In an earlier post, I argued that our current monetary system is close to being to a Wicksellian ‘pure credit economy’. In Hans Trautwein’s words, this is “a state of affairs in which all money is held in interest- bearing bank deposits and in which all payments are effected by means of book-keeping transfers in the banking system”. One significant way in which our current system is not quite a pure credit economy is that economic agents still retain the option to hold currency notes. This option is not very important in positive-rate environments but it denies the central bank the ability to enforce negative interest rates (which can be avoided by simply hoarding zero-interest physical notes). The dominance of interest-bearing money combined with the inability to enforce negative interest rates implies that the quantity of base money in the system is irrelevant, not just now in a ‘liquidity trap’, but at all points in the future.
The Irrelevance of The Quantity of Base Money and The Absence of The Monetarist Hot Potato
It is trivially obvious that interest-bearing money cannot be a hot potato in the monetarist sense. There is no reason to get rid of interest-bearing money balances and interest-bearing money holdings only need to be minimised if the interest rate is insufficient relative to the ‘natural’ real rates and safety premium implied in holding money. To put it simply, if interest rates are 5% and inflation is 15% then interest-bearing money will act as a hot potato and fuel inflation. But in the current environment of possibly negative natural real rates and a high demand for safety, prolonged negative real rate regimes are perfectly sustainable without triggering any ‘hot potato’ inflation. The above holds not only at the zero-bound but at all positive interest rates. If the central bank wants to sustain positive bank rates, it must either pay interest on reserves or mop up all excess reserves. In either scenario, we have no hot potato.
Interest-Bearing Money: Debt as Money
The history of interest-bearing money is essentially the history of debt as money. The modern history of transferable debt as money is exemplified by the use of bills of exchange in post-Renaissance Europe. As Philip Coggan explains:
trading systems were an early form of our modern economy, with its layers of debt and reliance on paper money. A merchant might extend credit to his customers; in turn, he would need such credit from his own suppliers, who might only have bought the goods with money borrowed from someone else. The default of one party would ripple through the system. This system was formalized in the form of bills of exchange, promissory notes offered as payment from one trader to another. The recipient might then use the bill as collateral to raise cash from a bank or other lender. The bill would be accepted at a discount, depending on a number of factors, most crucially the creditworthiness of the merchant concerned. This was, in effect, a paper money system outside the government’s control.
It is instructive to examine the evolution of this private credit economy in order to fully understand where we stand now. The rest of this section is primarily drawn from Carl Wennerlind’s excellent book ‘Casualties of Credit’. The private credit economy was an essential component of the English economy due to the perennial shortage of metallic currency. As Wennerlind notes, it wasn’t just merchants but the bulk of the English population who were participants in the credit economy. In the early days in the seventeenth century , the supply of private credit alone was nowhere near enough to make up for the scarcity of metallic currency. One reason was the limited transferability of private debt, a problem that was solved by the passage of the Promissory Notes Act of 1704 which made all debt instruments negotiable. Nevertheless, the limited elasticity of the private credit system in responding to demand from commerce remained a problem. A related and equally severe problem was fragility induced by the possibility of default. This was the Achilles heel of the private credit economy in the 17th century and it remains the case in the 21st century. Just as in the 21st century, the real systemic risk is the threat of a wave of cascading defaults brought upon by the tightly interconnected nature of private credit agreements.
The solution to this problem that we are all aware of and that has been well-documented is the growth of modern banking ultimately backstopped by central banks (usually via lender-of-last-resort actions). This architecture was initially limited by the restrictions placed upon the central bank by the metallic/gold standard, Bretton Woods etc which were finally thrown away in 1971 to construct the “perfectly elastic” monetary system that we have today. This is the logical conclusion of the process of abstracting away from the prior personal nature of “money as debt” to a decentralised impersonal system.
Less documented but equally important are the attempts to improve the supply and safety of the credit economy via collateral. The idea is simple – assets can be used as security to back the credit, thus improving the supply as well as the safety of credit. There were many recommendations as to what constitutes eligible collateral in the 17th and 18th century but by far the most popular suggestion was land. It is worth quoting Wennerlind on this subject (who in turn quotes William Potter):
Potter also offered a proposal for a land bank, which was remarkably similar to that of Culpeper. Since “Credit grounded upon the best security is the same thing with Money,” the key was to establish a bank that used a different asset than precious metals as security backing the credit money. Since land was considered the most concrete and stable commodity at the time, there could be no better security than land to induce people to part with their commodities in exchange. By mortgaging land, which “would serve as well and better for such a pawn,” the land bank created a credit currency that would have “as true intrinsick value, as Gold and Silver”
Others, such as Hugh Chamberlen advocated a general storehouse of goods that would serve as collateral. Nevertheless, none of these ideas were adopted in 17th/18th century England for good reasons – none of these choices for collateral were liquid enough or permanent enough for the purpose. To a modern investor, government bonds are the obvious answer to this dilemma. But in 17th century Europe, government debt was neither liquid nor safe. However, a series of institutional changes after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 changed all this (see North and Weingast 1989 for details). With the setting up of the Bank of England, British government bonds began to resemble the “risk-free” counterparts of the modern world by the mid-18th century. It is obvious how the ability of the new more representative English Parliament to credibly commit to repay its debts enabled England to fund itself at a much lower cost. What is less appreciated is the fillip that the institution of a liquid, comparatively safe government bond market gave to the private credit economy. As Baskin and Miranti note, these government obligations could be used to collateralise private borrowing in a manner that is uncannily similar to the modern-day term repo contract.
The Hot Potato Constraint in a Credit Economy
What does all this have to do with the modern monetary system? In the modern pure fiat-currency economy (i.e. not the Eurozone), interest-bearing deposits, interest-bearing central bank reserves and interest-bearing government debt are all equivalent in that they are all nominally safe state obligations unencumbered by restraints such as a gold standard. Any shift in liabilities between central bank reserves, deposits and debt engineered by the central bank is only relevant for its interest-rate impact. There is nothing in this process that can be even remotely termed as “money printing”. The inflation tax and any “hot potato” effect are dependent not on the absolute levels of inflation but the real interest rate offered on each tenor of these government obligations.
To the extent that any activity of the state approaches money printing, it is the act of deficit spending. Even this does not necessarily entail inflation – the central bank can force a contraction in the private credit economy by a sufficient rate-hike to counter any fiscal stance. Again there is no inflation tax and no possibility of hyperinflation as long as interest rates across the government obligation curve compensate sufficiently for inflation. Each fiscal stance has a separate sustainable level of inflation and interest rates that constitutes a short-term equilibrium. When a loose fiscal stance breaks out into excessive inflation and the risk of hyperinflation, it is usually the result of this rate hike being inadequate for fear of a collapse in the private economy.
Rather than talk in the abstract, it is easier to elaborate on the above framework with a few relevant and timely examples.
Permanence of QE is irrelevant
Gavyn Davies gives us the conventional argument as to why the perceived temporary nature of QE matters in preventing out-of-control inflation:
Fiscal policy, in theory at least, is set separately by the government, and the budget deficit is covered by selling bonds. The central bank then comes along and buys some of these bonds, in order to reduce long-term interest rates. It views this, purely and simply, as an unconventional arm of monetary policy. The bonds are explicitly intended to be parked only temporarily at the central bank, and they will be sold back into the private sector when monetary policy needs to be tightened. Therefore, in the long term, the amount of government debt held by the public is not reduced by QE, and all of the restraining effects of the bond sales in the long run will still occur. The government’s long-run fiscal arithmetic is not impacted.
As I have illustrated above, QE in a world of interest-bearing money is simply an adjustment in the maturity profile of government debt. But that is not all. In a credit economy where government bonds are a repoable safe asset, the bond-holder can simply repo his bonds for cash if he so chooses. Just as the East India Company could access cash on the back of their government bond holdings in the 18th century, any pension fund, insurer or bank can do the same today. This illustrates why the reversal of QE, if and when it happens, will have no impact on economy-wide access to cash/purchasing power.
Bond-financed or Money-financed deficits
Gavyn Davies again gives us the conventional argument:
When it runs a budget deficit, the government injects demand into the economy. By selling bonds to cover the deficit, it absorbs private savings, leaving less to be used to finance private investment. Another way of looking at this is that it raises interest rates by selling the bonds. Furthermore the private sector recognises that the bonds will one day need to be redeemed, so the expected burden of taxation in the future rises. This reduces private expenditure today. Let us call this combination of factors the “restraining effect” of bond sales.
All of this is changed if the government does not sell bonds to finance the budget deficit, but asks the central bank to print money instead. In that case, there is no absorption of private savings, no tendency for interest rates to rise, and no expected burden of future taxation. The restraining effect does not apply. Obviously, for any given budget deficit, this is likely to be much more expansionary (and potentially inflationary) than bond finance.
The ability of the private sector to repo its government bonds to access purchasing power today gives us a profound result. Whether the central bank monetises government debt or not is almost irrelevant (except from a signalling perspective) because the private sector can monetise government debt just as effectively. And when the government debt does not represent a ‘hot potato’, the private sector often does exactly that. This is not a theoretical argument. For example, Akçay et al illustrate how fiscal deficits led to inflation in Turkey despite the absence of monetisation because ” innovations in the form of new financial instruments are encouraged through high interest rates, and repos are typical examples of such innovations in chronic and high inflation countries. People are thus able to hold interest-bearing assets that are almost as liquid as money, and monetization is effectively done by the private financial sector instead of the government”. As Çavuşoğlu summarises, “The money creation process under high budget deficits can as well be characterised as an endogenous credit-money expansion rather than a monetary expansion to maximize seignorage revenue”.
Lest you assume that this only applies to developing market economies, the same argument has been made almost three decades ago by Preston Miller:
In the financial sector….higher interest rates make profitable the development of new financial instruments that make government bonds more like money. These instruments allow people to hold interest-bearing assets that are as risk-free and as useful in transactions as money is. In this way, the private sector effectively monetizes government debt that the Federal Reserve doesn’t, so the inflationary effects of higher deficit policies increase.
Even in the early 80s, Miller saw the gradual demise of non-interest bearing money:
In recent years in the United States there have developed, at money market mutual funds, demand deposit accounts that are backed by Treasury securities and, at banks, deep-discount insured certificates of deposit that are backed by Treasury securities, issued in denominations of as little as $250, and assured of purchase by a broker. In Brazil, which has run high deficits for years, Treasury bills have become very liquid: their average turnover is now less than two days.
As in the case of Turkey and as argued by Preston Miller, the private sector can monetize the deficit as effectively as the central bank can. And so long as government obligations are deemed safe, it almost certainly will. In an interest-bearing economy, the safety of these obligations have nothing to do with the absolute level of inflation and everything to do with the real rate of return on the bonds. When central banks and governments attempt to enforce an excessively negative rate of return, they play with fire and risk hyperinflation.
The Near-Permanence of (Non Hot-Potato) Government Debt
P.G.M. Dickson characterised the rise of the government bond market in London during the 18th century as the era of “debts that were permanent for the state, liquid for the individual”. In a credit economy, government debt issued in the past is simply money that has already been printed. Erasing this debt would not imply a monetary collapse but it would unleash strong deflationary forces.
Most of the developed world (ex the Eurozone) could easily maintain their current levels of government debt ad infinitum so long as the real interest rates paid on them are sufficient. And in fact it makes sense for them to do exactly that. Even without the monetisability of long-term government debt, there is a significant demand for them from many private sector holders – the pension fund and insurance industry which needs long-tenor bonds to match its liabilities to retirees, investors who need long-tenor bonds to hedge their risky assets and provide tail-risk protection. Even without taking into account the “natural” real rate of interest, there is a strong argument to be made that the average real rate of return on long-tenor government bonds should be negative. Therefore, it does not even make economic sense for governments to pay back their debt, as long as it can be serviced at a sustainable real rate.
The appropriate question to ask is not ‘What is the maximum level of government debt is that can be plausibly paid back?’. It is ‘What is the maximum level of government debt that can be plausibly serviced on a permanent basis?’. If there are any Ponzi schemes in government debt, they exist only if and when there are real limits to economic growth – working-age population growth, energy limits etc.
What Matters: Future Deficits and Real Rates
A policy option such as a cancellation of past debt or an announcement of helicopter drops would be relevant to the extent that it effects future deficits. Higher deficits would typically warrant a more hawkish monetary stance and it is the combination of this fiscal stance and the monetary response that determines whether the deficit regime constitutes an inflation tax on the private sector. For example, the state could institute a helicopter drop and raise interest rates at the same time to maintain real rates at acceptable levels – again the level of real rates is much more important than the absolute level of inflation. Even this hike in rates may not be required if the private sector is undergoing an endogenous delevering at the time.
Modern Repo and the Asset Price Approach to Monetary Policy
If the collateral underpinning the private credit economy was limited to government bonds, the lender-of-last-resort role of the central bank in the repo market would be trivial. However, the current scope of the repo market and similar financing arrangements (notably ABCP) extends to far riskier assets. Although the risk management in today’s repo market is far superior from an individual counterparty’s perspective ( the predominance of the overnight repo, more sophisticated margining etc ) the systemic risk of cascading defaults triggering a credit collapse has in fact spread to all asset markets.
In order to meet their stabilisation mandate, central banks have implicitly taken on a mandate to backstop and stabilise the entire spectrum of liquid asset markets. If the central banks influence anything that could be termed as money supply in the modern credit economy, they do so via their influence on asset price levels (influenced in turn through the central bank’s actions on present interest rates, future interest rate path and liquidity). In a collateral-dependent credit economy, the Greenspan Put is the logical end-point of the stabilisation processes, the modern motto of which could be summarised as: ‘Focus on collateral values and the money supply will take care of itself’. Successive stabilisation leaves the economy in a condition where all economic actors have moved away from the idiosyncratic, illiquid economic risks that are the essence of an innovative, entrepreneurial economy towards the homogeneous liquid risks of a stagnant economy (detailed argument here).
In an earlier post, I noted that “The long-arc of stabilised cycles is itself a disequilibrium process (a sort of disequilibrium super-cycle) where performance in each cycle deteriorates compared to the last one – an increasing amount of stabilisation needs to be applied in each short-run cycle to achieve poorer results compared to the previous cycle.” This sentiment applies even when we look at the long-arc of stabilisation in England since the 17th century. In the 17th century, it only took a change in the laws (making debts negotiable) to prevent a collapse in the credit economy whereas now we need to prop up the entire spectrum of asset markets.
1. The section on monetary hot potatoes and high-powered money is almost completely taken from commenter ‘K’ – example here