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The Giant Logical Hole in Monetarist Thinking: So-Called “Spending”

May 3rd, 2017 4 comments

Ralph Musgrave, who knows a thing or two about modern economic thinking, perfectly articulates the giant logical hole in monetarist thinking in a recent comment (emphasis mine):

If the private sector’s stock of saving is what it wants at current rates of interest, then additional public spending will push savings above the latter desired level, which will result in the private sector trying to spend the surplus away (hot potato effect).

Really? People/households say to themselves, “Wow, I’ve got too many assets, too much net worth. I’d better spend more to get rid of it.”

Here’s the verbal and logical sleight of hand that monetarists pull to hide this obviously inane assertion, and that Ralph doesn’t seem to have spotted: they game the word “spending.”

When government deficit-spends, it deposits (helicopter-drops) new assets, created ab nihilo, onto private-sector balance sheets. And since that deficit spending doesn’t create new private-sector liabilities, voila: there’s more private-sector net worth.

Those new assets hit balance sheets in the form of “cash”: checking-account deposits, money-market fund balances, etc. So people might end with a higher proportion of cash in their portfolios than they would like.

But they don’t try to “spend it away” to get rid of it. They rebalance their portfolios by buying riskier/higher-return financial instruments — bonds, equities, titles to real estate. This drives up the prices of those instruments.

These market runups create new balance-sheet assets (and net worth) — while leaving the collective stock of fixed-price “cash” unchanged. (That’s pretty much the definition of “cash”: financial instruments whose price is pegged to the unit of account — the instruments that monetary aggregates try to tally up.)

With a larger percentage of bonds, stocks, etc in their portfolios, and the same amount of cash, people have the portfolio mixes they want. Full stop. No hot potato. Likewise this is no game musical chairs; market runups create more chairs. This is how “liquidity preferences” play out in the markets.

Those purchases of riskier financial instruments are not “spending.” People aren’t “spending down” their balances on newly produced goods and services. They’re just asset swaps — cash for Apple stock (and the reverse), or whatever. Through the magic of market-makers’ bid/offer order books, these asset swaps create new assets, collectively achieving investors’ preferred or “desired” portfolio mixes.

(Note: investors could also adjust their portfolios by paying off debt, simply shrinking their individual, and the collective private sector’s, balance sheets by disappearing both assets and liabilities into a hole in the ground. As Milton Friedman said, banks have both printing presses and furnaces.)

Now you might suggest: when people bid up Apple stock, that “causes” there to be more investment spending, spending to create more long-lived goods. I’m hoping I don’t have to explain all the logical flaws in that thinking, or point out the empirical disproofs. (It’s basically a freshman error: confusing “investment” with investment.)

Sure: when people buy into IPOs and new private bond issues, or buy titles to new (spec-built?) houses, there’s a quite plausible causal link between those asset swaps and actual increased investment spending. An excess proportion of cash in investors’ portfolios could certainly drive this economic effect.

But: 1. These purchases of newly issued financial instruments constitute a tiny proportion of the portfolio rebalancing we’re talking about; the magnitude of holding gains on existing instruments swamps these measures, and 2. It has nothing to do with investors trying to “spend down” and get rid of their balances, cash or otherwise. That notion is individually implausible, and (yes) collectively incoherent.