Why the “Money Supply” Is Conceptually Incoherent

December 28th, 2018 Comments off

Economists’/monetarists’ use of the term Money “Supply” reveals multiple levels of deep confusion.

1. Supply implies a flow. But they’re clearly referring to a “stock” of money: what’s tallied in monetary aggregates.

2. Even if you’re think of a stock of money: Supply is not a quantity, an amount, a numeric measure. It’s a psychological/behavioral concept — willingness to produce and sell — commonly depicted in a curve representing that willingness at different price points. (All economics is behavioral economics.)

But “supply” is necessary to validate the incoherent ideas of the “price of” and “demand for” money — a set of financial instruments like checking deposits whose price never changes (relative to the Unit of Account). That price can’t change — by definition, by construction, and by institutional fiat.

Likewise, the aggregate stock or so-called “supply” of fixed-price instruments, money, changes only very slowly via bank net new lending. (That change in lending is determined by myriad economic behaviors and effects.)

If so-called demand for money can’t change the (P)rice of money (it can’t), or the collective (Q)uantity of money outstanding (it can but not much and very slowly), what exactly are we talking about here in our imagined supply-and-demand diagram toy thought-experiment?

Actually, Only Banks Print Money

December 12th, 2018 2 comments

I’m thinking this headline will raise some eyebrows in the MMT community. But it’s not really so radical. It’s just using the word money very carefully, as defined here.

Starting with the big picture: 

You can compare the magnitude of these asset-creation mechanisms here. (Hint: cap gains rule.)

The key concept: “money” here just means a particular type of financial instrument, balance-sheet asset: one whose price is institutionally pegged to the unit of account (The Dollar, eg). The price of a dollar bill or a checking/money-market one-dollar balance is always…one dollar. This class of instruments is what’s tallied up in monetary aggregates.

A key tenet of MMT, loosely stated, is that government deficit spending creates money. And that’s true; it delivers assets ab nihilo onto private-sector balance sheets, and those new assets are checking deposits — “money” as defined here.

But. Government, the US Treasury, is constrained by an archaic rule: it has to “borrow” to cover any spending deficits. So Treasury issues bonds and swaps them for that newly-created checking-account money, reabsorbing and disappearing that money from private sector balance sheets.

If you consolidate Treasury’s deficit spending and bond issuance into one accounting event, Treasury is issuing new bonds onto private-sector balance sheets. It’s not printing “money,” not increasing the aggregate “money stock” of fixed-price instruments.

This was something of an Aha for me: If you look at the three mechanisms of asset-creation in the table above, only one increases the monetary aggregates that include demand deposits (M1, M2, M3, and MZM): bank (net new) lending.

Arguably there might be one more row added to the bottom of this table: so-called “money printing” by the Fed. But as with Treasury bond issuance, that doesn’t actually create new assets. The Fed just issues new “reserves” — bank money that banks exchange among themselves — and swaps them for bonds, just changing TheBanks’ portfolio mix. That leaves private-sector assets and net worth unchanged, and only increases one monetary aggregate measure: the “monetary base” (MB). 

I’ll leave it to my gentle readers to consider what economic effects that reserves-for-bonds swap might have. 

Fake News from the CBO? Some Very Dicey Numbers in the New Income Inequality Report

November 21st, 2018 Comments off

It didn’t take long to realize that something was very wrong.

The Congressional Budget Office just released its new report on The Distribution of Household Income, updated to cover 1979–2015. One thing in particular looked very dicey right off (source xlsx):

Household Capital Gains (per household, average)
2007: $8,800
2008: $4,400
2009: $2,200

Wait a minute. Households didn’t incur capital losses in any of those years? Like…trillions of dollars in losses, as real-estate and equity prices dove for the zero lower bound? Red flag, something’s wrong here. (And yes: the CBO does include cap gains in this household “income” measure. Below.)

The report gives zero explanation anywhere I can find of how cap gains are measured/estimated/calculated. But for certain, the CBO’s measure is wildly lower, and wildly less volatile, than other (well-documented) measures:

These other two measures move much more closely together. The CBO measure is the huge outlier. And besides being unexplained, it’s just obviously wrong on its face. It’s missing 60–75% of recent decades’ household capital gains.

Since the top 20% of households own 85% of U.S. wealth, cap gains go overwhelmingly to them. So this cap-gains under-estimate makes invisible a huge part of their income (increases) over decades — whether you’re talking before taxes and transfers, or after. #GotInequality?

State and Local Taxes

Next up: smaller but still pretty huge: when calculating its “after-tax/after-transfer” household income numbers, the CBO ignores state and local taxes — $1.8T last year. If that measure incorporated those taxes, income would be about 15% lower over recent decades.

State and local taxes are regressive: lower-income households pay a higher tax rate (in some states, wildly higher). So with a complete measure you’d see lower after-tax incomes especially among those with…lower incomes.

The CBO measure does of course include federal taxes (which are progressive, especially in lower tiers), and it does include transfers from the states. It seems very odd to exclude taxes paid to the states.



The Real (Real) Wealth Effect: Do Wealth Changes Change Spending and Cause Recessions?

November 16th, 2018 Comments off

My gentle readers who have followed me over time will have seen this graph and statement far too many times by now:

Since 1970 in the U.S., (almost) every time you saw a year-over-year decline in real household assets or net worth, you were either just into or about to be into a recession.* It’s seven for seven. Though to be fair: there have been two recent false positives, following the 2000 and 2008 recessions. So nine for seven. But interestingly, David Andolfatto and Neil Irwin have pointed to 2012/13 and 2015/16 as “mini” or “invisible” recessions. Ditto the weak GDP growth in 2002?

In any case, it’s a pretty impressive track record of predicting recessions. The apparent takeaway: when people (suddenly) have less wealth, they spend less. Seems plausible.**

But I’ve long meant to look at this relationship more systematically: what’s the correlation between changes in real household wealth, and spending in the economy? In particular: is the correlation concurrent, or is there a lag? Do you see greater correlations with spending changes one, two, or four quarters after a wealth change? Or: earlier? Do spending changes precede wealth changes? Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

Or: which came first? The chicken or the egg? Looking at wealth and spending changes (for example), which one looks like the dependent variable, which the independent?

I had no real idea what results I’d see. This was pure curiosity.

I’ll start with the results. But one key explanation first: the “spending” measure in these graphs seeks to capture spending that households and firms have the discretion to change over short periods; it excludes housing and health spending — a great deal of which is spending by other parties, imputed to households in the national accounts (see Cynamon and Fazzari, below). It also excludes spending on new structures by firms, which involves long-term decision-making.

For the year-over-year series, bigger bars on the right. Wealth changes correlate (much more) with spending changes in later quarters. You can also read this in reverse: Changes in spending don’t correlate as much with ensuing wealth changes.

It seems especially notable: Changes in spending actually show a negative correlation with changes in wealth a year later. The naive takeaway — higher spending “causes” less wealth increase and lower spending causes more — should probably be eschewed. But…what’s with that?

The quarter-on-quarter changes show much less of a pattern than year-on-year, in both this graph and all the ensuing — perhaps just due to more random variation in the quarterly series. I’ll just show year-on-year in the following graphs, to remove clutter. (This means there’s overlap; in the +1 and -1 lags, for instance, the YOY change-in-wealth measure has a three-quarter overlap with the change-in-spending measure. +4 and -4 have no overlap.)

It would be great to see this graph elaborated, somehow depicting the correlations for wealth/asset-market runups versus downturns. I would expect higher correlations for the downturns, since they generally happen so much faster and so would have fast impact on spending.

The spending measure here includes both consumption and investment spending. Which type of spending seems to respond more to wealth changes?

The overall pattern is the same. But if wealth changes do affect spending, the effect seems to be greater on investment spending. (Though investment spending is of course only about 20% of total spending — 15–20% in this discretionary spending measure.)

Next, just for reference: by this method, consumption and investment spending seem to move together, concurrently. (Note the Y axis change below; perhaps not surprisingly, these are far bigger correlations.)

More curiosity: do we see the same apparent wealth effect on GDP that we do on spending?

Again the pattern’s similar. We even see the same negative correlation between GDP changes and wealth changes a year later. But the correlations are much lower. Not surprising: much of the spending that comprises GDP is not amenable to short-term discretionary changes by households, firms, and government.

For comparison: what kind of correlations do we see between changes in personal income and spending?

The correlations are high (note the Y axis) and strongly positive throughout. But the pattern is opposite to the apparent real wealth effect we saw above. Income changes have a weak(er) correlation with ensuing changes in spending. Put another way, spending changes tend to precede income changes, more than the reverse.

Finally, closing the loop, wealth changes vs income changes. This is a surprising result.

Note that personal income does not include asset-price-driven capital gains and losses, which are the prime movers in short-term wealth changes. So we’re comparing very different measures here.

The correlations are smaller than we’ve seen, but the left-to-right gradient shows big differences. Wealth changes correlate with ensuing income changes, but income changes have a negative correlation with ensuing wealth changes. Do with that what you will.

Knowing you’ll want to collect the whole set, here are all of these graphs combined into one.

The spreadsheet’s here. It’s pretty easy to add your own data series to compare other measures. It would also be great to see longer periods; the almost sixty-year data set might suffice for five-year lags?

Wealth, Consumption, and Spending

I can’t resist adding an overall comment on mainstream economics and economic modeling, which I think is pertinent to all this: it seems crazy to me that Keynes’ consumption function:

1. Isn’t a spending function. The proportion of spending that goes to consumption vs investment is arguably an important thing to look at, but it’s secondary and peripheral to the larger question of aggregate demand, or more aptly, aggregate expenditure. Or just…”spending.” So in addition to the never-ending befuddled saving-investment confusion that Keynes has delivered unto us (oh: “desired” saving and investment), the whole Keynesian “investment-led recovery” construct promulgates and participates in reifying the pervasive and pernicious mythos of noble, job-creating “investors.”

2. There’s no wealth term, or function, in the consumption (spending) function — something that’s SOP in advanced Godley/Lavoie-style stock-flow consistent (SFC) models such as this great one from Michalis Nikiforos, Genarro Zezza, and Marshall Steinbaum. There’s only an income term. Rather, econs bolt the rather gimcracky contraption of “budget constraints” onto the back end of their models. KISS.

Credit Where Due

This correlations approach comparing positive and negative lags is inspired by Arindrajit Dube’s, in his magisterial takedown of Reinhart and Rogoff’s sophomoric “government debt causes slow growth” claptrap. (Though his statistical sophistication vastly surpasses the freshmanic effort you see here.)

Further inspiration came from Roger Farmer’s article, “The Stock Market Crash Really Did Cause the Great Recession.” The work here perhaps generalizes the asset/wealth effect implicitly bruited in that title, and helps demonstrate it over a long period and multiple recessions.

The “discretionary” spending measure used here is inspired by the work of Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari (viz), deconstructing personal consumption expenditure measures to exclude imputed spending and etc. Hat tip to J. W. Mason for pointing me their way. I actually have an older spending/consumption series of theirs to hand, but only annual. A more recent and quarterly version could quite easily replace the consumption-spending series here.

The temerity to write this post — including its implicit assertion that in reality the monetary/financial economy (here: asset-price-driven wealth changes) is what drives the real economy (recessions) — owes much to a great tweet by Sri Thiruvadanthai:

Contra neoclassical econ money/finance are not epiphenomena but they are the real deal and the real economy is the epiphenomenon!

Also thanks to Jason Smith for his comments on Twitter. Thread.

To all my other interlocutors: many thanks.

* Interestingly, adding liabilities to assets, to derive net worth, adds no predictive value. This is perhaps not surprising; household liabilities are only about 15% of household assets, and they change slowly or in other words not much, compared to changes from asset-price runups and especially drawdowns.

** It’s also very much in keeping with Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory: people are especially sensitive and responsive to losses. So it seems plausible that this is a real economic effect driven by real human behavioral reactions. (Microfoundations!)

What Causes Recessions? A Physicists’ Complex Systems Model

June 4th, 2018 4 comments

I received some very interesting comments from Yaneer Bar-Yam to my recent Evonomics post — “Capital’s Share of Income is Far Higher than You Think.” He pointed me to his very interesting paper, “Preliminary steps toward a universal economic dynamics for monetary and fiscal policy.”

I’m using this space to reply with with some stuff that can’t display in that comments space.

I haven’t gotten to the full-boat, multipart reply that I have floating in my head, but wanted to get back on two items for the nonce, a question plus a response on recession prediction:

1. What is the function in this model that “causes” capital gains? This always strikes me as the core problem in a complete SFC model where flows (including holding gain “flows”) balance to and fully explain (change in) net worth: if you can write a reaction function that predicts asset-price changes, you’re a very rich person… 😉

2. The recession-prediction based on investment/consumption ratio misses a bunch of recessions (false negatives). Contrasted here with a personal favorite: every recession since 1970 has been preceded by a year-over-year decline in real household total assets/net worth. (Including liabilities to arrive at net worth instead of just using assets adds no predictive value). Click for FRED.

This predictor is seven for seven. Though: there are two recent false positives — shortly following the 2001 and 2008 recessions.

The investment:consumption ratio bruited as a predictor/cause in the paper is four for seven, and even there: the first year of decline in this ratio seems late in each case (as opposed to the measure’s peak) to suggest it as a cause:

Investment:Consumption ratio peak/first year of decline Year-over-year declines in real household net worth (CPI-adjusted; base year 82–84) Quarters of real YOY net worth decline – YOY % decline in first declining quarter – NW decline peak-to-trough % Beginning of NBER-dated recession
Q4 1969 – Q4 1970 4 – 3.9 – 5.6 Q1 1970
Q4 1973 – Q1 1975 6 – 3.8 – 9.9 Q1 1974
Q1 1980 – Q2 1980 2 – 1.5 – 1.4 Q1 1980
1981/1982 Q3 1981 – Q2 1982 4 – 1.8 – 1.0 Q3 1981
1989/1990 Q3 1990 – Q2 1991 4 – 3.2 – 1.9 Q3 1990
2000/2001 Q4 2000 – Q4 2001 5 – 2.0 – 8.1 Q1 2001
Q2 2002 – Q1 2003 4 – 1.8 – 5.2
2007/2008 Q4 2007 – Q3 2009 8 – 3.8 – 19.3 Q1 2008
Q3 2011 – Q4 2011 2 – 0.5 – 2.6

I have various ideas and explanations for all this, but apologies, haven’t found time to write them all up.

Are Holding Gains “Pseudo” Income? A Response to Martin Sandbu

April 12th, 2018 2 comments

I just noticed with pleasure that Martin Sandbu, whose work I much admire, has posted a response to a thread of posts between me and Matthew Klein. Here in chronological order:

Me: Why Economists Don’t Know How to Think about Wealth (or Profits)

Matthew: The virtues and pitfalls of putting capital gains into the national accounts

Me: Wealth and the National Accounts: Response to Matthew Klein


Martin: You’re not as rich as you think
Beware of treating pseudo-wealth as the real thing

I’ll start with Martin’s conclusion (emphasis mine), and reply to some of his particular statements below.

Similarly, we should talk of pseudo-saving and pseudo-income when talking about valuation changes in asset (and liability) values. “Pseudo” does not mean it does not have real effects. It is precisely because stock measures of wealth are perceptions that they have unpredictable effects on real economic activity — and that these effects can be bigger the more unwarranted the perceptions are. But it is still real economic activity — as captured by conventional national income flow measures — that we should ultimately care about.

This is basically a statement about variability. Holding gains/losses are extremely variable. And yes, that variability — at least over the short to medium term — seems to be heavily driven by perceptions, optimism, confidence …  “animal spirits.” So you, we, can’t really “(ac)count on” those holding gains being “real.” They might vanish this year or next as perceptions change.

But variability is a function of time: how much does a measure vary over X period of time, Y period, etc. Holding gains are quite variable across our arbitrary one-year accounting periods. But over decades or a lifetime — or a dynasty’s lifetime, or the lifetime of a social, economic class — they’re very reliable indeed. Over any period greater than five or ten years, at least in the U.S. since 1960, they are consistently and reliably the overwhelmingly dominant method of wealth accumulation.

J.W. Mason makes that point very well in this post commenting on Piketty, from a couple of years ago, recently and appropriately re-upped by Cameron Murray on Twitter. Holding gains are the primary way that people (and we, collectively) get “rich” in balance-sheet terms.

If valuation changes, holding gains, are pseudo income and pseudo saving, then most of our monetary wealth, our balance-sheet assets and net worth — which has accumulated overwhelmingly through holding gains — is also pseudo. Or at least you have to ask: when do those balance-sheet changes, and the accumulated monetary wealth from those changes, become “real”? At what point do you decide that perceptions have become reality?

Amazon is the poster-child example for this. Despite showing essentially zero accounting profits over a quarter of a century, it has delivered half a trillion dollars onto shareholders’ balance sheets via holding gains — notably including Jeff Bezos’ balance sheet. Was that “real” income and saving? Is it now? Is the accumulated wealth “real”? Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. He’s throwing rockets into space. That seems pretty darned real.

Is Jeff Bezos “not as rich as he thinks”? Are ETF-fund investors who focus on total returns just foolish mugs?

Another way to illustrate this is to consider the free (advertising-supported) online services that people enjoy. (Recently discussed in a great Twitter thread with Sri Thiruvadanthai and Brad Setser.) How do we account for those? How do they enter into GDP? (The domain of “real” income, as tallied in the NIPAs and the FFAs, with no consideration of holding gains.) Google and Facebook sure seem to be creating and delivering “value” of some kind with those services…

The short answer is, they don’t get counted. Advertising spending isn’t part of GDP; it’s counted as an intermediate input to production, so it gets “backed out” of the GDP measure. This seems like a problem; there’s surely value, consumer surplus, being produced and delivered to the household sector; shouldn’t that show up in GDP? But no accountant is going to feel comfortable posting the imputed dollar value of free cute-kitten surfing as household-sector monetary “income.”

What actually happens: The profits from those advertising revenues are posted to firms’ balance sheets, increasing their book value. (Note that Facebook, Amazon, and Google, like other techs, don’t distribute their profit as dividends; they keep it on their books.) The markets see that increased book value, and bid up the companies’ stock prices. Voila, holding gains: every holder of those companies’ equities has more assets/money.

The household sector, ultimately, owns all the equity in the firms sector, at zero or more removes. The firms sector is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the household sector. (Because households don’t issue equity; firms can’t own households — at least not yet. It’s an asymmetrical ownership relationship. The ownership-accounting buck stops at the household sector.)

So the consumer surplus from “free,” advertising-supported online services is delivered onto household balance sheets (equity-owning households, at least) — via holding gains. The surplus is hidden in those gains. But that very real surplus is invisible in GDP. Should we call those holding gains, derived from real production surplus, “real” income?

My answer: New claims from holding gains, posted to balance sheets to the tune of trillions of dollars a year, variable as they are, are real claims. They can be (are) employed to buy stuff — notably including other people’s labor. (Yes: the asset markets must be liquid, there must be enough people swapping assets for this to work in practice.)

I address this from another, wonky angle — book-value versus mark-to-market, market-cap accounting, here. (Includes empirical data!)

Replying to some particular points in Martin’s post. He characterizes my thinking as follows:

economists miss much of what goes on in the economy by focusing largely on flows of income, spending and saving rather than the stocks of wealth, assets and liabilities.

I think this misses the key question: what do we mean by a “flow”?

There are three proximate financial mechanisms that create new ab novo private-sector balance-sheet assets — monetary wealth: 1. government deficit spending, 2. bank lending, and 3. holding gains. (Plus rest of world.)

Holding gains are special, completely unlike the other two. Because while holding gains is a flow measure (measured over a period), there is no actual flow. The new assets don’t come from anywhere, from any other sector. When there’s a market runup, everybody just marks their balance-sheet assets up to market. Nobody posts any new liabilities that you could identify as a “source” or flow for those increases. This is why holding gains are (must be) invisible in the balance-to-zero circular flow of the NIPAs and the FFA matrix.

And as detailed above, that non-flow “flow” of holding gains can derive pretty explicitly from real production and surplus.

As an aside, personal saving — spending less than your income — is another of these non-flow flows. It’s a residual flow measure of two actual flows in a period — income minus expenditures. (Household expenditures are all or mostly counted as consumption expenditures; it varies across different national account tallies.) It’s a measure of what’s not spent — income that’s not transferred to others’ balance sheets, accounts. It’s “not-spending.”

A focus on “net worth” and capital gains and losses draws our attention to assets — but liabilities, and the composition of each, matter hugely as well.

I addressed this in my reply to Matthew. Short form: This is like saying that a focus on revenues (assume we’ve been ignoring, failing to measure or analyze them) draws our attention away from expenses (which we’ve been tallying and analyzing very thoroughly). No: actually paying attention to balance-sheet assets, and where they come from, doesn’t “distract us” from liabilities (which are tallied well in the FFAs, and deeply analyzed by econs).

Paying attention to assets and their accumulation, monetary wealth, just increases what we’re paying attention to.

And: “net worth,” obviously, doesn’t ignore our well-accounted-for liabilities. They’re what net worth is “net” of. But you can’t get to net worth without a tally of total assets — or change in net worth without a tally of holding gains.

“Saving” in the sense of valuation increases does not correspond to anything on the ground, as it were.

I disagree. Over the long term at least (assuming “animal spirits” ebb and flow), valuation increases are the existing-asset markets saying “Wow, it looks like the markets for newly-produced goods and services got it wrong when they priced these goods. They’re actually worth more than we thought they were. They’ll deliver more value (via consumption or as inputs and services to production of goods) than we thought they would.” That’s them looking at all the “stuff on the ground” and giving their estimate of what it’s worth. (See the accompanying post on these two accounting/estimation methods.)

an economy as a whole cannot spend out of its financial wealth without devoting more of its actual current production to consumption

I think this is a widespread error of economic thinking. “Spend out of” is the problem; it’s an error of composition. When you “spend out of your wealth” — transfer assets from your balance sheet to someone else’s — nothing “comes out of” collective wealth. The assets still exist; they’re just in different accounts, on different balance sheets.

This is another instance of the “real stuff” vs. money confusion, here confusing consumption with consumption spending. When you eat more corn — literally consume — we have less corn. If you spend more to buy corn, we have the same amount of money.

So an economy can quite easily “spend [more] out of its financial wealth,” turn that stock over more rapidly, at higher velocity, with that extra spending going to either consumption spending or investment spending. Whatever.

The consumption spending doesn’t reduce our stock of goods/stuff, because the spending doesn’t happen if equal production doesn’t happen. Produced/sold goods minus consumed/purchased goods = zero (with some inventory/buffer-stock fluctuation period to period). This especially in a 70% service economy, where most goods are produced and consumed simultaneously; in a service business, inventories don’t exist. There’s no stored “stock” of labor hours.

(Net) Investment spending (“capital formation” in the IMAs) does increase our stock of stuff, which is then collectively monetized/assetized (fitfully) via the three financial mechanisms listed above. So okay: a larger proportion of consumption vs. investment pending does forego some wealth creation via capital formation-and-monetization. But it doesn’t destroy or diminish wealth as implied in the statement here.

Quite the contrary: Faster turnover of wealth, higher velocity, causes more production, investment, and consumption (assuming price inflation is in check). There’s no “spend out of” involved.

people chose to save more in the only way they collectively can: by spending less

I think Martin means “in the only way they individually can.” Individual saving has no accounting effect on the collective stock of assets. It only affects which accounts/balance sheet hold those assets. When you don’t-spend out of income, it just means you’re holding the money/assets in your account instead of transferring them to another account (by spending). Full stop. (Household debt repayment does reduce the household sector’s, and the financial sector’s, stocks of assets, shrinking balance sheets on both sides. Liabilities also decline on both sides, though, netting to zero, so it doesn’t change private-sector net worth.)

My main point is, again, political. Income measures that don’t include holding gains, saving measures that don’t sum to changes in assets and net worth, make invisible the primary method whereby owners get rich, stay rich, and get richer (without having to work). Until recently, even the total wealth measures were unavailable or squirreled away in separate tables that are themselves reliant on yet more obscure (“Reconciliation”) tables.

Economists are deeply implicated in that politically pernicious depiction of economic reality — mostly unconsciously. That’s forgivable,  perhaps, because economists receive no formal training in accounting theory or practice. (Is that forgivable?) But the result: even a remarkable student of wealth like Thomas Piketty is unable to perceive that his own second law is accounting-incoherent. It presumes that wealth increases all come from “saving.” Which isn’t even close to true. (Again, see J.W. Mason’s great piece.)

Thanks as always to my gentle readers…

Wonky: More on Martin Sandbu’s “Pseudo” Income and Saving

April 12th, 2018 2 comments

In my previous post, I replied to Martin Sandbu’s interesting response to my (and Matthew Klein’s) previous posts on holding gains, income, saving, and wealth. Here some more (accounting-dweeby) thinking on the subject, which I post here to avoid clogging the previous and making it even more overlong.

Another way to explain this issue: I think Martin is valorizing book-value accounting over mark-to-market, market-cap accounting, as accurately depicting the “real” value of all our stuff (our “capital,” if you must…).

Book-value accounting uses the “perpetual inventory” accounting method: every year you tally up gross investment — spending to purchase long-lived goods — and subtract an estimate of depreciation or “consumption of fixed capital,” to yield net investment — that year’s increase in our “inventory,” or “capital stock.” The cumulative sum of past years’ net investment is today’s book value. It’s the markets’ (and accountants’) estimate of our stuff’s worth, based on the market prices that prevailed when those goods were bought/sold — what the markets for newly produced goods thought those goods were “worth.”

Mark-to-market accounting is also a market estimate of our stuff’s value. But a different market: today’s market for existing assets (with, by the way, much less intervention and estimation by accountants; think: depreciation tables). This estimate, looked at year to year, inevitably requires you to consider holding gains.

Econ 101 would tell you that those two measures, estimates, should move together; why would anyone pay more than a firms’ book value for its equity? And from 1960 to about 1990 (my data from the IMAs starts in 1960), they did move together, with a Tobin’s Q ratio around one. That’s very much not true since 1990.

Sorry, I haven’t assembled an equivalent to the third graph for real estate, the other big category of household holdings. Having seen similar, though, I’m quite confident you’d see the same pattern there, quite possibly far more pronounced.

These two measures of what our stuff is worth have diverged wildly from previous, and from what Econ 101 would predict.

I can think of three explanations:

1. Existing-asset markets think (correctly) that we’ve been wildly underestimating GDP. (What are the implications for measures of productivity — GDP/hours worked?)

2. Existing-asset markets are wrong about that, and the mother of all asset-price crashes is imminent.

3. The asset/wealthholding class has gotten much better at extracting value from nonwealthholders (domestic and international), and the resulting higher returns to that class are NPV-capitalized into the prices of their owned assets. Recent decades’ few percentage points increase in “capital share” would magnify hugely via that long-term discounted capitalization.

#3 suggests something that an unfortunately small number of economists have been saying for a very long time: it’s impossible to even think coherently about economics, and how economies work, if you’re not thinking about the distribution/concentration of wealth and income.

MMT and the Wealth of Nations, Revisited

March 23rd, 2018 Comments off

I just had occasion, in replying to a correspondent, to reiterate much of the thinking in my recent MMT Conference presentation. I thought it might be a useful and apprehensible form for some readers, so I’m reproducing it here.

I’ve also explained this at somewhat painful length here.

Correct me if I am wrong but what you are saying extends MMT into the private sector. The govt boosts balance sheets with stimulative fiscal policy. The private sector boosts balance sheets through asset price appreciation. Each creates “money” out of nowhere.

That’s one way of saying it. It adds a mechanism for asset (money) creation beyond “outside” (gov) and “inside” (bank) money issuance.

I’d say: MMT largely and Sectoral Balances exclusively “think inside” the incomplete flow of funds accounting matrix, which ignores cap gains (and nonfinancial assets). So it misses the biggest asset (“money”) creation mechanism there is.

To be precise:

Gov def spending adds assets to PS balance sheets. No new PS liabilities added, so +PS NW.

Bank lending (net, new) adds assets to PS balance sheets. But adds equal new PS liabilities, so no ∆NW.

Market runups (cap gains) add assets to PS balance sheets. Like gov def spending, no new PS liabilities added, so +PS NW.

Key point though: unlike gov def spending, new assets from cap gains don’t “come from” anywhere, aren’t issued by any sector. There are no new liabilities added to any other sectors’ balance sheets. That’s why cap gains aren’t included in the closed-loop, balance-to-zero flow of funds matrix.

The thing is, the economy doesn’t balance to zero. It balances to net worth. (Wealth.) That’s the bottom-line balancing item that makes balance sheets…balance. Since the flow of funds matrix is missing complete balance sheets, total assets, net worth, and cap gains, it can’t represent that.

And what is money?

People use that word in three primary ways:

1. The market-priced value of balance-sheet assets or net worth (representing the value of ownership claims), designated in a unit of account. Wealth. Ask a zillionaire, “how much money do you have?”

2. Financial instruments whose prices are institutionally pegged to the unit of account. Fixed-price instruments. (The price of a dollar bill is always $1.) eg Checking/MM-account balances and physical cash. The instruments that are tallied in monetary aggregates. Finance types often refer to this as “cash.” A subset of (1).

3. Physical currency/coins. A convenient late invention that makes it easy to transfer assets from one (implicit) balance sheet to another. A different meaning for “cash.” A subset of (2).

Note that the stock of #2 can only increase if some sector (financial or gov) issues more. Ditto its subset, #3. And, market pricing can’t affect the total stock of this subclass of money because these instruments’ prices are…fixed! The stock can only increase/decrease, these instruments can only appear/disappear, through issuance and retirement by other sectors, which post equal liabilities to their balance sheets. (That issuance/retirement is tallied in the FFA matrix — inside and outside money.)

If I have money in my pocket, I have a right to claim some portion of of the worlds’ production, be it a cup of coffee or a beach house on a tropical island.

Right. In practice, you can also claim people’s labor. Cause they need money. A balance-sheet asset is a formalized, labeled numeric representation of the value of an ownership claim (generally embodied in a financial instrument, with the claim’s asset value always designated in a unit of account), which can be exchanged for A) goods and services and B) other ownership claims.

So where does this money come from?

Ignoring #3 as a distraction, and focusing just on the two financial mechanisms that increase net worth:

A. Gov def spending. (Creates #2 hence also #1.)

B. Existing-asset market runups. (Creates #1 but not #2.)

As technological progress increases our productive capacity, so does our wealth. We become richer, so we should have more money.

Can definitely look at it that way. Wealth could be:

1. The value of our existing stock of stuff — both tangible and intangible, both consumable and productive. (To the extent that those can be distinguished; productive “capital” is “consumed” through use, decay, obsolescence…)


2. The capitalized net present value of what we will be able to produce in the future (thanks in large part to our existing stock of productive stuff).

Either way, I’d say:

We steadily increase our stock of real stuff. Surplus from production, all that. There are three financial mechanisms for creating new $-numerated claims on that new stuff, new balance-sheet assets. In terms of magnitude, cap gains is the dominant mechanism.

Finally, to expound on the implications of fixed-price vs variable-priced instruments/claims/assets:

When government deficit-spends, it delivers new fixed-price assets (checking/MM deposits) onto private-sector balance sheets. Assuming portfolio preferences are unchanged, the private sector is overweight “cash.”

Collectively, wealthholders can’t get rid of that cash by spending; they can only trade/swap that money around. The total stock only changes via issuance/retirement (caveat below). So they do a bunch swapping/trading of existing assets, driving up the prices of variable-priced instruments (mainly bonds, equities, and titles to real estate), with everybody marking their balance-sheet assets to market, until the market achieves its preferred portfolio balance.

The relatively fixed stock of fixed-price “money” is sort of a fulcrum around which portfolio rebalancing pivots.

So there’s some portfolio “multiplier” to government def spending. It immediately adds assets (cash) to private-sector balance sheets, but it also causes price increases in variable-priced instruments through portfolio rebalancing. Voila: even more assets.

This, by the way, is exactly how the portfolio mechanism works in the more advanced Godley-Lavoie-style models (which do encompass complete balance sheets, and include holding gains in “income.” See Haig-Simons.) Though I would suggest that the precise portfolio reaction-functions in these models might be improved.

The caveat: wealthholders can remove cash from their asset portfolios and from the private-sector balance sheet by paying down bank debt — shrinking their balance sheets, and the banks’. Likewise they can create cash by borrowing. (Again: private-sector assets and liabilities change, but net worth doesn’t.) They’re instigating the retirement/issuance of those fixed-price assets and associated bank liabilities. Think: reflux.

I hope folks find all this useful, or at least interesting.

Wealth and the National Accounts: Response to Matthew Klein

March 8th, 2018 Comments off

I’m both abashed and delighted that the truly stand-out econ writer Matthew Klein has offered wonderfully fulsome praise of one of my pieces, Why Economists Don’t Know How to Think about Wealth, and some very interesting discussion as well. Some responses here. Please excuse me if I repeat some of the points from the first article.

>His key point is that changes in net worth caused by asset prices fluctuations are just as important as standard measures of income and saving.

That’s important, but there are really three key points I’d really like to come through:

1. Wealth matters. Net worth and total assets. Those are absent from the Flow of Funds matrix, because it ignores: A. Nonfinancial assets — the (L)evels tables aren’t balance sheets — and B. Holding gains. Yes: changes in wealth measures also matter a lot (see below), and they’re of course also invisible and largely unexplained in the FFA matrix.

2. Accounting statements are economic models, based on deeply-embedded assumptions that are largely invisible except to accounting-theory adepts. The FFAs’ closed-loop construct depicts, promulgates, and validates the whole factors-of-production worldview (each according to its contribution…) which underpins travesties like Greg Mankiw’s “just deserts” claptrap. See in particular national-accounting-sage Robert Hall’s discussion of the accounts’ implicit “zero-rent economy.”

3. The dumpster fire (@noahpinion) of terminology that economists rely on to communicate — and really to think (together) — is (or should be) rigorously defined based on accounting identities. But that requires deeply understanding #2 above: what those measures and identities mean. To repeat: accounting classes don’t even count as electives for econ degrees at Harvard and U Chicago. (Really, the situation is more like the sub-basement of Fukushima Three. One word: “saving.” Many economists vaguely think that more individual saving results in some larger stock of monetary “savings.” Sheesh.)

>Roth’s presentation…is not new. Alan Greenspan wrote about these ideas back in the 1950s

Johnny-come-lately. Haig-Simons, who I refer to repeatedly, bruited their comprehensive accounting definition of income in the 20s and 30s. (Dead-cat bounce. I’m thinking the rich hate this idea. The political implications of fully revealing wealth and wealth accumulation could be…revolutionary?)

Wikipedia informs me that a German legal scholar named Georg von Schanz was on it somewhat earlier. (Modern Money Network, are you listening?)

>Roth ends up downplaying the importance of the liability side of the balance sheet.

Perhaps. At least three reasons:

1.The FFA matrix does an excellent job of accounting for (inevitably “financial”) liabilities. Nothing to complain about there. That’s where the IMAs get most or all of their liability accounting from. And economists have made very good use of that data.

2. Looking at households as the “buck stops here” balance sheet, liabilities are surprisingly (to me) small percentage of assets. Yes, a long secular trend with one big spike (not much for sample size…). Click for Fred.

3. For the economic import of (change in) assets versus liabilites, I’ll just point to one economic factoid which I find darned significant:

Post-1960s (post Bretton-Woods?), every time you see year-over-year decline in real household net worth or assets, you’re just into or about to be in a recession. (There are two bare false positives, just after the ’99 and ’08-’09 market dives; they look to me like blowback, residual turbulence, if that suffices as cogent economic terminology…)

Notice: The two measures are equally predictive; including liabilities (in net worth) adds no predictive power. These two measures move closely together. This especially makes sense for declines; asset markets dive, while liabilities are much more sticky downward. (They tend to climb together over time.)

So yeah, I’m with Roger Farmer about stock-market declines “Granger-causing” recessions, though 1. I cringe at that faux-statistical usage, and 2. at least for the GFC, I’d say the real-estate crash caused the stock-market crash. In any case, overall, it sure looks to me like wealth (asset) declines (proximate?) cause recessions. I’d say high debt levels amplify the effects when that does happen.

So yeah of course, net worth is not some kind of tell-all economic measure. You gotta deconstruct it. But it’s a bloody-well-necessary measure that economists (and national accountants) have largely ignored, like forever.

>defining “saving” as the “change in net worth”, as Roth does, is that this obscures as much as it clarifies

Note that I use a particular term for that, Comprehensive Saving, while leaving what I call Primary Saving (largely) intact. (The IMAs’ measure of primary income hence saving is after “Uses of property income (interest paid)” are deducted, which seems crazy (and politically pernicious) to me. I’ve moved it from it’s sort-of-hidden position in Sources, to appear explicitly in Uses, so my Primary Income and Primary Saving measures are a bit higher than the IMAs’.)


Now it’s true that I relegate Primary Saving to an addendum, favoring Comprehensive Saving as the more important measure. This imparts how deeply rhetorical all accounting presentations are. But I think this privileging makes sense give the relative magnitudes we see. (Net Lending + Capital Formation here is traditional primary “saving”).

This is J.W. Mason’s recent graph, which I was delighted to see, showing the same measures (the IMAs’ ∆NW decomposition) that I’ve also graphed in the past.

>asset price appreciation generally leads to proportionally tiny increases in spending.

The linked study, like others of its kind, in my opinion gives too much weight to marginal propensities, based on one-time changes. So I question how good a guide they are to determining economic reaction functions. This is too much of a subject to address here, so I’ll only suggest that more straightforward, long-term propensity-to-consume measures by wealth/income classes might be more illuminating. Also velocity of wealth. (I’m a monetarist! As long as “money” means “wealth”…)

Whether or not you consider these figures illuminating, they are the kind of figures you can derive from a complete accounting construct that tallies total assets and net worth. Note that both are also dependent on data from Zucman/Saez/Pikkety’s magisterial Distributional National Accounts (DINAs). What I’d really like to see is Distributional IMAs (DIMAs). I corresponded with Gabriel Zucman on this a bit; he’s given me permission to quote him:

You are correct that there can be pure asset valuation effects in the long run (i.e., capital gains in excess of those mechanically caused by retained earnings). These pure valuation effects are not part of national income, hence not included in our measure of income and our distributional series. However, they could be included down the road by computing income as delta wealth + consumption (i.e., Haig-Simon income). We have wealth in our database so we’re not far from being able to do this.

To conclude on a decidedly accounting-dweeby note, here’s the key accounting identity for Haig-Simons (which I call Comprehensive) Income:

∆ Net Worth + Consumption = Primary (traditional) Income + Holding Gains (+ Other Changes in Volume)

Subtract taxes, and you’ve got Comprehensive Disposable Income. Subtract Consumption, and you’ve got Comprehensive Saving. Equals…change in Net Worth.

Accounting identi-tists, have fun!

(For those who prefer this kind of thing in slide-deck form, here’s a PDF of my presentation from the recent Modern Monetary Theory conference.)

“In the Beginning…Was the Unit of Account” – Twelve Myths About Money

November 19th, 2017 39 comments

Jan Kregel presented a great dinner speech at the recent Modern Monetary Theory Conference, touching on some of the fundamental ways we think about money and economics. (Sorry, no recording or transcript available.) I had a brief conversation with him afterwards, and we followed up with a few emails.

The quotation in the title of this post is condensed from the final line of one of his emails — a line that made me laugh out loud:

“So I guess we start from that — in the beginning was the word, and the word was the unit of account?”

Okay, yes: money-dweeb humor. But the implications are kind of profound.

The Word. Logos. Indeed. I’ve written about this before — how writing in its earliest forms emerged from tally sheets, accounting. Even, that its emergence was the first step on the road to outsourcing our memory onto iPhones, maybe even (only somewhat tongue in cheek) causing human brains to shrink over millennia.

Jan’s great line, and our conversations, prompt me to set down some thoughts on this ever-vexed subject. Herewith, twelve widespread usages and conceptions that, in my experience, tie our money discussions in knots. Please assume that anything you don’t like here is mine, not Jan’s, and apologies to those who have heard some of this from me before.

(A proleptic response to an inevitable digression: I’m assuming a closed national or world economy for simplicity. The “rest of world” sector, and the exchange rate with Martian currency, are not considered.)

#1. Money was invented around 700 BCE. No. That’s when coins were invented — handy physical tokens making it easy to transfer assets from one person’s (implicit) balance sheet to another’s. Money existed on something like balance sheets — tallies of who owns what and who owes what — long before that; those tallies go back thousands or tens of thousands of years. Mentions of monetary values in written documents — designated in staters, drachms, whatever — were widespread long before anyone thought of using coins for asset transfers.

The earliest coins, by the way, may well have been badges of honors and offices issued by religious authorities. Somehow people started exchanging them, and voila: physical currency. This had little or nothing to do with butchers and bakers or convenient time-shifting of purchases. That’s a made-up armchair myth (though the convenience benefit is real). Wampum, likewise, wasn’t used for trade exchange until Europeans captured that “money” system and transformed it.

#2. Money is a “medium of account.” (Whatever “medium” means in that phrase…) Money was invented when some clever tally-keeper, totting up cows and horses and bags of grain, invented the arbitrary unit of account — a unit that allows those heterogenous goods to be tallied on a single sheet, in a common unit of value. We find price lists of assorted goods on some of the earliest Sumerian tablets, for instance, and price lists can’t exist without a unit of account. It’s hard to know, but it seems like this clever technology might have been invented multiple times over the millennia.

If this historical tale holds water, the earliest forms of money were just…the value of tallied (balance-sheet) assets, with the value designated, denominated, in a unit of account. In the beginning…

By this thinking, an “asset” is a labeled balance-sheet entry, designating the value of an ownership claim — again, designated in a unit of account. These “asset” things only exist on balance sheets. The claims themselves may be informal — you own the apple on your kitchen counter by norm, convention, and common law. Or they may be formal, inscribed in one or more legal instruments and a supporting body of law and norms. The forms and terms of these ownership-claim instruments are myriad and diverse.

Money in this sense is the UofA-designated value of an ownership claim (perhaps formally recorded in an asset entry).

Ask a real-estate zillionaire, “how much money do you have”? The answer has nothing to do with physical dollars in wallets, or any particular class of ownership claims/assets that are tallied up in “monetary aggregates.” It’s about total assets or net worth — necessarily, designated in a unit of account.

The problem arises when we confute these two common meanings of the word. Start watching: you’ll often see it happen even within a single sentence. This ubiquitous muddle — trying to talk about two different things using the same word — has engendered unending confusion.

Both uses of the word are perfectly valid and useful; they just mean completely different things.

#3. There is such a thing as non-fiat money. Nope. (A better description is “consensus” money. The consensus is usually enforced by the fiat powers of a government, temple authorities, etc.) The consensus exchange or “face” value of precious-metal coins must always be higher than the market value of the metal substrate. If the reverse were true, people would just melt them down. Outside the fiat/consensus purview of the issuer, those coins many only retain their substrate value. So they’re still valuable for far-flung trade, or if authority breaks down, because the commodity may still retain consensus value. (That security in itself can contribute to holding up their consensus face value.)

Ditto cigarettes in POW camps. There are physical things called cigarettes, but there’s also this conceptual thing that emerges when people start using them in general trade: a cigarette.” Or “the cigarette.” It’s a unit that can be used to designate the value of other things.

The consensus value of coins and currency is based on the stability of the unit of account. (See: Brazil.) The coins are just physical tokens representing a unit of exchange — an asset that can be transferred, and that’s designated in the unit of account. In the beginning…

#4. Money “is” debt. Or, “you are paying with liabilities.” Money, by any definition, is always and everywhere an asset of the holder. The $5 bill in your pocket or the five dollars in your checking account are assets on your balance sheet. Paying, spending, is transferring assets to someone else — from the lefthand side of your balance sheet to the lefthand side of theirs.

Now of  course money issuance is often associated with the creation of new balance-sheet liability entries — think government deficit spending — but those liabilities are posted to the money issuer’s balance sheet. The recipient gets an asset: the credit half of the tally stick. That’s what gets passed around in spending and payments. The debt side is generally held on the balance sheet of large, powerful creditors or institutional authorities.

This isn’t just true of “cash”; government bondholders are obviously holding assets. The debt is on the government balance sheet. “Holding debt” is a handy shorthand for finance types, but considered even briefly, it makes no literal sense at all. How could you hold or own something you owe?

Ditto “paying with liabilities.” If you transfer a liability from the righthand side of your balance sheet to the righthand side of another’s, you are unlikely to receive much thanks, or any value in return.

These usages can be useful, stylized ways of referring to particular economic, financial, and accounting relationships. Which is fine as long as users are perfectly clear on how the thinking is stylized. But on their face they don’t make sense, and they engender great confusion. Money is always an asset of the holder.

#5. People “spend out of income.” Spending, payments, always come from asset balances. That’s what payments are — asset transfers. When you write a check, you withdraw from your checking-account balance. When you buy a bag of Doritos at 7-11, the money’s coming out of your wallet. It’s impossible to “spend out of” the instantaneous event of somebody handing you a five-dollar bill. Once it’s in your hand, once it’s an asset you own, you can spend it.

“Spending out of income” is another of those common usages — a useful shorthand way to talk about spending more or less than you receive over a period. It’s an unconsidered commonplace that deeply confuses our conversations about money.

#6. There’s a difference between “inside” and “outside” money. After new money is issued, its origin is immaterial in the particular. Where did the $100 in your checking account “come from,” originally? Say I borrowed it, or got it in a tax refund, or whatever, then paid it to you. It’s impossible to say, and it doesn’t matter, where it came from.

New assets appear in account balances from 1. government deficit spending, 2. bank lending, and 3. holding gains. Then people swap them for other assets, or transfer them to pay for newly produced goods and services. Whether the money came from “inside” or “outside” sources (or holding gains), once it’s circulating among accounts, it’s just…money. As we all know, money is fungible.

Certainly, newly created liability entries associated with money issuance can be economically significant. And some particular financial instruments retain a meaningful and influential financial or economic (ultimately institutional) relationship to particular liability entries. But in the big picture once the money’s out there, it’s disconnected from its “inside” or “outside” origins.

#7. Monetary aggregates tell us how much “money” we have. The various monetary aggregates so beloved of monetarists (M0, M1, MZM…) share a common, unstated definition of “money”: financial instruments whose prices are institutionally pegged to the unit of account — physical coins and currency, checking account and money-market deposits, etc. Remember the 2008 headlines: “Money Market Fund ‘Breaks the Buck.’” The institutional powers and practices of pegging are diverse, and institutional pegging can fail.

This particular subset of assets — fixed-price, UofA-pegged financial instruments — comprise only about 9% of U. S. households’ $111 trillion in assets. They play a particular role in individual and aggregate portfolio allocation (more below), they’re quite handy for buying new goods, and they’re a necessary intermediate holding for most asset swaps. But their stock quantity is swamped by even the price-driven change in other assets; capital gains on variable-priced instruments added $7 trillion to household balance sheets in 2013 alone. Monetarists’ fetishization of these “currency-like” financial instruments, and their aggregates, is…misplaced.

#8. If people save more money, there is more money (or “savings,” or “loanable funds”). Obviously, if you save (spend less than your income over a period), you have more money. But we don’t. Just, the money’s in your account. If you spent it instead of saving it, it would be in somebody else’s account.

Spending — even spending on consumption goods that you’ll devour within the period — is not consumption. The money isn’t, can’t be, “consumed” by spending. It’s created and destroyed by other, financial, mechanisms. If you eat less corn, we have more corn. If you spend less money, we have no more money.

#9. Saving “funds” investment. Investment spending, like all spending, comes from asset balances. “Funding” from flows is harder to nail down: If a firm this year has $1M in undistributed profits (saving) and borrows $1M, spends $1M on wages and buys $1M in drill presses, which inflow “funded” which outflow? Firms borrow to make payroll all the time. (Don’t even get me started on stock repurchases.)

I can’t resist quoting one of the best financial and economic thinkers out there (read the whole thread):

Individual money-saving isn’t even really a flow; it’s a non-flow — not-spending — just an accounting residual of income minus expenditures. (Though of course it’s a flow measure: tallied over a period of time, not at a moment in time.)

#10. Portfolio allocations — and spending — are determined by “demand for money.” The relatively small stock of monetarists’ “money” — instruments whose prices are pegged to the unit of account — is sort of a fulcrum around which portfolio preferences and total asset value (wealth) adjusts. But the vague gesture toward the unmeasurable and dimensionless notion of “demand” is not illuminating. Here in more concrete terms:

Suppose government deficit-spends $1 trillion into private-sector checking accounts. The market’s portfolio is overweight cash (assuming portfolio allocation preferences are unchanged). But the market can’t get rid of those fixed-price instruments — certainly not by spending, which just transfers them — or change their aggregate value (their price is fixed, pegged to the unit of account).

So people buy variable-priced instruments — stocks, bonds, titles to real estate, etc. — bidding up their values competitively until the desired portfolio allocation is achieved. (This, by the way, is exactly how things work in the more advanced Godley/Lavoie-style, “stock-flow consistent” or SFC models.)

The economic implications of this: A trillion-dollar deficit-spend results in $1T more in private-sector assets (the “cash”), plus any asset-value runups from portfolio adjustments triggered by that cash infusion. (This is before even considering any effects on new-goods spending — the so-called “multiplier” — or the proportion of spending devoted to investment — Keynes’s particular fixation.)

Sure, if wealthholders are feeling nervous — more concerned with return of their wealth than returns on their wealth — they may prefer instruments that by their very nature guarantee stability, non-decline relative to the unit of account. They’ll sell variable-priced instruments, running down their prices until the market reaches its preferred portfolio allocation. “Liquidity preference” is one rather strained way to refer to this straightforward idea of portfolio allocation preferences.

Likewise, “demand for money” is a cute conceptual and verbal jiu-jitsu, flipping straightforward understandings of portfolio preferences on their heads. Demand is supposed to influence price and/or quantity. But it can’t influence the “price of money” or the aggregate stock of fixed-price instruments — only the prices, hence aggregate total, of variable-priced instruments. This notion does far more to confuse than to enlighten.

Takeaway: holding gains and losses — which are almost universally ignored in economic theory even though they’re the overwhelmingly dominant means of wealth accumulation — are the very mechanism of aggregate portfolio allocation. If you’re only considering “income”-related measures (which ignore cap gains), there’s no way to think coherently about how economies work.

#11. The interest rate is the “price of money.” This is like saying a car-rental fee is the price of a car. The price of a dollar (a unit of exchange) is always one, as designated in the dollar (the unit of account). The cost of borrowing is something else entirely. Like “demand for money,”  “the price of money” is just verbal and conceptual gymnastics, inverting the very meaning of the word “price,” and trying to shoehorn money-thinking into a somewhat inchoate notion of supply and demand (that’s constantly refuted by evidence). It’s not helping.

#12. Central bank asset purchases are “money printing.” Not. Sure, the Fed magically “prints” a zillion dollars in reserves to purchase bonds. But then it just swaps those reserves for bonds, which are “retired” from the private sector onto the Fed’s balance sheet. Private-sector assets/net worth are unchanged; the private sector just has a different portfolio mix: more reserves, less bonds.

Ditto when the Fed sells the bonds back (as it’s now doing and promising to do, a bit); it re-absorbs the private sector’s reserve holdings and releases bonds in return, disappearing the reserves back into its magic hole in the ground. (As Milton Friedman observed, banks have both printing presses and furnaces.) Again: no accounting effect on private-sector assets or net worth.

QE and LSAPs do have some asset-price, hence balance-sheet, effect, at least while they’re happening; the central bank has to beat market prices by a smidge to play the whale and buy all those bonds. Bond prices go up and yields go down. Which will push investors’ portfolio allocations more into equities and other “risk assets,” driving up their prices some. But the first-order accounting effect is just to change private-sector portfolio allocations.

So there: twelve conceptions about money that have made it difficult or impossible for me, at least, to think coherently about the subject. Here’s hoping these thoughts are useful to others as well.


I’d like to end this post with the same question for my gentle readers that I went to Jan with. Units of account are very odd conceptual constructs indeed. They’re not like other units of measurement — inches, degrees centigrade, etc. — which generally have some physical objective correlative: “length” or “warmth” or suchlike. Units of account tally “value,” which basically means value to humans, a function of human desire. And human desires, of course (“preferences”), vary.

So my question: what’s a good metaphorical or figurative comparison to help us understand and explain this strange conceptual thingamabob? Is money an invention like algebra? Are there other conceptual constructs that are similar to units of account, comparable mental entities that can help us think about what these things are? I can’t think of any good analogies. It’s vexing.

Extra points question: what is “the bitcoin”?

Yes: In the beginning was the word. Words are one of the main things, maybe the main thing, that we use to think together. All thanks to my gentle readers for any help in doing that.