Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and Covid-19

Modern Monetary Theory says that you can basically print your own currency by having your own central bank, run large deficits, have full employment, have no inflationary pressure and do this year after year. Nouriel Roubini (see video below) warns that while large deficits and monetary stimulus make some sense during a short deflationary economic contraction, sustaining those policies for years, as he expects will happen, will lead to inflation and economic stagnation – stagflation.

However in a time of crisis like Covid-19 there seems to be a lot more justification for this type of policy over the short-term – when you have a collapse of economic activity, a recession, deflationary concerns and a major reduction in the velocity of circulation of money (MV=PT) – a sort of stag-deflation. At this time a ‘helicopter drop’ makes sense because we have a massive fall in supply as well as demand. But monetising fiscal deficits over a number of years produces a negative supply shock that reduces potential output and increases costs ending up with stagflation like in the 1970’s.

Background to MMT

MMT has its roots in the theory of John Maynard Keynes who during the Great Depression created the field of macroeconomics. He stated that the fact that income must always move to the level where the flows of saving and investment are equal leads to one of the most important paradoxes in economics – the paradox of thrift. Keynes explains how, under certain circumstances, an attempt to increase savings may lead to a fall in total savings. Any attempt to save more which is not matched by an equal willingness to invest more will create a deficiency in demand – leakages (savings) will exceed injections (investment) and income will fall to a new equilibrium. When you get this situation it is the government that can get the economy moving again by putting money in people’s pockets.

MMT states that a government that can create its own money therefore:

  1. Cannot default on debt denominated in its own currency;
  2. Can pay for goods, services, and financial assets without a need to collect money in the form of taxes or debt issuance in advance of such purchases;
  3. Is limited in its money creation and purchases by inflation, which accelerates once the economic resources (i.e., labor and capital) of the economy are utilised at full employment;
  4. Can control inflation by taxation and bond issuance, which remove excess money from circulation, although the political will to do so may not always exist;
  5. Does not need to compete with the private sector for scarce savings by issuing bonds.

Within this model the only constraint on spending is inflation, which can break out if the public and private sectors spend too much at the same time. As long as there are enough workers and equipment to meet growing demand without igniting inflation, the government can spend what it needs to maintain employment and achieve goals such as halting climate change.

How does it differ from more mainstream monetary policy – see table below.

Those against MMT are dubious of the idea that the treasury and central bank should work together and also concerned about the jobs guarantee. They argue that if the government’s wage for guaranteed jobs is too low it won’t do much to help unemployed workers or the economy, while if it’s too high it will undermine private employment. They also say that trying to use fiscal policy to steer the economy is a proven failure because politicians rarely act quickly enough to respond to a downturn. They can’t be relied upon to impose pain on the public through higher taxes or lower spending to quell rising inflation.

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