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Stop Saying MMT Describes Reality – It Doesn’t

Summary:
I had a good laugh at this Tweet from Jo Michell (who is a very good economist by the way). It seems to be from a UK blog advocating for MMT: Now, I may not be an expert on sexual intercourse, but I am an expert about money creation and so that qualifies me to tell you that, based on this comment, this guy doesn’t know what sexual intercourse is. The simple fact is that MMT does not, definitively does not, describe the existing reality of the monetary system. Let me explain. First, MMT assumes that the government is a “sovereign currency issuer” to reinforce the lack of funding constraints.¹ Okay, but this is like assuming that I am really really rich before I tell you that I don’t have a credit constraint. So, this whole narrative around “sovereign currency issuer” is a classic case

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I had a good laugh at this Tweet from Jo Michell (who is a very good economist by the way). It seems to be from a UK blog advocating for MMT:

Stop Saying MMT Describes Reality – It Doesn’t

Now, I may not be an expert on sexual intercourse, but I am an expert about money creation and so that qualifies me to tell you that, based on this comment, this guy doesn’t know what sexual intercourse is. The simple fact is that MMT does not, definitively does not, describe the existing reality of the monetary system. Let me explain.

First, MMT assumes that the government is a “sovereign currency issuer” to reinforce the lack of funding constraints.¹ Okay, but this is like assuming that I am really really rich before I tell you that I don’t have a credit constraint. So, this whole narrative around “sovereign currency issuer” is a classic case of the economist on an island trying to open a coconut and assuming we have a can opener. No, every country isn’t sovereign and MMT’s definition of sovereign is so vague that it’s meaningless. They might as well be saying “really really rich countries have more flexible spending capacity”. Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.

Second, the whole basis of the MMT taxing/spending narrative is constructed around the false consolidation of the Fed into the Treasury. If your theory relies on treating the Central Bank as the Treasury then you cannot claim to be describing reality. More importantly, people who do this are oversimplifying things and thereby confusing the specific reasons why these entities are separate in the first place.

And that brings us to an important understanding. The whole reason there is a Federal Reserve is because there are private banks. MMT likes to consolidate the Fed into the Treasury to claim that the government receives its own liabilities when it taxes. For instance, the US Treasury has an account called the TGA at the Fed. So, if you consolidate the Fed into the Treasury then you can argue that taxes settle by transferring government liabilities to itself. This would logically destroy those liabilities and spending would result in a new reserve credit that creates new money. Hence the MMT narrative that taxes destroy money and spending creates money.

Of course, this isn’t what actually happens. When the Fed settles a payment with the US Treasury they mark down a bank’s reserve account (from existing reserves, reserves that were created specifically by the Fed for the purpose of Monetary Policy and interbank payment clearing) and that debit equals a credit at the Treasury’s TGA. The size of the Fed’s balance sheet doesn’t change. There is no creation of liabilities and no destruction of Fed liabilities. It merely transfers Fed liabilities from a bank to the TGA. And when the Treasury spends the Fed credits a reserve back to a bank. There is no creation and destruction of anything here. There is nothing but transfers. You can even see the credits and debits in real time every single day via the Treasury’s daily statement.

Importantly, you have to understand why the Fed is even a thing. And the Fed is a thing specifically because we have a monetary system constructed around private banks that the government is specifically subservient to. So you have private banks creating most of the money in the system and they don’t handle interbank clearing well during panics. We saw this originally in the early 1900s and most recently in 2008. So we created a central clearing entity that wouldn’t stop processing payments during panics. That’s what the Fed does and it does this by forcing banks to hold reserve balances.

It’s crucial to understand that the only reason reserves are even a thing is because we have private banks. So when you consolidate the Fed into the Treasury and treat their liabilities as the same thing you logically end up with a de facto nationalization of the banking system. After all, the only way you could argue that the government receives its own liabilities without the Fed being a thing would be by claiming that the Treasury issues all the liabilities. Obviously, if there was no Fed then the consolidated Fed/Treasury would use a regular bank account and they would clear payments by debiting and crediting private bank deposits. If the government wanted to create new money in that world (by running a deficit) their spending would mark up private bank deposit liabilities and taxes would redistribute some of those existing bank liabilities to the government’s spending account. If the government ran a balanced budget their taxes and spending would balance and there would just be redistribution of existing assets/liabilities. Taxes would not destroy liabilities as MMT claims unless the government was the one actually issuing the liabilities as banker to the entire country. Obviously, this isn’t remotely close to our reality.

Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, MMT is specifically a theory of full employment using a Job Guarantee. The most interesting and experimental aspect of MMT is the idea that the government should give everyone a job and try to maintain price stability through that program. Contrary to popular opinion, MMT is not a theory of large deficits and government spending per se. It is specifically a theory of full employment and the Job Guarantee is how they achieve that. A Job Guarantee has been tried in only a handful of instances in the world and certainly doesn’t exist in any developed economies in the scale that MMT envisions. So no, this hasn’t been tried and MMT’s theory of employment definitely does not reflect reality.

In sum, the assumption of being “sovereign” is vague at best. And their treatment of reserve accounting is misleading at best and wrong at worst. And a Job Guarantee isn’t even a thing. So no, MMT doesn’t describe reality. Not even close.

¹ – Everyone funds their spending, but we won’t get into that MMT misconception since I’ve covered it in detail before. 

Cullen Roche
Former mail delivery boy turned multi-asset investment manager, author, Ironman & chicken farmer. Probably should have stayed with mail delivery....

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