China: Thin Air’s Money Isn’t Created Out Of Thin Air

China: Thin Air’s Money Isn’t Created Out Of Thin Air

China: Thin Air’s Money Isn’t Created Out Of Thin Air by Michael Pettis, Michael Pettis’ China Financial Market

A recurring conversation I have with clients concerns the ability of banks to create credit, and of governments to monetize debt, and whether this ability is the solution to or the cause of financial instability and economic crisis. Monetarists and structuralists (to use Michael Hudson’s names for the two sides, whose centuries-long debate pretty, exemplified by Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo during the Bullionist Controversy, dominates the history of economic thinking) have very different answers to that question, but I will suggest that each side disagrees because it implicitly assumes an idealized version of an economy.

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We are normally taught that banks allocate credit by lending the money that savers have deposited in the banking system, but in fact banks create deposits in the banking system by creating credit, so it seems to many as if they can create demand out of nothing. Similarly, if governments are able to create money, and if they can borrow in their own currency, they can easily monetize debt, seemingly at no cost, by “printing” the money they need to repay the debt (actually by crediting bank accounts, which amounts to the same thing). This means that when they borrow, rather than repay by raising taxes in the future, all they have to do is monetize the debt by printing the money needed to repay the debt. It seems that governments too can create demand out of nothing, simply by deficit spending.

There is a rising consensus – correct, I think – that the misuse of these two processes – which together are, I think, what we mean by “endogenous money” – were at the heart of the debt surge that was mischaracterized as “the great Moderation”. For example in a book published earlier this month, Between Debt and the Devil, in which he provides a description of the rise of debt financing in the four decades before the 2008-09 crisis, along with the economic risks that this has created, Adair Turner specifies these two as fundamental to the rising role of finance in the global economy. He writes:

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…in modern economics we have essentially two ways to produce permanent increases in nominal demand: either government fiat money creation or private credit money creation.

I am less than half-way through this very interesting book, so I am not sure how he addresses the main characteristics of debt, nor whether he is able to explain how much debt is excessive, or identify the main ways in which the liability side of the macroeconomic balance sheet intermediates behavior on the asset side to determine the growth and volatility of an economy. He invokes the work of Hyman Minsky often enough, however, to suggest that unlike traditional economists he fully recognizes the importance of debt.

And it is because of this importance that the tremendous confusion about what it means to create demand out of nothing is dangerous. When banks or governments create demand “out of this air”, either by creating bank loans, or by deficit spending, they are always doing one or some combination of two things, as I will show. In some easily specified cases they are simply transferring demand from one sector of the economy to themselves. In other equally easily specified cases they are creating demand for goods and services by simultaneously creating the production of those goods and services. They never simply create demand “out of thin air”, as many analysts seem to think, and doing so would violate the basic accounting identity that equates total savings in a closed system with total investment.

I had originally intended this blog entry to be a response to questions in some of the comments following my last blog post, but because my response turned out to be too long to submit as a comment, and because the questions lead to a far more complex answer than I had originally planned, it has become a blog entry in its own right. The questions arise in the context of a discussion of some of Steve Keen’s work among several regular commenters on my blog. Keen is an Australian post-Keynesian who heads the School of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University in London.

I’ve known of Keen’s work for many years, and last year he spoke at my PKU seminar on central banking (as has Adair Turner, by the way). He is one of the most hard-core proponents of Hyman Minsky, and regular readers know that I think of Minsky as one of the greatest economists since Keynes. In the third chapter of my 2001 book, The Volatility Machine, I explain the ways in which developing countries designed balance sheets that systematically exacerbated volatility – and which eventually led to debt-based contractions or financial crises – in terms of a framework that emerges from the work of Minsky and Charles Kindleberger. This framework – something that many Latin American economists have no trouble understanding but which has been ignored by nearly all Chinese and foreign economists covering China – explains why three decades of economic expansion in China, underpinned by rapid growth in credit and investment, would lead almost inevitably to destabilizing debt structures.

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