What the Government Budget Constraint (GBC) means

This is the second blog in the series that I am writing to help explain why we should not fear deficits. In this blog we clear up some of the myths that surround the so-called “financing” of budget deficits. In particular, I address the myth that deficits are inflationary and/or increase the borrowing requirements of government. The important conclusion is that the Federal government is not financially constrained and can spend as much as it chooses up to the limit of what is offered for sale. There is not inevitability that this spending will be inflationary and it does not necessarily require any increase in government debt.

The first thing to recall from Part 1 is that spending by private citizens is constrained by the sources of available funds, including income from all sources, asset sales and borrowings from external parties. Federal government spending, however, is largely facilitated by the government issuing cheques drawn on the central bank. The arrangements the government has with its central bank to account for this are largely irrelevant. When the recipients of the cheques (sellers of goods and services to the government) deposit the cheques in their bank, the cheques clear through the central banks clearing balances (reserves), and credit entries appear in accounts throughout the commercial banking system. In other words, government spends simply by crediting a private sector bank account at the central bank. Operationally, this process is independent of any prior revenue, including taxing and borrowing. Nor does the account crediting in any way reduce or otherwise diminish any government asset or government’s ability to further spend.

Alternatively, when taxation is paid by private sector cheques (or bank transfers) that are drawn on private accounts in the member banks, the central bank debits a private sector bank account. No real resources are transferred to government. Nor is government’s ability to spend augmented by the debiting of private bank accounts.

coinsIn general, mainstream economics errs by blurring the differences between private household budgets and the government budget. Statements such as this one from reputed economist Robert Barro that “we can think of the government’s saving and dissaving just as we thought of households’ saving and dissaving” are plain wrong.

The Department of Treasury in any country implements fiscal policy on behalf of the elected government. At present most governments have voluntary arrangements in place (some of which are enacted in law) which resemble the constraints they faced under the gold standard. These relate to constraints on net spending and the  necessity to match net spending $-for-$ with borrowing from the non-government sector (either domestically or foreign). These arrangements are a denial of the opportunities that a fiat monetary system offers the elected government. They open the government to criticism from the conservative elements in the society who equate thegovernment budget with the household budget.  This also arose during a period when monetary policy became the dominant tool for counter stabilisation and narrowed its focus to inflation targeting.

Mainstream economics uses the government budget constraint framework (GBC) to analyse three alleged forms of public finance: (1) Raising taxes; (2) Selling interest-bearing government debt to the private sector (bonds); and (3) Issuing non-interest bearing high powered money (money creation). Various scenarios are constructed to show that either deficits are inflationary if financed by high-powered money (debt monetisation), or squeeze private sector spending if financed by debt issue. While in reality the GBC is just an after the fact accounting identity, orthodox economics claims it to be a prior financial constraint on government spending.

The GBC framework leads students to believe that unless the government wants to print money and cause inflation it has to raise taxes or sell bonds to get money in order to spend. People have the erroneous understanding that taxation and bond sales provide money for the government which they use to spend. So if the government increases its deficit (spending more than taxing) then it must be increasing its debt holdings or “printing money”, both of which are deemed undesirable.

However the reality is far from this erroneous conception of the way the Federal government operates its budget. First, a household, uses the currency, and therefore must finance its spending beforehand, whereas government, the issuer of the currency, necessarily must spend first (credit private bank accounts) before it can subsequently debit private accounts, should it so desire. The government is the source of the funds the private sector requires to pay its taxes and to net save (including the need to maintain transaction balances). Clearly the government is always solvent in terms of its own currency of issue.

Mainstream economics also misrepresents what it calls “money creation”. In the popular macroeconomics text, Olivier Blanchard (1997) says that government

can also do something that neither you nor I can do. It can, in effect, finance the deficit by creating money. The reason for using the phrase “in effect”, is that … governments do not create money; the central bank does. But with the central bank’s cooperation, the government can in effect finance itself by money creation. It can issue bonds and ask the central bank to buy them. The central bank then pays the government with money it creates, and the government in turn uses that money to finance the deficit. This process is called debt monetization.

This is what mainstream economists call “printing money”. However, it is an erroneous conception in terms of the monetary system. To monetise means to convert to money. Gold used to be monetised when the government issued new gold certificates to purchase gold. Monetising does occur when the central bank buys foreign currency. Purchasing foreign currency converts, or monetises, the foreign currency to the currency of issue. The central bank then offers federal government securities for sale, to offer the new dollars just added to the banking system a place to earn interest. This process is referred to as sterilisation. In a broad sense, a federal (fiat currency issuing) government’s debt is money, and deficit spending is the process of monetising whatever the government purchases.

It is actually rather obvious but all government spending involves money creation. But this is not the meaning of the concept of debt monetisation as it frequently enters discussions of monetary policy in economic text books and the broader public debate. Following Blanchard’s conception, debt monetisation is usually referred to as a process whereby the central bank buys government bonds directly from the treasury. In other words, the federal government borrows money from the central bank rather than the public. Debt monetisation is the process usually implied when a government is said to be printing money. Debt monetisation, all else equal, is said to increase the money supply and can lead to severe inflation.

However, fear of debt monetisation is unfounded, not only because the government doesn’t need money in order to spend but also because the central bank does not have the option to monetise any of the outstanding government debt or newly issued government debt. In Part 3 I will show that as long as the central bank has a mandate to maintain a target short-term interest rate, the size of its purchases and sales of government debt are not discretionary. The central bank’s lack of control over the quantity of reserves underscores the impossibility of debt monetisation. The central bank is unable to monetise the government debt by purchasing government securities at will because to do so would cause the short-term target rate to fall to zero or to any support rate that it might have in place for excess reserves. We will consider this step-by-step in Part 3.

Bill Mitchell

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