Treasury and finance teams need to adapt to the reality of different thinking about debt and deficits.
By Joseph Neu
“We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said after the Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting.
- This was good timing for me: On the same day, I suggested to clients of Chatham Financial attending a virtual summit that among the accelerating trends treasury and financial risk managers need to prepare for is the current flirtation with Modern Monetary Theory.
Study up on MMT. For those with a limited understanding of MMT, including me, it’s time to bone up, because without really saying they are doing so, governments and central banks of developed nations seem to be pushing us very close to something that will end up looking like an MMT experiment.
- The zero-rates-for-the-foreseeable-future policy coming out of the Fed is telling, because one of the tenets of MMT is to set rates at zero to borrow more efficiently to cover needed government spending and print money to repay it. Apparently, though, some MMT proponents suggest that it’s even more efficient just to print money to cover government deficits and not issue any debt at all.
- It’s probably safer to keep the government debt issuance going for now as it underpins private sector debt financing, credit and interest rate management. Many of us have to unlearn what we’ve been taught about printing money and inflation, too, before we stop worrying about how we will pay off government debt.
- Taxes, in the MMT view, are not to increase cash flow to pay the debt but to take out excess printed money from the system so that we don’t get to hyperinflation.
After studying MMT, those of you who are treasury and financial risk managers should consider:
- Changing your thinking about financial risk. The developed world seems to be on a mission to test MMT. Time to adjust thinking to that reality.
- Rethinking your fixed-rate bias. For current policy to work, we need low rates (even zero, if not negative) to be the norm, so the economics of swaps or interest-rate risk management isn’t necessarily going to be the same.
- Accepting central banks as financial market primaries. The massive central bank intervention crisis playbook has sped up. How much more can the Fed do before it becomes the primary financing mechanism for everything?
- Is your company a have or a have not? The divide between those that have unlimited access to capital and those that do not will widen—and it is not limited to sovereigns. If sovereigns have unlimited ability to finance deficits and issue debt, they also have unlimited ability to support the financing of entities they deem unworthy of failure. Meanwhile, the financially strongest private entities will look for an equivalent power to print money.
- Becoming “antifragile.” MMT (or whatever governs our financial economic situation now) is not likely sustainable; or if it is, the transition to everyone believing it is unlikely to be smooth. So risk managers must promote resilience in preparation for the unknown of what comes next.
- If you subscribe to Nassim Taleb’s view, then the most resilient risk management approach is to become “antifragile.” That is, strive to manage risk through the transition to MMT (or whatever we end up with) so that you can benefit from shocks while thriving and growing when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors. And don’t forget learning to love adventure, risk and uncertainty.