Government Bonds are Just Like Government Money

Government debt is not like private debt.  Government debt, government bonds, are really just another form of the government-issued fiat money obligations – just like paper money.  There really is little difference between government bonds and that paper money in your pocket – except that the bonds pay interest and are harder to cash at 7-11.  Yves Smith at NakedCapitalism points out what I’ve mentioned before:

what is the functional difference for the federal government between Treasury securities and bank notes? Both are liabilities of the federal government. But liabilities of what? The only obligation they enforce on the government is the promise to repay with more paper (or electronic bank credits, if you will). For all intents and purposes, bank notes, reserve deposits, and Treasury securities are fungible: they are obligations to be repaid in the same fiat currency.

I’m looking at a five dollar bill right now. It says “Federal Reserve Note” across the top. It has an oversized picture of Abraham Lincoln in the middle. It also says “this note is legal tender for all debt, public and private” in the lower left, signed “Anna Escobedo Cabral, Treasurer of the United States.” On the back, I see “The United States of America” up top and “In God We Trust” underneath with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle, labelled “Lincoln Memorial” for those who don’t know what it is. But, I’m trying to figure out why Geithner and the gang couldn’t just reel off a bunch of these and some Jacksons and Benjamins and pay people?

Now I’m looking at a Canadian Twenty. It sure is colourful. It has a bunch of French on it and a picture of the Queen. But, other than that, it’s really no different than the American fiver. “Ce billet a cours legal/ This note is legal tender.”

I have some Euros and Mexican pesos too. But these central banks don’t say anything about their obligations. Very dubious! At least they’re colourful like the Canadian money.

How ‘bout a British tenner? Dickens on the front, and the Queen on the back (she’s everywhere). A-ha. Here’s what I’m looking for. It says “Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds.”

I think that gets me to my point, actually. From the government’s perspective, there is no functional difference between any of its obligations like bank notes, electronic credits, or treasury bills and bonds. As the Ten pound note says, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of [fill in the blank sum][fill in the blank fiat currency].”

So, the U.S. government could legitimately stop issuing bonds altogether if it wanted to. When people complain about the admittedly enormous government debt, they don’t think of the mechanics of the issue. As I see it, in a fiat money environment, the first function of the Treasury bonds is to serve as a vehicle to add or subtract reserves in the system to help the Federal Reserve hit a target Fed Funds rate. The second is to give holders of government obligations a return on their investment. After all, bank notes or bank reserves don’t pay much if anything.

If you’ve following, then you realize two things.  First the government* can always pay off it’s bonds.  Second, there’s no budget constraint that forces the government to “borrow in order to spend”.  Instead, the government chooses to borrow (issue bonds) to meet any difference between spending and tax collections.  It’s a political and policy choice.  The government could spend by issuing credits to bank accounts (electronic checks) which would create bank reserves. Or the government could just issue new paper currency to pay for it’s spending.  Either way, it’s essentially the same:  the government issues a paper (or electronic) obligation to pay in the future.

So what’s the difference?  Well there is one key difference.  (no, it doesn’t have to do with inflation).  Money or bank reserves issued doesn’t pay interest.  So people have limits on how much they want to hold.  So they then spend it and the money goes into circulation as people buy, sell, and trade things.  The real economy grows because the medium of exchange is more plentiful.  What happens when bonds are issued instead?  The holders of bonds earn interest.  That makes them comfortable just sitting on the bonds and collecting interest from the government at no risk.  There’s no exchanges, no trading, no buying, no selling.  No economic activity.  The political preference for borrowing over issuing money/credits means a subsidy to a narrow class of people to take their wealth out of circulation.

The Misunderstood National Debt

A colleague asked for my thoughts on this article/column by Michael Manning in the State News, the Michigan State student newspaper, so I thought I’d post it for all.

Basically Mr. Manning reaches the right conclusions with a correct, but weak case. In looking at the issue of the size of the U.S. national debt and the panicked concerns many politicians are now expressing about the “urgent need to cut the deficit”, he concludes:

Republicans have decided to use this opportunity to further their party’s political agenda, feeding off of the public’s misunderstanding of national debt.

Although the debt is growing at an alarming rate, it does not mean the end of times or the end of American economic dominance. Public debt largely is misunderstood and used as a tool to scare everyday Americans.

He’s right. The debt is not the end of times nor will it end American economic prosperity (other policies may do that!).  And he’s absolutely right that public debt is largely misunderstood.

But the arguments for why it’s not a crisis and how it’s misunderstood are even stronger than he argues.  Essentially, Manning argues that most all of the debt is owed to “ourselves”, meaning either American citizens, American corporations/banks, or other units of government (Social Security program, The Federal Reserve, etc). That’s all true, but there are bigger reasons why the national debt doesn’t really matter.

He quotes Glenn Beck and then responds:

In the words of Glenn Beck, “China, some day, will want their payment, America. They will demand payment and they will receive their payment.

And if we can’t pay, they will do what any other bank would do, emotionlessly take the collateral that they now own. That will be our oil reserves, our land, our resources, our rare minerals, our coal, whatever it is.”

How much stake do these Chinese bankers actually have in America? They own a mere 7.5 percent, or about $1 trillion dollars of the national debt.

Yes, China only holds a small amount of the debt. But that’s not really why they won’t “repossess the collateral”.  The reason China won’t foreclose on the U.S. more complex. First, Glenn Beck is absolutely ignorant.  There is not “collateral” on government debt.  The only security for the loan is the “full faith of the U.S. government”.  In other words, if the U.S. didn’t want to pay, or if it wanted to payoff with new bonds, or if it wanted to payoff with newly created “money”, that’s their privilege. The lender knows that at the beginning.  There is no international court of claims where one country can foreclose on another for a bad debt.  What happens when a nation defaults on it’s debt?  Basically the lenders (usually banks in other countries) get really upset. They stamp their feet. They call serious meetings. Serious communiques are issued.  Foreign ministers get “concerned”.  Then they re-write the debt and the lenders take a loss. Nothing else.  Because it can’t!  The idea of China “emotionlessly” claiming our “oil reserves, land, our resources,” etc. is absurd.  How does Mr. Beck propose this happens?  China just pulls a couple ships up to Texas, kicks everybody out and tows the state of Texas home to China?  Or maybe China just moves in, digs up our coal and ships it home while everybody in West Virginia stands around? Or does Mr. Beck believe China will invade and forcibly take over (a nation with enough nuclear weapons to make dust of all us many times)?  It’s ludicrous.  I repeat.  The government is NOT like a household, and that means there’s no analogy between holders of US debt and a car loan or mortgage you took from the bank.

But the national debt is more misunderstood than just this false household analogy.  Indeed, it’s even misunderstood by many economists.  The issue has to do with money. The U.S. government, being (1) a sovereign nation that creates it’s own money . that (2) borrows in it’s own currency and (3) has a fiat currency with floating exchange rate, means the government (federal) cannot go broke or ever not be able to pay back bonds and interest when they are due.  This is because the government creates and is the source of the underlying “base money”.  It can always create more money to pay the bonds when due.  Now I know many folks, including many economists who haven’t updated their understanding of the monetary system since the 1971, will say “but, but, but that’s printing money and that creates inflation.”.  No it isn’t. And no it doesn’t.  The government doesn’t pay it’s bills or payoff bonds with “money”.  They send checks drawn on The Federal Reserve Bank.  Those checks are accepted by your local bank when you deposit them. When your local bank gives the check to The Fed, The Fed provides the bank with bank reserves.  Bank reserves are not money.  Bank reserves do not circulate. And, since 1971 at least, bank reserves do not limit or really influence how much money is in circulation.  How much your local bank loans out creates money.  And The Fed creates reserves to match what’s needed. (for a more in-depth explanations, see Bill Mitchell’s blog BillyBlog or the UMKC Economic Perspectives or this blog and search on “MMT”).

Now some, including many economists, claim that creating new bank reserves is inflationary.  But this is based entirely on an outdated theory called the quantity theory of money which hasn’t proven useful, accurate, or valid for over 40 years, largely because it’s based on having a gold standard or fixed exchange rates (both of which Nixon abolished).  Inflation happens when the nominal economy grows too fast and the central bank controls that through interest rates, not quantities of bank reserves or money.  I realize that some of this may sound counter to what folks may find in a lot of econ 101 textbooks, but that’s because the textbooks really haven’t been updated to reflect modern monetary theory or modern central banking operations in the way they work since the end of fixed exchange rates and gold standard.  In economics we have a problem with zombie ideas refusing to die.

Finally, there’s another very important reason the Chinese or anybody else that holds U.S. debt in large amounts don’t have a problem with the size of our debt.  That’s because the “debt” itself, the bonds, really shouldn’t be thought of as “debt”.  Government debt is really more like “paper money that pays interest”.  Again this is sovereign national debt – see above conditions.  If you are a state government or a nation like Greece or Ireland that foolishly gave away control of their currency to some foreign central bank, it’s different.  That debt is really debt.  But national, sovereign, floating exchange rate, government “debt”, the kind the U.S., Japan, Australia, U.K., Canada, and a host of other nations have isn’t really “debt”.  It’s a form of interest-paying risk-free cash.  It’s used by pension funds, banks, and investors as a risk-free asset. Indeed, at one point in the previous decade when Australia was actually paying down it’s debt and not issuing new bonds, the banking community persuaded the government to borrow anyway just so the bonds would exist.

So, Mr. Manning is correct, but he’s even more correct than he argued.  The national debt is misunderstood. And a false crisis is being created in order to push an alternative agenda.

The U.S. is NOT Bankrupt – It’s Impossible

I’ll try to make this point again: the U.S. government can NOT go bankrupt.  It’s impossible for it to default on U.S. government bonds.  Just like it’s impossible for Japan, Australia, Canada, the U.K., or any of the other nations that: have a non-convertible, floating exchange-rate currency and that borrow funds in their own currency.  I’m far from the only one saying this. I know Bill Mitchell at Billy Blog and the folks at New Economic Perspectives have to be nearing exhaustion from  explain it over-and-over-and-over again.  But this time, let’s try the high apostle and saint of monetary policy, none other than the former 17-year chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan (the bold emphasis is mine):

Central banks can issue currency, a noninterest-bearing claim on the government, effectively without limit. They can discount loans and other assets of banks or other private depository institutions, thereby converting potentially illiquid private assets into riskless claims on the government in the form of deposits at the central bank.

That all of these claims on government are readily accepted reflects the fact that a government cannot become insolvent with respect to obligations in its own currency. A fiat money system, like the ones we have today, can produce such claims without limit. To be sure, if a central bank produces too many, inflation will inexorably rise as will interest rates, and economic activity will inevitably be constrained by the misallocation of resources induced by inflation. If it produces too few, the economy’s expansion also will presumably be constrained by a shortage of the necessary lubricant for transactions. Authorities must struggle continuously to find the proper balance.

It was not always thus. For most of the period prior to the early 1930s, obligations of governments in major countries were payable in gold. This meant the whole outstanding debt of government was subject to redemption in a medium, the quantity of which could not be altered at the will of government. Hence, debt issuance and budget deficits were delimited by the potential market response to an inflated economy. It was even possible in such a monetary regime for a government to become insolvent. Indeed, the United States skirted on the edges of bankruptcy in 1895 when our government gold stock shrank ominously and was bailed out by a last minute gold loan, underwritten by a Wall Street syndicate.

There. Any questions?   Lest you think I have played some sort of out-of-context trick with this quote, you can read the whole speech here. BTW, you’ll also find out that, yes, a gold standard is dumb and destructive.