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The Mysterious Stock of “Loanable Funds”

October 26th, 2017 5 comments

This Twitter thread between Ryan Cooper and Joe Wiesenthal prompts me to do full-spectrum explanation of some thinking that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while. (Thanks for the inspiration.)

What follows is very unorthodox thinking even among the heterodox. It’s well beyond and different from MMT’s utterly convincing takedowns of “loanable funds” notions, for instance.

So take it as the ravings of an internet econocrank, if you will. But here it is FWIW.

First off, nobody can ever point to these so-called “loanable funds,” or mostly even say if they’re talking about a stock measure or a flow measure. It’s one of those unmeasurable, actually dimensionless, concepts that econs are so fond of, like demand and supply (desire and willingness).

It’s often used synonymously with “savings” with an “s”, at least implying some stock. (The national accounts use the term “saving”; there is no stock measure labeled “savings” therein.)

The only measurable stock of “loanable savings” I can think of is wealth: balance-sheet assets, or net worth. (The national accounts, by the way, only started tallying those comprehensively a decade ago.) Household-sector assets or net worth are probably the best measures of this, because they incorporate the value, telescoped in, of the household sector’s wholly-owned subsidiary, firms.

On the idea that household saving “funds” lending and investment by providing more loanable funds: individual saving increases your assets/net worth. It doesn’t increase our assets/net worth. Your savings are just held in your account instead of — if you spend — someone else’s account. They can be intermediated into investment from either account.

Likewise “saving” by firms — retaining earnings instead of distributing them to shareholders as dividends. In either case those funds are in accounts that are intermediated (and re-re-re-“hypothecated”…) by the financial system. If a firm uses those funds for actual, real investment, that’s…spending! (“Investment spending” as opposed to “consumption spending” — the two sum to GDP.)

Individual saving doesn’t create any extra “loanable funds” — stock or flow. When you eat less corn (save), we have more corn. When you spend less money, we have no more money. Spending — even “consumption spending” — is not consumption. Transferring an asset (spending) doesn’t “consume” that asset, make it disappear. This error of composition pervades economic thinking. Think: Krugman/Eggertsson’s whole “patient savers”/”impatient borrowers” construct. Individual saving doesn’t create collective savings.

Individual saving is actually a non-flow, an accounting residual of two actual transaction flows — income minus expenditures. (Though it is a flow measure as opposed to a stock measure — it’s measured over a period, not at an instant.)

Sectoral saving actually consists of two (or three) things, as revealed by the accounting derivation in the Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts (IMAs): capital formation + net lending/borrowing + capital transfers. For households, capital transfers is mostly estate taxes; it’s a small number. Capital formation is the creation of actual new (long-lived) stuff within a sector, whose value is posted to the asset side of balance sheets. Net lending/borrowing is the accumulation of claims against other sectors’ balance-sheet assets.

These two are utterly distinct and different economic mechanisms, crammed together into a single accounting measure labeled “saving.” It’s no surprise that nobody understands saving. In the grand scheme of wealth accumulation, these two saving mechanisms are pretty small change. Here, the derivation of change in private-sector net worth, again from the IMAs.

Real investment in the creation of newly produced, long-lived (productive) stuff — capital formation, investment spending — is overwhelmingly “funded” by churn within wealthholders’ $100-trillionish portfolio. Sell treasuries, buy into an IPO or a real-estate development deal. A zillion et ceteras. The “flow” of saving is small by comparison.

At the macro-est level, that “investment impulse” is driven by collective portfolio preferences, the markets’ risk/reward/yield calculations. (“Jesse Livermore” delivered the Aha for me on this; his measure of equities as a share of outstanding financial assets on Fred here. Pace market monetarists, it sure doesn’t look the market is crowding into “safe assets.”)

Swapping checking-account deposits for Apple shares is not investment in the economic sense of paying people (spending) to create new long-lived (productive) stuff. Collectively, it’s just portfolio allocation. If people are (confidently) optimistic, they bid up risk assets, expanding the total portfolio (wealth) pie.

Monetarists’ obsession with financial instruments like checking and money-market deposits whose prices are institutionally pegged to the unit of account (“cash” — only about 5% of household assets) blinds them to that collective portfolio adjustment mechanism. If government deficit-spends $100 billion in cash onto household balance sheets, the market is overweight cash (if portfolio preferences are unchanged). It re-allocates by competitively buying variable-priced instruments (bonds, stocks, land titles), driving up their prices. There’s more cash and more other assets.

Market asset pricing doesn’t — can’t — influence the total stock of fixed-price, UofA-pegged instruments. Their prices are fixed! (That’s the thing that makes cash, cash.) They can only be created by bank lending and government deficit spending (see next para). Those instruments are largely just a pool of intermediates in portfolio churn, in any case: sell treasuries, get cash; swap cash for IPO shares. As long as there are enough “cash” instruments for transactions to clear (and the peg holds), you’re cool. The transaction system doesn’t bind up. Collective portfolio reallocation is almost all via price changes in, duh, variable-priced instruments.

There are three economic mechanisms that create new private-sector balance-sheet assets ab nihilo: government deficit spending, bank lending, and asset-market price runups/capital gains. (Bank lending creates simultaneous private-sector liabilities, so it doesn’t create new private-sector net worth; the other two do.) These mechanisms create new “loanable funds” a.k.a. wealth. (Fed asset purchases with newly-“printed” “money” — reserves — create no new private sector assets or net worth — they just swap reserves for bonds, changing the private-sector portfolio mix; the market then adjusts its portfolio allocation in response, as described above.)

Of these three ab novo asset-creation mechanisms, capital gains utterly dominates:

Especially since the 80s/90s, as revealed here in corporate equity performance (this in inflation-adjusted dollars):

Think Amazon: essentially zero profits, saving, change in book value over two decades, while delivering half a trillion dollars onto household balance sheets.

This (plus similar or larger cap gains effects in real-estate valuation) gives rise to some very perplexing trends — perplexing for me at least:

This depicts what Sri Thiruvadanthai calls a “structural break,” some kind of seeming phase shift in how markets are working, or how we perceive and report on those markets, in accounting terms. Or both. Earnings and P/E, for instance, are becoming increasingly problematic as predictors of total return. What’s the capitalized present value of future cash flows from a firm that…will never deliver any cash flows/”profits”?

The asset markets seem to think that all our stuff is worth a lot more than it sold for in the new-goods markets.* One of those markets is getting prices “wrong.” Either this is the mother of all multi-decadal asset bubbles, or we’ve been vastly understating GDP for decades. (Or something else, maybe accounting, measurement-related.)

The creation of real, long-lived goods (“capital”) is the ultimate driver of wealth accumulation. But the economic mechanisms of wealth creation and accumulation — creating new claims on all our goods and future production (claims whose market-priced value is tallied up as balance-sheet assets) — are something else entirely.

In any case I agree with Joe: within what I think is a great article, Ryan’s rather rote recitation of standard-issue “loanable funds” truisms merits some careful rethinking.


* The national accounts don’t even come close to tallying all that “capital,” by the way, or the investment in creating it. Consider the massive, lasting productive value, for instance, of widespread knowledge, skills, and abilities imparted through education and training and deployed over lifetimes, or broadly experienced health and well-being delivered through health-care spending. Those expenditures aren’t tallied as “investment” (spending on long-lived goods), nor are the resulting “assets” depreciated as humans age, sicken, and die.

Noahpinion: What Causes Recessions? Debt Runups or Wealth Declines?

June 7th, 2016 Comments off

Noah Smith asks what seems to be an interesting question in a recent post: “what leads to big recessions: wealth or debt”?

But I’d like to suggest that it’s actually a confused question. Like: is it the heat or the (relative) humidity that makes you feel so hot? Is it the voltage or the amperage that gives you a shock, or drives an electric motor? The answer in all these cases is obviously “Yes. Both.”

The question’s confused because wealth and debt are inextricably intertwined. “Wealth” is household net worth — household assets (including the market value of all firms’ equity shares) minus household sector debt. Debt is part (the negative part) of wealth.

Still, it’s interesting to look at time series for household-sector assets, debt, and net worth, and see how they behave in the lead-ins to recessions.

I’ve pointed out repeatedly that year-over-year declines in real (inflation-adjusted) household net worth are great predictors of recessions. Over the last 65 years, (almost) every time real household net worth declined, we were just into or about to be into a recession (click for interactive version):

Update 6/8: This was mistakenly showing the assets version (see next image); it’s now correctly showing the net worth version.

This measure is eight-for-seven in predicting recessions since the late sixties. (The exception is Q4 2011 — false positive.) It makes sense: when households have less money, they spend less, and recession ensues.

But now here’s what interesting: YOY change in real household assets is an equally good predictor:

Adding the liability side of the household-sector balance sheet (by using net worth instead of assets) doesn’t seem to improve this predictor one bit. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Household-sector liabilities, at about $14 trillion, are pretty small relative to assets ($101 trillion). Even if levels of household debt make big percentage moves (see the next graph), the actual dollar volume of change isn’t all that great compared to asset-market price runups and drawdowns. Asset levels make much bigger moves than debt levels.

It’s also interesting to look at changes in real household-sector assets (or net worth) compared to changes in real household-sector liabilities:

As we get closer to recessions, the household sector takes on debt progressively more slowly, with that shift happening over multiple years. (2000 is the exception here.) That speaks to a very different dynamic than the sudden plunges in real assets and net worth at the beginning of the last seven recessions. Perhaps: household’s portfolios are growing in these halcyon days between recessions, so they have steadily less need to borrow. And as those days continue, they start to sniff the next recession coming, so they slow down their borrowing.

My impressionistic take, unsupported by the data shown here: Higher levels of debt increase the odds that market drawdowns will go south of the border, driving the economy into recession. And they increase the likely depth of the drawdown, as lots of players (households and others) frantically need to shrink and deleverage their balance sheets, driving a downward spiral.

If the humidity’s high, and it gets hotter, you’re really gonna notice the change.

My obstreperous, categorical take, cadging from the past master of same:

Recession is always and everywhere a financial phenomenon.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Did Money Evolve? You Might (Not) Be Surprised

November 25th, 2015 Comments off

You probably won’t be surprised to know that exchange, trade, reciprocity, tit for tat, and associated notions of “fairness” and “just deserts” have deep roots in humans’ evolutionary origins. We see expressions of these traits in capuchin monkeys and chimps (researchers created a “cash economy” where chimps were trained to exchange inedible tokens for food, then their trading behaviors were studied), in human children as young as two, in domestic dogs, and even in corvids — ravens and crows.

But humans are unique in this as in many other things. We use a socially-constructed mechanism to effect and mediate that trade — a thing we call “money.” What is this thing? What does it mean to say that it’s “socially constructed”? What are the specifics of that social construct? How does it work?

Money has lots of different meanings when you hear it in the vernacular. A physical one- or five-dollar bill is “money,” for instance (“Hands up and gimme all your money!”). But so is a person’s net worth, or wealth (“How much money do you have?”), even though dead presidents on paper or even checking-account balances are often insignificant or ignored in tallies of net worth (think: stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.).

You might think you could turn to economists for an understanding of the term. Not so. They don’t have an agreed-upon definition of “money.” The closest they come is a tripartite “it’s used as” description that completely begs the question of what money is: It’s used as a medium of account, as a medium of exchange, and as a medium of storage. I and many others have pointed out the myriad problems with this tripartite non-definition. Start by asking yourself: what in the heck do they mean by “medium” in each of those three? You’ll often hear economists speak of (undefined) “monetary assets,” “monetary commodities,” and similar, attempting to communicate in absence of a definition.

When economists speak of the “money supply” (a stock measure, not a flow measure as suggested by “supply”), they are gesturing toward a body of financial securities that are somewhat currency-like. Primarily: they’re used in exchanges for real-world goods and services, and have fixed values relative to the unit of account — e.g. “the dollar” (think: “the inch”). They assemble various “monetary aggregates” of these currency-like things — MB (the “monetary base”), M0, M1, M2, M3, and MZM (“money of zero maturity”). Here’s a handy chart on Wikipedia.

This conflation of “money” with currency-like financial securities reveals a basic misunderstanding of money that pervades the economics profession. That misunderstanding is based on a fairly tale.

In the golden days of yore, it is told, all exchange was barter. Think: Adam Smith’s imagined bucolic butcher and baker village. This worked fine, except that your milk wasn’t necessarily ready and to hand when my corn came ripe. And moving all those physical commodities around was arduous. This inserted large quantities of sand and mud into the gears and wheels of trade.

But then some innovator came up with a great invention — physical currency! Coins. “Money.” This invention launched humanity forward into its manifest destiny of friction-free exchange and the glories of market capitalism.

Except, that’s not how it happened. No known economy was ever based on barter. And coins were a very late arrival.

The best efforts at understanding the nature and origins of money have come from anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians who actually study early human commerce and trade, and from various associated (“heterodox”) fringes of economic thinking. David Graeber recounts much of this history (though unevenly) in Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Randall Wray, a leading proponent of the insurgent and increasingly influential Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) school of economics, has offered up some great explications. (Though even he is reduced, at times, to talking about “money things.”) If you’re after a gentle introduction, Planet Money has a great segment on money’s rather vexed history and odder incarnations.

The main finding from all this: the earliest uses of money in recorded civilization were not coins, or anything like them. They were tallies of credits and debits (gives and takes), assets and liabilities (rights and responsibilities, ownership and obligations), quantified in numbers. Accounting. (In technical terms: sign-value notation.) Tally sticks go back twenty-five or thirty thousand years. More sophisticated systems emerged six to seven thousand years ago (Sumerian clay tablets and their strings-of-beads predecessors). The first coins weren’t minted until circa 700 BCE — thousands or tens of thousands of years after the invention of “money.”

These tally systems give us our first clue to the nature of this elusive “social construct” called money: it’s an accounting construct. The earliest human recording systems we know of — proto-writing — were all used for accounting.* So the need for social accounting may even explain the invention of writing.

This “accounting” invention is a human manifestation of, and mechanism for, reciprocity instincts whose origins long predate humanity. It’s an invented technique to do the counting that is at least somewhat, at least implicitly, necessary to reciprocal, tit-for-tat social relationships. It’s even been suggested that the arduous work of social accounting — keeping track of all those social relationships with all those people — may have been the primary impetus for the rapid evolutionary expansion of the human brain. “Money” allowed humans to outsource some of that arduous mental recording onto tally sheets.

None of this is to suggest that explicit accounting is necessary for social relationships. That would be silly. Small tribal cultures are mostly dominated by “gift economies” based on unquantified exchanges. And even in modern societies, much or most of the “value” we exchange — among family, friends, and even business associates — is not accounted for explicitly or numerically. But money, by any useful definition, is so accounted for. Money simply doesn’t exist without accounting.

Coins and other pieces of physical currency are, in an important sense, an extra step removed from money itself. They’re conveniently exchangeable physical tokens of accounting relationships, allowing people to shift the tallies of rights and responsibilities without editing tally sheets. But the tally sheets, even if they are only implicit, are where the money resides.

This is of course contrary to everyday usage. A dollar bill is “money,” right? But that is often true of technical terms of art. This confusion of physical tokens and other currency-like things (viz, economists’ monetary aggregates, and Wray’s “money things”) with money itself make it difficult or impossible to discuss money coherently.

What may surprise you: all of this historical and anthropological information and understanding is esoteric, rare knowledge among economists. It’s pretty much absent from Econ 101 teaching, and beyond. Economists’ discomfort with the discipline’s status as a true “social science,” employing the methodologies and epistemological constructs of social science — their “physics envy” — ironically leaves them bereft of a definition for what is arguably the most fundamental construct in their discipline. Likewise for other crucial and constantly-employed economic terms: assets, capital, savings, wealth, and others.

Now to be fair: a definition of money will never be simple and straightforward. Physicists’ definition of “energy” certainly isn’t. But physicists don’t completely talk past each other when they use the word and its associated concepts. Economists do when they talk about money. Constantly.

Physicists’ definition of energy is useful because it’s part of a mutually coherent complex of other carefully defined terms and understandings — things like “work,” “force,” “inertia,” and “momentum.” Money, as a (necessarily “social”) accounting construct, requires a similar complex of carefully defined, associated accounting terms — all of which themselves are about social-accounting relationships.

At this point you’re probably drumming your fingers impatiently: “So give: what is money?” Here, a bloodless and technical term-of-art definition:

The value of assets, as designated in a unit of account.

Which raises the obvious questions: What do you mean by “assets” and “unit of account”? Those are the kind of associated definitions that are necessary to any useful definition of money. Hint: assets are pure accounting, balance-sheet entities, numeric representations of the value of goods (or of claims on goods, or claims on claims on…). That’s where I’ll go in my next post.

Sneak preview: we’ll start by thinking carefully about another (evolved?) human social construct without which assets don’t, can’t, exist — ownership.

* Some scholars believe repeated symbolic patterns going back much further, in cave paintings for instance, embodied early “writing,” but that is widely contested, and nobody knows what the symbols — if they are symbols — represented.

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

Real Household Net Worth: Look Out Below?

August 26th, 2015 3 comments

In my last post I pointed out that over the last half century, every time the year-over-year change in Real Household Net Worth went negative (real household wealth decreased), a recession had either started, or was about to.  (One bare exception: a tiny decline in Q4 2011, which looks rather like turbulence following The Big Whatever.) Throughout, click for source.

The problem: we don’t see this quarterly number until three+ months after the end of a quarter, when the Fed releases its Z.1 report for the the preceding quarter. The Q2 2015 report is due September 18.

But right now we might be able to roughly predict what we’re going to see four+ months from now, in the report on our current quarter, Q3, which ends September 30. We’re a bit over a month from the end the quarter, and we have some numbers to hand.

The U.S. equity markets are down roughly 7% year-over-year (click for source):

Screen shot 2015-08-26 at 11.42.32 AM

Total U.S. equities market cap one year ago was about $20 trillion:

Screen shot 2015-08-26 at 12.27.32 PM

So a 7% equity decline translates to a $1.4-trillion hit to total market cap, which goes straight to the lefthand (asset) side of household balance sheets, because households ultimately own all corporate equity — firms issue equity, and households own it (at one or more removes); people don’t issue equity in themselves, and firms don’t own people (at least not yet). It’s an asymmetrical, one-way ownership relationship. (Note: yes, the Fed accounts for household net worth on a mark-to-market basis.)

Total household net worth a year ago was $82 trillion. The $1.4 trillion equity decline translates to a 1.7% decline in household net worth.

Meanwhile household liabilities over the last four quarters have been growing at a fairly steady rate just above 0.2% per year. There’s no reason to expect a big difference in Q3.

This suggests a 1.9% decline in household net worth over the last year, based on the equity markets alone. (My gentle readers are encouraged to add numbers for real estate and fixed-income assets.) Add (subtract) 1.5% in inflation over that period, and you’re looking at something like 3.4% decline in real household net worth, year over year.

Unless the stock market rallies by 10% or 15% before the end of September ($2–3 trillion, or 2.5–3.5% of $80 trillion net worth), it’s likely we’ll see a negative print for year-over-year change in real household net worth when the Fed releases its Z.1 in early December of this year. And we know what that means — or at least we know what it’s meant over the last half century.

You heard it here first…

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.



The New Synthesis? Market Monetarists Meet New (and Post?) Keynesians on Helicopter Drops

July 27th, 2014 Comments off

A a year or so back I highlighted David Beckworth’s great post on Helicopter Drops. And the world’s best econoblogger, Steve Randy Waldman, did as well. (A “fantastic post,” he said.)

I’ve been pinging ever since to see a response to that post from Market Monetarist opinion-leader Scott Sumner. (AS SRW said, what we’d gotten from him was largely “quibbles.”)

I won’t rehash it all here but rather point you to Nick Rowe’s wonderfully successful effort to bring it all to conclusion, synthesizing Market Monetarist and New Keynesian thinking into support for a policy proposal that I think Post-Keynesians and MMTers would also jump on with gusto. (Also read the comments to Nick’s post, including one from Scott Sumner.)

I feel quite sure that Democrats/Liberals would embrace the policy wholeheartedly. Republicans/Conservatives, unfortunately, would consider it to be heresy and apostasy (often-sensible but utterly toothless Reformocons nothwithstanding).

Which pretty much clarifies where the problem lies…

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Michael Woodford and Adair Turner Agree: CBs Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Sell the Bonds Back

June 13th, 2013 1 comment

Old news: April 3. But still: Following up on yesterday’s post, see here from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph (emphasis mine):

“All this talk of exit strategies is deeply negative,” [Woodford] told a London Business School seminar on the merits of Helicopter money, or “overt monetary financing”.

He said the Bank of Japan made the mistake of reversing all its money creation from 2001 to 2006 once it thought the economy was safely out of the woods. But Japan crashed back into deeper deflation as soon the Lehman crisis hit.

“If we are going to scare the horses, let’s scare them properly. Let’s go further and eliminate government debt on the bloated balance sheet of central banks,” he said. This could done with a flick of the fingers. The debt would vanish.

Lord Turner, head of the now defunct Financial Services Authority, made the point more delicately. “We must tell people that if necessary, QE will turn out to be permanent.”

The write-off should cover “previous fiscal deficits”, the stock of public debt. It should be “post-facto monetary finance”.

Lord Turner knows this breaks the ultimate taboo, and that taboos evolve for sound anthropological reasons, but he invokes the doctrine of the lesser evil. “The danger in this environment is that if we deny ourselves this option, people will find other ways of dealing with deflation, and that would be worse.”

A breakdown of the global trading system might be one, armed conquest or Fascism may be others – or all together, as in the 1930s.

Taboos are made to be broken. The Fed should just burn all those bonds. Welcome to MMT World.

Also some very interesting history in that article that I wasn’t aware of, a great counterpoint to the standard-issue What-About-Weimar!? hyperhysteria:

Less known is the spectacular success of Takahashi Korekiyo in Japan in the very different circumstances of the early 1930s. He fired a double-barreled blast of monetary and fiscal stimulus together, helped greatly by a 40pc fall in the yen.

The Bank of Japan was ordered to fund the public works programme of the government. Within two years, Japan was booming again, the first major country to break free of the Great Depression. Within three years, surging tax revenues allowed Mr Korekiyo to balance the budget. It was magic.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

The Fed is not “Printing Money.” It’s Retiring Bonds and Issuing Reserves.

May 15th, 2013 66 comments

Update 5/21: See two updates to this post here.

Mark Dow had a great post the other day:

There is zero correlation between the Fed printing and the money supply. Deal with it.

He points out (emphasis mine):

From 1981 to 2006 total credit assets held by US financial institutions grew by $32.3 trillion (744%). How much do you think bank reserves at the Federal Reserve grew by over that same period? They fell by $6.5 billion.

As he says:

if you are an investor, trader or economist, understanding—and I mean really understanding, not just recycling things you overheard on a trading desk or recall from econ 101—the mechanics of monetary policy should be at the top of your checklist. With the US, Japan, the UK and maybe soon Europe all with their pedals to the monetary metal, more hinges on understanding this now than ever before.

And, as we saw this week, even many of the Titans of finance and economics have it wrong.

He’s obviously been reading Manmohan Singh and Peter Stella (S&S) over at Vox EU, who cite the very same numbers and add:

In fact, total commercial bank reserves at the Federal Reserve amounted to only $18.7 billion in 2006, less than the corresponding amount, in nominal terms, held by banks in 1951.

S&S also point out (Table 1 and Figure 1) what we’ve known for decades but many seem unwilling to admit: since WWII, reserve levels have had approximately zero correlation with inflation/price levels.

They continue:

This suggests either that there is something wrong with:

  • the theory of money neutrality;
  • the theory of the money multiplier; or
  • how money is measured.

Or, I would say, all of the above. I’d actually replace all three: there is something wrong with the (nonexistent) definition of “money.” But that’s another post.

I’m going to go even farther than Dow and say: the Fed is not printing money. (It can do that, but the result is stuff you can hold in your hand.) That’s a confusing and actually incoherent misconception. The Fed is issuing new reserves and exchanging them for bonds. Those bonds are effectively retired from the stock of assets circulating in the financial system (though perhaps only temporarily), as if they’d expired.

Reserves are not “money” in any useful sense. Or, they’re only money (whatever you mean by that word) within the Federal Reserve system. We probably just shouldn’t use the word at all here. It’s only confusing.

The key to understanding (and to avoid misunderstanding) this is to think about the banking system, not individual banks. The dynamics are totally different, because individual banks can affect their reserve positions (though under various market and regulatory constraints). The banking system can’t.

Because: Reserves only exist (can only exist) in banks’ accounts at the Federal Reserve Banks (and only members — banks plus GSEs and other large institutions like the IMF — can have accounts there). The banking system can’t remove reserves from the system by transferring them to the nonbank sector in exchange for bonds, drill presses, or toothpaste futures.

One bank can transfer reserves to the account of another entity with a Fed account, in exchange for bonds or whatever, but total reserves are (obviously) unchanged. And that exchange has no direct effect outside the Fed system. (That exchange can, does, have second-order, indirect, portfolio-rebalancing effects on the rest of the market. More below.)

And here’s the key thing: the banking system can’t lend reserves to nonbank customers by somehow transferring them to those customers’ deposit accounts (thereby reducing total reserves). They can’t “lend down” total reserves. The banking system doesn’t “take money” out of total reserves, or reduce those reserves, to fund loans.

This is why it’s so crazy to worry about those reserves eventually “flooding out into the real sector” in the form of new loans (and resultant spending), with all the hyperinflationary hysteria attached to that notion. (Equally: those reserves are not “unused cash” on the “sidelines” that the banks are “sitting on.” See Cullen Roche on this.) Reserves can’t leave the system, whether in a flood or a trickle. The banking system will lend (creating new deposits in its customers’ accounts out of thin air), if bankers think it will be profitable. But increased lending if anything forces the Fed to increase total reserves. Viz:

A bank issues a billion dollars in new loans, creating a billion dollars in deposits in its customers’ accounts. The borrowers spend the money by transferring it to sellers’ banks. When all the transactions net out at night at the Fed, the issuing bank is short on reserves that need to be transferred to the sellers’ banks (or sees that it will be short). So it borrows reserves from other banks. If reserves are tight, this pushes up the interbank lending rate. The Fed doesn’t want the interbank rate to increase, because it thinks interest rates are where they should be to fulfill its mandates. So it issues new reserves and trades them for banks’ bonds (which it retires, at least for the time being).

Short story: more lending increases total reserves. Slightly longer story: more lending forces the Fed to increase total reserves (or abandon its mandates).

In the current situation, of course, there’s no shortage of reserves. Banks are holding extraordinary quantities in excess of regulatory requirements. So the Fed instead controls the interbank lending rate within a corridor by setting the rate it pays on reserves (bottom) and the rate at which it will lend to banks (top). Read it all here from the FRBNY.

So how can the banking system reduce total reserves? Only in one significant way: by buying bonds from the Fed. Send some reserves over, and the Fed retires those, (re)issuing bonds in exchange. But of course the Fed isn’t selling these days; it’s buying.

Fed asset moves just issue and retire reserves and bonds. And those moves are purely at the discretion of the Fed (the Fed “enforces” this on the system by buying/selling at prices that individual banks will take up). So the Fed is in complete control of the level of total reserves. Again: there is no way for the banking system to turn existing reserves into deposits in its customers’ accounts. It can’t “lend down” total reserves.

When the Fed issues and retires bonds and reserves, it’s not “printing money,” so it’s not playing some kind of simplistic MV=PY game. It’s adjusting the balance of the banking system’s portfolio (“forcing” it to change exchange bonds for reserves) — and by extension, affecting the mutually interacting portfolio preferences of all market players (via interest-rate/yield-curve effects, and also, more psychologically, by imparting the optimistic notion that there’s adult supervision — that this frat party won’t turn into Animal House).

In other words, it’s a much deeper game than many monetarists would have you believe. It’s especially deep because neither the Fed nor the markets understand it properly. Certainly the Fed governors have strong disagreements about how it works. (Arguably, nobody understands, very much including me. There are many interacting understandings and reaction functions out there, many based on complete misunderstandings of the system dynamics. But I think we’re getting closer these days, with the slow but increasingly widespread and accelerating dismissal of silly notions like the money multiplier.)

Dow explains these portfolio effects and reaction functions very nicely:

…why is the Fed doing QE in the first place?

By keeping rates low well out the yield curve and providing comfort that the Fed will be there to fight the risk of recession and deflation…we start feeling better about putting our getting our money back out of the mattress and putting it back to work.

…it is the indirect psychological effects from Fed support and the low cost of capital—not the popularly imagined injection of Fed liquidity into stock markets—that have gotten investors to mobilize their idle cash from money market accounts, increase margin, and take financial risk. It is our money, not the Fed’s, that’s driving this rally. Ironically, if we all understood monetary policy better, the Fed’s policies would be working far less well. Thank God for small favors.

The other, more mechanical, implication is that financial sector lending is neither nourished nor constrained by base money growth. … The main determinant of credit growth, therefore, really just boils down to risk appetite: whether banks and shadow banks want to lend and whether others want to borrow. Do they feel secure in their wealth and their jobs? Do they see others around them making money? Do they see other banks gaining market share?

These questions drive money growth more than the interest rate and base money. And the fact that it is less about the price of money and more about the mental state of borrowers and lenders is something many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around—in large part because of what Econ 101 misguidedly taught us about the primacy of price, incentives and rational behavior.

I certainly make no claim to a deep understanding of those portfolio effects. (If I had such an understanding, I’d be far richer than I am.) But I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.

• When the Fed issues reserves and retires bonds, it’s 1. reducing the net flow of newly-issued (treasury and GSE-mortgage) bonds into the market, or even causing a net reduction. And if the latter is true, it’s 2. reducing the total stock of bonds available for trading in the market.

Since the flow of new bonds is obviously much smaller than the outstanding stock, you would expect flow effects of Fed actions to have much greater immediate influence on bond markets than stock effects.But it’s unclear what their long-term effects might be. A steady flow reduction, on the other hand, will eventually have cumulative effects on the total stock — again with uncertain future effects.

Jake Tepper, quoted in this post by Cullen Roche (read the comments too), gives us this:

…The fed is going to purchase $85 billion of treasuries and mortgages a month. So over 500 billion in six months…. the net issuance [by Treasury] versus refunding is a little over 100. That means we have 400 billion, 400 billion that has to be made up.

Whatever “made up” means. But Tepper’s also ignoring the Fed’s other big buys: mortgage-backed securities issued by government-sponsored enterprises (Fannie, Freddie). I would like to see as long a time series as possible of the following:

Net MBS issuance by GSEs (issuance – retirement)


Net Treasury issuance (new issues – retirement)


Net Fed ”retirement”

Also have to include Fed repos, I think? But maybe trivial over the long term.

In other words: net Net NET consolidated flow of new bond issuance to the private sector by Treasury, Fed, and the GSE gods.

Then: that measure as a percent of GDP? Of total Treasury/GSE bonds outstanding? Total Credit Market Debt Outstanding (TCMDO)? Other measures to compare it to?

• Contrary to what you often hear, even today when reserves and bonds are paying nearly equivalent interest rates, they are not equivalent assets. Because: bonds have expiration dates, and variable market prices/interest rates. So bonds carry market/interest-rate risk and reward for their holders — the potential for cap gains and losses. Reserves don’t.

As you can read in this must-read 2009 paper from the Bank of International Settlements, reserves are the Final Settlement Medium. They’re what it comes down to every night when all the day’s bank transactions are consolidated, netted out, transferred, and resolved. A dollar of reserves is always worth a dollar. There’s no possibility of capital gains or losses on reserve holdings. Reserves are inexorably nominal. (Even more so than $100 bills, which are worth less relative to reserves if they’re sitting in a Columbian drug-dealer’s suitcase.)

So when the Fed gives the banks reserves and retires bonds, it’s taking on market risk/reward, replacing it with absolutely nonvolatile, risk/reward-free assets (at least in nominal terms). It’s removing leverage and volatility from the banking system. (MMTers might well ask why our government system requires the injection of that volatility in the first place, when the Treasury could simply be issuing “dollar bills” with no expiration dates or interest payments, instead of treasury bills. [Or consols.] But that’s an aside.)

• I have to address notions like this one from Lee Adler, in a comment on Dow’s post:

The correlation between Fed and other central bank money printing with market behavior is clear and direct.

Yeah: while the Fed is on a bond-buying spree, it buoys bond prices and depresses yields. Especially when bond yields are historically low, market players shift their portfolio preferences from bonds to equities in a “reach for yield,” so equities go up too. (This presumably yields a wealth effect of [rich] people spending more — perhaps the only transmission mechanism to the real economy for Fed balance-sheet changes.)

This says exactly nothing about those balance-sheet moves as an impact on the stock of “money,” or inflation. It just says that while Fed asset purchases/sales are ongoing (and expected to continue), they will raise or lower the value of financial assets. It’s either orthagonal to Dow’s assertions, or  in fact demonstrates exactly what he’s saying about psychological effects.

• It doesn’t make sense to say that the Fed is “monetizing” the debt (because reserves aren’t money). If you think in terms of consolidated Treasury/Fed net issuance/retirement of government bonds, it’s retiring debt — removing bonds from the market and absorbing them into the Treasury/Fed complex. The bonds still exist, of course, and the Treasury still pays interest — to the Fed, which kicks it right back to Treasury. But as far as the markets are concerned, those bonds are essentially dead and gone (at least for now).

It seems that the Fed could simply burn a whole pile of those bonds, no? It would have no effect on flows, aside from the rather pointless interest flows back and forth between Treasury and Fed. And it would only affect the stock of “dead” bonds — ones that have been retired into the Fed. (The notion’s been discussed by people as diverse as Ron Paul and Mervyn King — Paul with the misconception that this would be “declaring bankrupcy,” and King with the misapprehension that it would be “monetizing the debt.”)

• It’s not at all clear what the flow effect would once the had Fed stopped net-buying bonds, while Treasury and the GSEs continued issuing new bonds in excess of retirements. Financial asset prices might stay at their then current levels. Who knows.

• The question, of course, is whether the Fed will ever sell all those bonds back to the market (thereby reducing reserve holdings). The average maturity of the Fed’s bond holdings is >10 years, so they’ll naturally expire and disappear, but only slowly. We’ve entered a brave new monetary world, in which central banks exert themselves not just through reserve management/interbank lending rates, but through balance-sheet expansion and contraction. (See the two “schemes” in the BIS paper linked above.) I don’t know if anyone knows what to expect in that regard. The Fed’s certainly talking about reducing its bond purchases in the future, which will affect net bond flows into/from the market, but it’s not at all clear whether it will ever shrink its balance sheet to pre-crisis levels (in absolute terms or relative to other measures), thereby reducing banks’ reserve holdings to those earlier levels.

• The $10-trillion question: If the Fed did sell off all its bond holdings in an effort to get back those halcyon days when banks didn’t hold any excess reserves — so the Fed could control the interbank rate with small open-market operations — what in the hell would happen? Whether slowly or quickly, bond prices would fall as the sales continued, yields would rise (compared to a counterfactual in which the Fed wasn’t selling off their holdings). Markets would shift their portfolio preferences from stocks to bonds, so equity prices would fall along with bond prices. Disastre?

Again, I don’t think anybody knows.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.




Edward Lambert on Effective Demand, Labor Share, Capacity Utilization, and Growth

May 9th, 2013 1 comment

He’s only been blogging since March. His credentials? “Independent Researcher on the equation for Effective Demand.”

That may explain why, aside from a lonely Steve Randy Waldman link, I’ve seen no mention of his work out there. Just another internet econocrank?

I’m wildly unqualified to pass judgment, but Lambert’s built what strikes me as a very interesting, cogent, and coherent model of effective demand, labor share, unemployment, and capacity utilization in growing economies. And he’s extending it fast, including into optimal monetary policy. (Mark Sadowski has been challenging him on the model in comments here.)

I won’t try to summarize his modeling or poke holes — go look at it. I’ll just give you a picture and a few post titles to whet your appetite.

Here’s his UT (“Unused Total”) Index:

The regularity of its coincidence with recessions (especially the ends of recessions), at least, seems like it should raise eyebrows.

Here are some posts to peruse:

What is Effective Demand?

What Non-inclusive Growth Looks LIke

When Labor Share does not rise in the Growth Model

Effective Demand Monetary Policy: the z coefficient

AS-ED Model: Raising Labor Share of Income

Update on AS-ED model: The future has a problem

Given Scott Sumner’s recent reversion to labor share as the appropriate target for monetary policy, I’m thinking that Market Monetarists might find Lambert’s work as interesting as effective-demand-obsessed Keynesians will. MMTers and other Post-Keynesians? His results certainly comport with their political predilections.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Should The Inflation Target be 4.3%?

May 8th, 2013 4 comments

I’m quite tongue-in-cheek in asking that question, but nevertheless: I present for your delectation what at first blush seems like a revealing bit of chart porn (hat tip: Zero Hedge):

You could flip this upside down and replace “Earning Yield” with “PE ratio.”

The data displays a remarkably regular relationship. Equity investors seem to be most optimistic about future economic (or at least earnings) growth when the inflation rate is 4.3%. (It would be interesting to see: did this relationship hold, albeit with the inevitable noise from smaller samples, in shorter sub-periods — and if so, which sub-periods? In particular curious: did it hold equally pre- and post-1971?)

Can we draw any conclusion from this? i.e.:

• Market conditions that are most conducive to economic growth are revealed by a 4.3% inflation rate.

• Equity investors display the most “irrational exuberance” when the inflation rate is 4.3%.

I’d love to hear whether Market Monetarists and MMTers think this has any useful import.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Identity Games: Saving ≠ Saving? Whodathunkit?

April 21st, 2013 127 comments

I finally figured out a simple way to explain my confusion (and that of many others, including many economists) with the whole Saving issue. I may also have figured out a useful solution to that confusion, which I present at the bottom here for my gentle readers’ delectation and denunciation.

Econ profs: I’m really curious. Do you think this post would help your intro students understand this stuff?

First: The accounting’s fine. Of course. But for some not-crazy reasons, the definition of “Saving” changes in the course of the accounting.

Thinking of the “real” sector for the moment, for simplicity and clarity. For each of the economic units at the bottom level of that sector (households and nonfinancial businesses), Saving means money saving:

(1) Saving = Income – Expenditure

But at the top, the level of “sectoral” saving, Saving means saving of real goods:

(2) Saving = Income - Consumption Expenditures

Or in words that more aptly describe what’s being depicted:

(3) Saving = Production – Consumption

(Reminder: Consumption Spending + Investment Spending = Expenditures = Income = Production)

Explanatory aside: There’s Gross or Net Saving, depending on whether Consumption just includes Consumption Spending (on goods that are bought and consumed within the period), or also includes Consumption of Fixed Assets — the very real “depreciation” of those assets. Gross is long-lived goods produced; Net is long-lived goods added, above and beyond what’s “consumed.”

Back to identities: Unlike every other measure in the national accounts, if you sum up the money Saving of all the bottom-level units, it doesn’t equal Saving for the sector. Rather:

(4) Sectoral Saving = Units’ Combined Money Saving + Investment Spending*

Investment spending, of course, causes the creation of real, long-lived goods. But this is the thing that has confused me from the get-go: Saving is (savings are) some combination of money and real goods? Aren’t financial assets supposed to be representative of, proxies for, the real assets? (Equally confusing: economists’ insistence on talking about “capital” as if it were some undifferentiated, homogeneous or vaguely contiguous lump of real and financial capital.)

Here’s what you need to know to sort that out: You know that money saving? It’s zero.

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