Thinking about this has led to me to the realisation that the usual way of discussing sovereign default is inherently defective. (This criticism extends to my earlier book Understanding Government Finance, unfortunately.) The usual technique is to describe the mechanisms for default, look at some models, and argue why a default is unlikely. This then runs into a hurricane of whataboutery - what about the external constraint, Russia, Iceland, etc.
Part I: The Easy PartI think we need to follow a different tack, and I expect to turn that into a somewhat longer book.
- We first assume that a theoretical country is immune to default.
- We examine the theoretical properties of this country.
- We can then compare real world countries to this ideal default-free country. The unproven argument is that what MMT refers to as "floating currency sovereigns" match the description.
That's basically the first part of the book. It would no longer qualify for the "World's Shortest Book," but it would be pretty short. The most interesting part would be the discussion of the steps needed to make sure a real world country qualifies as being default risk free. (For a number of countries, I have seen legal arguments that default is already impossible. I lack the legal training to judge those arguments; I will instead have to look at financial/economic institutions.)
For readers interesting in MMT, the first part of the book may be the most interesting; if I know what I am doing (which remains to be determined...), I will keep that first part as easily understood as possible.
Part II: Whataboutery...
Part II of the book would be where I would get bogged down in details, dealing with the "What about X?" issues. Although I am not aiming to make this an academic tome, it should be more advanced than my first few books (such as Understanding Government Finance), and have more literature references. I expect that 90% or more of the references will show up in the second half.
In my view, the "what about" questions are broadly misleading. The reason why is straightforward: there are many possible mechanisms for a country to miss payments on its debt. The issue is whether they matter for economic/financial analysis.
I will put forth first a non-controversial example. Let us fix a country X. Imagine then that the government of X disappears as a result of being wiped out by an attack by aliens from Pluto (Yuggoth in their language), who are still mad about being downgraded from planet status. It is clear that surviving bond holders will not be seeing any scheduled coupon or principal payments from that government. (I will put aside the question of legal default; it is unclear whether anyone would have legal standing to have default declared.)
Although my example is deliberately over-the-top, any examination of history shows that extreme risks to the status quo always exist. The question is whether we can expect any analysis of the economy to offer any insight to the risk? It seems straightforward that examination of economic time series of country X does not give us any insight to the probability that the country will be obliterated by the advanced technology of the Plutonians.
If we want to get closer to the concerns of those who are worried about the default risk of floating currency sovereigns, we will rapidly see that almost all the non-geopolitical risk revolves around politics. Even if the government cannot be forced to default, it can choose to do so. The implication is that we are judging political risks, not economic/financial risks. (This was my argument in Understanding Government Finance.)
In order to keep the scope of the book manageable, I will confine my attention to floating currency sovereigns. This makes life much easier, as it basically excludes looking at historical default episodes. If I wanted to write a book on sovereign default, then 90% of the book would be a discussion of various fixed exchange rate systems, and the woes of developing countries. Although I have some familiarity with those cases, I would be on territory that I am much less familiar with, and writing would be much more difficult.
Final RemarksThe final formatting of the paperback edition of Breakeven Inflation Analysis has been completed, and its publication will be after I have seen the printed proof. I will start running excerpts once the paperback edition is ready. By implication, I am ready to start work on my next book. I am currently debating whether to do a book on business cycles (more specifically, the causes of recessions), or on floating currency sovereign default. The beauty of floating currency sovereign default is that even with the sections on whataboutery, the book would be compact and easy to write. By doing it first, it gives me time to do more research and writing on recessions.
I will keep doing initial drafts in parallel, and then pin down which book to pursue first some time early in 2019.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2018