A critique of the University of Cambridge’s external financing approach from the perspective of modern money theory

6 min read

Remarks for the discussion at the Senate House, University of Cambridge on 6 November on the use of funds from £600 million bond issue

Deputy Vice Chancellor.

The Council has already approved of raising external finance by issuing bonds of up to £600 million. And I understand that this discussion is about the use of the funds raised. But I thought it important to explain that there are potential societal affects as a result of this kind of debt financing, since no Regent or any other person has done so previously, and that a stated aim of the University is to benefit society and not to act in a way that is detrimental to it.

I will try and explain as briefly as I can.

My starting point is a simple incontrovertible truth about a national economy, that is, the sum of individual deficits must equal the sum of individual surpluses. To illustrate this, if there was just me and the Deputy Vice Chancellor on a desert island where we agreed on an issued currency, if I was in deficit, that is earning less than I spent, necessarily the Deputy Vice Chancellor would be in surplus, earning more than he or she spent.

Within the closed monetary system of a national economy no one other than the state can create or destroy currency. Therefore, the sum of deficits must equal the sum of surpluses.

Let us now aggregate. If we consider three aggregations, as is the practice in national accounting, public, private and overseas: ‘public’ represents government spending and revenues, ‘private’ represents household and business spending and income, and ‘overseas’ represents imports and exports. Using the same reasoning about individual deficits and surpluses, the sum of public, private and overseas deficits and surpluses must be zero.

The UK economy generally has an overseas deficit, we import more than we export. Therefore, the rest of the world is in surplus with the UK economy. In managing an economy, a government should ensure that the private sector is running a surplus so that people, households and businesses can accumulate savings to cope with changes in the economy. The normal operating condition of public finances is in deficit. This ‘sectoral balance’, as it is called, reveals that a national economy is nothing like the economy of a household or business.

But UK governments over the last forty years have become preoccupied with treating the national economy as a household and a key economic mission has been in balancing the books or reducing the deficit or recently in its more extreme form, ‘austerity’.

What is the effect of this? Overseas deficits have remained broadly constant, so reductions in public sector deficits have resulted in the reduction in private sector surpluses. This reduction in private sector surpluses does not affect the sector evenly. The poorest households become increasingly indebted and the credit is provided by the wealthiest in the private sector. Austerity exacerbates a private debt-based or rentier economy, where existing wealth is expanded through debt interest and rent. As the state withdraws from using fiscal policy, in other words, as it stops investing, private debt and credit become the dominant economic form.

So, as government attempts to reduce public deficits, by cutting spending on things like higher education the poorest in society are under increasing financial pressure. Meanwhile universities are forced to raise finance in other ways and this simply adds to the problem.

There is a further consequence of public deficit reduction that was recognised by both Marx and Keynes. When conditions lead to a private debt-based economy or rentier economy, the investor is less likely to invest in the productive economy. That is in enterprises that deliver the things that we need as a society. In a debt economy demand is fickle, it is reliant on household debt and inflated assets. The risk of making profits from lending is much less than investing in the productive economy. Investing in manufacturing, for example, becomes much less attractive, it is much more attractive to live off interest and rents. This has an impact on jobs and on the creation of long-term meaningful work. This contributes to undermining liberal democracy (see for example the EU referendum result, or the US presidential elections in 2016).

So, there is a great deal of demand for debt, it is bought and sold and traded like a commodity. Financialization is the business of using low-risk low-return debts such as that generated by the University’s bond scheme and using it to construct portfolios that feature a balance of high-risk speculative investments and safer investments such as government bonds. Financialization involves securing marginal profits from speculating on debt, interest and risk using sophisticated financial products. This kind of financialization led to global and political crises in the 1920s and a major financial crisis in 2008 (among others). By entering the debt economy, the University contributes to the problem.

It may seem expedient to the Council to proceed with this proposal since the University must sustain its work. I accept that the decision has been made. However, I just wanted to explain that this is not a politically or economically neutral endeavour. From our privileged position we have a duty to offer moral and intellectual leadership and must at least be aware of what we are complicit to in issuing over £0.5 billion of bonds. I welcome the Vice Chancellor’s commitment to more robustly challenging government’s higher education policy, but we must match this with our actions.

Dr Steven Watson

Faculty of Education and Wolfson College

For further reading on modern money theory:

Mitchell, W. F. (2016). Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: An Introductory text. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Nersisyan, Y., & Wray, L. R. (2016). Modern Money Theory and the facts of experience. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 40(5), 1297–1316. https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/bew015

Wray, L. R. (2012). Introduction to an alternative history of money. Working paper, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Wray, L. R. (2015). Modern money theory: a primer on macroeconomics for sovereign monetary systems (2nd edition). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.