Tag Archives: MMT

Debt & The Failure Of Monetary Policy To Stimulate Growth

A fascinating graphic was recently produced by Oxford Economics showing compounded economic growth rates over time.

What should immediately jump out at you is that the compounded rate of growth of the U.S. economy was fairly stable between 1950 and the mid-1980s. However, since then, there has been a rather marked decline in economic growth.

The question is, why?

This question has been a point of a contentious debate over the last several years as debt and deficit levels in the U.S. have soared higher.

Causation? Or Correlation?

As I will explain, the case can be made the surge in debt is the culprit of slowing rates of economic growth. However, we must start our discussion with the Keynesian theory, which has been the main driver both of fiscal and monetary policies over the last 30-years.

Keynes contended that ‘a general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.’

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.”

Keynes’ was correct in his theory. In order for deficit spending to be effective, the “payback” from investments being made must yield a higher rate of return than the debt used to fund it.

The problem has been two-fold.

First, “deficit spending” was only supposed to be used during a recessionary period, and reversed to a surplus during the ensuing expansion. However, beginning in the early ’80s, those in power only adhered to “deficit spending part” after all “if a little deficit spending is good, a lot should be better,” right?

Secondly, deficit spending shifted away from productive investments, which create jobs (infrastructure and development,) to primarily social welfare and debt service. Money used in this manner has a negative rate of return.

According to the Center On Budget & Policy Priorities, roughly 75% of every tax dollar goes to non-productive spending. 

Here is the real kicker. In 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures is social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of revenue coming in

Do you see the problem here? (In the financial markets, when you borrow from others to pay obligations you can’t afford it is known as a “Ponzi-scheme.”)

Debt Is The Cause, Not The Cure

This is one of the issues with MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in which it is assumed that “debts and deficits don’t matter” as long as there is no inflation. However, the premise fails to hold up when one begins to pay attention to the trends in debt and economic growth.

I won’t argue that “debt, and specifically deficit spending, can be productive.” As I discussed in American Gridlock:

“The word “deficit” has no real meaning. Dr. Brock used the following example of two different countries.

Country A spends $4 Trillion with receipts of $3 Trillion. This leaves Country A with a $1 Trillion deficit. In order to make up the difference between the spending and the income, the Treasury must issue $1 Trillion in new debt. That new debt is used to cover the excess expenditures, but generates no income leaving a future hole that must be filled.

Country B spends $4 Trillion and receives $3 Trillion income. However, the $1 Trillion of excess, which was financed by debt, was invested into projects, infrastructure, that produced a positive rate of return. There is no deficit as the rate of return on the investment funds the “deficit” over time.

There is no disagreement about the need for government spending. The disagreement is with the abuse, and waste, of it.”

The U.S. is Country A.

Increases in the national debt have long been squandered on increases in social welfare programs, and ultimately higher debt service, which has an effective negative return on investment. Therefore, the larger the balance of debt becomes, the more economically destructive it is by diverting an ever growing amount of dollars away from productive investments to service payments.

The relevance of debt versus economic growth is all too evident, as shown below. Since 1980, the overall increase in debt has surged to levels that currently usurp the entirety of economic growth. With economic growth rates now at the lowest levels on record, the growth in debt continues to divert more tax dollars away from productive investments into the service of debt and social welfare.

The irony is that debt driven economic growth, consistently requires more debt to fund a diminishing rate of return of future growth. It now requires $3.02 of debt to create $1 of real economic growth.

However, it isn’t just Federal debt that is the problem. It is all debt.

When it comes to households, which are responsible for roughly 2/3rds of economic growth through personal consumption expenditures, debt was used to sustain a standard of living well beyond what income and wage growth could support. This worked out as long as the ability to leverage indebtedness was an option. Eventually, debt reaches levels where the ability to consume at levels great enough to foster stronger economic growth is eroded.

For the 30-year period from 1952 to 1982, debt-free economic growth was running a surplus. However, since the early 80’s, total credit market debt growth has sharply eclipsed economic growth. Without the debt to support economic growth, there is currently an accumulated deficit of more than $50 Trillion.

What was the difference between pre-1980 and post-1980?

From 1950-1980, the economy grew at an annualized rate of 7.70%. This was accomplished with a total credit market debt to GDP ratio of less 150%. The CRITICAL factor to note is that economic growth was trending higher during this span going from roughly 5% to a peak of nearly 15%.

There were a couple of reasons for this.

  1. Lower levels of debt allowed for personal savings to remain robust which fueled productive investment in the economy.
  2. The economy was focused primarily on production and manufacturing which has a high multiplier effect on the economy.  

The obvious problem is the ongoing decline in economic growth. Over the past 35 years, slower rates of growth has kept the average American struggling to maintain their standard of living. As wage growth stagnates, or declines, consumers are forced to turn to credit to fill the gap in maintaining their current standard of living. (The chart below is the inflation-adjusted standard of living for a family of four as compared to disposable personal incomes and savings rate. The difference comes from debt which now exceeds $3400 per year.)

It isn’t just personal and corporate debt either. Corporations have also gorged on cheap debt over the last decade as the Fed’s “Zero Interest Rate Policy” fostered a scramble for cash for diminishing investment opportunities, such as share buybacks. These malinvestments ultimately have a steep payback.

We saw this movie play out “real-time” previously in everything from sub-prime mortgages to derivative instruments. Banks and institutions milked the system for profit without regard for the risk. Today, we see it again in non-financial corporate debt. To wit:

“And while the developed world has some more to go before regaining the prior all time leverage high, with borrowing led by the U.S. federal government and by global non-financial business, total debt in emerging markets hit a new all time high, thanks almost entirely to China.”

“Chinese corporations owed the equivalent of more than 155% of Global GDP in March, or nearly $21 trillion, up from about 100% of GDP, or $5 trillion, two decades ago.”

The Debt End Game

Unsurprisingly, Keynesian policies have failed to stimulate broad based economic growth. Those fiscal and monetary policies, from TARP, to QE, to tax cuts, only delayed the eventual clearing process. Unfortunately, the delay only created a bigger problem for the future. As noted by Zerohedge:

“The IIF pointed out the obvious, namely that lower borrowing costs thanks to central banks’ monetary easing had encouraged countries to take on new debt. Amusingly, by doing so, this makes rising rates even more impossible as the world’s can barely support 100% debt of GDP, let alone 3x that.”

Ultimately, the clearing process will be very substantial. As noted above, with the economy currently requiring roughly $3 of debt to create $1 of economic growth, a reversion to a structurally manageable level of debt would involve a nearly $40 Trillion reduction of total credit market debt from current levels. 

This is the “great reset” that is coming.

The economic drag from such a reduction in debt would be a devastating process. In fact, the last time such a reversion occurred, the period was known as the “Great Depression.”

This is one of the primary reasons why economic growth will continue to run at lower levels going into the future. We will witness an economy plagued by more frequent recessionary spats, lower equity market returns, and a stagflationary environment as wages remain suppressed while cost of living rise.

The problem of debt will continue to be magnified by the changes in structural employment, demographics, and deflationary pressures derived from changes in productivity. As I showed previously, this trend has already been in place for the last decade and will only continue to confound economists in the future.

“The U.S. is currently running at lower levels of GDP, productivity, and wage growth than before the last recession. While this certainly doesn’t confirm Shelton’s analysis, it also doesn’t confirm the conventional wisdom that $33 Trillion in bailouts and liquidity, zero interest rates, and surging stock markets, are conducive to stronger economic growth for all.”

Correlation or causation? You decide.

Economic Theories & Debt Driven Realities

One of the most highly debated topics over the past few months has been the rise of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The economic theory has been around for quite some time but was shoved into prominence recently by Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “New Green Deal” which is heavily dependent on massive levels of Government funding.

There is much debate on both sides of the argument but, as is the case with all economic theories, supporters tend to latch onto the ideas they like, ignore the parts they don’t, and aggressively attack those who disagree with them. However, what we should all want is a robust set of fiscal and monetary policies which drive long-term economic prosperity for all.

Here is the problem with all economic theories – they sound great in theory, but in practice, it has been a vastly different outcome. For example, when it comes to deficits, John Maynard Keynes contended that:

“A general glut would occur when aggregate demand for goods was insufficient, leading to an economic downturn resulting in losses of potential output due to unnecessarily high unemployment, which results from the defensive (or reactive) decisions of the producers.”

In other words, when there is a lack of demand from consumers due to high unemployment, then the contraction in demand would force producers to take defensive actions to reduce output. Such a confluence of actions would lead to a recession.

In such a situation, Keynesian economics states that government policies could be used to increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment and deflation. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending and so forth. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.

Unfortunately, as shown below, economists, politicians, and the Federal Reserve have simply ignored the other part of the theory which states that when economic activity returns to normal, the Government should return to a surplus. Instead, the general thesis has been:

“If a little deficit is good, a bigger one should be better.”

As shown, politicians have given up be concerned with deficit reduction in exchange for the ability to spend without constraint.

However, as shown below, the theory of continued deficit spending has failed to produce a rising trend of economic growth.

When it comes to MMT, once again we see supporters grasping onto the aspects of the theory they like and ignoring the rest. The part they “like” sounds a whole lot like a “Turbotax” commercial:

The part they don’t like is:

“The only constraint on MMT is inflation.”

That constraint would come as, the theory purports, full employment causes inflationary pressures to rise. Obviously, at that point, the government could/would reduce its support as the economy would theoretically be self-sustaining.

However, as we questioned previously, the biggest issue is HOW EXACTLY do we measure inflation?

This is important because IF inflation is the ONLY constraint on debt issuance and deficits, then an accurate measure of inflation, by extension, is THE MOST critical requirement of the theory.

In other words:

“Where is the point where the policy must be reversed BEFORE you cause serious, and potentially irreversible, negative economic consequences?”

This is the part supporters dislike as it imposes a “limit” on spending whereas the idea of unconstrained debt issuance is far more attractive.

Again, there is no evidence that increasing debts or deficits, inflation or not, leads to stronger economic growth.

However, there is plenty of evidence which shows that rising debts and deficits lead to price inflation. (The chart below uses the consumer price index (CPI) which has been repeatedly manipulated and adjusted since the late 90’s to suppress the real rate of inflationary pressures in the economy. The actual rate of inflation adjusted for a basket of goods on an annual basis is significantly higher.) 

Of course, given the Government has already been running a “quasi-MMT” program for the last 30-years, the real impact has been a continued shift of dependency on the Government anyway. Currently, one-in-four households in the U.S. have some dependency on government subsidies with social benefits as a percentage of real disposable income at record highs.

If $22 trillion in debt, and a deficit approaching $1 trillion, can cause a 20% dependency on government support, just imagine the dependency that could be created at $40 trillion?

If the goal of economic policy is to create stronger rates of economic growth, then any policy which uses debt to solve a debt problem is most likely NOT the right answer.

This is why proponents of Austrian economics suggest trying something different – less debt. Austrian economics suggests that a sustained period of low interest rates and excessive credit creation results in a volatile and unstable imbalance between saving and investment. In other words, low interest rates tend to stimulate borrowing from the banking system which in turn leads, as one would expect, to the expansion of credit. This expansion of credit then creates an expansion of the supply of money.

Therefore, as one would ultimately expect, the credit-sourced boom becomes unsustainable as artificially stimulated borrowing seeks out diminishing investment opportunities. Finally, the credit-sourced boom results in widespread malinvestments. When the exponential credit creation can no longer be sustained a “credit contraction” occurs which ultimately shrinks the money supply and the markets finally “clear” which causes resources to be reallocated back towards more efficient uses.

Time To Wake Up

For the last 30 years, each Administration, along with the Federal Reserve, have continued to operate under Keynesian monetary and fiscal policies believing the model worked. The reality, however, has been most of the aggregate growth in the economy has been financed by deficit spending, credit expansion and a reduction in savings. In turn, the reduction of productive investment into the economy has led to slowing output. As the economy slowed and wages fell the consumer was forced to take on more leverage which also decreased savings. As a result of the increased leverage, more of their income was needed to service the debt.

Secondly, most of the government spending programs redistribute income from workers to the unemployed. This, Keynesians argue, increases the welfare of many hurt by the recession. What their models ignore, however, is the reduced productivity that follows a shift of resources toward redistribution and away from productive investment.

In its essential framework, MMT suggests correctly that debts and deficits don’t matter as long as the money being borrowed and spent is used for productive purposes. Such means that the investments being made create a return greater than the carrying cost of the debt used to finance the projects.

Again, this is where MMT supporters go astray. Free healthcare, education, childcare, living wages, etc., are NOT a productive investments which have a return greater than the carrying cost of the debt. In actuality, history suggests these welfare supports have a negative multiplier effect in the economy.

What is most telling is the inability for the current economists, who maintain our monetary and fiscal policies, to realize the problem of trying to “cure a debt problem with more debt.”

This is why the policies that have been enacted previously have all failed, be it “cash for clunkers” to “Quantitative Easing”, because each intervention either dragged future consumption forward or stimulated asset markets. Dragging future consumption forward leaves a “void” in the future which must be continually filled, This is why creating an artificial wealth effect decreases savings which could, and should have been, used for productive investment.

The Keynesian view that “more money in people’s pockets” will drive up consumer spending, with a boost to GDP being the end result, has been clearly wrong. It hasn’t happened in 30 years.

MMT supporters have the same view that if the government hands out money it will create stronger economic growth. There is not evidence which supports such is actually the case.

It’s time for those driving both monetary and fiscal policy to wake up. The current path we are is unsustainable. The remedies being applied today is akin to using aspirin to treat cancer. Sure, it may make you feel better for the moment, but it isn’t curing the problem.

Unfortunately, the actions being taken today have been repeated throughout history as those elected into office are more concerned about satiating the mob with bread and games” rather than suffering the short-term pain for the long-term survivability of the empire. In the end, every empire throughout history fell to its knees under the weight of debt and the debasement of their currency.

It’s time we wake up and realize that we too are on the same path.

MMT And Its Fictional Discipline

That is some crazy talk” – Bill Gates on the topic of MMT

In our article, MMT Sounds Great in Theory… But, we dove into the latest and greatest of economic thinking, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This theory is crucially important for investors and citizens to understand as its popularity is spreading like wildfire. The theory promises to be a strong force in the coming election and a challenge to the popular Keynesian policies that are widely adhered to by most governments and central banks.

Free healthcare and higher education, jobs for everyone, living wages and all sorts of other promises are just a few of the benefits that MMT can provide. At least, that is how the theory is being sold. Regardless of the apparent unreasonableness of such promises, it’s not hard to imagine presidential and congressional candidates running and winning on such a “free lunch” economic platform. Bear in mind, this was done with some success in 2016 as Stephanie Kelton, Bernie Sander’s chief economic advisor, is a leading advocate of MMT.

Given the importance of this new thinking, we will analyze various bits and pieces of the theory in the coming months. In this article, we discuss a crucial aspect of the theory, inflation. MMT theory essentially believes the government spending can be funded by printing money. Currently, government spending is funded by debt and not the Fed’s printing press. MMT disciples tell us that when the shackles of debt and deficits are removed, government spending can promote economic growth, full employment and public handouts galore. MMT does, however, have a discipline that regulates spending, and that is inflation.

Inflation

Inflation is impossible to calculate. Inflation is impossible to calculate. No, that is not a typo. For emphasis, let us put it another way. Inflation is impossible to calculate.

The point that inflation is impossible to calculate cannot be overstated.

Economists will say the Consumer Price Index (CPI), for instance, does a good job of telling us whether prices are rising or falling and to the precision of a tenth of a percent. As background, CPI measures how a select basket of goods changes in price from month to month.

In regards to CPI and its purported accuracy think about these questions:

  • Do the specific goods and amount of goods in the CPI basket match what you buy?
  • Are prices of goods the same in Nevada as they are in Maine?
  • Do you substitute apples for oranges when oranges rise in price?
  • Does a 75-year-old retired couple consume the same basket of goods as a single 20-year-old in college or a 50-year-old couple with three teenagers?
  • Are value hedonic adjustments fair and reflective of the value you receive from the goods? (Hedonic adjustments attempt to change the price of goods based on perceived improvements in value. For instance, the decline in computer prices as measured within CPI is greater than what we observe at the store because they deliver more power today than in the past. We expanded on this concept in the MMT article mentioned earlier.)

We now get personal because this point is crucial. Michael Lebowitz, a partner at Real Investment Advice, is 50 years old, married, with three teenagers. He pays for his own health care and has one kid in college. He lives near Washington D.C. where real estate and many of the goods and services he consumes are more expensive than the national average. CPI, as reported by the BLS, is running annually at +1.9%. Do you think Michael’s personal CPI is only 1.9%? Based on a simple and reliable personal budget analysis, his price index has been running in the double digits for the last few years.

Washington, DC provides one good example as a city, but it is not a leap to say that major metropolitan and urban areas impose a higher cost of living than rural areas. Furthermore, according to the 2010 United States Census, over 71% of the population live in “urbanized areas”, which the Census Bureau defines as “densely developed residential, commercial and other nonresidential areas.” Does measurement of CPI or any other inflation metric properly account for such complexities? How can they?

The bottom line is that inflation varies widely by demographic, region and individual needs and desires and a host of other differences that cannot possibly be accounted for in one number.

That is problem number one with applying a “CPI-for-all” mentality and using it to make important policy decisions.

Inflation Manipulation

There is a bigger and more nefarious problem with inflation measurements and how they can be manipulated. To reiterate, MMT states that government spending and money printing can occur as long as inflation is limited.

If inflation regulates government spending and by default the health of the economy, then won’t leaders, who will do anything to retain their power, suppress inflation readings to allow greater spending?

Sadly, that question is rhetorical. We know the rate of inflation is already being suppressed for political reasons. As an example, the Federal Reserve uses Core CPI, a derivative of CPI that excludes food and energy, as prices on those two components are unusually volatile. They do tend to be volatile, but they are also two of the biggest expenses of the population. That is like measuring a quarterback’s accuracy without considering passes that occur further than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.

As for the government, they routinely take steps to manipulate how CPI and other inflation data are calculated and published.

Before continuing with what some may call a conspiracy theory, we think a little background on the Boskin Commission is appropriate. Per Wikipedia:

The Boskin Commission, formally called the “Advisory Commission to Study the Consumer Price Index”, was appointed by the United States Senate in 1995 to study possible bias in the computation of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is used to measure inflation in the United States. Its final report, titled “Toward A More Accurate Measure Of The Cost Of Living” and issued on December 4, 1996, concluded that the CPI overstated inflation by about 1.1 percentage points per year in 1996 and about 1.3 percentage points prior to 1996.

The report was important because inflation, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is used to index the annual payment increases in Social Security and other retirement and compensation programs. This implied that the federal budget had increased by more than it should have, and that projections of future budget deficits were too large. The original report calculated that the overstatement of inflation would add $148 billion to the deficit and $691 billion to the national debt by 2006.

The Boskin Commission was formed, and their recommendations enacted, to reduce reported inflation. Inflation is costly to the government due to higher borrowing rates, cost of living wage adjustments, and social security expenses. Said differently, by lowering measured inflation they reduced governmental expenses and allowed for more spending. Our opinion on the government’s motives is not a result of our cynical nature; it is based on the illogic of some of the adjustments that have occurred since the commission was formed.

The best example to highlight this is housing prices and their contribution to CPI. In 1998, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) changed the way they calculated real estate prices within CPI. The BLS replaced an index based on actual home prices with what is now called owner’s equivalent rent (OER). OER is a rental equivalence which calculates the price at which an owned house would rent. It is important to note that rents were then and continue to be a part of the CPI calculation.

The graph below compares the compounded growth rates of the OER index and the widely recognized leader in home price indexing, Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

It is clear from the graph that OER is a great substitute for actual home prices if the goal is to reduce reported inflation. However, if you are a citizen and in the market for a house, OER represents wishful thinking.

Based on the data above, CPI has been suppressed by an average of 0.40% per year since 1998 due to the OER calculation. That may not seem material, but this one modification accounts for 20% of the CPI growth over the period.

Even more concerning, the graph below shows that OER understates CPI by much more than 0.40% when the decline in house prices during the financial crisis is excluded. Since the crisis, OER has underestimated CPI by 0.75% annually, meaning that a truer inflation rate over the period from 2010 to current was 2.37% not 1.62%. Annual compounding implies CPI understated the rate of inflation by approximately 7%.

Data Courtesy St. Louis Federal Reserve

To put a final point on MMT and home prices, consider the following: If house prices in California are rising rapidly while falling in New York, should the same fiscal and monetary policy be applied to both situations? MMT would benefit both New York and California but is that what is truly best for Californians, a state notorious for pricing many out of the housing market? In either case, those most severely impacted are the lower and middle classes struggling to maintain their standard of living.

Summary

The problems described above are symptomatic. In this article we only touched on a few of the flaws with the government’s preferred inflation calculation and how it is being manipulated. There are a plethora of other adjustments that are made to adjust inflation to accommodate the preferences of policy-makers. Given the relative ease with which inflation can be hidden, we should assume politicians, especially those that embrace MMT, will lobby for more “adjustments” when inflation rises and threatens their campaign promises. Those promises are, after all, the basis upon which they assume power.