|Corporate stock: a perpetually inconvertible currency|
In this post I play around with the distinction between a currency user and a currency issuer.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) draws a line between currency issuer and currency user. Households and businesses are currency users. They can "run out of money" and become insolvent. Central banks, on the other hand, are currency issuers. Issuers can never run out of money and, as such, face no solvency constraint. As long as the government is not legally separated from the nation's central bank, it too enjoys the benefits of being a currency issuer. After all, the government can always have the central bank issue liabilities to pay for all governmental obligations. The only constraint on a currency issuer is inflation, not solvency. For if a central bank's liabilities inflate to worthlessness, they can no longer be used to meet either the government's or the central bank's obligations.
While MMT associates currency issuance with the state and currency use with the private sector, this needn't be the case. Private businesses can be thought of as currency issuers facing an inflation constraint, whereas governments are almost always currency users facing a solvency constraint.
My translation of these MMT ideas is that the key to escaping the solvency constraint is this: can the institution under consideration issue perpetual inconvertible liabilities? If so, the institution can never become insolvent and qualifies as a currency issuer. The beauty of perpetually inconvertible liabilities is that they never expire, nor can their holder take the initiative and force the issuer to redeem them for some underlying asset. Lacking any revenues whatsoever, an institution can function indefinitely as long as its perpetually inconvertible liabilities have some positive value and can be sold to obtain resources. If these liabilities inflate to nothing, the issuer loses its ability to function.
Consider central banks first. Say that a central bank issues perpetual liabilities convertible into gold. This central bank is not a currency issuer, for if the gold is not forthcoming, the central bank will be rendered insolvent. Modern central banks, on the other hand, are safe from the solvency constraint because they no longer issue perpetual liabilities convertible into gold. Rather, modern central bank liabilities are inconvertible. The central bank can simply spend these liabilities into the economy, thereby financing its continued existence. Only when these liabilities are worth zero will the bank have breathed its last.
Modern corporation can also issue perpetual inconvertible liabilities. This is called equity. Much like a central bank, modern corporations face no solvency constraint because they can always meet their obligations with new equity issuance. Only when a corporation's equity has inflated away to nothing i.e. the price of the stock they issue is worth zero, have corporations finally hit the wall. Fledgling companies with no revenues and large expenses can function for many years by constantly issuing perpetual inconvertible equity.
Unlike businesses, individuals can't issue equity in themselves. Society has rendered it taboo to alienate shares in one's self, even if this is done in a voluntary manner. People can only issue personal IOUs that must be paid back at some point in time, or debt. Because individuals can't issue perpetual inconvertible liabilities they face a solvency constraint and therefore qualify as currency users.
Modern governments are very much like individuals. They can't issue equity. Nor can modern governments rely on their central bank to meet governmental obligations. The practice of independent central banking puts a strict divide between state and central bank, rendering it illegal for the central bank to use its perpetual inconvertible liabilities to finance the government and shelter it from the solvency constraint.
In sum, the line between a user facing a solvency constraint and an issuer facing an inflation constraint is defined by the ability to "print" perpetual inconvertible liabilities. Both corporations and modern central banks have the ability to issue these instruments and therefore face only an inflation constraint. Governments and households, on the other hand, are prohibited from issuing these instruments and therefore qualify as currency users that face solvency constraints.