Why can’t people understand national accounting?

I was on RT’s Capital Account last night talking to Lauren Lyster about the euro zone debt crisis. At the end of the show, we came up against the deficit problem and the question about how it should be solved. I get frustrated by this topic because the whole framing of the problem presented in the media is wrong because it gets cause and effect totally backwards. The question the media asks is "how can government cut the government deficit?" The real question is "why are deficits high to begin with and what should we do about it?" And it’s this question that gets people into trouble.

I’ll let you in on a secret: before this crisis, when I thought about the budget deficit I was like everyone else in that I paid no attention to how the government budget interacted with the private and trade sector balances. This is a big error. If you do that, you treat the government budget deficit in isolation, when the reality is that the government is an integral part of an open economy with households and businesses that trade domestically and abroad. When the government balance changes, the balances for those businesses and households change too. If you are talking about deficits then, you need to know how changes in the government balance affect the rest of the economy.

Here’s the thing: when we exchange goods and services with each other, from an accounting perspective, it’s a wash; if you buy my goods, I get money and you get goods of equivalent value. If you pay for those goods with an I.O.U., with a debt, your liability, your deficit in the year we made the transaction, is exactly equal to the asset on my balance sheet and my surplus for the year. I mean this is basic accounting, folks. There’s no hocus pocus. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s debt is someone else’s asset. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s deficit is someone else’s surplus. Again, it’s basic accounting.

Think of it like exchange traded options and the profit and losses on the exchange. People buy and sell oil futures or soybean futures. At the end of the option period, they either have a loss or a profit and that period’s deficit or surplus is exactly offset by the deficit or surplus of the counterparties. When you sum up these deficits and surpluses they net to zero. Again, no hocus pocus. That’s how accounting works.

The same is true for national accounts. At the end of any accounting period, then, the sum of the sectoral financial balances must net to zero. The government balance – the private balance – capital account balance = 0. The government balance = the private balance + the capital account balance. See my post Economics 101 on government budget deficits for the full write-up. I credit British economist Wynne Godley for making this identity relevant to macro economics.

What does all this mean then? Put simply, the financial sector balances framework means that when the government sector runs a deficit, the non-government sector runs a surplus of equivalent size. So, to move any sector balance in an open economy, you need to move the other two balances exactly opposite in equivalent measure. To reduce the government deficit in any period, the private balance and the capital balance must increase by the exact same amount in that period.

Thinking about government deficits this way opens a whole new understanding of what cutting deficits means for the economy. What it should mean to you is that deficits are the effect and not the cause. Budget deficits are the result of the ex-post accounting identity between the sectoral balances and should not be a primary goal of public policy. Let me give you an example.

Why are deficits so high? What I have been saying is that private debt is the problem. Debt has been a substitute for income due to stagnant wages. Now that the credit bubble’s asset price inflation has turned to deflation, people, businesses and banks have found themselves saddled with debts that are not adequately underpinned by asset collateral. Businesses have done some serious heavy lifting here and debt in the corporate sector is not a problem. But households are still over-indebted. As long as household financial assets provide insufficient collateral for the debts that depend on them, the household sector will continue to maintain a reduced level of consumption and investment as a percentage of income to deal with that debt. Businesses see this and reduce their investment too. And we get stuck in a lower-investment, higher savings world that leads to deficits.

So, in that context, attempts at austerity make things considerably worse. If the government cuts back, the private debt overhang will still be there and the private sector will simply have less money to deal with it. The household sector will still attempt to keep its net saving, its surplus, high and so government cuts will be felt primarily in the form of reduced household consumption and increased private sector defaults. In the context of a still weak banking system, that could create the kind of downward spiral we witnessed during the Great Depression as banks failed. It creates the kind of paradox of thrift that makes deficit reduction harder which we are witnessing in the euro zone as many of us including James Montier predicted.

In my view, austerity is a failed paradigm. Clearly, government shouldn’t have wasteful programs to begin with. So there should be no need to cut them to cut a deficit. Moreover, the deficit is the result of an ex-post accounting identity between private savings, and capital account and government balances. It makes zero sense to target the effect (deficits) instead of the cause (excess credit growth and malinvestment). In plain English that means the policy prescriptions are the economic input and the deficit is the output. Focus on the policy and policy goals, not deficits.

The way I look at this crisis puts me into Ray Dalio’s camp. The right narrative for what has happened is that the depression has been the result of significant malinvestment that was built up during the so-called ‘Great Moderation’ as a result of loose monetary policy at the Fed and other central banks in a world awash in fiat money. The real policy question should be how to eliminate the malinvestment and reallocate capital investment to useful productive enterprises without creating a deflationary spiral. When credit is written down, GDP drops and people are thrown out of work. That can be mitigated. It is bank runs that create deflationary spirals. So the answer is to write down assets and recapitalise the banking system quickly rather than dragging it out. The goal should be to allow increased savings and debt and debt interest reduction to combine with increased income to accelerate the deleveraging process without causing runs.

I named my blog “Credit Writedowns” because I anticipated an historic wave of credit writedowns in the global banking system which would lead to a wave of deleveraging, systemic risk, and bank failures — in short, a massive financial and economic bust to rival the Great Depression. My hope had been to draw attention to the systemic risk associated with the deleveraging process necessary to purge these excesses. But since I began writing here four years ago, it has become clear to me that the goal of most policy makers is to avoid the pain of deleveraging by any means necessary. Their goal has been to extend and pretend, dragging it out, resisting credit writedowns and resisting recapitalising the banking system.

But debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Rather than resist this process, policy makers should embrace it and mitigate the downside.

UPDATE 6/3 2012: I should have noted from the outset that the first two thirds of this post are fact and the last third contains an Austrian-styled interpretation of the origins of the crisis. See my post "Ludwig von Mises on Austrian Business Cycle Theory" for a write-up of why the part on malinvestment and Fed policy is Austrian.

Tom Hickey at Mike Norman Economics, an MMT blog, writes a reminder from the MMT perspective that:

folks like Bill Black, Michael Hudson, and Randy Wray, all of UMKC, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, and Janet Tavakoli of Tavakoli Structured Finance have documented that the problem arose from what Bill Black calls a criminogenic environment in the financial sector, both the mortgage market and the securitization process. It continues in the foreclosure debacle.

Yes I agree that the deregulation as crony capitalism was a major factor. See my post on Corporatism masquerading as Liberty for example. Nonetheless, I am sticking to my Austrian interpretation here about artificially low rates after the tech bubble as the most significant factor in housing’s parabolic move higher and the attendant malinvestment from capital misallocation. At a later juncture, I might try to synthesize or compare and contrast to give you a more balanced perspective. I have added this update in part for this reason.


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.