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Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem

Modern monetary theory: the rise of economists who say huge government debt is not a problem

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There is no limit to the quantity of money that can be created by a central bank such as the Bank of England. It was different in the days of the gold standard, when central banks were restrained by a promise to redeem their money for gold on demand. But countries moved away from this system in the early part of the 20th century, and central banks nowadays can issue as much money as they like.

This observation is the root of modern monetary theory (MMT), which has attracted new attention during the pandemic, as governments around the world increase spending and public debts become all the more burdensome.

MMT proponents argue that governments can spend as necessary on all desirable causes – reducing unemployment, green energy, better healthcare and education – without worrying about paying for it with higher taxes or increased borrowing. Instead, they can pay using new money from their central bank. The only limit, according to this view, is if inflation starts to rise, in which case the solution is to increase taxes.

MMT’s roots

The ideas behind MMT were mainly developed in the 1970s, notably by Warren Mosler, an American investment fund manager, who is also credited with doing much to popularise it. However, there are many threads that can be traced further back, for instance to an early 20th-century group called the chartalists, who were interested in explaining why currencies had value.

These days, prominent supporters of MMT include L Randall Wray, who teaches regular courses on the theory at Bard college in Hudson, New York state. Another academic, Stephanie Kelton, has gained the ear of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Democrat US presidential candidate Joe Biden, providing theoretical justification for expanding government spending.

There are more strands to MMT besides the idea that governments don’t need to worry overly about spending. For instance, supporters advocate job guarantees, where the state creates jobs for unemployed people. They also argue that the purpose of taxation is not, as mainstream economics would have it, to pay for government spending, but to give people a purpose for using money: they have to use it to pay their tax.

But if we overlook these points, the main policy implication of MMT is not so controversial. It is not too far from the current new-Keynesian orthodoxy which advises that if there is unemployment, this can be cured by stimulating the economy – either through monetary policy, which focuses on cutting interest rates; or through the fiscal policies of lower taxes and higher spending.

Against this position is the monetarist doctrine that inflation is caused by too much money, and the common belief that too much government debt is bad. These two principles explain why central banks are strongly focused on inflation targets (2% in the UK), while the aversion to debt in the UK and elsewhere was the driving force behind the “austerity” policy of cutting government spending to reduce the deficit – at least until the coronavirus pandemic made governments change direction.

The crux

So, who is right – the MMT school or the fiscal and monetary conservatives? In particular, is it sensible to pay for government spending with central bank money?

When a government spends more than it receives in taxation, it has to borrow, which it usually does by selling bonds to private sector investors such as pension funds and insurance companies. Yet since 2009, the central banks of the UK, US the eurozone, Japan and other countries have been buying large amounts of these bonds from the private-sector holders, paying for their purchases with newly created money. The purpose of this so-called “quantitative easing” (QE) has been to stimulate economic activity and to prevent deflation, and it has been greatly expanded in response to the pandemic.

At present in the UK, over £600 billion or 30% of government debt is effectively financed by central bank money – this is the value of government bonds now held by the Bank of England as a result of QE. There are similar high proportions in the other countries that have been undertaking QE.

Despite all this creation of new central bank money and the large increase in government debt in the UK and other large economies since the financial crisis of 2007-09, nowhere has there been a problem with inflation. Indeed, Japan has struggled for three decades to raise its inflation rate above zero. This evidence – that neither large debt nor large money creation has caused inflation – seems to vindicate the MMT policy recommendation to spend.

UK public debt as a % GDP

Trading Economics

Of course, there are many counterexamples in which these conditions have been associated with hyperinflation, such as Argentina in 1989, Russia at the breakup of the Soviet Union, and more recently Zimbabwe and Venezuela. But in all these cases there was an assortment of additional problems such as government corruption or instability, a history of defaults on government debt, and an inability to borrow in the country’s own currency. Thankfully, the UK does not suffer from these problems.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, UK government spending has been rapidly increasing. Debt is now about £2 trillion or 100% of GDP. And the Bank of England, under its latest QE programme, has been buying up UK government bonds almost as fast as the government is issuing it.

Thus the crucial question is: will inflation remain subdued? Or will this vast new increase in QE-financed government spending finally cause inflation to take off, as the easing of lockdown releases pent-up demand?

If there is inflation, the Bank of England’s task will be to choke it off by raising interest rates, and/or reversing QE. Or the government could try out the MMT proposal to stifle the inflation with higher taxes. The trouble is that all these responses will also depress economic activity. In such circumstances, the MMT doctrine of free spending will not look so attractive after all.

John Whittaker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Zika Vaccine Targeting Nonstructural Viral Proteins Found Effective in Mice

UCLA scientists report positive preclinical results on the safety and efficacy of an RNA vaccine (ZVAX) against the mosquito borne Zika virus that severely…

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Positive preclinical results on the safety and efficacy of an RNA vaccine (ZVAX) against the mosquito-borne Zika virus that severely compromises brain development in children of infected mothers, were published in the journal Microbiology Spectrum on September 28, 2022 “Replication-Deficient Zika Vector-Based Vaccine Provides Maternal and Fetal Protection in Mouse Model.” The investigators tested the vaccine in pregnant mice and report the vaccine prevents systemic Zika infection in both mothers and developing fetuses.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the power of a strong pandemic preparedness plan and clear communication about prevention methods—all culminating in the rapid rollout of safe and reliable vaccines,” said senior author of the study, Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, DVM, PhD, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Our research is a crucial first step in developing an effective vaccination program that could curb the spread of Zika virus and prevent large-scale spread from occurring.”

Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, DVM, PhD, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is a co-senior author of the study.

Engineering the vaccine

The experimental vaccine is composed of RNA that encodes nonstructural proteins found within the pathogen that trigger an immune response against the virus.

Arumugaswami said, “Engineering the vaccine involved deleting the part of the Zika genome that codes for the viral shell. This modification both stimulates an immunogenic reaction and prevents the virus from replicating and spreading from cell to cell.”

Eliminating structural proteins that mutate rapidly to escape the immune system also ensures that the vaccine trains the recipient’s immune system to recognize viral elements that are less likely to alter. The researchers packaged the replication deficient Zika vaccine particles in human producer cells and verified antigen expression in vitro.

Nikhil Chakravarty, a co-author of the study and student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health
oversaw data analysis and writing of the manuscript.

“We deleted not just the gene responsible for encoding the capsid, but also those encoding the viral envelope and membrane. This vaccine is replication-deficient—it cannot spread among cells,” said co-author of the study, Nikhil Chakravarty, a master’s student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Chakravarty clarified, “The deletion itself does not lead to stimulation of immune response but it makes this vaccine safer by rendering it replication deficient. The nonstructural proteins encoded by the RNA packaged in the vaccine stimulate more of a T-cell immune response that can specifically recognize Zika-infected cells and prevent viral replication and the spread of infection.”

The team showed increased effector T cell numbers in vaccinated versus unvaccinated mouse models. Using mass cytometry, the researchers showed high levels of splenic CD81 positive T cells and effector memory T cell responses and low levels of proinflammatory cell responses in vaccinated animals, suggesting that endogenous expression of the nonstructural viral proteins by the vaccine induced cellular immunity. There were no changes in antibody mediated humoral immunity in the vaccinated mice.

Co-author Gustavo Garcia, Jr., oversaw and conducted much of the experimentation reported in the study.

“We saw complete protective immunity against Zika virus in both pregnant and nonpregnant animals, speaking to the strength and utility of our vaccine candidate,” said Chakravarty. “This supports the deployment of this vaccine in pregnant mothers—the population, perhaps, most at need—upon further clinical evaluation. This would help mitigate some of the socioeconomic fallout from a potential Zika outbreak, as well as prevent neurological and developmental deficits in Zika-exposed children.”

The investigators administered the RNA vaccine using a prime-boost regimen where an initial dose was followed up by a booster dose. To estimate the durability of the vaccine, the researchers monitored the mice for a month-and-a-half, which is equivalent to approximately seven years in humans.

Chakravarty said, “Since the vaccine is geared toward stimulating T-cell response, we anticipate it will induce longer-lasting immunity than if it were just stimulating antibody immune response.”

Pandemic preparedness

The global Zika outbreak in 2016, led to efforts in developing effective therapies and vaccines against the virus. However, no vaccines or treatments have been approved for Zika virus yet.

“Other Zika vaccine candidates mainly focused on using structural proteins as immunogens, which preferably stimulates antibody response. Our candidate is unique in that it targets nonstructural proteins, which are more conserved across viral variants, and stimulate T-cell-mediated immunity,” said Chakravarty.

Epidemiological studies have shown that the Zika virus spreads approximately every seven years. Moreover, the habitats of Zika-spreading mosquitoes are increasing due to climate change, increasing the likelihood of human exposure to the virus.

“Given that RNA viruses—the category to which both Zika and the SARS family of viruses belong—are highly prone to evolving and mutating rapidly, there will likely be more outbreaks in the near future,” said Arumugaswami.

Kouki Morizono, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA is a co-senior author of this study.

“It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the virus spread again,” said Kouki Morizono, MD, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA and co-senior author of this study.

Before the vaccine candidate can be tested in humans, the researchers will be test it non-human primate models.

The post Zika Vaccine Targeting Nonstructural Viral Proteins Found Effective in Mice appeared first on GEN - Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

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Why is Russia sending oil and gas workers to fight in Ukraine? It may signal more energy cutoffs ahead

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not hesitated to use energy as a weapon. An expert on global energy markets analyzes what could come next.

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The new Baltic Pipe natural gas pipeline connects Norwegian natural gas fields in the North Sea with Denmark and Poland, offering an alternative to Russian gas. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Russia’s effort to conscript 300,000 reservists to counter Ukraine’s military advances in Kharkiv has drawn a lot of attention from military and political analysts. But there’s also a potential energy angle.

In its call for reservists, Russia’s leadership specifically targeted oil and gas workers for the draft. One might assume that energy workers, who provide fuel and export revenue that Russia desperately needs, are too valuable to the war effort to be conscripted. But this surprising move follows escalating energy conflicts between Russia and Europe.

The explosions in September 2022 that damaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, and that may have been sabotage, are just the latest developments in this complex and unstable arena. As an analyst of global energy policy, I expect that more energy cutoffs could be in the cards – either directly ordered by the Kremlin to escalate economic pressure on European governments or as a result of new sabotage, or even because shortages of trained Russian manpower as a result of conscription lead to accidents or stoppages.

Dwindling natural gas flows

Russia has significantly reduced natural gas shipments to Europe in an effort to pressure European nations who are siding with Ukraine. In May 2022, the state-owned energy company Gazprom closed a key pipeline that runs through Belarus and Poland.

In June, the company reduced shipments to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which has a capacity of 170 million cubic meters per day, to only 40 million cubic meters per day. A few months later, Gazprom announced that Nord Stream 1 needed repairs and shut it down completely. Now U.S. and European leaders charge that Russia deliberately damaged the pipeline to further disrupt European energy supplies. The timing of the pipeline explosion coincided with the start up of a major new natural gas pipeline from Norway to Poland.

Russia has very limited alternative export infrastructure that can move Siberian natural gas to other customers, like China, so most of the gas it would normally be selling to Europe cannot be shifted to other markets. Natural gas wells in Siberia may need to be taken out of production, or shut in, in energy-speak, which could free up workers for conscription.

European dependence on Russian oil and gas evolved over decades. Now, reducing it is posing hard choices for EU countries.

Restricting Russian oil profits

Russia’s call-up of reservists also includes workers from companies specifically focused on oil. This has led some seasoned analysts to question whether supply disruptions might spread to oil, either by accident or on purpose.

One potential trigger is the Dec. 5, 2022, deadline for the start of phase six of European Union energy sanctions against Russia. Confusion about the package of restrictions and how they will relate to a cap on what buyers will pay for Russian crude oil has muted market volatility so far. But when the measures go into effect, they could initiate a new spike in oil prices.

Under this sanctions package, Europe will completely stop buying seaborne Russian crude oil. This step isn’t as damaging as it sounds, since many buyers in Europe have already shifted to alternative oil sources.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it exported roughly 1.4 million barrels per day of crude oil to Europe by sea, divided between Black Sea and Baltic routes. In recent months, European purchases have fallen below 1 million barrels per day. But Russia has actually been able to increase total flows from Black Sea and Baltic ports by redirecting crude oil exports to China, India and Turkey.

Russia has limited access to tankers, insurance and other services associated with moving oil by ship. Until recently, it acquired such services mainly from Europe. The change means that customers like China, India and Turkey have to transfer some of their purchases of Russian oil at sea from Russian-owned or chartered ships to ships sailing under other nations’ flags, whose services might not be covered by the European bans. This process is common and not always illegal, but often is used to evade sanctions by obscuring where shipments from Russia are ending up.

To compensate for this costly process, Russia is discounting its exports by US$40 per barrel. Observers generally assume that whatever Russian crude oil European buyers relinquish this winter will gradually find alternative outlets.

Where is Russian oil going?

The U.S. and its European allies aim to discourage this increased outflow of Russian crude by further limiting Moscow’s access to maritime services, such as tanker chartering, insurance and pilots licensed and trained to handle oil tankers, for any crude oil exports to third parties outside of the G-7 who pay rates above the U.S.-EU price cap. In my view, it will be relatively easy to game this policy and obscure how much Russia’s customers are paying.

On Sept. 9, 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued new guidance for the Dec. 5 sanctions regime. The policy aims to limit the revenue Russia can earn from its oil while keeping it flowing. It requires that unless buyers of Russian oil can certify that oil cargoes were bought for reduced prices, they will be barred from obtaining European maritime services.

However, this new strategy seems to be failing even before it begins. Denmark is still making Danish pilots available to move tankers through its precarious straits, which are a vital conduit for shipments of Russian crude and refined products. Russia has also found oil tankers that aren’t subject to European oversight to move over a third of the volume that it needs transported, and it will likely obtain more.

Traders have been getting around these sorts of oil sanctions for decades. Tricks of the trade include blending banned oil into other kinds of oil, turning off ship transponders to avoid detection of ship-to-ship transfers, falsifying documentation and delivering oil into and then later out of major storage hubs in remote parts of the globe. This explains why markets have been sanguine about the looming European sanctions deadline.

One fuel at a time

But Russian President Vladimir Putin may have other ideas. Putin has already threatened a larger oil cutoff if the G-7 tries to impose its price cap, warning that Europe will be “as frozen as a wolf’s tail,” referencing a Russian fairy tale.

U.S. officials are counting on the idea that Russia won’t want to damage its oil fields by turning off the taps, which in some cases might create long-term field pressurization problems. In my view, this is poor logic for multiple reasons, including Putin’s proclivity to sacrifice Russia’s economic future for geopolitical goals.

A woman walks past a billboard reading: Stop buying fossil fuels. End the war.
Stand With Ukraine campaign coordinator Svitlana Romanko demonstrates in front of the European Parliament on Sept. 27, 2022. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Russia managed to easily throttle back oil production when the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed world oil demand temporarily in 2020, and cutoffs of Russian natural gas exports to Europe have already greatly compromised Gazprom’s commercial future. Such actions show that commercial considerations are not a high priority in the Kremlin’s calculus.

How much oil would come off the market if Putin escalates his energy war? It’s an open question. Global oil demand has fallen sharply in recent months amid high prices and recessionary pressures. The potential loss of 1 million barrels per day of Russian crude oil shipments to Europe is unlikely to jack the price of oil back up the way it did initially in February 2022, when demand was still robust.

Speculators are betting that Putin will want to keep oil flowing to everyone else. China’s Russian crude imports surged as high as 2 million barrels per day following the Ukraine invasion, and India and Turkey are buying significant quantities.

Refined products like diesel fuel are due for further EU sanctions in February 2023. Russia supplies close to 40% of Europe’s diesel fuel at present, so that remains a significant economic lever.

The EU appears to know it must kick dependence on Russian energy completely, but its protected, one-product-at-a-time approach keeps Putin potentially in the driver’s seat. In the U.S., local diesel fuel prices are highly influenced by competition for seaborne cargoes from European buyers. So U.S. East Coast importers could also be in for a bumpy winter.

Amy Myers Jaffe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Butter, garage doors and SUVs: Why shortages remain common 2½ years into the pandemic

The bullwhip effect describes small changes in demand that become amplified as they move down the supply chain, resulting in shortages. The pandemic put…

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Consumers have been seeing empty shelves throughout the pandemic. Diana Haronis/Moment

Shortages of basic goods still plague the U.S. economy – 2½ years after the pandemic’s onset turned global supply chains upside down.

Want a new car? You may have to wait as long as six months, depending on the model you order. Looking for a spicy condiment? Supplies of Sriracha hot sauce have been running dangerously low. And if you feed your cat or dog dry pet food, expect empty shelves or elevated prices.

These aren’t isolated products. Baby formula, wine and spirits, lawn chairs, garage doors, butter, cream cheese, breakfast cereal and many more items have also been facing shortages in the U.S. during 2022 – and popcorn and tomatoes are expected to be in short supply soon.

In fact, global supply chains have been under the most strain in at least a quarter-century, and have been pretty much ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

I have been immersed in supply chain management for over 35 years, both as a manager and consultant in the private sector and as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University - Global Campus.

While each product experiencing a shortage has its own story as to what went wrong, at the root of most is a concept people in my field call the “bullwhip effect.”

What is the ‘bullwhip effect’?

The term bullwhip effect was coined in 1961 by MIT computer scientist Jay Forrester in his seminal book “Industrial Dynamics.” It describes what happens when fluctuations in demand reverberate and amplify throughout the supply chain, leading to worsening problems and shortages.

Imagine the physics of cracking a whip. It starts with a small flick of the wrist, but the whip’s wave patterns grow exponentially in a chain reaction, leading to the tip, a snap – and a sharp pain for anyone on the receiving end.

The same thing can happen in supply chains when orders for a product from a retailer, say, go up or down by some amount and that gets amplified by wholesalers, distributors and raw material suppliers.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to lengthy lockdowns, massive unemployment and a whole host of other effects that messed up global supply chains, essentially supercharged the bullwhip’s snap.

How the bullwhip effect works.

Cars and chips

The supply of autos is one such example.

New as well as used vehicles have been in short supply throughout the pandemic, at times forcing consumers to wait as long as a year for the most popular models.

In early 2020, when the pandemic put most Americans in lockdown, carmakers began to anticipate a fall in demand, so they significantly scaled back production. This sent a signal to suppliers, especially of computer chips, that they would need to find different buyers for their products.

Computer chips aren’t one size fits all; they are designed differently depending on their end use. So chipmakers began making fewer chips intended for use in cars and trucks and more for computers and smart refrigerators.

So when demand for vehicles suddenly returned in early 2021, carmakers were unable to secure enough chips to ramp up production. Production last year was down about 13% from 2019 levels. Since then, chipmakers have began to produce more car-specific chips, and Congress even passed a law to beef up U.S. manufacturing of semiconductors. Some carmakers, such as Ford and General Motors, have decided to sell incomplete cars, without chips and the special features they power like touchscreens, to relieve delays.

But shortages remain. You could chalk this up to poor planning, but it’s also the bullwhip effect in action.

The bullwhip is everywhere

And this is a problem for a heck of a lot of goods and parts, especially if they, like semiconductors, come from Asia.

In fact, pretty much everything Americans get from Asia – about 40% of all U.S. imports – could be affected by the bullwhip effect.

Most of this stuff travels to the U.S. by container ships, the cheapest means of transportation. That means goods must typically spend a week or longer traversing the Pacific Ocean.

The bullwhip effect comes in when a disruption in the information flow from customer to supplier happens.

For example, let’s say a customer sees that an order of lawn chairs has not been delivered by the expected date, perhaps because of a minor transportation delay. So the customer complains to the retailer, which in turn orders more from the manufacturer. Manufacturers see orders increase and pass the orders on to the suppliers with a little added, just in case.

What started out as a delay in transportation now has become a major increase in orders all down the supply chain. Now the retailer gets delivery of all the products it overordered and reduces the next order to the factory, which reduces its order to suppliers, and so on.

Now try to visualize the bullwhip of orders going up and down at the suppliers’ end.

The pandemic caused all kinds of transportation disruptions – whether due to a lack of workers, problems at a port or something else – most of which triggered the bullwhip effect.

The end isn’t nigh

When will these problems end? The answer will likely disappoint you.

As the world continues to become more interconnected, a minor problem can become larger if information is not available. Even with the right information at the right time, life happens. A storm might cause a ship carrying new cars from Europe to be lost at sea. Having only a few sources of baby formula causes a shortage when a safety issue shuts down the largest producer. Russia invades Ukraine, and 10% of the world’s grain is held hostage.

The early effects of the pandemic in 2020 led to a sharp drop in demand, which rippled through supply chains and decreased production. A strong U.S. economy and consumers flush with coronavirus cash led to a surge in demand in 2021, and the system had a hard time catching up. Now the impact of soaring inflation and a looming recession will reverse that effect, leading to a glut of stuff and a drop in orders. And the cycle will repeat.

As best as I can tell, these disruptions will take many years to recover from. And as recent inflation reduces demand for goods, and consumers begin cutting back, the bullwhip will again work its way through the supply chain – and you’ll see more shortages as it does.

Michael Okrent does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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