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Krugman's MMMF Question


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Paul Krugman attacked Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, and “Honest Money” and also took a shot at Austrian economists on his blog today. He called honest money a “Ron Paul dog whistle” and then went on to query Austrian economists on their position on Money Market Mutual Funds (MMMF). He doesn’t expect a serious answer.

How do the Austrians propose dealing with money market funds? I mean, it has always been a peculiarity of that school of thought that it praises markets and opposes government intervention — but that at the same time it demands that the government step in to prevent the free market from providing a certain kind of financial service. As I understand it, the intellectual trick here is to convince oneself that fractional reserve banking, in which banks don’t keep 100 percent of deposits in a vault, is somehow an artificial creation of the government. This is historically wrong, but maybe the actual history of banking is deep enough in the past for that wrongness to get missed.

But consider a more recent innovation: money market funds. Such funds are just a particular type of mutual fund — and surely the Austrians don’t want to ban financial intermediation (or do they?). Yet shares in a MMF are very clearly a form of money — you can even write checks on them — created out of thin air by financial institutions, with very few pieces of green paper behind them.

So are such funds illegitimate?

In the Austrian view MMMF are not technically money and so deposit holders do not hold full reserves, but rather invest those deposits in short term commercial paper. MMMF can lose value and owners may get back less than they deposited without the deposit holder going bankrupt. Technically they are not instantly redeemable and are not a final means of payment.

According to Joseph Salerno:

Although MMMF share accounts at first glance look like MMDAs, they are clearly excludable from the TMS, because they are neither instantly redeemable, par value claims to cash, nor final means of payment in exchange. This requires a brief explanation of the nature of MMMFs.

Each MMMF share represents a claim to a pro rata share of a managed investment portfolio containing short-term financial assets, such as high-grade commercial paper, certificates of deposit, and U.S. Treasury notes. Although the value of a share is nominally fixed, usually, at one dollar, the total number of shares owned by an investor (abstracting from reinvested dividends) fluctuates according to market conditions affecting the overall value of the fund’s portfolio. Under extreme circumstances, such as a stratospheric rise in short-term interest rates or the bankruptcy of a corporation whose paper the fund has heavily invested in, the fund’s investors may well suffer a capital loss in the form of an actual reduction of the number of fixed-value shares they own. Unlike a check drawn on a demand deposit or MMDA, therefore, an MMMF draft does not simply represent a direct transfer of current claims to currency, but a dual order to the fund’s manager to sell a specified portion of the shareowner’s asset holdings and then to transfer the monetary proceeds to a third party named on the check. Note that the payment process is not finally completed until the payee receives money, typically in the form of a credit to his demand deposit.

No Paul, we do not want to ban MMMF.

This quote from Joseph Salerno is from the first item to appear on a Google search for “Austrian economics money market mutual fund”.

Mark Thornton is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and the book review editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has authored seven books and is a frequent guest on national radio shows.

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