In this article, we attempt to explain why Monetary Reform (MR) concerns are valid but do not necessarily impact upon the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) programme. We lay out our argument as follows; we provide some key insights into MMT referencing the work of Alfred Mitchell-Innes, Georg Friedrich Knapp, Abraham “Abba” Ptachya Lerner, John Maynard Keynes, Martin Harry Wolf and William “Bill” Francis Mitchell plus we draw upon the use of balances sheets, future fiscal behaviour and make the distinction between the demand for money versus the value of money; we also emphasise some key differences between MR and MMT which are not inconsistent with the policy opportunities promoted by MMT in our opinion; and we conclude by stressing that true monetary sovereignty (if that is what is desired) cannot be achieved by simply regulating current banking practices.
MMT has its philosophical foundations in Mitchell Innes’s 1914 Credit Theory of Money (1), the 1924 translation of Knapp’s 1903 State Theory of Money (2) and Abba Lerner’s 1943 principle of Functional Finance (3). Mitchell Innes held that every sale for money turns the vendor into a creditor and the purchaser into a debtor, with the money held by all the vendors together representing a collective claim on the purchasers which they must redeem by, in turn, providing goods for sale. Taxation relieved this burden of debt on purchasers by removing money from the creditors. Knapp defined money as any means of payment which takes the form of acknowledgement of value received, rather than goods given in exchange, and held it was the state which provides the measure of value, thus money is a creature of the state. Abba Lerner said that fiscal measures should be judged only on the effects they have, not on a preconceived view of what is sound or unsound. Thus taxation should be imposed only when it is desired to restrain the rise in prices, governments should borrow only when it is desired to raise interest rates and they should create and issue money when necessary to ensure that all who wish to work can find buyers and be paid for their production without interest rates rising too high.
From Mitchell Innes, MMT concludes (4) that all money is debt and that it is taxation which gives money its value. In his 1914 review of an earlier paper by Mitchell Innes, Keynes objected (5) that the first of these conclusions was already known to be fallacious, although he didn’t enlarge on that, but Knapp also argued against the view that state money was a claim to be redeemed by the state (6). Instead, he argued that it was not the state’s power to tax which was of primary importance, although he acknowledged that this would create a demand for state money, but its power to impose on its creditors whichever form of money it liked. It was this which gave money its value. But the consequence of this was that, for the sake of consistency, the state had to accept in payment that same form of money if offered by its debtors. Also, if called upon to adjudicate in private disputes, it could not force creditors to accept a different form of money from their debtors than the form that the state would force on its own creditors (7).
The MR movement does not attempt to change the way money or taxation is currently viewed, but neither does it deny the value of alternative perspectives. Instead, the focus of MR is on the act of money creation, the moment when the circulating stock of money that is available to households and businesses is increased (8, 9). Over and above the money created by government spending, money is created by banks when they buy assets and extend loans. Their decisions are driven solely by the prospect of profitable revenue at low risk of loss in the event of default. Their preference is therefore to lend for the purpose of asset purchase, since these assets can be seized from the borrower and sold in the event of loan default. A consequence of this lending is to increase the demand for existing assets leading to price rises. Small businesses which cannot offer assets as collateral find it harder and more expensive to borrow. Rising asset prices and a struggling production sector affect society as a whole and so the wider interest of society should be a consideration in decisions on money creation. Under the current system it is private profit-seeking banks which issue the money in circulation, only some of which is at the instigation of government spending. Centuries of experience have shown that private banks cannot be trusted to exercise this privilege in a way which benefits society as a whole.
Balance Sheets And Behaviour
MMT’s analysis of money starts with the sectoral balances of the system of national accounts which traces the flows of money, goods and services through the production process and between the private, government and foreign sectors. Even though MMT can demonstrate through recourse to sectoral balance sheets that their analysis is fully stock-flow consistent (10), this fails to capture all significant considerations. As Martin Wolf wrote recently (11):
“The focus of MMT’s proponents on balance sheets and indifference to expectations that drive behaviour are huge errors.”
As he later explained (June 9th 2019, personal communications),
“economics is ultimately about behaviour and incentives, within adding-up constraints. MMT seems to ignore behaviour altogether. … Also the State does not know what the resource limit is (full employment being unknown), so MMT’s analysis may contribute to serious policy errors.”
MMT prefers to view government as incorporating the central bank, eliminating the distinction between the Treasury, spending and revenue departments on the one hand and the central bank on the other. Such a view is represented by the UK Treasury in the Whole of Government Accounts (12), of which a condensed version of the 2016-17 balance sheet is shown here.
|Taxes receivable||133||Government borrowing||1,289|
|Other Assets||1,770||Other liabilities (State money)||878|
|Provisions and pensions||2,157|
|Taxpayer equity (to be funded by future revenue)||-2,421|
Balance sheets are drawn up because they provide information which drives decisions concerning future behaviour. One piece of information provided by this balance sheet is that the section referred to as taxpayer equity is negative. This is mainly, but not entirely due to the provisions made in expectation of future expenses (mostly in this case for future nuclear decommissioning costs and current medical negligence claims awaiting judgement) and to the unfunded public service pension rights. These items don’t appear in the National Accounts, which is what MMT largely concentrate on. The Treasury has labelled this equity figure “to be funded by future revenues” flagging up that this item represents a prior claim which is to be taken into account when deciding on future fiscal policy. But from Bill Mitchell, presenting the MMT view (13):
“Response: so what? None of the liabilities (public service pensions) are of any concern unless of course the whole public service was closed down immediately and the government had to suddenly spend very large amounts relative to the capacity of the economy to absorb the increased nominal demand.”
From the MMT perspective, then, this number and the fact that it is negative have no relevance for fiscal policy. Expenditure decisions will be taken as and when called for and taxation decisions will be taken if and when inflationary pressures build up. In other words, the balance sheet has nothing to say about decisions to be taken on future fiscal behaviour.
MMT and MR compared
In presenting our understanding of MMT, we distinguish its position from MR as follows; the strength of MMT’s analysis draws from its consolidated viewpoint focusing on the State, and its relationship to the private and foreign sectors, for the purpose of understanding how the system currently operates in a way which illuminates alternative policy options. MR’s analysis takes a disaggregated viewpoint focusing on the banks, to identify the causes of the current system’s manifest instability and identify the reforms needed to rectify these. How do these two different perspectives affect conclusions about the operation of the banking system?
The value for MR of the disaggregated view is that, firstly, if you want to change how something operates you have to understand fully out it actually operates. Working with a disaggregated government sector (treasury, central bank) is consistent with MR’s focus on a disaggregated private sector (households, enterprises, financial institutions and banks) which seems not to be germane to the MMT analysis but is essential to addressing concerns with the impact on the economy of banking and finance. MMT can explain the possibilities of functional finance with a consolidated view of the government sector but acknowledge the need to work with the disaggregated view to explain the mechanism transmitting those possibilities to households and businesses. MR needs to work with a disaggregated view of both government and private sectors (the engineering plans) to pinpoint where problems arise in the current system and what form reforms should take. This approach also ensures that these reforms will be consistent with whatever changes in the approach to policy that MMT wishes to secure. MMT is concerned not so much with how the current system operates (although, obviously, it is fully informed of this) but more with how false beliefs impose undue constraints on the way in which the system should be used.
A major point of contention between MMT and MR advocates is the role of banks in creating money within the private sector. MMT seems to hold the view that banks are implicitly merely implementing government policy when they create bank money since they operate under licence and within suitable regulatory constraints defined by government (14, 15). This needs to be picked apart to explain why MR’s concerns are valid but do not impact on MMT’s programme. A starting point here would be Keynes’s distinction in ‘A Treatise on Money’ (16) between passive creation of deposits by banks following receipt of money from other banks and from government, and active creation following a decision to extend loans or buy assets.
While official statistics show that around 97% of the money available to the private sector consists of bank deposit liabilities, which are therefore necessarily created by the banks, there is little useful information on the proportion of this which is created as a consequence of government spending. Estimates which assume that this will be the same as the proportion of government spending to GDP are almost certainly too high, since the figure for GDP omits all spending on intermediate transactions, which would more than double the figure if included, but taking for the sake of argument an estimate of 35% of passive deposit creation consequent on government spending would mean that banks actively create around twice as much money when they extend loans and buy assets than they do due to government spending. Banks are most certainly not acting as agents of government in respect of these transactions.
MMT’s insistence that it is taxation which gives money its value implies that there is no public good to money. Money is issued in order to be redeemed by taxation, which is tantamount to saying that money is a ruse to conceal the fact that the State commandeers goods and services for its use, without it being apparent that this is outright confiscation. In his 1914 “Credit Theory of Money” Mitchell Innes writes (17):
“From what I have said … follows the important principle that, a government issue of money must be met by a corresponding tax. It is the tax which imparts to the obligation its “value.” A dollar of money is a dollar, not because of the material of which is made, but because of the dollar of tax which is imposed to redeem it.”
But this does not impart value of any significance to the dollar. The only value this imparts to the dollar is the nominal ability to redeem a dollar of tax liability. What gives the dollar real value, its value in commerce, is the circumstance in which it was issued. Was it issued to buy a litre of fuel, five minutes of clerical work, an engineering brick for a power station? This is the other side of Knapp’s State Theory of Money (18), the side which is hardly ever expressed. The State has the power to declare what constitutes the money it will use for the purposes of state expenditure. That gives money its value. Having imposed this money on its creditors the State is then required to accept it back in payment of taxes, if it imposes taxes. It doesn’t make any difference what money the State may prefer to receive in taxes, it has to accept the money it imposed on its creditors if that is what is presented in payment.
The decision to impose taxes and the determination to enforce them creates a demand for that money, but not the value of that money. If the State failed to impose taxes, its money may still be accepted and used in commerce, as a convenience, for as long as its circulation was facilitated by the institutions of commerce. Taxation is not necessary to create a demand for currency. Instead it is the institutions of commerce, the banks which manage the payments system and the financial institutions which provide the stores of value, which drive and sustain the demand for state money.
The money the State uses to make its payments and what it forces on its creditors is what Knapp calls ‘valuta’, which the State can require the recipient to accept. The State must accept back its money not because it has promised to do so but because to refuse would be to contradict itself.
So what has this got to do with MR? Since the 1970s the government has progressively forced recipients of its payments to accept payment in the form of deposits at commercial banks. Cash payments to clerical and technical civil servants were phased out in the late 1970s and to state pensioners and claimants in the 1990s. Private sector employers and purchasers have followed suit. As Knapp predicted, when the government imposed bank deposits as its choice of ‘valuta’, bank deposits became compulsory for all large payments anywhere. To qualify for a bank deposit, individuals must grant commercial banks the right to issue IOUs in the form of deposit account credits, rather than paying over the money received on their behalf.
History since the 1970s has shown conclusively that handing the power to produce ‘valuta’ money, the obligatory means of payment, to the deposit banking system is destabilising, generates economically and socially damaging crises and promotes growing inequality. The essence of the reforms sought by the MR movement is to require that the government make its payments to individuals using central bank money payable directly to recipients, accessible through commercial banks purely as payments services providers. This will enable individuals to make payments to firms and each other using central bank money and eliminate the dependency on bank liquidity.
Positive Value Of Money
The form of ‘valuta’ which has evolved in the modern monetary system is a two-stage form of money. The first stage is the central bank money by which the government directs the banks to complete payment by accepting deposit liabilities on themselves.
The deposit liabilities that the banks assume form the second stage of the ‘valuta’ payment. However, MMT state (19):
“Here it is important to note that MMT distinguishes between ‘currency’ and ‘money’. … Banks cannot create currency. … The government spends its currency into existence through the purchase of goods and services from the non-government sector (so-called government spending) which provides the non-[government] sector with the funds necessary to pay its tax obligations. … It creates a demand for its otherwise worthless currency by requiring all tax liabilities to be extinguished in that currency.”
But the suppliers of the goods and services don’t receive currency in payment that is retained by the banks. All the suppliers receive are money in the form of bank IOUs. The government therefore has to create value for these IOUs by guaranteeing them.
The conclusion that can be drawn from MMT’s analysis is that banks are to be considered as forming, in effect, a public/private partnership with government and that the public role of banks is to provide a payments system to effect exchanges between ‘money’ and ‘currency,’ enabling the government and non-government sectors to exchange payments, and to identify creditworthy customers based on credit analysis and to provide them with liquidity in the form of bank credit financed by the banks’ own holdings of currency.
This explanation is predicated on MMT’s desire to describe the system as it actually is in terms that direct attention towards how it should be used in order to take advantage of the functional finance view of fiscal policy. This is what informs the recommendations on monetary reform from two of its leading proponents, Bill Mitchell and Warren Mosely (Randal Wray’s views are geared more to Minsky’s preference for public banking). Briefly, these MMT reforms (20) would eliminate the interbank lending money market by allowing banks unlimited access to reserves from the central bank without collateral requirements which, they say, would anchor the yield curve at zero percent for overnight loans. They would also abolish the issue of government securities since, they say, these distort the yield curve at longer maturities. Interest rates at all maturities (other than overnight) would then be set solely by market forces. Their reforms would also outlaw the securitisation and sale of loans originated by banks, and own-account trading by banks, since these distort the risks which regulation is designed to manage, and are inconsistent with their deemed role as government licensed agencies.
However, if there is no reason to restrict the amount of currency in issue, in the form of banks’ reserves, then there is no need for a convoluted two-tier system of payments for transforming currency into bank credit and back again. Currency created to pay for the purchase by government of goods and services from the non-government sector can be paid directly to the suppliers of those goods and services in whatever quantity is required, and can be hoarded by those suppliers if that is what they wish. The proposals of the Sovereign Money reformers aim to explore the implications of this, and to outline the mechanisms for managing such a system. It assigns to the banking system the joint roles of managing the use of privately held currency by its owners for the purpose of making payments, and of encouraging the release of hoarded currency, for use by others, by identifying credit-worthy borrowers and offering holders of currency attractive terms to make that currency available to those borrowers.
The monetary reforms proposed by MR would thus have the consequence of ensuring that all payments are financed directly by the currency holdings of those making the payments, without drawing on the currency (reserves) held by the banks, and therefore the interbank lending market would become irrelevant as far as the payments settlement process was concerned. There would still be a call for interbank lending (including by the central bank) where banks had identified more credit-worthy borrowers than their customers were prepared to fund, or where the government deemed it socially desirable that sections of the economy which insufficient savers were willing to lend to should be financed by the central bank through bank lending. But there would be no reason why the overnight rate should be held at zero percent. Rates at all maturities would be set in accordance with market demand. The MR reforms would impose no explicit restrictions on banking activities on their own account, these would be constrained by the banks’ own access to currency, for which they could not rely on the holdings of their customers. Neither would the MR reforms impose any constraints on the government’s ability to issue and sell securities. The UK’s Debt Management Office (21) currently fulfils its remit of minimising the cost of government borrowings by selling securities in such volumes and at such maturities as are designed to match market demand without distorting yields set by the market.
So the reforms to the monetary system proposed to support the aims of MMT would ensure that banks could settle all payments without recourse to interbank borrowing, since there would be no restriction on reserves held by banks. The MR reforms would achieve the same effect by providing currency directly to all in replacement for their bank money holdings. Both systems allow for all interest rates to be set by market forces, although the MR proposals would also allow the overnight rate to float also (or at least don’t require that it be fixed at zero). The MR reforms would allow the continued issue of government securities and would not restrict the own-account adventurism of the banks, since the strategically important role of payments settlement would be removed from dependence on bank liquidity, and the banks would be placed on a level playing field with other providers of savings instruments and stores of value from which the public could freely choose. The MMT reforms would not only retain deposit insurance, but require the Treasury to guarantee 100% of all deposits, whereas the MR reforms would abolish the need for deposit insurance.
From MMT’s point of view, currency is an instrument of fiscal policy designed to confer a privilege on providers of goods and services to the government. They become creditors of the rest of the private sector. Banks constitute the licensed conduit providing intended recipients access to this currency in return for a similar privilege of using the credit they acquire through their exclusive holdings of currency in order to provide interest-bearing liquidity to the economy. Both privileges are controllable through taxation, if they prove to be exorbitant in use. For MR, currency is a public good which is best provided by the state. The banking sector’s monopoly on access to currency is no longer justifiable with respect to sovereign States who can issue their own fiat currency. Following that, banking’s role is reduced to providing a regulated private-sector utility for optimising the utilisation of that currency, once issued.
In summary, we are saying current commercial banking causes crises and current government policy forces us to use these commercial banks. In our view, just regulating current banking practices amounts to accepting that new money is a private commodity in its first use, issued to maximise bank profits. Why not switch instead to a sovereign money system to regulate new money (money, not just ‘currency’) as a public good in its first use?
About The Authors
Graham Hodgson was involved in the civil service until retiring and spending the last 15 years independently researching the monetary system. He has been a key volunteer at Positive Money since May 2011, developing models of the current monetary system and investigating the impact of any potential reforms.
- Innes (1914)
- Knapp (1924)
- Lerner (1943)
- Wray (2014)
- Keynes (1914)
- Knapp (1924) pp. 50-51
- Knapp (1924) pp. 109-110
- Ryan-Collins et al. (2012) pp. 105-112
- Jackson et al. (2012) Ch. 4, 5
- Mitchell et al. (2019) p. 15
- Wolf (2019)
- HM Treasury (2018)
- Mitchell (2010) (protesting at a 2010 Morgan Stanley report in which this treatment was advocated)
- The Gower Institute for Modern Money Studies
- MMT Scotland
- Keynes (1950) p. 25
- Innes (1914) p. 165
- Knapp (1924) p. 106
- Mitchell (2019)
- Mitchell (2019)
- UK Debt Management Office
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