An MMT Thought Experiment: The Arithmetic and Political Mechanics of Net Financial Assets

Imagine that over the next week (in a closed American economy — the rest of the world has never existed) everyone sold all their financial assets, paid off all their debts, and deposited the remaining money (and any currency they have) in their checking accounts. No money-market funds, even. Just banks with reserve accounts at the Fed, holding everybody’s money in “cash.”

All those other financial asset prices would dive to zero. Late sellers would sell for nothing.

Would the remaining money in all the bank accounts equal U.S. government debt? That seems to be the implication of MMT thinking, because the remaining money only exists because it got spent into existence by the government deficit spending — crediting bank accounts with that fiat, ex nihilo money in the first place.

Net financial assets = gross financial assets = government debt

(If the government had always just deficit-spent instead of borrowing to cover its deficits, “government debt” would be replaced by “cumulative to-date government deficit spending.”)

I ask not just for clarity, but because (as always), I’m struggling with the relationship between fixed assets and financial assets, between saving and investment.

It’s said that the true wealth of the nation — the “national savings” — consists of its real assets: stuff that can be consumed in the future through use and time/natural decay. The NIPAs only count “fixed assets” — hardware (equipment), software, and structures, so let’s pretend that those constitute all real assets (which they don’t in actuality — not by a long shot). Net investment — purchases/creation minus consumption of fixed assets — increases the stock of fixed assets/”savings.”

In theory, financial assets are just financialized, monetized representatives, proxies, for the real, fixed assets that underly them. And indeed over the (very?) long term, the quantity of fixed assets and net financial assets rise together. Both are much larger today in the U.S. than they are in Thailand, or the U.S. in 1910. Financial-asset values wander all over — even over decades — based on “animal spirits,” but again in the long term…

If that’s so, then in our thought experiment:

Net financial assets = gross financial assets = government debt = fixed assets

The quantity of fixed assets increases over time through net investment. But by MMT thinking, net financial assets can only increase through government deficit spending (or trade surpluses). What is the mechanism whereby government deficit spending is translated into more net financial assets that embody the increased stock of fixed assets?

I imagine a necessarily political mechanism something like the following:

1. People and businesses buy/create fixed assets, resulting in more economic activity — creating/consuming, buying/selling, spending/income.

2. Those increased quantities (both stocks and flows) create more demand for government services. Both individuals and businesses would be decidedly unhappy, I’m thinking, if today’s government were the same size it was, at least in absolute terms, in 1870. (Conservatives and libertarians may say otherwise, but they’re talking through their hats.)

3. Legislators and executives who don’t provide those increased services don’t get re-elected.

4. Taxation lags behind spending — resulting in deficits — because A) people hate taxes and vote against politicians who raise them, and B) if deficit spending is not sufficient to match the increases in fixed assets, depressions result, and the “fiscally responsible” leaders get voted out.

5. The new money from government deficit spending is used to purchase financial assets, driving their prices up to (roughly) match the value of fixed assets.

This is thinking of government and the Fed as one consolidated entity. If you think of them as separate, you can imagine a different mechanism, in which the Fed and the congress/president are engaged in a constant chicken game over inflation, unemployment, and GDP growth, to determine how and when to increase the amount of money/net financial assets (ultimately through deficit spending) to match the stock of fixed assets.

These mechanics would also explain how buying/creating a bunch of drill presses will — through a long, tangled, and messy political process, and in the long but not the short run — result in more “loanable funds.”

Cr0ss-posted at Asymptosis.