Tag Archives: marc lavoie

Being Keynesian In The Short Term And Classical In The Long Term

I am not. But the post is about the possibility. The title is borrowed from a paper by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy. (draft here)

Steve Roth has an article titled Note To Economists: Saving Doesn’t Create Savings. If you follow his blog regularly, his pieces read

The definition of saving is wrong. Saving is equal to income minus expenditure.

That’s not an exaggeration. He actually says it:

… Since saving = income – expenditures, [aggregate] saving must equal zero.

Steve Keen on Twitter supports Steve Roth.

Steve Keen Tweet

What’s with economists’ dislike for national accounts?

Steve Roth uses the phrase “savings” as a stock. Obviously his claim is just wrong as we know from national accounts:

Change in net worth = Saving + Holding Gains.

(with netting in holding gains).

Steve Keen doesn’t use saving as a stock but as a flow and a plural of saving. But Steve Keen’s point is also wrong. National saving is equal to the sum of saving of all economic units, such as households, firms, government etc. Even the household sector’s propensity to save collectively matters. That’s what macroeconomics is all about.

Now moving the more important point: is it possible that a higher propensity to consume reduces the long run rate of accumulation?

There are several Post-Keynesian economists who have considered the possibility. Of course it should be contrasted with supply side neoclassical economics. A few are Basil Moore, Wynne Godley, Marc Lavoie, and Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy as mentioned at the beginning of this post.

In their paper Kaleckian Models of Growth in a Coherent Stock-Flow Monetary Framework: A Kaldorian View, Godley and Lavoie find this in their models (draft version here):

We quickly discovered that the model could be run on the basis of two stable regimes. In the first regime, the investment function reacts less to a change in the valuation ratio-Tobin’s q ratio-than it does to a change in the rate of utilization. In the second regime, the coefficient of the q ratio in the investment function is larger than that of the rate of utilization (γ3 > γ4). The two regimes yield a large number of identical results, but when these results differ, the results of the first regime seem more intuitively acceptable than those of the second regime. For this reason, we shall call the first regime a normal regime, whereas the second regime will be known as the puzzling regime. The first regime also seems to be more in line with the empirical results of Ndikumana (1999) and Semmler and Franke (1996), who find very small values for the coefficient of the q ratio in their investment functions, that is, their empirical results are more in line with the investment coefficients underlying the normal regime.

… In the puzzling regime, the paradox of savings does not hold. The faster rate of accumulation initially encountered is followed by a floundering rate, due to the strong negative effect of the falling q ratio on the investment function. The turnaround in the investment sector also leads to a turnaround in the rate of utilization of capacity. All of this leads to a new steady-state rate of accumulation, which is lower than the rate existing just before the propensity to consume was increased. Thus, in the puzzling regime, although the economy follows Keynesian or Kaleckian behavior in the short-period, long-period results are in line with those obtained in classical models or in neoclassical models of endogenous growth: the higher propensity to consume is associated with a slower rate of accumulation in the steady state. In the puzzling regime, by refusing to save, households have the ability over the long period to undo the short-period investment decisions of entrepreneurs (Moore, 1973). On the basis of the puzzling regime, it would thus be right to say, as Dumenil and Levy (1999) claim, that one can be a Keynesian in the short period, but that one must hold classical views in the long period.

So there is a possibility that a higher propensity to consume leads to a lower growth in the long run. I do not think this is generally true, but this could be possible in some economies.

Two conclusions. It’s counter-productive to mix the definition of saving and what’s called “net lending” in national accounts. It’s possible (which shouldn’t mean that it’s necessarily the case) that Keynes’ paradox of savings doesn’t hold in the long run. I don’t believe that’s the case but purely arguing using national accounts and/or changing definitions won’t do.


What Post-Keynesian Economics Has Brought To An Understanding Of The Global Financial Crisis

I came across a nice Marc Lavoie paper from July 2015 from which I borrowed the titled of this post. Marc Lavoie discusses the importance of PKE monetary economics, stressing flow-of-funds modelling such as as done by Wynne Godley and his prescient analysis of the fate of the US economy and the rest of the world.

(the post title is the link)

Robert Blecker has a great article from the same conference (annual conference of the Canadian Economics Association) discussing similar things: heteredox understanding of the crisis. He discusseses Wynne Godley’s Seven Unsustainable Processes. He also talks of Hyman Minsky and neo-Kaleckian models of how income distribution effects aggregate demand. His paper titled Finance Distribution And The Role Of Government: Heterodox Foundations For Understanding The Crisis is here.

Stock-Flow Inconsistent?

The first rule of Post-Keynesian Economics is: You do not talk make accounting mistakes. The second rule of Post-Keynesian Economics is: You do not talk make accounting mistakes.

– Anonymous.

Jason Smith—who is a physicist—but writes a blog in Macroeconomics, wonders how equations in the simplest stock-flow consistent model given in the textbook Monetary Economics written by Wynne Godley and Marc Lavoie make any sense from a dimensional analysis viewpoint.

He says he

seem[s] to have found a major flaw.

He sees the equation:


and wonders where the time dimensions are. For, H is the stock of money and hence has no time dimension, whereas the right hand side has flows and has time dimensions of inverse of time. For example if the US government spends $4 tn in one year, is $4 tn/year.

In continuous time, the above equation is:

dH/dt = GT

So how are these two equations the same?

Perhaps, Jason is not familiar with difference equations. He instead seems to prefer:

τ·ΔH = GT

Well that’s just wrong if τ is anything different from 1, as a matter of accounting.

Now moving on to time scales, it is true that in difference equations some time scale is implicit. But it doesn’t mean the methodology itself is wrong. Many physicists for example set all constants to 1 and then talk of numbers which are dimensionless.

So if a relativist sets “c=1”, i.e, the speed of light to 1, all velocities are in relation to the speed of light. So if somebody says the speed is 0.004, he/she means the speed is 0.004 times the speed of light.

But Jason Smith says:

Where does this time scale come from over which the adjustment happens? There is some decay constant (half life). It’s never specified (more on scales here and here). If you think this unspecified time scale doesn’t matter, then we can take Δtlp and the adjustment happens instantaneously. Every model would achieve its steady state in the Planck time.

That’s not true. String theorists for example set the parameter α’ = 1. But nobody ever claims that macroscopic adjustments happen at Planckian length scales or time scales.

Coming back to economics, there’s nothing wrong in


There’s an implicit time scale yes, such as a day, or a month, or a year, or even an infinitesimal. But parameters change accordingly. So in G&L models we have the consumption function

 C = α1 ·YD + α2 ·W

where is household consumption, YD, the disposable income and W, the household wealth.

Let’s say I start with a time period of 1 year for simplicity. αmight be 0.4. But if I choose a time period of 1 quarter, αwill correspondingly change to 0.1. In English: if households consume of 4/10th  of their wealth in one year, they consume in 1/10th one quarter.

So if we were to model using a time scale of a quarter instead of a year, α2 will change accordingly.

But the equation


won’t change because it is an accounting identity!

It’s the difference equation version of the differential equation:

dH/dt = GT

Physicists can pontificate on economic matters. I myself know string theory well. But boy, they shouldn’t make mathematical errors and embarrass themselves!

In other words, accounting identities can be written as accounting identities in difference equations. What changes is values of parameters when one chooses a time scale for difference equations.

Wynne Godley’s model is touched by genius. In fact according to one of the reviewers of Monetary Economics, Lance Taylor says that it is out of choice that Wynne Godley chose a difference equation framework. They can be changed to differential equations and we’ll obtain the same underlying dynamics.

Here’s Lance Taylor in A foxy hedgehog: Wynne Godley and macroeconomic modelling

Godley has always preferred to work in discrete time, responding to the way the data are presented.

Question: is the equation ΔH = Gconsistent with dimensional analysis?

Answer: Yes. H is the stock of money at the end of previous period. Δis the change in stock of money in a period. and are the government expenditure and tax revenues in that period. So H, ΔH, G and T have no times dimensions in difference equations. All are in the unit of account. Such as $10tn, $400bn, $4 tn, $3.6tn. Time dynamics is captured by model parameters.

In G&L’s book Monetary Economics, in Appendix 3 of Chapter 3, there’s a mean-lag theorem, which tells you the mean lag between two equilibrium (defined as a state where stock/flow ratios have stabilized):

it is:

[(1 − α1)/α2 ]· [(1 – θ)/θ]

where θ is the tax rate.

So, in the model, assuming a value of 0.6 for α1, 0.4 for α2, and 0.2 for θ we have the mean-lag equal to 4.

Let’s assume that time period is yearly. This means the mean lag is 4 years.

If instead, we were to use quarterly time periods, α2 would be 0.1 and the mean lag evaluates to 16, i.e., sixteen quarters, which is 4 years, same as before.

So there is really no inconsistency in stock-flow consistent models.

tl;dr summary: In difference equations, there’s nothing wrong with equations such as ΔH = GT. It is an accounting identity. By a choice of a time scale, one implicity chooses a time scale for parameter values. What’s wrong? Jason Smith would obtain the same results as the simplest Godley/Lavoie model if he were to work in continuous time and write equations such as dH/dt = GT. I will leave it to him as an exercise!

Last updated 4 Mar 2016, 1:17pm UTC. 

Kalecki And Keynes On Wages

The blogger writing for Social Democracy For The 21st Century: A Post Keynesian Perspective has an interesting post about Keynes’ view on wages.

I have a few points to add, which may not be contradictory to that post. It’s possible Keynes’ understanding changed from his discussions with Kalecki. In fact, Jan Toporowski, biographer of Michael Kalecki sees Kalecki’s position as far superior compared to that of Keynes. In an article titled Kalecki And Keynes On Wages, he says:

Both Kalecki and Keynes realised that their macroeconomic analysis depended critically on the inability of the labour market to be brought into equilibrium by changes in wages, as postulated by neoclassical theory. In 1939 therefore they wrote their explanation for this inability of free markets in capitalism to attain the equilibrium imagined by Robbins, in which all resources, including labour, are fully utilised. Keynes however got stuck on the effects of wages on the short-period equilibrium in an abstract Marshallian model. Kalecki was able to demonstrate more clearly the complex real income effects of wage changes.

Kalecki’s approach to the subject was much clearer, and free of Marshallian dilemmas applied to historical data.

Jan Toporowski

Jan Toporowski, Levy Institute, May 2011

In the article, Toporowski points out the debate between Keynes and John T. Dunlop, Lorie Tarshis and Michal Kalecki. He also quotes Keynes from the GT:

in the short period, falling money wages and rising real wages are each, for independent reasons, likely to accompany decreasing employment; labour being readier to accept wage-cuts when employment is falling off, yet real wages inevitably rising in the same circumstances on account of the increasing marginal return to a given capital equipment when output is diminished.

Keynes was not fully correct on this but it is interesting to note that he was almost there. Perhaps his own quote explains: he himself couldn’t escape from old ideas which ramify into every corner of our minds.

In his book Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations, pp 277-278, Marc Lavoie says:

Indeed, in several versions of post-Keynesian short-run model of employment, higher real wages are conducive to higher levels of employment.

In their biography, Michal Kalecki (Great Thinkers In Economics), Julio López G and Michaël Assous point out that it was Michal Kalecki who first figured this out before Dunlop-Tarshis-Kalecki (1939) in his 1938 paper The determinants of distribution of the national income, also published in Collected works of Michal Kalecki, Vol. I, edited by J. Osiatynsky, Oxford University Press, 1990.


Collected Works Of Michal Kalecki - Volume 1


So here’s Kalecki. It’s great and humble of him to call it the “Keynesian theory”, although he found something contrary to Keynes’ own point. But that’s the thing about Keynes – he said a lot of things which is contrary to his own revolutionary thoughts. Heterodox economists see it in a nicer way. Joan Robinson would have said, “Keynes should not have said that”. Keynes’ opponents would pounce on his several vulnerabilities. And then there’s the bastardization of Keynes’ work. Most of economics before the crisis simply states: “Keynes is wrong”.  Over to Kalecki:

Final remarks

1. There are certain ‘workers’ friends’ who try to persuade the working class to abandon the fight for wages in its own interest, of course. The usual argument used for this purpose is that the increase of wages causes unemployment, and is thus detrimental to the working class as a whole.

The Keynesian theory undermines the foundation of this argument. Our investigation above has shown that a wage increase may change employment in either direction, but that this change is unlikely to be important. A wage increase, however, affects to a certain extent the distribution of income: it tends to reduce the degree of monopoly and thus to raise real wages. On the other hand, ‘real’ capitalist incomes tend to fall off because of the relative shift of income from rentiers to corporations, which lowers capitalist propensity to consume.

If viewed from this standpoint, strikes must have the full sympathy of ‘workers’ friends’. For a rise in wages tends to reduce the degree of monopoly, and thus to bring our imperfect system nearer to the ideal or free competition. On the other hand, it tends to increase the thriftiness of capitalists by causing a relative shift of income from rentiers to corporations. And ‘workers’ friends’ are usually admirers both of free competition and or thrift as a virtue of the capitalist class.

2. Another question may arise in connection with the Keynesian theory of wages. Is not the struggle of workers for higher wages idle if they lose whatever gain they may make in the form of a higher cost of living? We have shown that wage reduction causes a change in the distribution of the national income to the disadvantage of workers, and that in the event of an increase in wages the reverse occurs. This is not to deny, however, that changes in real wages are much smaller than those in money wages; but never the less they may be quite material, especially as we are dealing with averages which reflect only slightly great fluctuations in real wages in particular industries.

We noticed above the great stability of the relative share of manual labour in the national income. This is not in contradiction with the influence of money wages upon the distribution of the national income. On the contrary, the resistance to wage cuts prevents the degree of monopoly from rising in the slump to the extent it would if ‘free competition’ prevailed on the labour market. Although, in fact, the relative share of manual labour is more or less stable, this would not obtain if wages were very elastic.

It is quite true that the fight for wages is not likely to bring about fundamental changes in the distribution of the national income. Income and capital taxation are much more potent weapons to achieve this aim, for these taxes (as opposed to commodity taxes) do not affect prime costs, and thus do not tend to raise prices. But in order to redistribute income in this way, the government must have both the will and the power to carry it out, and this is unlikely in a capitalist system.

Marc Lavoie On The New Fiscalism

Writing for the Broadbent Institute’s blog, Marc Lavoie argues that now that Conservatives are out of power in Canada, the Federal Balanced Budget Act passed in June 2015 should be repealed. According to the Act, pay of the Prime Minister and Ministers and Deputy Ministers have to be reduced by 5% if the federal government is in deficit outside a recession and frozen if the economy is in recession.

Marc Lavoie says:

The Federal Balanced Budget Act that was included in the omnibus Bill C-59, and which passed third reading in June 2015, does not seem to have attracted much engagement either. The Act does not force the federal government to adopt a balanced budget – it has some of the flexibility advocated by the PBO. But it includes measures that discourage the federal government from taking expansionary fiscal measures pre-emptively before a recession is declared. Furthermore, it will induce the federal government to attempt to minimize budget deficits during recessions and to quickly achieve a balanced budget or budget surpluses.

The article also coins the phrase new fiscalism (term originally by Mario Seccareccia):

counter-cyclical fiscal policy should only be used when things are really bad, in particular when monetary policy seems to be running out of ammunition; otherwise, governments should achieve balanced budgets or surpluses.

Marc Lavoie instead argues that the Canadian federal government should use the large borrowing powers to aim to achieve full employment.

The full article Wage Suppression And The Federal Balanced Budget Act is here.

Rules about fiscal policy always have some dubiousness about them. This can easily be seen in stock-flow consistent (SFC) models. Let government expenditure be denoted by G, the tax rate by θ, and households’ propensities to consume out of income and wealth by α1 and α2, respectively. Imagine two almost similar economies

Economy 1: High propensities to consume – i.e., high values for α1 and α2.

Economy 2: Low propensities to consume – i.e., low values for α1 and α2.

Also assume the government expenditure G, and the tax rate θ are the same for both the economies. The budget deficit depends (among other things such as firms’ behavior) on G, θ, α1 and α2. Economy 1 will have a lower budget deficit and higher output and employment than Economy 2. So in order for Economy 2 to have the same level of output and employment as Economy 1, the government of Economy 2 should have a more expansionary fiscal policy than Economy 2. What the fiscal rules do is to endogenize fiscal policy (the government G and the average tax rate θ) with respect to the budget deficit.  This is further deflationary for Economy 2. This implies that fiscal rules have no legitimacy. Even within an economy, (such as either Economy 1 or Economy 2), propensities to consume are changing with time.

Fiscal policy rules sometimes are slightly less strict and accept balancing current expenditures with taxes. Even this is dubious – expenditure on paying school teachers isn’t less important in any sense than building a school. Even more importantly, the budget deficit depends on the current account balance of payments and a nation with a higher current account deficit than a similar economy with no external trade will have a lower output and higher budget deficit for the same fiscal policy.

Budget rules are hence deflationary to output and are anti-full-employment.

I hope the new Canadian government follows Marc Lavoie’s advice.

Sergio Cesaratto On TARGET2 Balances

Sergio Cesaratto has posted a reply on Matias Vernengo’s blog, replying to a paper by Marc Lavoie on economic problems of the Euro Area

For previous discussions, see the citations in that post or see my previous post on this.

Marc’s point is that because TARGET2 allows unlimited and uncollateralized credit/debit facilities between Euro Area NCBs and the ECB, the troubles facing the Euro Area are not balance-of-payments in origin.

As mentioned earlier, this however is not the thing to look at. One should look at counterparts to the intra-ESCB (TARGET2) debts. Intraday overdrafts, marginal lending facility, MRO, LTRO, ELA … none of these can rise without limit. At some point, a crisis occurs and foreigners’ help is needed.

Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Cyprus all have high negative net international investment positions. No wonder these nations have seen the most troubles.

I echo Sergio’s example (on Calabria) with a similar example of my own. If nations in a monetary union cannot face a balance-of-payments crisis, why not have the whole world join the Euro Area and adopt the Euro as their currency and have the ECB as the central bank of the world and guarantee all government debts without any condition? Surely, that should be the solution to the problems of the world! Not!

Surely austerity has been high and the ECB can help to keep government bond yields in check and allow for expansionary fiscal policies. It had its “OMT”, which has never been used as the annoucement effect itself has kept government bond yields low. But Greece has faced difficulties despite this.

The ECB alone cannot resolve the crisis.  Attempts to boost domestic demand with fiscal policy will bring higher imbalances within the Euro Area. The Euro Area needs a central government with high powers to tax and spend. Regional imbalances will be kept in check via fiscal transfers and regional policies of the government. And the powers of the government won’t be limited with this. There are many other things such as wages which need to be coordinated at the federal level, for example. Euro Area balance-of-payments cannot be neglected.

Sergio Cesaratto’s Debate With Marc Lavoie On Whether The Euro Area Crisis Is A Balance-Of-Payments Crisis – II

This is a continuation of the post from the end of 2014, although reading that isn’t necessary. 

In a new paper, Marc Lavoie continues his debate with Sergio Cesaratto on whether the Euro Area crisis is a balance-of-payments crisis or not. For the sake of completeness, here’s the list of papers, with references copy-pasted from Marc’s latest paper. Not all links are final versions and some may not be available to read in full).

  1. Cesaratto, S. 2013. “The Implications of TARGET2 in the European Balance of payments Crisis and Beyond.” European Journal of Economics and Economic Policy: Intervention 10, no. 3: 359–382. link
  2. Lavoie, M. 2015. “The Eurozone: Similarities to and Differences from Keynes’s Plan.” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 1 (Spring): 3–17. link
  3. Cesaratto, S. 2015. “Balance of Payments or Monetary Sovereignty?. In Search of the EMU’s Original Sin–Comments on Marc Lavoie’s The Eurozone: Similarities to and Differences from Keynes’s Plan.” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 2: 142–156. link
  4. Lavoie, M. 2015. “The Eurozone Crisis: A Balance-of-Payments Problem or a Crisis Due to a Flawed Monetary Design?” International Journal of Political Economy 44, no. 2: 157-160. (abstract)

As mentioned in my part 1, referred to on top of this post, I agree with Sergio Cesaratto.

sergio-and-marcSergio Cesaratto with Marc Lavoie (picture credit: Matias Vernengo)

Marc Lavoie’s main point in the final paper seems to be that, “Eurozone countries can never run out of TARGET2 balances, which can take unlimited negative values, so that the evolution of the balance of payments cannot be the source of the crisis”.

This is not accurate in my view. Although the rules of the Eurosystem allow unlimited and uncollateralized credit facility between the Euro Area NCBs and the ECB, one has to look at the counterpart to the T2 imbalances. If an economic unit transfers funds across border from country A to country B, this first results in a reduction of balances of banks in country A at their NCB and may result in an intraday overdraft (“daylight overdraft” in U.S. language), usage of the marginal lending facility with the NCB, an MRO, or an LTRO and finally ELA in late stages of a crisis (if capital outflow is large).

Marc himself mentions this point in his latest paper:

If a Eurozone country is running a current account deficit that banks from other Eurozone members decline to finance, or if it is subjected to capital outflows, then all that happens is that the national central bank of that country will be accumulating TARGET2 debit balances at the ECB. There is no legal limit to these debit balances. The national central bank with the debit balances, which pay interest at the target interest rate, has as a counterpart in its assets the advances that it must make to its national commercial banks at that same target interest rate. And the commercial banks can obtain central bank advances as long as they show proper collateral. Why would the size of current account deficits or TARGET2 debit balances worry speculators? There might be a problem with the quality of the loans that have been granted by the banks, or with the size of the government debt, but that as such has nothing directly to do with a balance-of-payments problem.

[italics: mine]

But that is the case! It’s because of balance-of-payments. Nations who had high indebtedness to the rest of the Euro Area saw more capital flight. This is because in times of crisis, there is a home bias and international investors are likely to sell securities abroad and repatriate funds home. Large current account imbalances lead to a large negative net international investment position. (It’s of course also true that revaluations are important, and this is what happened in the case of Ireland). So when non-residents sell securities to domestic investors, banks are likely to get into a bad situation because they have to accommodate these transfer of funds and are losing central bank balances on a large scale.

It is precisely nations which had worse net international investment positions which were affected as charted in my previous post on this.

Now moving on to definitions: what is a balance-of-payments problem? The simplest definition is the problem for residents in obtaining finance from non-residents. Greece precisely has been struggling to obtain funds from non-residents.

So I do not agree with Marc’s view that:

Cesaratto, as others, is adamant that the Eurozone crisis is a balance-of-payments crisis, whereas I believe, as others do, that this is a side issue.

Marc Lavoie also says that the people arguing for this view are implicitly assuming some kind of “excess saving” view on all this:

In discussions with colleagues who support a “current account deficit” view of the Eurozone crisis, I sometimes get the impression that they are also endorsing a kind of “excess saving” view of the economy. They tell me that current accounts deficits are unsustainable within the Eurozone because the core Eurozone countries will refuse to lend to the periphery and will thus prevent these countries from financing economic activity. This seems wrong to me.

I disagree with this. It’s precisely because residents’ liabilities are large compared to their financial assets that they have to rely on non-residents/foreigners. And during the crisis a lot of capital outflow has happened and this precisely shows that non-resident private investors are unwilling to lend again on the same scale as before. This obviously means that to obtain finance, governments of nations affected have to take the help of the official sector abroad, such as from governments, the ECB and the IMF. If TARGET2 alone could do the trick, is the Greek government foolish to go abroad?

It is of course true that the design of the Euro Area was faulty. But that still leaves open the question about why Germany is not facing a crisis as severe as Greece. The design view cannot explain this. Any country (or all countries) in the Euro Area could have faced a crisis. There is a pattern here and that is where balance-of-payments comes in.

This debate is an interesting one. Both Sergio Cesaratto and Marc Lavoie agree on almost everything, except this BIG thing.

Of course this also spills over to policy proposals. Marc Lavoie believes that the European Central Bank can guarantee that all nations can have independent fiscal policies (by promising to buy all government debt which the financial markets isn’t interested in purchasing). Sergio Cesaratto is clear on this (and I agree very much) – in another paper Alternative Interpretation of a Stateless Currency Crisis:

A more resolute role of the ECB as lender of last resort accompanied by fine-tuned expansionary fiscal policies can only be imagined in a different political and institutional framework, quite close to that of a political union.

Let’s consider what happens if there is no federal government and if the ECB is the main supranational authority (ignoring other supranational institutions which have limited powers). Suppose the ECB were to guarantee the debt of governments of all Euro Area nations. There’s nothing to prevent, say, the government of Finland to increase the compensation of its employees every year by a huge percentage and thereby affecting Finnish corporations’ compensation of its employees. This will result in a reduction of competitiveness of Finnish producers and Finnish resident economic units will rely more on goods and services produced abroad. This will raise Finland’s net indebtedness to the rest of the Euro Area and the world. If someone believes that this debt is not a problem, how about the inflationary impact of this rise in demand on the rest of the Euro Area?

So the solution lies in bringing down the balance-of-payments imbalances (both negative and positive ones such as that of Germany). This requires a supranational institution, which is a central government. National governments would have rules on their budgets but the central government — since its goals and objectives are different — wouldn’t be bound by any rules. Wage rises would need to be coordinated. And as I argue in this post, fiscal transfers also plays a role of keeping imbalances in check.

Of course there are many other economists who also argue that the Euro Area problem is a balance-of-payments problem, but with a different motive. Their argument is to blame the nations in crisis instead of taking a humanist approach.

To summarize, the Euro Area problem wouldn’t have been a balance-of-payments problem had the official sector promised to act as a lender of the last resort to national Euro Area governments without any condition. As long as there are conditions, it is a balance-of-payments problem. One cannot pretend that the European Central Bank has or can be given such powers to lend without any condition. And hence the Euro Area crisis is a balance-of-payments problem.

Ben Bernanke Embracing Heterodox Ideas

It’s remarkable how some economists were ahead of the time, while others such as Ben Bernanke seem to just catch up. In a recent post on his blog Ben Bernanke gives out some unorthodox ideas to resolve the Euro Area crisis.

Ben Bernanke says:

… Germany’s large trade surplus puts all the burden of adjustment on countries with trade deficits, who must undergo painful deflation of wages and other costs to become more competitive. Germany could help restore balance within the euro zone and raise the currency area’s overall pace of growth by increasing spending at home, through measures like increasing investment in infrastructure, pushing for wage increases for German workers (to raise domestic consumption), and engaging in structural reforms to encourage more domestic demand. Such measures would entail little or no short-run sacrifice for Germans, and they would serve the country’s longer-term interests by reducing the risks of eventual euro breakup.

Second, it’s time for the leaders of the euro zone to address the problem of large and sustained trade imbalances (either surpluses or deficits), which, in a fixed-exchange-rate system like the euro zone, impose significant costs and risks. For example, the Stability and Growth Pact, which imposes rules and penalties with the goal of limiting fiscal deficits, could be extended to reference trade imbalances as well. Simply recognizing officially that creditor as well as debtor countries have an obligation to adjust over time (through fiscal and structural measures, for example) would be an important step in the right direction.

That’s in 2015.

Compare that to the conclusion from a 2007 paper titled A Simple Model Of Three Economies With Two Currencies: The Eurozone And The USA written by Wynne Godley and Marc Lavoie for Cambridge Journal Of Economics (journal link):

… it should be noted that balanced fiscal and external positions for all could as well be reached if the euro country benefiting from a (quasi) twin surplus as a result of the negative external shock on the other euro country decided to increase its government expenditures, in an effort to get rid of its budget surplus. This case, where the surplus countries rather than the deficit countries adjust, as many authors have underlined, would eliminate the current downward bias in worldwide economic activity. Now this would require an entirely new attitude towards government deficits. One would need an anti-Maastricht approach, that would run against the Stability and Growth Pact and its neoliberal obsession with fiscal balance and government debt reduction. For instance, one would need a new Pact, that would discourage fiscal surpluses. National governments that ran budget surpluses would pay large proportional automatic levies to the European Union, who would be compelled to spend the sums thus collected in the deficit countries. In this manner, the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ members of the eurozone could converge towards a super-stationary state, with balanced budgets and current accounts, through an increase rather than a decrease in government expenditures and economic activity.

Alternatively, the present structure of the European Union would need to be modified, giving far more spending and taxing power to the European Union Parliament, transforming it into a bona fide federal government that would be able to engage into substantial equalisation payments which would automatically transfer fiscal resources from the more successful to the less successful members of the euro zone. In this manner, the eurozone would be provided with a mechanism that would reduce the present bias towards downward fiscal adjustments of the deficit countries. This raises the profound question as to whether in the long term it is possible to have a community of nations which have a single currency which does not have a federal budget of substantial size, and by implication a federal government to run it—a point that was made very early on in Godley (1992).

[italics in original]

Sergio Cesaratto’s Debate With Marc Lavoie On Whether The Euro Area Crisis Is A Balance-Of-Payments Crisis

Sergio Cesaratto has a new paper Balance Of Payments Or Monetary Sovereignty? In Search Of The EMU’s Original Sin – A Reply To Lavoie. (html link, pdf link)

I obviously agree with Sergio Cesaratto.

As long as there is no supranational fiscal authority, a Euro Area nation’s economic success is more restricted by its exports than otherwise as there is no mechanism for fiscal transfers. The European Central bank can of course backstop and to some extent it has done so, but it cannot let fiscal policy of nations become independent of balance of payments beyond a certain extent. If it does so, nations’ public debt will rise together with net indebtedness to foreigners relative to output and this will become unsustainable. The European Central Bank (the Eurosystem less the domestic National Central Bank) will become a huge creditor and this will not be acceptable to the rest of the Euro Area. (There is of course the question whether this would be morally right but I do not think it is immoral beyond a limit).

To some extent, Mario Draghi has acted the opposite and pushed austerity, but one cannot assume unlimited power for the ECB (Eurosystem to be precise).

The other way to check that it is indeed a balance-of-payments crisis is to simply see the net international investment position of nations. This chart is from 2011 (intentionally chosen to be old).


The nations troubled most had huge net indebtedness to foreigners. If it is not a balance-of-payments crisis, how does one explain that countries such Germany and Luxembourg had far less troubles than Greece and Portugal?

Abstract of the paper:

In a recent paper Marc Lavoie (2014) has criticized my interpretation of the Eurozone (EZ) crisis as a balance of payments crisis (BoP view for short). He rather identified the original sin “in the setup and self-imposed constraint of the European Central Bank”. This is defined here as the monetary sovereignty view. This view belongs to a more general view that see the source of the EZ troubles in its imperfect institutional design. According to the (prevailing) BoP view, supported with different shades by a variety of economists from the conservative Sinn to the progressive Frenkel, the original sin is in the current account (CA) imbalances brought about by the abandonment of exchange rate adjustments and in the inducement to peripheral countries to get indebted with core countries. An increasing number of economists would add the German neo-mercantilist policies as an aggravating factor. While the BoP crisis appears as a fact, a better institutional design would perhaps have avoided the worse aspects of the current crisis and permitted a more effective action by the ECB. Leaving aside the political unfeasibility of a more progressive institutional set up, it is doubtful that this would fix the structural unbalances exacerbated by the euro. Be this as it may, one can, of course, blame the flawed institutional set up and the lack an ultimate action by the ECB as the culprit of the crisis, as Lavoie seems to argue. Yet, since this institutional set up is not there, the EZ crisis manifests itself as a balance of payment crisis.

Excerpt from the conclusion:

… To conclude, since the EZ is closer to a fixed exchange rate regime rather than to a viable, U.S.-style CU, the euro-crisis is akin to a classical BoP crisis. True, the existence of T2 and the possibility of some ECB backing to troubled local sovereign debts make some difference. However, the limits to an ultimate action by the ECB in connection to the absence of other institutions that compose a viable CU render its action necessarily restricted. One can, of course, blame the lack of these institutions and of an ultimate action by the ECB as the culprit of the crisis, as Lavoie and De Grauwe seem to maintain. Yet, since those institutions are not there, the EZ crisis manifests itself as a balance of payment crisis …

Finally, remember the balance-of-payments constraint manifests itself as lower domestic demand and output as much as financial crises.

In general — in other institutional setups, the importance of the government’s power to make drafts at its central bank is exaggerated. It is highly important of course, but problems of balance-of-payments restrain the power of governments in having a fiscal policy independent of what is happening in international trade. In the Euro Area, the lack of critique of the “Common Market” is striking. One can however see these discussions in the works of Nicholas Kaldor.

Unlimited TARGET2 power?

An important point in the current discussion is around the issue of limits of TARGET2. It is true that the TARGET2 system has large powers to absorb imbalances. The intra-Eurosystem debts need not be collateralized. However, when there is capital flight from a nation, banks become more indebted to their NCB. This process can go on for a long time but ultimately it is restricted by collateral banks can provide to their NCB for replenishing lost settlement balances. There is of course the ELA, Emergency Loan Assistance, but this too is limited beyond a point. There is a lot of politics involved here with some nations complaining unfairly on debtor nations’ use of the ELA, but beyond a certain point, their complaints may be fair.

To summarize, TARGET2 is a big shock absorber: beyond what any economist may have expected, but it cannot absorb shocks beyond a limit.

Updated 22 Dec 2014, 6:56pm UTC