monetary policy can possibly promote recovery from depression.”

Now it may well be the case that what Brown is here exploding is the nonsense associated more closely with the ineffable Paul Krugman and his fellow-travellers, but the MMTers seem to be even more precariously balanced than he, straddling as they are, the Great Deflationary Abyss— with one foot planted firmly in a land where live those who believe that money can be effective in reigniting a temporarily slackened desire to spend, but with the other dangling in mid-air, well short of the opposite bank where reside those who take this to the logical conclusion that too much money can likewise easily lead to far too much spending, vaulting us headfirst from the frying pan (or the freezer cabinet, as may be the more suitable image) and into the fire of inflation.

Memo to those who espouse this rehashed mumbo-jumbo: inflation is alive and well; central banks have been furiously expanding base (or outside) money and a good deal of that has gone into supporting the addition of new quantities of deposit (or inside) monies, to boot.

Unsurprisingly, this undertaking has seen the prices of bonds, stocks, and commodities increase, even if the usual concomitant of rising property prices has not yet become universal (largely by the happenstance that this was the pre-eminent medium through which the last inflation was given vent and hence its overhang remains largely unliquidated and its components in widespread oversupply in several of the worst offending markets).

Just look at the evidence. Despite the unquestioned disruption of the Crash itself and the fire-in-a-theatre rush for liquidity which it  occasioned, the central bank expansion programmes at just six prime exemplars have seen their combined balance sheets doubling in the past four years, with more than half that expansion coming since the first emergency injections began in earnest, in early 2009.

Money supply has risen by a not incomparable amount, even if the efficacy of the marginal bank reserve in generating bank demand  deposits has been reduced lately to below unity (partly, one suspects, because the pre-LTRO, pre-Draghi ECB was expanding more by providing its stricken and mutually-distrustful banks and sovereigns with an intermediate, ‘credit-wrapper’ than by a deliberate and very  un-German recourse to the money-spigot). As a direct consequence, prices have risen—i.e., whatever temporarily elevated desire there  has been to hold more money (whatever reduction in ’velocity’, if you must); whatever difficulty in accessing the credit with which to economise on the stuff itself; an expansion of the money supply has lead inexorably to a rise in prices—fiscal austerity and output gaps and other such Keynesian mental clutter notwithstanding!

To understand why we are here is one thing of course: it is yet another to try to work out where we seem to be heading next. If  aggressive monetary easing has pushed the likes of the US Small Cap index to all-time highs and triggered renewed buying of high-yield and emerging markets over the past few months, can we expect yet more largesse—and hence more price gains—ahead?

To answer this we must recognise that the world economy seems to have divided into three camps—a more ebullient US of A, a bemired  Europe, and an obscured Asia—so we have a triad of central bank actors to second-guess in each of these if we are to attempt a little divination regarding this question.

In the first of them, the Fed seems to have truly let the dogs out: even without the launch of what seems an increasingly-redundant  QEII, the aggregates are surging ahead as domestic banks eat into their excess stockpile of reserves (cash down $135 billion, bank credit up $375 bln to a new high, C&I loans up $100 bln).

We have previously shown that the rate of money creation is currently further above its 30-year real trend than at any time in that  sample, but, for the sake of variety—and with a firm injunction not to take the projections as anything other than broadly illustrative—we look instead at money supply per capita. Here, too, a clear pattern emerges.

Zero growth in the halcyon days of the 50s and early 60s saw CPI typically around 1.5%. 5.5% compound money growth in the rather  less complaisant two decades which followed saw average CPI lurch up to 5.7% before a deceleration to 4.2% per head in money and a  coincident 3% rate of typical yearly price increases. Fast forward to the QEra and we have been running at nothing short of 10% per annum—an outpouring which risks—on the showing of the previous regimes—a typical CPI rate somewhere in excess of 7%. If long maintained, it will also acclimatise the economic structure to a level of laxity which cannot indefinitely be sustained, something which therefore sets us up for a nasty setback—and a prematurely renewed stimulus—whenever the Fed finally moves to regain control of the stampede it seems to have unleashed.

As for our second main player, the ECB, this week marks the second great confusion of capital with liquidity comes to its  multiple hundreds-of-billions second installment. Expectations are high—as they were ahead of the apparently successful (but yet to be  implemented) negotiation of the Greek debt accord. Your author, however, cannot entirely suppress the nagging suspicion that, just as  that ostensible landmark brought only grumbling, not relief, perhaps Super Mario will also fail to excite jaded palates and a near-term disappointment might be the result no matter how clear the progress to full Weimarization. We shall see.

Further out in Asia, where the world’s marginal consumer of and producer of stuff has slipped into the statistical Lunar shadows of the New Year holiday, all is meant to be on the up again as the PBOC has unveiled not one, but two successive cuts in reserve requirements.

The act has not exactly been greeted with dancing in the streets, however, one reason for which may be that it has simply addressed a touch of overkill in cranking up the ratios last year. More binding at this stage may be a loan:deposit ratio which seems to have surged to six-year highs. At a point where the average rests only 3 points below the mandatory ceiling, this must leave a sizeable tail of the distribution scrambling to avoid official sanctions and so hardly best placed to swell its constituents’ already engorged loan books.