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2021A Primer on Modern Monetary TheorySteven Globerman


ContentsExecutive Summary / i1. Introducing Modern Monetary Theory / 12. Implementing MMT / 43. Has Canada Adopted MMT? / 104. Proposed Economic and Social Justifications for MMT / 175. MMT and Inflation / 23Concluding Comments / 27References / 29About the authorAcknowledgments/ 33/Publishing information33/ 34Supporting the Fraser Institute/ 35Purpose, funding, and independenceAbout the Fraser InstituteEditorial Advisory Board/ 35/ 36/ 37fraserinstitute.org


Executive SummaryModern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a policy model for funding government spending. While MMT is not new, it has recently received widespread attention, particularly as government spending has increaseddramatically in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and concernsgrow about how to pay for this increased spending.The essential message of MMT is that there is no financial constrainton government spending as long as a country is a sovereign issuer of currency and does not tie the value of its currency to another currency. BothCanada and the US are examples of countries that are sovereign issuersof currency. In principle, being a sovereign issuer of currency endows thegovernment with the ability to borrow money from the country’s central bank. The central bank can effectively credit the government’s bankaccount at the central bank for an unlimited amount of money withouteither charging the government interest or, indeed, demanding repaymentof the government bonds the central bank has acquired. In 2020, the central banks in both Canada and the US bought a disproportionately largeshare of government bonds compared to previous years, which has ledsome observers to argue that the governments of Canada and the UnitedStates are practicing MMT.A related message of MMT is that increased government spendingin pursuit of a variety of economic and social goals is socially desirable.MMT is arguably an expeditious way of funding increased governmentspending by obviating the need for government to raise additional taxrevenues or to compete for private capital by offering competitive interestrates on government bonds sold to private sector investors.The MMT policy model has been met with a number of objections.One is that central banks, such as the Bank of Canada, may not concurwith government requests to fund the latter directly by purchasing government bonds. In principle, the Bank of Canada, as well as the centralbanks of other wealthy countries, are nominally independent of government control or funding mandates. However, since both Canada’s Parliament and the US Congress can legally alter the charters of their respectivecentral banks, the de facto independence of the Bank of Canada and thefraserinstitute.org / i

ii / A Primer on Modern Monetary TheoryUS Federal Reserve ultimately exists at the will of the Canadian and USgovernments.A second objection to MMT is that its implementation will lead toinflation, perhaps even hyper-inflation, with devastating consequences fordomestic economies. MMTers acknowledge the potential for increasedgovernment spending financed by the central bank to generate problematic inflation in a “full employment” economy. However, most MMTers seea low risk of inflation pursuant to increased government spending givencurrent economic conditions, including relatively high unemployment aswell as recent experience of relatively low inflation notwithstanding growing amounts of government borrowing. MMTers also note that government can reduce its spending or increase taxes in the event that inflation isbecoming a problem.Whether government has the political will and technical ability toraise taxes and/or cut spending in response to rising risks of faster inflation is an open question. Hence, while the risk of MMT igniting a sustained and relatively fast rate of general price increases is uncertain, therehas been relatively recent historical experience in Latin America andGreece where the implementation of MMT did, indeed, result in runawayinflation and a significant decline in the standards of living in the relevantcountries. This experience is cautionary tale for those proposing adoptionof the MMT framework.fraserinstitute.org

1. Introducing Modern MonetaryTheoryTo provision itself with F-35 fighters, the U.S. Treasury instructs its bank, the Federal Reserve, to carry out paymentson its behalf. The Fed does this by marking up the numbersin Lockheed’s bank account. Congress doesn’t need to “findthe money” to spend it. It needs to find the votes! Once it hasthe votes, it can authorize the spending. The rest is just accounting. As the checks go out, the Federal Reserve clears thepayments by crediting the seller’s account with the appropriatenumber of digital dollars. (Kelton, 2020: 29)The preceding quotation sets out the essential policy message of whathas become known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The essentialmessage is that there is no financial constraint on government spendingas long as a country is a sovereign issuer of currency. Put simply, MMTproponents argue that a government that issues its own currency (as doesCanada and the United States, among others) and does not tie the value ofits currency to another currency cannot default on the securities it issuesto borrow money (in its sovereign currency) because it has the power toissue as much currency as needed to pay off the public debt (Sumner andHoran, 2019; Kelton, 2020). Consequently, if increased government spending in the pursuit of a variety of economic and social goals is a good idea,which is a foundational belief of MMTers, then MMT is a policy initiativethat will facilitate increased government spending by obviating the “need”to tax or for government to compete for privately held capital by offeringcompetitive interest rates on government debt in the capital market.However, behind this essential message is a host of qualificationsand complexities that have made MMT a highly controversial and debatedfocus of recent debates on macroeconomic policy. One qualification thatwill be discussed later in this essay is that the federal government does notin fact issue currency. The power to create money is typically reserved forfraserinstitute.org / 1

2 / A Primer on Modern Monetary Theorythe nation’s central bank.1 Murphy (2020) criticizes what he sees as an implicit notion of MMTers that if the Treasury Department in the US or theDepartment of Finance in Canada tried to spend more money that it hadin its account at the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Canada that the centralbank would honor the payment request by effectively granting the Treasury (or Department of Finance) an overdraft whenever it was required.Murphy (2020) argues that the US Treasury has not had the legal optionof overdrawing its account at the Federal Reserve since 1981, and beforethat, the Treasury only exercised the option rarely and out of convenienceand not necessity.2 However, he acknowledges that the US Congress (and,by extension, Canada’s Parliament) ultimately can legally alter the charterof the country’s central bank, so that the ostensible independence of thecentral bank’s operations from those of the treasury exists at the will of thefederal government.3MMT is not a new prescription for macroeconomic policy. Mostcredit its articulation to the American financial practitioner Warren Mosler in 1992, although it has echoes in the even more distant past (Likos,2021). However, MMT has become much more prominent recently ineconomic policy debates, especially as government deficits grow withCOVID-19-related public spending and as projections of government debtas a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increase in all developedeconomies. In this context, an argument that central banks of countriesthat issue their own fiat currency can print as much money as governmentneeds is extraordinarily seductive, especially to politicians who favourlarge government spending. In this happy world, the government neverhas to worry about taxing its citizens to fund expenditures or about borrowing to fund deficits. It simply has the central bank essentially providethe equivalent of an overdraft facility that never has to be paid back andhas no budgetary limit on its amount.4 In short, the notion that access to1 In Canada, the central bank is the Bank of Canada, and in the United States it is theFederal Reserve. The European Union has the European Central Bank, although eachmember country of the European Union has its own central bank that issues euroswith the central bank coordinating overall monetary policy.2 Whether the Bank of Canada has an obligation to ensure that the government ofCanada can pay its bills will be discussed later in this essay.3 In both Canada and the US, there have been times when the independence of thecentral bank to act against the wishes of the federal government has been challenged.It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss these episodes. Suffice to say that mosteconomists view central banks in developed countries as having retained a meaningfuldegree of independence after being challenged.4 As shall be discussed in a later section, government spending, even in an MMTfraserinstitute.org

A Primer on Modern Monetary Theory / 3financial capital is never a budgetary constraint on government spendinghas become a central policy tenet of MMT as it applies to countries suchas Canada and the United States.The purpose of this primer is to elaborate upon and assess this central policy tenet. The primer proceeds as follows. The next section brieflyexplains how MMT would work in practice and how it differs in principlefrom quantitative easing (QE), which has been an ongoing policy of centralbanks over the past decade, and which is often conflated with MMT. Section 3 considers whether Canada, and by extension the US, is practicingMMT. Section 4 sets out the case that its proponents make for MMT andhighlights the main assumptions supporting the case. Section 5 identifiesprominent objections to MMT, particularly the likelihood that it will leadto higher and economically damaging rates of inflation. Section 6 offersconcluding comments.world, competes at some point with private spending for productive inputs such aslabour. MMTers recognize this by acknowledging that increased government spendingin a “full employment” economy might lead to inflation. See, for example, Kelton(2020).fraserinstitute.org

2. Implementing MMTThis section briefly discusses in a non-technical manner the mechanicsof how MMT would be implemented. The basic mechanics can perhapsbest be explained by considering how the US Treasury could finance thepurchase of an F-35 fighter plane without raising additional tax revenue orborrowing money.5 In this stylized discussion, there are three main participants in the relevant set of transactions: 1) the US Treasury, which isthe paymaster for the US government; 2) the Federal Reserve (the centralbank), which is the banker for the US government; 3) Lockheed Martin,which produces the F-35.6To simplify the discussion, we assume that the US government mustpay Lockheed the entire 100 million purchase price when it places itsorder for the plane. This is done by the Treasury requesting its banker, thecentral bank, to debit the government’s bank account and electronicallytransfer 100 million to Lockheed’s bank (say, Bank of America), whichthen credits Lockheed’s account in the amount of 100 million. If the USgovernment has no money on deposit at the central bank, it has to essentially borrow the money by issuing the central bank the equivalent ofa promissory note, e.g., a US government treasury bill in the amount of 100 million. From the US government’s perspective, it will wind up withan asset (the plane) and a liability (the treasury bill) both in the amount of 100 million. At the time it creates the loan for the federal government,the central bank will have the treasury bill as an asset and the money itcredits to the account of the US government as a liability.What happens when the government pays Lockheed? The centralbank must credit Lockheed’s bank in the amount of 100 million. It doesso by essentially substituting the deposit it credited to the account of theUS government with a deposit credited to the Bank of America (Lock5 The sticker price of an F-35 plane is estimated to be around US 100 million. Asan aside, the plane has been widely criticized for its expense and failure to performas promised. For a discussion, see Axe (2021). For the purposes of using the F-35illustration, we are ignoring any existing restrictions on the Federal Reserve bank fromdirectly financing government purchases as discussed in Murphy (2020).6 The use of the F-35 illustration is purely for consistency with the Kelton quoteabove.4 /fraserinstitute.org

A Primer on Modern Monetary Theory / 5heed’s bank). This deposit represents a reserve that the Bank of Americaholds at the central bank. At the other end of the transaction, the Bank ofAmerica credits Lockheed’s account for 100 million, which represents aliability for the Bank of America. The liability is matched by an asset, the 100 million reserve at the central bank.So, at the end of this straightforward transaction, the US government has an asset worth 100 million (the F-35) matched by a liabilityof the same amount (the treasury bill it issues to the central bank). TheBank of America has an asset worth 100 million (its reserve at the central bank) offset by a liability of 100 million (the money deposited in thechecking account that Lockheed has at the Bank of America). Finally, theFederal Reserve has an asset (the US government treasury bill) offset by aliability (the deposit that the Bank of America has at the Federal Reserve).7What is particularly important to note about this set of transactions is thatthere is now 100 million of what economists called M1. This is the moneysupply as defined by the value of deposits at commercial banks.8What is distinctive about the set of transactions described above ishow the US government financed its purchase of the F-35, i.e., it borroweddirectly from the central bank. There are other ways the government couldhave raised the funds to pay for the F-35. The most direct way would havebeen to increase taxes by 100 million. Assume for simplicity, however unrealistic, that Lockheed Martin is the only taxpayer. In this circumstance,the government might issue an IOU to Lockheed for 100 million thatis then canceled out by Lockheed’s tax obligation. Obviously, Lockheedwould not be in business if it faced a 100 percent tax rate, but it is useful to look past this issue to understand the mechanics underlying MMT.The main point is that there would be no increase in the money supply ifthe 100 million were to be raised through taxes. As MMTers might putit, the injection of money into the economy is matched by a withdrawalof an equal amount of money.9 MMTers would not deny that taxation is7 For Lockheed, the balance sheet change involves the replacement of the F-35 as anasset by 100 million in the form of a cash deposit at its commercial bank.8 We will ignore the potential for the Bank of America to make loans using thereserves it has on deposit at the central bank. The issuance of such loans would furtherincrease M1.9 We are here assuming that an IOU from the government is equivalent to a monetarypayment from the government as far as Lockheed is concerned. MMTers would objectto this assumption and contend that the government would always need to “borrow”from the central bank to obtain money in order to make purchases in private markets.That is, the first set of transactions discussed above would need to occur, even thoughit would be effectively unwound once the government collected taxes in the amount ofits spending.fraserinstitute.org

6 / A Primer on Modern Monetary Theorya means to fund government spending. Rather, they would argue that it isnot necessary to tax, as long as there is an option for the government tosell treasury bills, essentially IOUs, directly to the central bank. Furthermore, if the economy is, for whatever reason, operating at less than fullcapacity, the government should be injecting money into the economythrough its spending. So, borrowing from the central bank is preferable totaxation as a means of funding government spending.A third alternative means of financing the purchase of the plane isfor the government to sell a treasury bill in the amount of 100 millionto public investors. Again, it is unrealistic, but for purposes of simplification, we will assume that Lockheed buys the treasury bill for its companypension fund. In this case, the government can again issue an IOU toLockheed and take back the IOU as payment for the treasury bill.10 Whatis distinctive about this latter transaction from the transaction where thecentral bank acquires the treasury bill is that the government will presumably need to pay the pension fund a market rate of interest, whereasthe central bank need not charge the government interest. Furthermore, ifthe government reneges on its obligation to redeem the treasury bill uponmaturity, the pension fund would undoubtedly sue the government for payment, whereas the central bank might simply forgive the loan.A variation on the third alternative way of financing the governmentpurchase is for the government to sell the treasury bill to the pension fundinitially, but at some point in the future, the central bank buys the treasurybill from the pension fund. Whether the pension fund sold the treasurybill because it was offered an attractive price to do so by the central bank,or because it needed cash to pay out to its retirees sooner than it anticipated, or for some other reason is immaterial to the analysis.11 What is material is that the central bank’s purchase of the treasury bill results in thecreation of cash in the bank account of Lockheed, as the treasury bill assetis converted to a bank deposit, i.e., there is an increase in the M1 money10 The assumption that the government issues an IOU to the central bank to payLockheed before Lockheed is either taxed or purchases a treasury bill obviatesthe issue of how Lockheed gains the means of payment for its tax obligation or topurchase the treasury bill. MMTers argue that the need for Lockheed to have a meansof payment implies that the “first step” in the process of the government purchasingthe plane requires the central bank to expand the money supply. To the extent that anIOU is an imperfect substitute for fiat currency, this is strictly true. However, whendiscussing government spending in an economy where there is already a substantialoutstanding money supply, creating initial liquidity is not an essential justification forcentral bank financing of government spending.11 In practice, the government primarily sells treasury bills at auction to investmentdealers who buy for clients or for their own accounts.fraserinstitute.org

A Primer on Modern Monetary Theory / 7supply. Furthermore, if the central bank bids up the price of the treasurybill, it equivalently puts downward pressure on interest rates.It is clear that the central bank’s purchase of the treasury bill fromLockheed looks very similar to the central bank’s purchase of the treasury bill directly from the government. In both cases, the central bankwinds up with the treasury bill on its balance sheet and the governmentobtains funding for the plane. However, the central bank’s purchase of thetreasury bill in the open market is identified in the literature as Quantitative Easing (QE) rather than as an exercise in MMT. Is this a distinctionwithout a difference? MMTers would say yes. Specifically, they argue thatQE simply involves a change in the mix of assets held in the private sector, i.e., a treasury bill is exchanged for a demand deposit at a commercialbank (Mitchell, 2009). By transferring funds electronically to Lockheed’sbank, which is then credited to Lockheed’s bank account, the central bankcredits Lockheed’s bank with 100 million worth of reserves on deposit atthe central bank.12 This allows Lockheed’s bank to make loans against thereserves it holds at the central bank, which is also the case when the central bank buys the treasury bill directly from the government to enable thepurchase of the plane. As an aside, MMTers argue that the ability of banksto lend is not dependent upon accumulating reserves tied to increasingbank deposits.13 Specifically, they argue that if banks can make profitableloans, they can borrow money from other commercial banks or from thecentral bank in order to do so (Mitchell, 2009). Their point is that the mainpurpose of the central bank is to facilitate government spending policiesrather than altering the liquidity positions of commercial banks.It is unnecessary at this point to evaluate the issue of whether QEoperations ease lending conditions in the banking system in any economically meaningful way. However, the contention of MMTers that QE is aweak tool by which to stimulate the economy through increasing liquidity in the financial sector is a point to which we will return, since it is aprominent justification of the MMTers’ strong preference for fiscal policyas a macroeconomic stabilization instrument.14 At this point, we wouldagree with the statement that there is no meaningful difference between12 The central bank typically pays interest to commercial banks for the reserves thecommercial banks keep on deposit at the central bank. While this implies that thegovernment will indirectly be paying interest on its borrowings, the central bankcan obviously “print money” to pay the interest on commercial bank reserves. SeeMankiw (2020).13 For a more detailed discussion of QE from an MMT perspective, see Mitchell (2009).14 The alleged impotence of monetary policy as a macroeconomic stabilization tool issecondary to the main argument for government spending in the MMT framework aswill be discussed in more detail in a later section.fraserinstitute.org

8 / A Primer on Modern Monetary TheoryMMT and QE as long as the government pays the central bank a “market”rate of interest and redeems the treasury bill it is holding at full face valuewhen it matures, whether the central bank acquired the bill directly fromthe government or from private sector investors.In this context, the intention of the central bank in acquiring thetreasury bill might give rise to a meaningful difference between QE andMMT. If the central bank bought the treasury bill from the pension fundwithout the intention to hold it to maturity but only in a futile (by MMTreckoning) attempt to ease liquidity conditions and stimulate bank lending over a given period of time, it will sell the treasury bill back to a privateinvestor before it matures, and the government will have the ultimate obligation to pay the bearer of the treasury bill when it matures (along withthe interest accruing while the bill is held by the private investor). On theother hand, if the central bank bought the bill to hold to maturity, it couldsimply forgive the government debt along with any accrued interest uponthe bill’s maturity.In the first case, the government would have to acquire the meansof payment to redeem the matured treasury bill from a private sectorinvestor. That could be done through raising additional tax revenues and/or by selling a new treasury bill to a private investor. In the second case,the central bank simply writes the transaction off as a bad debt. Since thecentral bank does not have shareholders in the traditional sense to answerto, it does not face any direct discipline from capital markets to minimizemaking bad loans. However, MMTers would argue that the governmenttreasury department ultimately receives any net revenues earned by thecentral bank, including revenues from interest on treasury bills. Hence, thetreasury department will indirectly bear some of the cost of “irresponsible”central bank lending. In effect, if the government defaults on its debt, itis ultimately defaulting on itself. The implication in this scenario is thatthere is no meaningful difference between QE and MMT. Of course, if thecentral bank is willing to buy unlimited amounts of government debt, anyreduction in revenues that the government would receive from the centralbank is immaterial to the government. Furthermore, since the central bankcan “print money” to pay its own bills, it does not need to worry about collecting on its outstanding loans to stay in business.In short, there is a meaningful difference between MMT and QE tothe extent that the central bank is willing to forego interest and forgive therepayment of government-issued debt in the case of MMT.15 While bothpolicies increase the money supply, government debt that must be repaidcarries a future tax burden that private sector participants will incorpor15 A commitment by the central bank to refinance maturing debt indefinitely isequivalent, as a practical matter, to forgiving debt.fraserinstitute.org

A Primer on Modern Monetary Theory / 9ate into their lifetime consumption plans. Specifically, they will save morein the present for anticipated higher taxes in the future. All other thingsconstant, this makes QE a less expansionary monetary policy than MMT.This is especially so if private sector participants expect MMT to promotehigher rates of inflation. This expectation should encourage increasedspending in advance of anticipated higher prices for goods and services.However, as we shall discuss in Section 4, proponents of MMT argue thatgiven current and foreseeable economic conditions, the expansionaryeffect of MMT is precisely what is needed and is highly unlikely to causefaster inflation.This relatively long but hopefully not overly complex explanationof what MMT is and how it is carried out underscores the complaint ofNobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman and other well-known economists that MMT as a distinct concept is difficult to define and thereforehard to evaluate (Harvey, 2020). Perhaps the most straightforward way tointerpret MMT is that it offers a third and relatively expeditious mechanism by which government can fund increased spending. Selling treasurybills to the central bank is arguably much more politically expedient thanincreasing taxes, and it is more economically expedient than competingfor savings in private capital markets by selling treasury bills to privatesector investors.16 Furthermore, since it does not directly reduce theamount of money that is held by private sector participants in the commercial banking system, it should not reduce private sector spending. Inshort, MMTers would argue that under current economic circumstances,financing increased government spending by the MMT mechanism increases aggregate real demand in the economy and is desirable preciselyfor this reason.17In the next section we assess whether Canada and other developedcountries have already begun implementing MMT. The discussion highlights the difficulty in making practical distinctions between QE andMMT. We then identify and evaluate the arguments of the MMTers forwhy the MMT financing mechanism is a more appropriate policy approach than QE under most circumstances, especially given the relativelyhigh rates of unemployment and spare capacity created by the COVIDpandemic and the associated reduction in economic activity.16 This is not to suggest that reliance upon the central bank to finance governmentspending is an insight original to MMTers. Rather, the MMT framework maintainsthat it is not necessarily economically irresponsible for this policy measure to beimplemented.17 The specific (and unlikely according to MMTers) circumstance under which directsales of treasury bills to the central bank might be problematic is discussed in a latersection discussing the potentially inflationary consequences of the practice.fraserinstitute.org

3. Has Canada Adopted MMT?In the popular media, both the Bank of Canada and the Federal Reserveare accused of “printing money” with one controversial consequence being a recent and sharp increase in housing prices in both countries (Pittis,2020). Some observers, such as Francis Donald, global chief economistat Manulife Investment Management, argue that elements of MMT havealready become embedded in Canada’s economy and financial systemsince COVID-19 developed (Pittis, 2020). Others deny that the two centralbanks are practicing anything more than traditional monetary policy,albeit much more aggressively post-COVID-19 than in the past, which iseffectively QE. Indeed, in his last speech as governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz rejected the relevance of MMT as a monetary policytool arguing that fiscal policy decisions are the purview of the governmentand not the central bank (Carmichael, 2019). In a similar manner, Jerome Powell, the current chair of the Federal Reserve, rejected the notionthat the Federal Reserve would coordinate monetary policy with the USTreasury in order to fund spiraling government deficits (Maier, 2020). Stillothers, such as Ray Dalio, the head of one of the largest hedge funds in theworld, posits that the adoption of MMT is inevitable, because QE is notan effective or equitable policy instrument to stimulate economic growthwhen interest rates are pinned at or near zero percent.18One might ask why it matters whether central banks have embarkedupon MMT or whether they are pursuing the closely related (but distinctlydifferent) practice of quantitative easing. One reason is that the independence of the central bank from the government in matters of monetarypolicy has traditionally been seen by economists as a critically importantinstitutional feature of a sustainably functioning price system. Indeed, inhistorical cases where this independence has been se

A Primer on Modern Monetary Theory / 3 financial capital is never a budgetary constraint on government spending has become a central policy tenet of MMT as it applies to countries such as Canada and the United States. The purpose of this primer is to elaborate upon and assess this cen-tral policy tenet. The primer proceeds as follows.