Monday, 16 October 2017

Is Ed Balls talking balls?

Ed Balls would seem to be well qualified when it comes to economics. He used to be lead economics writer for the Financial Times and studied economics at Oxford and Harvard.

Unfortunately, like many people at the top of the economics profession, he doesn’t understand the basic book-keeping entries done by treasuries and central banks.

Reason I say that is that he claimed recently that Positive Money’s proposals are out of the same mold as monetarism – a claim also made by Ann Pettifor. That claim can only come from people who don’t understand the latter basic book-keeping entries, for reasons I’ll set out below.

I’ve been thru this before on this blog, but unfortunately getting simple points across normally requires repeating those points ad nausiam, so here goes.

Positive Money (PM) and others claim that the best way of implementing stimulus is simply to have the state print money and spend it, and/or cut taxes. And the effect of that (as is hopefully obvious) is to increase the money supply, or more accurately to increase the private sector’s stock of central bank created money (base money).

The Balls and Pettifors of this world then jump to the conclusion that PM & Co are advocating monetarism Milton Friedman style.

Well the first flaw there is that a money supply increase also occurs under conventional forms stimulus. That is, one conventional form of stimulus is fiscal stimulus, which consists of government borrowing more and spending what it has borrowed (or cut taxes). But that extra borrowing is likely to raise interest rates, and assuming the extra borrowing takes place because stimulus really is needed rather than because politicians are being plain irresponsible, then the central bank won’t allow an increase in interest rates. It will therefor print money and buy back some of that government debt.

Indeed, assuming stimulus really is needed, the central bank is likely to go further and actually cut interest rates. So it will print even more money and buy back even more government debt!

Now as you may have noticed, this all involves a money supply increase in much the same way as PM policy involves a money supply increase.

And not only that, but given low interest rates of the sort we have had over the last five years or so, the central bank may go even further and buy back almost every single dollar of extra debt that arises from fiscal stimulus! I.e. the central bank may go for QE. The money supply increase is even bigger!

But for some strange reason, the Balls and Pettifors of this world do not accuse governments which implement interest rate cuts or QE of adopting Friedman style monetarism, which rather makes it look like Balls and Pettifors are scratching around for any old jibe to throw at PM.

Friedman’s monetarism.

So what did Friedman’s monetarism actually consist of? Well I’m not the world’s authority on that but certainly Friedman in his 1948 American Economic Review paper “A Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability” argued that stimulus should take the form of the same annual increase in the stock of base money, and that should be effected by the state spending more than it received in taxes. I.e. he argued against discretionary stimulus.

So to summarise, the form of stimulus advocated by PM & Co comes to much the same as conventional stimulus, but with the difference that under PM’s system, monetary and fiscal policy are joined at the hip: they are merged. But in both cases, a money supply increase derives from stimulus. Thus the “PM equals monetarism” jibe is nonsense.

As to Friedman’s monetarism, that also involves an increase in the money supply, but it’s the same increase each year.

Thus while PM policy has similarities to monetarism, the similarities are no more than the similarities between monetarism and conventional economic policy, all of which makes a bit of nonsense of the claim that PM policy is flawed because it has similarities to monetarism.

I.e. all three of the above options (PM, conventional stimulus and Friedman’s monetarism) involve a money supply increase. What actually differentiates Friedman’s monetarism from PM and conventional stimulus is that the latter two involve discretion while Friedman advocated no discretion.

And finally, I am not saying the Balls and Pettifor should be totally ignored. I particularly like Ed Balls: he has a sense of humour. And Pettifor’s work “The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne” is quality stuff.

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