Currency Sovereignty

By L. Randall Wray

This week we will begin to examine our next topic: government spending, taxing, interest rate setting, and bond issue. We will examine fiscal and monetary policy formation by a government that issues its own currency. We will bear in mind that the exchange rate regime chosen does have implications for the operation of domestic policy. We will distinguish between operational procedures and constraints that apply to all currency-issuing governments and those that apply only to governments that allow their currency to float. Over the previous 17 (!) weeks we have touched on much of this, but now it is time to get down to “brass tacks” to look at some of the nitty-gritty. As always, we are trying to stay true to the purposes of a “Primer”—a fairly general analysis that can be applied to all nations that issue their own currency. We will note where the results only apply to specific exchange rate regimes. And we will get into some of the procedures adopted that effectively “tie shoelaces together”—self-imposed constraints. This week we will provide a quick overview of general principles.

Statements that do not apply to a currency-issuer. Let us begin with some common beliefs that actually are false—that is to say, the following statements do NOT apply to a currency-issuing government.

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  1. Governments have a budget constraint (like households and firms) and have to raise funds through taxing or borrowing
  2. Budget deficits are evil, a burden on the economy except under some circumstances
  3. Government deficits drive interest rates up, crowd out the private sector…and necessarily lead to inflation
  4. Government deficits leave debt for future generations: government needs to cut spending or tax more today to diminish this burden
  5. Government deficits take away savings that could be used for investment
  6. We need savings to finance investment and the government’s deficit
  7. Higher government deficits today imply higher taxes tomorrow, to pay interest and principle on the debt that results from deficits

While these statements are consistent with the conventional wisdom, and while they are more-or-less accurate if applied to the case of a government that does not issue its own currency, they do not apply to a currency issuer.

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Principles that apply to a currency issuer. Let us replace these false statements with propositions that are true of any currency issuing government, even one that operates with a fixed exchange rate regime

  • The government names a unit of account and issues a currency denominated in that unit;
  • the government ensures a demand for its currency by imposing a tax liability that can be fulfilled by payment of its currency;
  • government spends by crediting bank reserves and taxes by debiting bank reserves;
  • in this manner, banks act as intermediaries between government and the nongovernment sector, crediting depositor’s accounts as government spends and debiting them when taxes are paid;
  • government deficits mean net credits to banking system reserves and also to nongovernment deposits at banks;
  • the central bank sets the overnight interest rate target; it adds/drains reserves as needed to hit its target rate;
  • the overnight interest rate target is “exogenous”, set by the central bank; the quantity of reserves is “endogenous” determined by the needs and desires of private banks; and the “deposit multiplier” is simply an ex post ratio of reserves to deposits—it is best to think of deposits as expanding endogenously as they “leverage” reserves, but with no predetermined leverage ratio;
  • the treasury cooperates with the central bank, providing new bond issues to drain excess reserves, or retiring bonds when banks are short of reserves;
  • for this reason, bond sales are not a borrowing operation used by the sovereign government, instead they are a “reserve maintenance” tool that helps the central bank to hit interest rate targets;
  • the treasury can always “afford” anything for sale in its own currency, although government always imposes constraints on its spending; and
  • lending by the central bank is not constrained except through constraints imposed by government (including operational constraints adopted by the central bank itself).

Some of these statements will seem cryptic at this point. We will clarify further in the following weeks. Here we are setting out the general principles that will be discussed later in order to contrast them with the “conventional wisdom” that likens a government’s budget to a household budget.

Let us be careful to acknowledge that these principles do not imply that government ought to spend without constraint. Nor does the statement that government can “afford” anything for sale in its own currency imply that government should buy everything for sale in its currency. Obviously, if things are for sale only in a foreign currency, then government cannot buy them directly using its own currency.

These principles also do not deny that too much spending by government would be inflationary. Further, there can be exchange rate implications: if government spends too much, or if it sets its interest rate target too low, this might set off pressure to depreciate the currency. This means that the government’s interest-setting policy as well as its budget policy will be mindful of possible impacts on exchange rates and/or inflation rates; in that sense, interest-setting and fiscal policy are “constrained” by government’s desire to control the exchange rate or the inflation rate.

This brings us to the exchange rate regime: while the principles above do apply to governments that peg their exchange rates, they must operate fiscal and monetary policy with a view to maintaining the peg. For this reason, while these governments can “afford” to spend more, they might be choose to spend less to protect their exchange rates. And while government can “exogenously” lower its interest rate target, this might conflict with its exchange rate target. For that reason, it might choose to keep its interest rate target high if it is pegging its exchange rate.

Next week we will begin to examine in more detail the government’s budget when it is the issuer of the currency.

Visit New Economic Perspectives where this post first appeared.

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2 Comments
  1. Louis Paul Hebert says

    The term “deficit” is typically understood, by laymen such as myself, to be the difference between government revenues and government expenses. As such, it is a loaded term and a big red flag. See thesaurus.com/browse/deficit and note that the synonyms are all negative. The bigger the deficit, the badder (ugh!) the government.

    I would replace the word “deficit” with the word “expenditure”. Or some other words, such as “investment” or the nice and simple “spending”.

    A new idea is opposed by those with a stake in the status quo and viewed with suspicion by everyone else since the new is unfamiliar. So choose your words carefully with the objective of being easily understood.

    Just so you know, when I first read about MMT, it was like a whack to the side of my head. It was the 1st time that I read something about where money should come from … the government and not the banks.

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