Mainstream macroeconomics textbooks do not impart knowledge

I have spent most of today working on a Chapter for the upcoming macroeconomics textbook that I am writing with Randy Wray (UMKC). It is a difficult task getting the balance between the content and the pedagogy more or less correct. One has to be interesting but not simplify to the point of distraction. Moreover one has to seek to impart knowledge. Which then takes one down the epistemological path as to what constitutes knowledge. How much simplification is too much? How much abstract modelling is feasible? Questions like that. But an overriding objective is to ensure that students who are using the book receive an education which means they should expand their critical faculties based on an expansion of knowledge. One of the worst aspects of my profession is that the vast majority of textbooks that students are forced to learn from do not advance these objectives. Whatever else one might conclude about their presentation etc, they mostly can be reduced to being considered as propaganda instruments. Most of them tell outright lies about the way the monetary system operates. The current crisis and the unusual policy interventions (particularly those employed by the central banks) have brought these lies into stark relief. We can conclude that mainstream macroeconomics textbooks do not impart knowledge they are dogma.

In the Principles of Economics (First Edition) by Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw we read in the Preface to the Instructor that:

… economics tries to make progress on the fundamental challenges that all societies face … Economics is a subject in which a little knowledge goes a long way … much of which can be taught in one or two semesters. My goal in this book is to transmit this way of thinking to the widest possible audience and to convince readers that it illuminates much about the world around them.

None of that is very controversial.

What constitutes knowledge? That is an age old question that goes back (in terms of what can be documented) to the Ancient Greeks. There is no exact demarcation of when something becomes knowledge.

While I don’t want to get into an extended epistemological discussion here – even though I would enjoy that discussion – we all have certain shared views on what constitutes knowledge.

Clearly, for something to be known it cannot be false. The bridge example from my philosophy studies provides guidance here. I think a bridge is safe and in crossing it, the structure falls. I clearly believed the bridge to be capable of supporting my weight but I was wrong. I thus didn’t “know” about the safety of the bridge which was patently unsafe. Had I successfully acted on my prior conjecture (belief) and made it across the span then I would be able to conclude I that I know the bridge is safe.

That usually leads into a discussion about justified true belief (from Plato) – “in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for doing so”.

But in the light of the famous Gettier Problem this concept of knowledge has been modified to recognise that “the justification has to be such that were the justification false, the knowledge would be false”.

However more complicated we wish to become in demarcating knowledge and non-knowledge – we will always include the notion that a false description of a phenomena cannot impart knowledge.

Knowledge leads to illumination, lies to obfuscation.

In the opening section of Chapter 27 The Monetary System we read:

In this chapter we begin to examine the role of money in the economy. We discuss what money is, the various forms that money takes, how the banking system helps create money, and how the government controls the quantity of money in circulation. Because money is so important to the economy, we devote much effort in the rest of this book to learning how changes in the quantity of money affect various economic variables, including inflation, interest rates, production, and employment.

There are no qualifications, no nuances – the Chapter is held out as part of Mankiw’s aim to disseminate knowledge.

On pages 602-603 of Chapter 27, we encounter The Money Multiplier. Almost every macroeconomics textbook I have ever encountered has a similar chapter and section with more or less detail. So Mankiw’s treatment is entirely representative and would be taught to almost every undergraduate macroeconomics student (and MBA etc) around the world.

I have written about his before but lecturers around the world keep teaching students along these lines.

Under the heading The Money Multiplier students are led into an extension of an earlier example (pages 600-602) about the First National Bank.

The example aims to teach students “how banks influence the money supply”. The First National Bank takes deposits and eventually works out it can make loans with “all that money sitting idle in their vaults”.

First National Bank operates on a fractional-reserve basis (keeping some of their deposits back in reserve) and lending the rest, hoping that the new flow of deposits each day will be “roughly the same as the flow of withdrawals”.

So the fraction is retains is 10 per cent so on its books it has Liabilities of $100 (deposits) and Assets of $100 (reserves = $10 and loans = $90).

The bank has waited for deposits to come in then kept 10 per cent back as reserves and loaned the remainder. The model is the bank only lends what it receives as deposits – with the causality being in that order.

So the “money supply” is initially $100 (the deposits) but then once the deposits are “loaned out” the money supply increases because the “borrowers hold $90 in currency”.

Which leads Mankiw to conclude (with italicised emphasis) that:

… when banks hold only a fraction of deposits in reserve, banks create money.

He notes that “when First National Bank loans out some of its reserves and creates money, it does not create any wealth”. This is because the borrowers might have more cash but they also endure an equal increase in their liabilities (the loans). So the increased liquidity does not mean increased wealth overall.

Then we come to the money multiplier discussion.

Mankiw says that “the creation of money does not stop with First National Bank”. Why? Because the borrower from FNB uses the funds to purchases goods and services which result in a deposit (sales revenue) in the Second National Bank.

So the SNB receives $90 in deposits, and lends $81 (keeping $9 in reserves) and in doing so “creates a additional $81 of money”. We then learn that the spending from those loans is deposited in Third National Bank and “the process goes on and on”:

Each time that money is deposited and a bank loan is made, more money is created.

The question then explored is “How much money is eventually created in this economy?”.

Mankiw shows that from an initial deposit of $100 and a reserve ratio of 10 per cent across all banks, the final money supply rises to $1000:

The amount of money that the banking system generates with each dollar of reserves is called the money multiplier. In this imaginery economy, where the $100 of reserves generates $1,000 of money, the money multiplier is 10.

Mankiw then “teaches” students about the determinants of this factor. He says “the answer is simple … The money multiplier is the reciprocal of the reserve ratio“.

He says that if the reserve ratio is 10 per cent then:

If the banking system olds a total of $100 in reserves, it can only have $1000 in deposits.

The Chapter then goes on to describe how Mankiw thinks the central bank (the Federal Reserve in the book) controls the money supply in the face of the banks creating money via the money multiplier.

He says:

Now we understand how the fractional-reserve banking system works, we are in a better position to understand how the Fed carries out its job. Because banks create money in a system of fractional-reserve banking, the Fed’s control of the money supply is indirect.

Students learn about open market operations which are meant to change the money supply (by swapping government bonds for money); reserve requirements which influence the fraction of each deposit that will be loaned out, and the discount rate (the rate that the central bank lends to commercial banks).

The discussion of the discount rate sits rather uncomfortably with the rest of the dogma and I suspect lecturers hope like hell that students will not ask obvious questions.

We read that:

A bank borrows from the Fed when it has too few reserves to meet reserve requirements … When the Fed makes such a loan to a bank, the banking system has more reserves than it otherwise would, and these additional reserves allow the banking system to create more money. The Fed can alter the money supply by changing the discount rate …

From this much exposition the students (bright or otherwise) will consider the following key propositions to being key parts of their newly gained knowledge about the monetary system.

1. Banks wait for depositors to deposit funds which they then put in their vaults as reserves.

2. These deposits then provide the reserves that banks then lend out for profit.

3. The bank cannot lend if it doesn’t take in deposits (notwithstanding the messy discussion about discount rates).

4. In a fractional-reserve banking system, the money supply is a multiple of the reserves with the causality flowing from reserves to money supply.

5. Reserve requirements whether voluntary or enforced by the central bank restrict the capacity of the banks to lend (and hence create money).

6. The central bank controls the money supply by changing the quantity of reserves in the system.

In his conclusion to Chapter 27, Mankiw says that:

Now we know what money is and what determines its supply, we can discuss how changes in the quantity of money affect the economy.

And in Chapter 28, a very standard discussion of inflation occurs in terms of too much money being supplied – because “when the central bank increases the supply of money, it causes the price level to rise” and that trying to expand the money supply (to increase employment) is futile anyway because “changes in the quantity of money influence nominal variables but not real variables” (as an “approximate” description).


A government can pay for some of its spending simply by printing money … When countries rely heavily on this … the result is hyperinflation.

And all the rest of it.

A curious student might then read Mankiw’s blog and come across various entries that are confusing or not elaborated upon. For example, on January 5, 2009 he published a blog – The Disappearing Money Multiplier – where someone indicated the “multiplier” (one measure of it) had fallen below 1. Mankiw just replied “Thanks”.

Later (September 23, 2011) in his blog – Why I am not very worried about inflation just now – we read that despite the massive increase in Fed balance sheet (bank reserves) there is no inflation danger (although it “is possible that this might occur down the road”) because wages growth is so low in the US.

So the students will wonder well what has that got to do with the money multiplier and the other statements about money growth causing inflation.

But then they will be further confused by reading his New York Times article (January 17, 2010) – Bernanke and the Beast – where Greg Mankiw tries to explain why the mainstream theory has broken down:

IS galloping inflation around the corner? Without doubt, the United States is exhibiting some of the classic precursors to out-of-control inflation. But a deeper look suggests that the story is not so simple.

Let’s start with first principles. One basic lesson of economics is that prices rise when the government creates an excessive amount of money. In other words, inflation occurs when too much money is chasing too few goods.

A second lesson is that governments resort to rapid monetary growth because they face fiscal problems. When government spending exceeds tax collection, policy makers sometimes turn to their central banks, which essentially print money to cover the budget shortfall.

Those two lessons go a long way toward explaining history’s hyperinflations, like those experienced by Germany in the 1920s or by Zimbabwe recently. Is the United States about to go down this route?

To be sure, we have large budget deficits and ample money growth. The federal government’s budget deficit was $390 billion in the first quarter of fiscal 2010, or about 11 percent of gross domestic product. Such a large deficit was unimaginable just a few years ago.

The Federal Reserve has also been rapidly creating money … That figure has more than doubled over the last two years.

Yet, despite having the two classic ingredients for high inflation, the United States has experienced only benign price increases.

And then he just adds that “banks have been happy to hold much of that new money as excess reserves” but in “normal times when the Fed expands the monetary base, banks lend that money, and other money-supply measures grow in parallel”.

The rest of the article provides very little illumination.

What became of the money multiplier? Well it apparently works in normal times “But these are not normal times” although:

As the economy recovers, banks may start lending out some of their hoards of reserves.

And so we are back to square one.

I dealt with some of these issues in the following blogs – Building bank reserves will not expand credit and Building bank reserves is not inflationary – for further discussion.

In those blogs I considered a Bank of International Settlements Working Paper (No 292) published in November 2009 – Unconventional monetary policies: an appraisal – which explains some of the operational aspects of the monetary system as seen by insiders in the BIS.

I noted at the time that the paper provided significant overlap with the way in which Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) explains the operations of the monetary system. Moreoever, the paper completely refutes the mainstream macroeconomics textbook depiction which I summarised above.

Remember for something to be known it cannot be false.

The BIS Working Paper was quoted recently in a speech (December 8, 2011) – Challenges to monetary policy in 2012 – made by the Vice President of the European Central Bank – one Vítor Constâncio. It was given to a 26th International Conference on Interest Rates held in Frankfurt.

It was in my queue of “papers” to discuss but I am glad that our Italian friend Luigi noted this speech in the comments section of my blog. Thanks Luigi.

In recent weeks, I have dealt with the ECB’s so-called Securities Market Programme (SMP) which at December 19, 2011 had risen to EUR 211.0 billion.

Please read my blogs – The ECB is a major reason the Euro crisis is deepening and Don’t tell the Germans – the ECB weekly deposit tender failed – for more discussion on this point.

The ECB has been at pains to deny that the SMP will expand liquidity – implying they were not jeopardising the inflation target they so strongly identify their role with.

For example, in a speech on October 21, 2011, a member of the Executive Board of the ECB (José Manuel González-Páramo) – The ECB’s monetary policy during the crisis said in relation to the SMP that:

The main purpose of this programme is maintaining a functioning monetary policy transmission mechanism by promoting the functioning of certain key government and private bond segments … The SMP should, of course, be clearly distinguished from the policy of quantitative easing. While the objective of the SMP is to repair the transmission mechanism, quantitative easing aims at injecting additional central bank liquidity in order to stimulate the economy. As a result, quantitative easing, as for instance with the Bank of England, comes with precise quantitative targets. By contrast, the size of SMP purchases is driven by an intervention strategy which seeks to improve market functioning. Let me stress that the liquidity injected through SMP purchases is re-absorbed on a weekly basis so as to specifically neutralise the programme’s liquidity impact.

Of-course, the scale of the SMP is far greater than is needed for “promoting the functioning of certain key government and private bond segments”. The SMP is unambiguously bailing out member state governments who cannot find private lenders at reasonable rates. The imperative to borrow results from their surrendering their currency sovereignty when they joined the Eurozone.

But the ECB has tried to distance itself from other central banks (such as the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan) who they consider have exposed their economies to excessive inflation risk by “printing too much money” under their respective quantitative easing programs.

On December 2, 2010, the then ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet held a Press Conference and emphatically declared “It is not quantitative easing; we are withdrawing all the liquidity that we are injecting”.

The political statements from the ECB also continue to peddle the myth that QE is about giving banks more money to lend. The fallacy in that logic is that bank lending has not be constrained by a lack of reserves. Rather there has been a dearth of credit-worthy customers at a time when banks have tightened their lending criteria given the financial uncertainty.

Please read my blog – Quantitative easing 101 – for more discussion on this point. Quantitative easing is an asset swap designed to bid up the prices of assets in certain maturity ranges and thus keep interest rates in those segments lower.

The fact that most central banks have been offering a return on excess bank reserves means that the SMP is virtually indistinguishable from QE anyway. Both keep yields lower than otherwise by strengthening demand in the bond markets and both provide an interest-bearing alternative to the bond-holders.

The SMP is however targeted at bailing out governments by buying their debt and taking the risk of default off the private sector.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) explains why this view about QE is erroneous. It also explains why QE itself has failed to expand aggregate demand.

But the ECB also misrepresents the so-called “sterilisation operations” it conducts in association with the SMP. It is clear that the neutralising of the SMP purchases by offering its weekly fixed deposit auction does not reduce the capacity of commercial banks to expand credit.

The SMP works like this – an EMU government issues bonds to the private market who knows they can sell them to the ECB and thus eliminate any carry risk. The ECB buys the bonds in the secondary market (that is, after they have been issued by the EMU government in the primary tender market) with euros which it creates.

At that point, bank euro deposits and reserves rise.

The inflation risk is in the spending that the bond issue “funded” (when we talk about an EMU nation). There is no inflation risk in the rising bank reserves.

The ECB then offers deposits with the ECB up to the volume of outstanding SMP bond purchases. So they swap the euros for an interest earning account with the ECB instead of leaving the interest-earning bond in the hands of the private sector.

The sterilisation operation drains bank reserves (moving them into a different account at the ECB) while the commercial bank deposit remains.

The commercial banks effectively view the weekly fixed deposits as close substitutes for reserves. And as we know they don’t lend reserves anyway.

Moreover, the banks can always access funds via the marginal lending facility offered by the ECB.

The Speech last week by ECB Vice President Vítor Constâncio further clarifies these understandings and validates the central propositions of MMT.

Vítor Constâncio was discussing the “non-standard” monetary policy (including the SMP) that the ECB has been engaged in since the “demise of Lehman Brothers”.

He particularly emphasised that:

… inflation expectations have remained well anchored over the crisis period, in line with our objective of price stability. At the same time, we expect inflation to return below 2% in the course of 2012. The first question is then, how do non-standard monetary policy measure help fulfil this objective?

So he is well aware that the likes of Greg Mankiw and the army of students around the world who studied using his textbook would have predicted a major breakout of inflationary expectations as a result of the way the central banks have expanded their balance sheets during the crisis.

He explicitly posed the question:

Could non-standard measures have unintended consequences on the monetary policy stance – consequences which may ultimately endanger the ECB’s ability to maintain price stability?

A very central question to discuss given the conclusions in the textbooks.

One part of his answer is that central banks are concerned with overall financial stability as well as maintaining price stability – “the provision of liquidity to prevent a collapse of sound financial institutions during a liquidity crisis is also consistent with the broader ESCB’s responsibility to contribute to financial stability”.

But what about the “possible risk that the non-standard monetary policy measures may produce unintended consequences for the monetary policy stance”?

He is adamant that there should “no concern that our non-standard measures may produce spillovers on the ECB’s ability to maintain price stability”. But he also acknowledged that “some commentators have raised concerns that the large amount of liquidity currently available to euro area banks will turn into broad money and credit, and eventually into a source of inflationary pressure”.

The data shows that there has been a “sizable expansion of the ECB balance sheet” as a result of the non-standard measures – “a rate of growth of close to 110%”.

He compares that with the rate of growth of the US Federal Reserve’s balance sheet of 219 per cent (between November 2007 and 2011) and the Bank of England’s balance sheet of 191 per cent.

However, the expansion of the central bank balance sheets (bank reserves) does not compromise the inflation target. Why?

Well, we can let Vítor Constâncio explain that:

Central bank reserves are held by banks and are not part of money held by the non-financial sector, hence not, per se, an inflationary type of liquidity. There is no acceptable theory linking in a necessary way the monetary base created by central banks to inflation. Nevertheless, it is argued by some that financial institutions would be free to instantly transform their loans from the central bank into credit to the non-financial sector. This fits into the old theoretical view about the credit multiplier according to which the sequence of money creation goes from the primary liquidity created by central banks to total money supply created by banks via their credit decisions. In reality the sequence works more in the opposite direction with banks taking first their credit decisions and then looking for the necessary funding and reserves of central bank money. As Claudio Borio and Disyatat from the BIS put it: “In fact, the level of reserves hardly figures in banks´ lending decisions. The amount of credit outstanding is determined by banks´ willingness to supply loans, based on perceived risk-return trade-offs and by the demand for those loans” … In modern banking sectors, credit decisions precede the availability of reserves in the central bank. As Charles Goodhart pointedly argued, it would be more appropriate talking about a “Credit divisor” than about a “Credit multiplier”.

The BIS paper referred to is the November 2009 Working Paper I noted above.

But compare this description of how the monetary system operates to the textbook exposition provided to students by Greg Mankiw. One is clearly false and cannot constitute “knowledge”. The reality is as described by Vítor Constâncio. The “Principles of Economics” as sold by Greg Mankiw is a fabrication.

A student reading Vítor Constâncio’s account and then discovering MMT will conclude:

1. Bank reserves are not lent.

2. There is no acceptable theory linking bank reserves to inflation.

3. There is no money multiplier – rather the bank reserves adjust to the outstanding “credit” advanced. Please read my blogs – Money multiplier and other myths and Money multiplier – missing feared dead – for more discussion on this point.

4. The money creation causality is the opposite to that envisaged in the textbooks. Banks lend by creating deposits. They do not wait for deposits before they lend.

5. Banks do not need reserves in order to lend.

6. Banks lend whenever there are credit-worthy customers seeking loans.

7. Banks add whatever reserves they might require after the loans have been made not before.

MMT teaches us that central banks will always provided enough reserve balances to the commercial banks at a price it sets using a combination of overdraft/discounting facilities and open market operations.

Second, if the central bank didn’t provide the reserves necessary to match the growth in deposits in the commercial banking system then the payments system would grind to a halt and there would be significant hikes in the interbank rate of interest and a wedge between it and the policy (target) rate – meaning the central bank’s policy stance becomes compromised.

Third, any reserve requirements within this context while legally enforceable (via fines etc) do not constrain the commercial bank credit creation capacity. Central bank reserves (the accounts the commercial banks keep with the central bank) are not used to make loans. They only function to facilitate the payments system (apart from satisfying any reserve requirements).

Fourth, banks make loans to credit-worthy borrowers and these loans create deposits. If the commercial bank in question is unable to get the reserves necessary to meet the requirements from other sources (other banks) then the central bank has to provide them. But the process of gaining the necessary reserves is a separate and subsequent bank operation to the deposit creation (via the loan).

Fifth, if there were too many reserves in the system (relative to the banks’ desired levels to facilitate the payments system and the required reserves then competition in the interbank (overnight) market would drive the interest rate down. This competition would be driven by banks holding surplus reserves (to their requirements) trying to lend them overnight. The opposite would happen if there were too few reserves supplied by the central bank. Then the chase for overnight funds would drive rates up.

In both cases the central bank would lose control of its current policy rate as the divergence between it and the interbank rate widened. This divergence can snake between the rate that the central bank pays on excess reserves (this rate varies between countries and overtime but before the crisis was zero in Japan and the US) and the penalty rate that the central bank seeks for providing the commercial banks access to the overdraft/discount facility.

So the aim of the central bank is to issue just as many reserves that are required for the law and the banks’ own desires.

But banks do not lend reserves. They are used to facilitate the so-called payments system so that all transactions that are drawn on the various banks (cheques etc) clear at the end of each day. Clearly banks prefer to earn a return on reserves that it deems are in excess of its clearing house (payments system) requirements.

But in the absence of such a return being paid by the central bank the only consequence would be that the banks (overall) would have zero interest balances.


If economics lecturers were really serious about imparting “knowledge” and providing students with material that “illuminates much about the world around them” then they would stop using Greg Mankiw’s textbook and all the rest of them that rehearse the same tedious “old theoretical view” about the way the system operates.

They would abandon their (false) belief in the money (credit) multiplier and instead take some time to learn how the monetary system actually operates.

MMT, in part, seeks to fill that gap in comprehension. The textbook Randy Wray and I are writing at present will certainly be grounded in the actual realities of the system and in that sense we will claim it imparts “knowledge” rather than belief. The justification for this claim comes from understanding how the system operates rather than being based on a blinkered “old theoretical view” that clearly is without application.

That is enough for today!

This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. “Banks do not need reserves in order to lend.”

    They don’t, but they do need capital.

    So the private banks are constrained by something that limits the endogenous expansion of private money. That is after all why they spend so much time lobbying for lower capital ratios.

    So the question then is if the reserve multiplier is false, is the slack not taken up by the capital multiplier instead.

    Is capital the second O ring in the multiplier booster rocket?

  2. It appears to me that Mankiw does not understand what reserves are, which explains why he labours under the illusion that they may be loaned out to a commercial bank’s retail customers. He seems to identify reserves with those retail deposits which are “retained” by a bank. However deposits (of bank credit money) are never loaned out to anybody, and all bank deposits are necessarily retained. In other words, retail deposits and banking reserves are quite different forms of money.

  3. Neil, the 2nd O-ring is not the capital ratios but the risk weightings for assets.

    The risk weightings are supplied by “the lowest tenderer”.

  4. Dear Bill,

    Once again, invaluable insights into the actual operations of the modern banking system.

    By the way, could you give an approximate estimation of the publication date of the book you’re preparing with Randy? Really looking forward to it.

  5. Must reading is “The Seekers, or How Mainstream Economists Have Defended Their Discipline Since 2008” (Part I & Part II), extracted from a longer article by Philip Mirowski (Notre Dame). Not about textbooks per se, but definitely about events which have impacted what gets into mainstream testbooks. Reviews the “Great Narrowing” (my term) of macroeconomics, and the advent of behavioral economics, which Mirowski believes to be merely an attempt to avoid focusing on the real issues of the neoclassical economic model.

  6. Hi Prof. Mitchell,

    first of all thank you for this blog (and your work in general, I guess). I’d always felt that somehow economics as imparted by the media (not an economist, me) didn’t fit reality but I couldn’t narrow it down until I started reading here.

    Now, I’ve been trying to pass this on and in the best case am met with incredulity along the lines of “that can’t be right”. Therefore trying to refine my presentation of the topic and was wondering: The way you describe central bank operations (and government spending) sounds a bit like creating money “on demand” – when banks give loans and are short on reserves, they turn to the central bank that then creates (“prints”) the money they need, when government wants to spend, it credits accounts…effectively creating money it needs. Or, to become metaphorical, instead of a (money) printing press, central banks/governments are a (money) wishing well.

    Would that be an appropriate description and if so, is the answer to the (hyper)inflation issue partially to be found in situations where “unneeded” money is created?

    And related, is it possible that the economic “right”-wing horror at heterodox economics is influenced by the fact that “government for the people” is their bogeyman? (I know I am being polemic here)

  7. There is a small distance between scientific economics and economic propaganda.

    That happens because an ethical option or attitude cannot be avoided by either the economist and the people whose behavior s/he studies.

    People see other people under two basic ethical visions:
    i) as potential cooperators for public and private enrichment or, at least, for peaceful live along.
    ii) as tools for personal and kin people enrichment.

    Most people, most of time, prefer vision i)

    This makes MMT (and related approaches) easily a scientific activity; as its developers share vision i), they have no problem in saying how things are and could be according to what the majority wants things to be in principle.

    Only a minority of people prefer ii). This is a problem for them. To maintain a state of affairs according to their wishes they need to deceive the majority: economic propaganda must exist.

    This is a key question for the epistemology of social sciences: that the researcher studies behavior informed by ethical choices and in doing this s/he must take sides on the ethical choices.

  8. “5. Banks do not need reserves in order to lend.”
    Wrong. Banks need reserves in order to lend, if they don’t have enough reserves they can borrow from the interbank market or from the central bank, but they have to post collateral to access funds.

    “6. Banks lend whenever there are credit-worthy customers seeking loans.”
    Wrong. Banks can’t lend unlimited amounts of funds even if they find unlimited credit-worthy customers seeking loans. They are capital constrained and if they have not enough reserves they need to borrow them from the interbank market or from the central bank, so they need enough collateral to access funds.

    Am i wrong?

  9. Jan,

    Banks don’t loan money. They simply promise to clear a large transaction in exchange for a series of smaller payments from the borrower. The primary limitation on banks extending credit is the number of credit-worthy customers walking in the door. If the bank makes a loan to such a customer but doesn’t have sufficient capital to meet capital-loss requirements it can issue bonds or shares to obtain it: the better a track record the bank has, the more easily it can obtain additional capital and thereby make more loans. Can banks make unlimited loans? No, but the point is moot because there aren’t an unlimited number of creditworthy customers.

    Banks lend before they check their reserves. At the end of the day they total up their liabilities and determine whether they need to obtain additional reserves to clear the check they issued to the borrower, meaning the state of the banks reserves is not a factor in the loan process.

  10. Jan,

    “6. Banks lend whenever there are credit-worthy customers seeking loans. Wrong ….”

    You will find that the MMT literature acknowledges capital constraints explicitly …

  11. Professor Mitchell, your analogy of the bridge reminds me of Goodman’s paradox, but with a more obvious application. You write that having crossed the bridge safely is a sign of the bridge’s soundness – but what if the bridge actually is ready to fail at the next crossing attempt? Parsimony, of course, leads us to conclude that, no matter what we thought about the bridge’s soundness, there was one mechanism by which the bridge will be explained to fail (the fact that a certain amount of strong wood is required to carry the weight of a person crossing with a heavy jar of olive oil), and that the preconditions for the bridge’s failing were already in place, or developing (a wooden beam was rotten, or Dick Dastardly is cutting strands of the rope which tethers the bridge to a support pier).

    I will, of course, agree that there is no reason to believe that a policy which has worked thus far will suddenly stop working in the future. To argue otherwise, from the analogy, would be the equivalent of not having made a careful inspection of the bridge before opening it for traffic (which is more in line with the amount of care economists do, or at least should, put into their theory and policy recommendations).

    I think that this type of argument has been used by people of many political persuasions to argue that their economics are better than some other person’s. For example, there is Robert Samuelson’s recent (kind of bad) article where he concludes by stating that “what worked in the 1930s does not necessarily work today.”

    What is most important is to recognize that Goodman’s paradox is, like Monty Python reminds us, “no basis for a system of government” – at least not unless parsimony has been applied and it can be proven that a rule that exists now is under sway of a mechanism ensuring its modification in the future. History provides continuous examples and (when interpreted correctly) provides an ever-expanding experimental and data set to apply theory to.

  12. Ben,

    “Banks don’t loan money. They simply promise to clear a large transaction in exchange for a series of smaller payments from the borrower. The primary limitation on banks extending credit is the number of credit-worthy customers walking in the door.”
    Totally agree with you. The secondary limitation on banks extending credit is capital, and the third are reserves.

    “Banks lend before they check their reserves. At the end of the day they total up their liabilities and determine whether they need to obtain additional reserves to clear the check they issued to the borrower, meaning the state of the banks reserves is not a factor in the loan process.”
    Can’t agree with you… What would happen if they check their reserves and they find they’re not enough and the banks hasn’t got any collateral left to borrow the additional funds?

  13. “What would happen if they check their reserves and they find they’re not enough and the banks hasn’t got any collateral left to borrow the additional funds?”

    They generally borrow from their counterparty. If Bank A is up $200m and Bank B is down $200m then by definition Bank A can make money by charging Bank B for using its excess reserves overnight.

    And as I understand it, that process is generally unsecured.

    The central bank usually only has to get involved to deal with the expansion of reserves required in aggregate, and that is signalled by the overnight rate moving away from the policy rate.

    When the interbank starts to break down – because banks don’t trust each other we’ve seen that the central bank reduces it collateral requirement – to the point where they start taking the created loans.

  14. What would happen if they check their reserves and they find they’re not enough and the banks hasn’t got any collateral left to borrow the additional funds?

    My understanding is that collateral only required at the central bank discount window …. short term interbank loans normally uncollateralized …. someone correct me if I’m wrong.

    Banks wouldn’t go to discount window to make up shortfall unless they were in extremis, because of the stigma and penalty rate.

  15. Dear Edwin Herdman (at 2011/12/22 at 12:11)

    Thanks for your thoughtful input which I found very interesting.

    What I can say once I crossed the bridge was that I know that the bridge safely took me to the other side. Once we get into events in the future endemic uncertainty clouds all our knowledge.

    best wishes

  16. One of my favourite intuition in Mankiw’s book is the explanation of OMA and the way Central Bank could raise
    money supply. The typical idea is the OMA with Treasuries to raise money supply, and reverse OMA to reduce money supply.

    Now, given that ECB before SMP rarely intervened in the secondary market to buy treasuries, we can deduce that in Europe, before 2010 SMP, ECB never or rarely raises/reduce money supply. And we can also deduce that prior to SMP, we were using the “same money” issues in 1999.

  17. Professor Mitchell:

    I agree with that. It’s too easy to say “it’s hard to know anything, so we shouldn’t act as if we are certain!” and from that conclude that if our models must be wrong, we can dismiss them and act less rigorously. We still need models.

    By the way, I linked a number of people from various writings of yours (the Harvard International Review interview, and a post here) at Daniel Kuehn’s blog to try to inject some MMT into the usual Austrian vs. Keynes debate. I can’t be sure I characterize everything correctly but hopefully it’s having some impact. For me personally, your writings have had a big impact on my understanding of economics and the role of government, and have put democratic choice back at the forefront.

  18. Inflation is best understood as a supply and demand problem. Inflation occurs when demand exceeds supply. At the macro level, the question then becomes at what point you will meet a supply constraint in one of the three factors of production: labor, capital (capacity utilization), and resources. If there is slack in all three, inflation will not occur.

    What economists mean by “money” is really currency plus liquid forms of credit. The relationship with inflation here is that “money” (especially credit) tends to correlate some with demand. An increase in money is associated with an increase in demand. But the demand usually comes first: a credit card doesn’t create a loan until the purchase is made, a consumer doesn’t obtain a car loan until she has decided to buy the car, etc..

    Most of the time, the relevant supply constraint for inflation is in labor markets. Most of the time, what economists mean by “inflation” is actually “wage increases”. This accounts for the strong relationship between inflation and employment. Some have used incidents of “stagflation” as evidence against this relationship, but all known instances of stagflation have occurred where there was strong evidence of supply limits in capacity or in critical resources (or both, as was clearly the case in the 1970s, for example).

    Any economics textbook that doesn’t contain something like the above simple and straightforward analysis as the primary explanation for inflation is worthless.

  19. Ah! Amazing! I must give you a big thanks!

    I did not that Constâncio, who did a lousy job overseeing the Portuguese banking sector, actually understood something!

  20. @Neil Wilson

    “The central bank usually only has to get involved to deal with the expansion of reserves required in aggregate, and that is signalled by the overnight rate moving away from the policy rate.When the interbank starts to break down – because banks don’t trust each other we’ve seen that the central bank reduces it collateral requirement – to the point where they start taking the created loans.”

    That’s why banks are reserve constrained, or we can say better they are collateral constrained. Saying that the central bank can lower collateral requirement doesn’t change nothing to this issue. The same could apply to capital requirements. MMT statement that banks are not reserve constrained ’cause they can borrow unlimited funds from the central bank is WRONG, it would be right only if borrowing from the central bank would be unsecured, but that’s not the case in our monetary system at the moment.

  21. @ Bill,

    i read your post one year ago, and i’ve read it again now
    but it doesn’t talk about the collateral issue
    so i still can’t understand why you can say that banks are not reserve constrained
    as far as i can understand they are reserve constrained cause they need collateral to borrow funds
    from the central bank
    where am i wrong?

  22. It seems like most economics texts are actually referring to hypothecation when they use the term money multiplier.

  23. “Saying that the central bank can lower collateral requirement doesn’t change nothing to this issue. The same could apply to capital requirements. ”

    Ok. Point to a central bank that has let a bank go bust due to cashflow issues.

    There is no evidence of reserve restriction. The banks always get the reserves they require – even when they have lent money in the most ridiculous circumstances.

    And even when capital started to be withdrawn the banks were propped up, not resolved.

    And the banks know this, which affects the behaviour of the way banks do banking. They *do not* ring down to the cash office to see if there is any money left before advancing a loan.

    So no matter how much you want to believe what you are saying, the evidence on the ground is against you. It strongly supports the MMT viewpoint which has been the way banking has been done for at least a hundred years and probably a lot longer.

  24. “MMT statement that banks are not reserve constrained ’cause they can borrow unlimited funds from the central bank is WRONG”

    Why should they? Borrowing costs money and liquidity buffer. Why should any bank borrow unlimited funds from the central bank?

  25. Jan, collateral is required only for operations with the central bank. However liquidity is as much an individual bank issue as it is the issue of the banking system as a whole. The central bank observes and responds to the “as a whole” part. If liquidity becomes an individual bank issue then it is in fact a capital, i.e. solvency problem. Interbank market per se is unsecured and borrowing there does not cost any collateral. Individual banks are never reserve constrained as long as they are solvent. And being solvent explicitly means having eligible collateral.

  26. @ Neil
    sorry Neil, i don’t want to believe i’m right in what i’m saying
    if it was like that i’d just stay here with my opinion and that’s it
    but i want to understand why MMT claims the opposite of what i think…
    and at the moment i don’t have any credible answer

    “Ok. Point to a central bank that has let a bank go bust due to cashflow issues.”
    i’m talking about theory, not what happened in the past, MMT claims to describe the system in this exact moment, not what could happen or what has happened in the past
    and as far as i understand the rules at the moment are that banks need collateral to borrow from the central bank, so they can’t lend as much as they want. If they havent got reserves they need collateral. I’m perfectly aware that the central bank could lower collateral requirements (as they have already done) and solve this issue, but we are talking about how the system works at this moment.
    The same could be done for capital. MMT claims that banks are capital constrained and i agree. But capital requirements could also be lowered at any time. So why in this case MMT doesn’t claim banks are not capital constrained. I mean we have to talk about what’s the system at this moment. And at this moment banks are capital constrained and reserve/collateral constrained. That’s what i think. I don’t want to be right, i could be wrong, i’m surely wrong and MMT is right, i just want to understand why i’m wrong. What do i miss? Where is my thinking flawed?
    It’s 4-5 years i read mmt books and blogs, im just here to understand this issue better. Cause it’s not clear to me.

  27. @ Sergei,
    “collateral is required only for operations with the central bank. However liquidity is as much an individual bank issue as it is the issue of the banking system as a whole. The central bank observes and responds to the “as a whole” part.”
    Yes i know that. I’m talking about the banking system as a whole. When there’s a liquidity problem in the banking system, banks cannot borrow unsecured from other banks and have to borrow from the central bank posting collateral. So banks don’t need to monitor their capital level but they need to monitor their reserves level, the level of reserves of the whole banking system and their disposable collateral in case they need to borrow from the central bank. That’s what i mean when i say that banks are capital constrained (as mmt claim) but also reserves constrained.
    I still can’t understand why i’m wrong… But thanks for your replies!

  28. Jan, three points:
    1. Having eligible collateral pretty much means being solvent. Capital, as liability, economically corresponds to the safest assets. The safest assets are typically eligible for CB operations.
    2. If the banking system as a whole runs out of collateral, which is the case in some countries in eurozone, then central banks go all types of ways to ensure that banks still can borrow from the central bank. In eurozone that is called Emergency Lending Assistance. Currently banking systems in Ireland and Greece fully rely on this life support. However if country borders correspond to the banking system borders, then banking system as a whole can not run out of collateral. This claim is meaningless.
    3. If the whole (or most of) banking system is insolvent, then it is not the problem of reserves. And clearly banks can not lend if they are capital constrained. So saying that lending is reserve constrained misses the real problem.

  29. Sergei,

    “3. If the whole (or most of) banking system is insolvent, then it is not the problem of reserves. And clearly banks can not lend if they are capital constrained. So saying that lending is reserve constrained misses the real problem.”

    as i suspected mmt is right and i was wrong…

    thank you very much for your help with this issue, i really missed the real problem

  30. “So why in this case MMT doesn’t claim banks are not capital constrained.”

    Interestingly if you push Warren Mosler on the point he’ll agree that capital is always available – at a price. And so we are back to the point that the macro system is ultimately constrained by price, not quantity. After all Bank A can always lend to Person B who then invests in Bank A capital stock if the numbers stack up. It might need to be more indirect than that, but if there is a profit in it, then it will be done. So the more profitable a bank can appear to be, the more capital it can attract.

    But really it’s to do with the way that banks work, and the accounting works. Banks worry about their profit position – which is the one that the capital is protecting, but not their cash flow position because they know that there is a ‘lender of last resort’ function.

    So they worry about solvency and check solvency before lending, but not liquidity since that is largely a given. A solvent bank in good standing has easy access to unsecured overnight liquidity to clear its position.

  31. I hope that the new MMT textbook explains role of the pension saving in the economy. This is crusial for understanding (global) macroeconomics, since some countries have designed policies that actively engourage pension saving. Those high saving rates in Germany are NOT result of German “culture” whatever that might be.

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