06 February 2020

On Modern Monetary Theory

The availability of better (micro-) data has enabled modern mainstream macroeconomics to make substantial progress during the last decades. Surprisingly, however, some rather fundamental questions either remain largely unanswered or still lack satisfactory answers within the prevailing paradigm of economics. These deficiencies are regularly pointed out by lateral thinkers who propose alternative “theories” that often reside outside of mainstream economics. One such new macroeconomic theory is the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and it has recently attracted some attention in the press.


The MMT stems from the criticism that there continues to be no established satisfactory theory about the optimal level of government debt. It is rather remarkable that this is true. Policy makers in many countries seem to know better; they have recently been adopting stringent debt limits. In both Germany and Switzerland, for example, the constitution requires that nominal debt does not (systematically) increase over time. The USA also has a cap on nominal debt (the so-called debt ceiling), although it is regularly lifted via painful negotiations. It is astonishing that mainstream economics lacks the scientific foundation to contribute to this important debate on the “right” level of debt and on the sustainability of increasing levels of debt. On the other hand, it is equally worrying that scientifically unfounded tendencies towards “low” debt and limits to nominal debt have found their ways into constitutions. The MMT supporters have positioned themselves in this debate with the claim that high levels of debt are sustainable. This claim is based on the blunt observation that a government can always avoid defaulting on nominal debt denominated in its own currency by printing money, that is, by creating unlimited amounts of money to respect its debt obligations.


A second criticism of mainstream economics by MMT supporters is worth mentioning. It relates to the monetary transmission mechanism, that is, the question about how the actions of central banks affect the (real) economy. Mainstream thinking centers around the belief that central banks successfully affect the price level and inflation by adjusting (nominal) interest rates, thereby affecting the real economy, that is, consumption, savings and investment decisions. In fact, actual monetary policy around the world is still based on the assumption that this monetary transmission channel is powerful. However, recent research has shown that the empirical evidence for this channel is, at best, limited. The MMT thus correctly questions a central pillar of monetary policy. MMT supporters instead suggest that the real economy can be affected more effectively by relying on fiscal policy. The positive nature of the main MMT message may have contributed to the attention it has recently attracted not only in the US, but also in the German press (FAZ, Handelsblatt): full employment at “acceptable” wages can be achieved through expansionary fiscal policy, which, in turn, is sustainable if supported by monetary policy setting a sufficiently low interest rate.

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