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Saturday Quiz – December 18, 2010 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for yesterday’s quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of modern monetary theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

Question 1:

The use of a budget surplus to create a sovereign fund provides the government with more spending options in the future.

The answer is False.

From the perspective of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) the national government’s ability to make timely payment of its own currency is never numerically constrained by revenues from taxing and/or borrowing. Therefore the creation of a sovereign fund by purchasing assets in financial markets in no way enhances the government’s ability to meet future obligations. In fact, the entire concept of government pre-funding an unfunded liability in its currency of issue has no application whatsoever in the context of a flexible exchange rate and the modern monetary system.

The misconception that “public saving” is required to fund future public expenditure is often rehearsed in the financial media. In rejecting the notion that public surpluses create a cache of money that can be spent later we note that Government spends by crediting an account held by the commercial banks at the central bank. There is no revenue constraint. Government cheques don’t bounce! Additionally, taxation consists of debiting an account held by the commercial banks at the central bank. The funds debited are “accounted for” but don’t actually “go anywhere” and “accumulate”.

Thus is makes no sense to say that a sovereign government is saving in its own currency. Saving is an act that revenue-constrained households do to enhance their future consumption opportunities. The sacrifice of consumption now provides more funds in the future (via compounding). But the government doesn’t have to sacrifice spending now to spend in the future.

The concept of pre-funding future liabilities does apply to fixed exchange rate regimes, as sufficient reserves must be held to facilitate guaranteed conversion features of the currency. It also applies to non-government users of a currency. Their ability to spend is a function of their revenues and reserves of that currency.

So at the heart of the mis-perceptions about sovereign funds is the false analogy mainstream macroeconomics draws between private household budgets and the government budget. Households, the users of the currency, must finance their spending prior to the fact. However, government, as the issuer of the currency, must spend first (credit private bank accounts) before it can subsequently tax (debit private accounts). Government spending is the source of the funds the private sector requires to pay its taxes and to net save and is not inherently revenue constrained.

However, trying to squeeze the economy to generate these mythical “pools of funds” which are then allocated to the sovereign fund as if they exist is very damaging. You can think of this in two stages.

First, the national government spends less than it taxes and this leads to ever decreasing levels of net private savings (unless there is a strong positive net exports response). The private deficits are manifest in the public surpluses and increasingly leverage the private sector. The deteriorating private debt to income ratios which result will eventually see the system succumb to ongoing demand-draining fiscal drag through a slow-down in real activity.

Second, while that process is going on, the Federal Government is actually spending an equivalent amount that it is draining from the private sector (through tax revenues) in the financial and broader asset markets (domestic and abroad) buying up speculative assets including shares and real estate.

Accordingly, creating a sovereign fund amounts to the government competing in the private equity market to fuel speculation in financial assets and distort allocations of capital.

However, as you can see from pulling it apart, this behaviour has been grossly misrepresented as providing “future savings”. Say the sovereign government ran a $15 billion surplus in the last financial year. It could then purchase that amount of financial assets in the domestic and international capital markets. But from an accounting perspective the Government would no longer have run that surplus because the $15 billion would be recorded as spending and the budget would break even.

In these situations, the public debate should be focused on whether this is the best use of public funds. It would be hard to justify this sort of spending when basic infrastructure provision and employment creation has been ignored for many years by neo-liberal governments.

So all we are talking about is a different portfolio of assets.

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Question 2:

Fiscal rules ultimately fail to deliver the announced budget targets because the government does not control the budget outcome.

The answer is True.

The non-government sector spending decisions ultimately determine the budget balance associated with any discretionary fiscal policy.

The budget balance has two conceptual components. First, the part that is associated with the chosen (discretionary) fiscal stance of the government independent of cyclical factors. So this component is chosen by the government.

Second, the cyclical component which refer to the automatic stabilisers that operate in a counter-cyclical fashion. When economic growth is strong, tax revenue improves given it is typically tied to income generation in some way. Further, most governments provide transfer payment relief to workers (unemployment benefits) and this decreases during growth.

In times of economic decline, the automatic stabilisers work in the opposite direction and push the budget balance towards deficit, into deficit, or into a larger deficit. These automatic movements in aggregate demand play an important counter-cyclical attenuating role. So when GDP is declining due to falling aggregate demand, the automatic stabilisers work to add demand (falling taxes and rising welfare payments).

When GDP growth is rising, the automatic stabilisers start to pull demand back as the economy adjusts (rising taxes and falling welfare payments).

The cyclical component is not insignificant and if the swings in private spending are significant then there will be significant swings in the budget balance.

The importance of this component is that the government cannot reliably target a particular deficit outcome with any certainty. This is why adherence to fiscal rules are fraught and normally lead to pro-cyclical fiscal policy which is usually undesirable, especially when the economy is in recession.

The budget outcome is thus considered to be endogenous – that is, it is determined by private spending (saving) decisions. The government can set its discretionary net spending at some target to target a particular budget deficit outcome but it cannot control private spending fluctuations which will ultimately determine the final actual budget balance.

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Question 3:

If employment growth matches the pace of growth in the civilian population (people above 15 years of age) then the economy will experience a constant unemployment rate as long as participation rates do not change.

The answer is True.

The Civilian Population is shorthand for the working age population and can be defined as all people between 15 and 65 years of age or persons above 15 years of age, depending on rules governing retirement. The working age population is then decomposed within the Labour Force Framework (used to collect and disseminate labour force data) into two categories: (a) the Labour Force; and (b) Not in the Labour Force. This demarcation is based on activity principles (willingness, availability and seeking work or being in work).

The participation rate is defined as the proportion of the working age population that is in the labour force. So if the working age population was 1000 and the participation rate was 65 per cent, then the labour force would be 650 persons. So the labour force can vary for two reasons: (a) growth in the working age population – demographic trends; and (b) changes in the participation rate.

The labour force is decomposed into employment and unemployment. To be employed you typically only have to work one hour in the survey week. To be unemployed you have to affirm that you are available, willing and seeking employment if you are not working one hour or more in the survey week. Otherwise, you will be classified as not being in the labour force.

So the hidden unemployed are those who give up looking for work (they become discouraged) yet are willing and available to work. They are classified by the statistician as being not in the labour force. But if they were offered a job today they would immediately accept it and so are in no functional way different from the unemployed.

When economic growth wanes, participation rates typically fall as the hidden unemployed exit the labour force. This cyclical phenomenon acts to reduce the official unemployment rate.

So clearly, the working age population is a much larger aggregate than the labour force and, in turn, employment. Clearly if the participation rate is constant then the labour force will grow at the same rate as the civilian population. And if employment grows at that rate too then while the gap between the labour force and employment will increase in absolute terms (which means that unemployment will be rising), that gap in percentage terms will be constant (that is the unemployment rate will be constant).

The following Table simulates a simple labour market for 8 periods. You can see for the first 4 periods, that unemployment rises steadily over time but the unemployment rate is constant. During this time span employment growth is equal to the growth in the underlying working age population and the participation rate doesn’t change. So the unemployment rate will be constant although more people will be unemployed.

In Period 5, the participation rate rises so that even though there is constant growth (2 per cent) in the working age population, the labour force growth rate rises to 3.6 per cent. Now unemployment jumps disproportionately because employment growth (2 per cent) is not keeping pace with the growth in new entrants to the labour force and as a consequence the unemployent rate rises to 11 per cent.

In Period 6, employment growth equals labour force growth (because the participation rate settles at the new level – 66 per cent) and the unemployment rate is constant.

In Period 7, the participation rate plunges to 64 per cent and the labour force contracts (as the higher proportion of the working age population are inactive – that is, not participating). As a consequence, unemployment falls dramatically as does the unemployment rate. But this is hardly a cause for celebration – the unemployed are now hidden by the statistician “outside the labour force”.

Understanding these aggregates is very important because as we often see when Labour Force data is released by national statisticians the public debate becomes distorted by the incorrect way in which employment growth is represented in the media.

In situations where employment growth keeps pace with the underlying population but the participation rate falls then the unemployment rate will also fall. By focusing on the link between the positive employment growth and the declining unemployment there is a tendency for the uninformed reader to conclude that the economy is in good shape. The reality, of-course, is very different.

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Question 4:

In a fiat monetary system (for example, US or Australia) with an on-going external deficit, the domestic private sector can reduce its overall debt levels (by saving) without employment losses, if the national government supports the private de-leveraging process by running a budget deficit.

The answer is Maybe.

This question is an application of the sectoral balances framework that can be derived from the National Accounts for any nation.

The basic income-expenditure model in macroeconomics can be viewed in (at least) two ways: (a) from the perspective of the sources of spending; and (b) from the perspective of the uses of the income produced. Bringing these two perspectives (of the same thing) together generates the sectoral balances.

From the sources perspective we write:

GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

which says that total national income (GDP) is the sum of total final consumption spending (C), total private investment (I), total government spending (G) and net exports (X – M).

From the uses perspective, national income (GDP) can be used for:

GDP = C + S + T

which says that GDP (income) ultimately comes back to households who consume (C), save (S) or pay taxes (T) with it once all the distributions are made.

Equating these two perspectives we get:

C + S + T = GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

So after simplification (but obeying the equation) we get the sectoral balances view of the national accounts.

(I – S) + (G – T) + (X – M) = 0

That is the three balances have to sum to zero. The sectoral balances derived are:

  • The private domestic balance (I – S) – positive if in deficit, negative if in surplus.
  • The Budget Deficit (G – T) – negative if in surplus, positive if in deficit.
  • The Current Account balance (X – M) – positive if in surplus, negative if in deficit.

These balances are usually expressed as a per cent of GDP but that doesn’t alter the accounting rules that they sum to zero, it just means the balance to GDP ratios sum to zero.

A simplification is to add (I – S) + (X – M) and call it the non-government sector. Then you get the basic result that the government balance equals exactly $-for-$ (absolutely or as a per cent of GDP) the non-government balance (the sum of the private domestic and external balances).

This is also a basic rule derived from the national accounts and has to apply at all times.

To help us answer the specific question posed, we can identify three states all involving public and external deficits:

  • Case A: Budget Deficit (G – T) < Current Account balance (X – M) deficit.
  • Case B: Budget Deficit (G – T) = Current Account balance (X – M) deficit.
  • Case C: Budget Deficit (G – T) > Current Account balance (X – M) deficit.

The following Table shows these three cases expressing the balances as percentages of GDP. Case A shows the situation where the external deficit exceeds the public deficit and the private domestic sector is in deficit. In this case, there can be no overall private sector de-leveraging.

With the external balance set at a 2 per cent of GDP, as the budget moves into larger deficit, the private domestic balance approaches balance (Case B). Case B also does not permit the private sector to save overall.

Once the budget deficit is large enough (3 per cent of GDP) to offset the demand-draining external deficit (2 per cent of GDP) the private domestic sector can save overall (Case C).

In this situation, the budget deficits are supporting aggregate spending which allows income growth to be sufficient to generate savings greater than investment in the private domestic sector but have to be able to offset the demand-draining impacts of the external deficits to provide sufficient income growth for the private domestic sector to save.

For the domestic private sector (households and firms) to reduce their overall levels of debt they have to net save overall. The behavioural implications of this accounting result would manifest as reduced consumption or investment, which, in turn, would reduce overall aggregate demand.

The normal inventory-cycle view of what happens next goes like this. Output and employment are functions of aggregate spending. Firms form expectations of future aggregate demand and produce accordingly. They are uncertain about the actual demand that will be realised as the output emerges from the production process.

The first signal firms get that household consumption is falling is in the unintended build-up of inventories. That signals to firms that they were overly optimistic about the level of demand in that particular period.

Once this realisation becomes consolidated, that is, firms generally realise they have over-produced, output starts to fall. Firms lay-off workers and the loss of income starts to multiply as those workers reduce their spending elsewhere.

At that point, the economy is heading for a recession.

So the only way to avoid these spiralling employment losses would be for an exogenous intervention to occur. Given the question assumes on-going external deficits, the implication is that the exogenous intervention would come from an expanding public deficit. Clearly, if the external sector improved the expansion could come from net exports.

It is possible that at the same time that the households and firms are reducing their consumption in an attempt to lift the saving ratio, net exports boom. A net exports boom adds to aggregate demand (the spending injection via exports is greater than the spending leakage via imports).

So it is possible that the public budget balance could actually go towards surplus and the private domestic sector increase its saving ratio if net exports were strong enough.

The important point is that the three sectors add to demand in their own ways. Total GDP and employment are dependent on aggregate demand. Variations in aggregate demand thus cause variations in output (GDP), incomes and employment. But a variation in spending in one sector can be made up via offsetting changes in the other sectors.

So given that the budget deficit has to be larger than the external deficit, the best answer is maybe.

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Premium Question 5:

The monetary base always adjusts to changes in the money supply.

The answer is True.

Mainstream macroeconomics textbooks are completely wrong when they discuss the credit-creation capacity of commercial banks. They star act is the concept of the money multiplier.

They posit that the multiplier m transmits changes in the so-called monetary base (MB) (the sum of bank reserves and currency at issue) into changes in the money supply (M). The chapters on money usually present some arcane algebra which is deliberately designed to impart a sense of gravitas or authority to the students who then mindlessly ape what is in the textbook.

They rehearse several times in their undergraduate courses (introductory and intermediate macroeconomics; money and banking; monetary economics etc) the mantra that the money multiplier is usually expressed as the inverse of the required reserve ratio plus some other novelties relating to preferences for cash versus deposits by the public.

Accordingly, the students learn that if the central bank told private banks that they had to keep 10 per cent of total deposits as reserves then the required reserve ratio (RRR) would be 0.10 and m would equal 1/0.10 = 10. More complicated formulae are derived when you consider that people also will want to hold some of their deposits as cash. But these complications do not add anything to the story.

The formula for the determination of the money supply is: M = m x MB. So if a $1 is newly deposited in a bank, the money supply will rise (be multiplied) by $10 (if the RRR = 0.10). The way this multiplier is alleged to work is explained as follows (assuming the bank is required to hold 10 per cent of all deposits as reserves):

  • A person deposits say $100 in a bank.
  • To make money, the bank then loans the remaining $90 to a customer.
  • They spend the money and the recipient of the funds deposits it with their bank.
  • That bank then lends 0.9 times $90 = $81 (keeping 0.10 in reserve as required).
  • And so on until the loans become so small that they dissolve to zero

None of this is remotely accurate in terms of depicting how the banks make loans. It is an important device for the mainstream because it implies that banks take deposits to get funds which they can then on-lend. But prudential regulations require they keep a little in reserve. So we get this credit creation process ballooning out due to the fractional reserve requirements.

The money multiplier myth also leads students to think that as the central bank can control the monetary base then it can control the money supply. Further, given that inflation is allegedly the result of the money supply growing too fast then the blame is sheeted home to the “government”. This leads to claims that if the government runs a budget deficit then it has to issue bonds to avoid causing hyperinflation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That is nothing like the way the banking system operates in the real world. The idea that the monetary base (the sum of bank reserves and currency) leads to a change in the money supply via some multiple is not a valid representation of the way the monetary system operates.

First, the central bank does not have the capacity to control the money supply in a modern monetary system. In the world we live in, bank loans create deposits and are made without reference to the reserve positions of the banks. The bank then ensures its reserve positions are legally compliant as a separate process knowing that it can always get the reserves from the central bank. The only way that the central bank can influence credit creation in this setting is via the price of the reserves it provides on demand to the commercial banks.

Second, this suggests that the decisions by banks to lend may be influenced by the price of reserves rather than whether they have sufficient reserves. They can always get the reserves that are required at any point in time at a price, which may be prohibitive.

Third, the money multiplier story has the central bank manipulating the money supply via open market operations. So they would argue that the central bank might buy bonds to the public to increase the money base and then allow the fractional reserve system to expand the money supply. But a moment’s thought will lead you to conclude this would be futile unless a support rate on excess reserves equal to the current policy rate was being paid.

Why? The open market purchase would increase bank reserves and the commercial banks, in lieu of any market return on the overnight funds, would try to place them in the interbank market. Of-course, any transactions at this level (they are horizontal) net to zero so all that happens is that the excess reserve position of the system is shuffled between banks. But in the process the interbank return would start to fall and if the process was left to resolve, the overnight rate would fall to zero and the central bank would lose control of its monetary policy position (unless it was targetting a zero interest rate).

In lieu of a support rate equal to the target rate, the central bank would have to sell bonds to drain the excess reserves. The same futility would occur if the central bank attempted to reduce the money supply by instigating an open market sale of bonds.

In all cases, the central bank cannot influence the money supply in this way.

Fourth, given that the central bank adds reserves on demand to maintain financial stability and this process is driven by changes in the money supply as banks make loans which create deposits.

So the operational reality is that the dynamics of the monetary base (MB) are driven by the changes in the money supply which is exactly the reverse of the causality presented by the monetary multiplier.

So in fact we might write MB = M/m.

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. Sorry, while I believe to understand MMT pretty well, I often have difficulties to answer your quiz, and – as it seems at least to me – not because I don’t understand the underlying issue, but because I don’t understand the wording of the question..
      Examples: Question 4.. “the domestic private sector CAN reduce …., if the national government supports the private de-leveraging process by running a budget deficit. [Notice – I’m not a native speaker of English, so it might be my language skills] But to me, CAN isn’t the same as WILL. If it would have said “will reduce” – then I would have answered .. Maybe (If the budget deficit is larger than the deficit in the balance of trade). But with CAN – this, IMO, only means that it – will happen if certain conditions are met – so they ‘maybe’ seems to be implied, and with the condition “if the government supports .. with a budget deficit”, support seemed – to me – to mean – that ‘it will happen if the budget deficit is big enough’, so I anwered with “True”.
      And well – Question one – the answer is obviously “false” in most cases, and almoust always in large countries. But if I read the term “sovereign fund” usually my first though is NOT about a country claiming to secure future retirements, but about small countries that depend largely on trade (imports AND exports), but have a huge trade balance surplus. As this government funds are usually invested abroad, and in foreign currency, they will be relatively little affected if some external shock hit’s the country in question. And so, while this small country (of course) still can pay unlimited amounts of local currency to local producers/workers, it might find it difficult (post shock), to buy many foreign things in local currency. And therefore, the foreign assets in the fund might help to pay for future imports. That’s why I answered with – “maybe”. It’s generally wrong, but sufficiently small countries might actually be able to behave like a “household” in a global market.

    2. However, as you can see from pulling it apart, this behaviour has been grossly misrepresented as providing “future savings”. Say the sovereign government ran a $15 billion surplus in the last financial year. It could then purchase that amount of financial assets in the domestic and international capital markets. But from an accounting perspective the Government would no longer have run that surplus because the $15 billion would be recorded as spending and the budget would break even.

      From an accounting perspective, the government is still in surplus. Whether this behaviour of the government is useful is another question.

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