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Saturday Quiz – July 2, 2011 – 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:

If the current account (on balance of payments) is in deficit and household saving increases as a proportion of disposable income then the government could still run a surplus without a decline in output and income occurring.

The answer is True.

This question tests one’s basic understanding of the sectoral balances that can be derived from the National Accounts. The secret to getting the correct answer is to realise that the household saving ratio is not the overall sectoral balance for the private domestic sector.

In other words, if you just compared the household saving ratio with the external deficit and the budget balance you would be leaving an essential component of the private domestic balance out – private capital formation (investment).

To understand that, in macroeconomics we have a way of looking at the national accounts (the expenditure and income data) which allows us to highlight the various sectors – the government sector and the non-government sector (and the important sub-sectors within the non-government sector).

So we start by focusing on the final expenditure components of consumption (C), investment (I), government spending (G), and net exports (exports minus imports) (NX).

The basic aggregate demand equation in terms of the sources of spending is:

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).

In terms of the uses that national income (GDP) can be put too, we say:

GDP = C + S + T

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

So if we equate these two ideas sources of GDP and uses of GDP, we get:

C + S + T = C + I + G + (X – M)

Which we then can simplify by cancelling out the C from both sides and re-arranging (shifting things around but still satisfying the rules of algebra) into what we call the sectoral balances view of the national accounts.

There are three sectoral balances derived – the Budget Deficit (G – T), the Current Account balance (X – M) and the private domestic balance (S – I).

These balances are usually expressed as a per cent of GDP but we just keep them in $ values here:

(S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M)

The sectoral balances equation says that total private savings (S) minus private investment (I) has to equal the public deficit (spending, G minus taxes, T) plus net exports (exports (X) minus imports (M)), where net exports represent the net savings of non-residents.

You can then manipulate these balances to tell stories about what is going on in a country.

For example, when an external deficit (X – M < 0) and a public surplus (G – T < 0) coincide, there must be a private deficit. So if X = 10 and M = 20, X - M = -10 (a current account deficit assuming the invisibles are zero). Also if G = 20 and T = 30, G - T = -10 (a budget surplus). So the right-hand side of the sectoral balances equation will equal (20 - 30) + (10 - 20) = -20. As a matter of accounting then (S - I) = -20 which means that the domestic private sector is spending more than they are earning because I > S by 20 (whatever $ units we like). So the fiscal drag from the public sector is coinciding with an influx of net savings from the external sector. While private spending can persist for a time under these conditions using the net savings of the external sector, the private sector becomes increasingly indebted in the process. It is an unsustainable growth path.

So if a nation usually has a current account deficit (X – M < 0) then if the private domestic sector is to net save (S - I) > 0, then the public budget deficit has to be large enough to offset the current account deficit. Say, (X – M) = -20 (as above). Then a balanced budget (G – T = 0) will force the domestic private sector to spend more than they are earning (S – I) = -20. But a government deficit of 25 (for example, G = 55 and T = 30) will give a right-hand solution of (55 – 30) + (10 – 20) = 15. The domestic private sector can net save.

But if the external deficit is say -20 and the private domestic balance (S – I) is -20 then the government balance at that level of income would be zerp. So if households increased their saving and investment increased by more than that, the income level could remain unchanged yet the government balance would go into surplus.

So in focusing on the household saving ratio, the question was only referring to one component of the private domestic balance. Clearly in the case of the question, if private investment is strong enough to offset the household desire to increase saving (and withdraw from consumption) then no spending gap arises as households save more.

In the present situation in most countries, households have reduced the growth in consumption (as they have tried to repair overindebted balance sheets) at the same time that private investment has fallen dramatically.

As a consequence a major spending gap emerged that could only be filled in the short- to medium-term by government deficits if output growth was to remain intact. The reality is that the budget deficits were not large enough and so income adjustments (negative) occurred and this brought the sectoral balances in line at lower levels of economic activity.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

Quantitative easing tries to stimulate economic activity by reducing long-term investment rates whereas deficit spending adds to aggregate demand via tax cuts or direct public spending. Both expansionary efforts involve an increase in the net financial assets held by the non-government sector.

The answer is False.

Quantitative easing involves the central bank buying assets from the private sector – government bonds and high quality corporate debt. So what the central bank is doing is swapping financial assets with the banks – they sell their financial assets and receive back in return extra reserves.

So the central bank is buying one type of financial asset (private holdings of bonds, company paper) and exchanging it for another (reserve balances at the central bank).

The net financial assets in the private sector are in fact unchanged although the portfolio composition of those assets is altered (maturity substitution) which changes yields and returns.

In terms of changing portfolio compositions, quantitative easing increases central bank demand for “long maturity” assets held in the private sector which reduces interest rates at the longer end of the yield curve. These are traditionally thought of as the investment rates. This might increase aggregate demand given the cost of investment funds is likely to drop.

But on the other hand, the lower rates reduce the interest-income of savers who will reduce consumption (demand) accordingly.

How these opposing effects balance out is unclear but the evidence suggests there is not very much impact at all.

Fiscal policy adds net financial assets to the non-government sector by way of contradistinction to quantitative easing.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

Politics aside, the US central bank could still increase interest rates even if the US government instructed it to directly purchase treasury debt to facilitate the national government’s budget deficit.

The answer is True.

Note the question is not asking whether it is politically possible for the US government to do this. We are assuming that if it desired to go down this path then the legislative and regulative changes that might be necessary could be achieved.

The question hinges on an unstated condition which relates to whether the central bank is offering a support rate on overnight reserves held with it by the private banks.

So what is the explanation?

The central bank conducts what are called liquidity management operations for two reasons. First, it has to ensure that all private cheques (that are funded) clear and other interbank transactions occur smoothly as part of its role of maintaining financial stability. Second, it must maintain aggregate bank reserves at a level that is consistent with its target policy setting given the relationship between the two.

So operating factors link the level of reserves to the monetary policy setting under certain circumstances. These circumstances require that the return on “excess” reserves held by the banks is below the monetary policy target rate. In addition to setting a lending rate (discount rate), the central bank also sets a support rate which is paid on commercial bank reserves held by the central bank.

Commercial banks maintain accounts with the central bank which permit reserves to be managed and also the clearing system to operate smoothly. In addition to setting a lending rate (discount rate), the central bank also can set a support rate which is paid on commercial bank reserves held by the central bank (which might be zero).

Many countries (such as Australia, Canada and zones such as the European Monetary Union) maintain a default return on surplus reserve accounts (for example, the Reserve Bank of Australia pays a default return equal to 25 basis points less than the overnight rate on surplus Exchange Settlement accounts). Other countries like Japan and the US have typically not offered a return on reserves until the onset of the current crisis.

If the support rate is zero then persistent excess liquidity in the cash system (excess reserves) will instigate dynamic forces which would drive the short-term interest rate to zero unless the government sells bonds (or raises taxes). This support rate becomes the interest-rate floor for the economy.

The short-run or operational target interest rate, which represents the current monetary policy stance, is set by the central bank between the discount and support rate. This effectively creates a corridor or a spread within which the short-term interest rates can fluctuate with liquidity variability. It is this spread that the central bank manages in its daily operations.

In most nations, commercial banks by law have to maintain positive reserve balances at the central bank, accumulated over some specified period. At the end of each day commercial banks have to appraise the status of their reserve accounts. Those that are in deficit can borrow the required funds from the central bank at the discount rate.

Alternatively banks with excess reserves are faced with earning the support rate which is below the current market rate of interest on overnight funds if they do nothing. Clearly it is profitable for banks with excess funds to lend to banks with deficits at market rates. Competition between banks with excess reserves for custom puts downward pressure on the short-term interest rate (overnight funds rate) and depending on the state of overall liquidity may drive the interbank rate down below the operational target interest rate. When the system is in surplus overall this competition would drive the rate down to the support rate.

The main instrument of this liquidity management is through open market operations, that is, buying and selling government debt. When the competitive pressures in the overnight funds market drives the interbank rate below the desired target rate, the central bank drains liquidity by selling government debt. This open market intervention therefore will result in a higher value for the overnight rate. Importantly, we characterise the debt-issuance as a monetary policy operation designed to provide interest-rate maintenance. This is in stark contrast to orthodox theory which asserts that debt-issuance is an aspect of fiscal policy and is required to finance deficit spending.

So the fundamental principles that arise in a fiat monetary system which are relevant here are as follows.

  • The central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations.
  • Government spending is independent of borrowing which the latter best thought of as coming after spending.
  • Government spending provides the net financial assets (bank reserves) which ultimately represent the funds used by the non-government agents to purchase the debt.
  • Budget deficits put downward pressure on interest rates contrary to the myths that appear in macroeconomic textbooks about ‘crowding out’.
  • The “penalty for not borrowing” is that the interest rate will fall to the bottom of the “corridor” prevailing in the country which may be zero if the central bank does not offer a return on reserves.
  • Government debt-issuance is a “monetary policy” operation rather than being intrinsic to fiscal policy, although in a modern monetary paradigm the distinctions between monetary and fiscal policy as traditionally defined are moot.

Accordingly, debt is issued as an interest-maintenance strategy by the central bank. It has no correspondence with any need to fund government spending. Debt might also be issued if the government wants the private sector to have less purchasing power.

Further, the idea that governments would simply get the central bank to “monetise” treasury debt (which is seen orthodox economists as the alternative “financing” method for government spending) is highly misleading. Debt monetisation is usually referred to as a process whereby the central bank buys government bonds directly from the treasury.

In other words, the federal government borrows money from the central bank rather than the public. Debt monetisation is the process usually implied when a government is said to be printing money. Debt monetisation, all else equal, is said to increase the money supply and can lead to severe inflation.

However, as long as the central bank has a mandate to maintain a target short-term interest rate, the size of its purchases and sales of government debt are not discretionary unless it is prepared to offer a support rate to the banks for excess reserves held. In the absence of that offer, once the central bank sets a short-term interest rate target, its portfolio of government securities changes only because of the transactions that are required to support the target interest rate.

The central bank’s lack of control over the quantity of reserves underscores the impossibility of debt monetisation under these circumstances (no support rate). The central bank is unable to monetise the federal debt by purchasing government securities at will because to do so would cause the short-term target rate to fall to zero or to the support rate. If the central bank purchased securities directly from the treasury and the treasury then spent the money, its expenditures would be excess reserves in the banking system. The central bank would be forced to sell an equal amount of securities to support the target interest rate.

The central bank would act only as an intermediary. The central bank would be buying securities from the treasury and selling them to the public. No monetisation would occur.

However, the central bank may agree to pay the short-term interest rate to banks who hold excess overnight reserves. This would eliminate the need by the commercial banks to access the interbank market to get rid of any excess reserves and would allow the central bank to maintain its target interest rate without issuing debt.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 4

A continuous budget deficit leads to public spending building up and an increase in the inflation risk faced by the economy.

The answer is False.

This question tests whether you understand that budget deficits are just the outcome of two flows which have a finite lifespan. Flows typically feed into stocks (increase or decrease them) and in the case of deficits, under current institutional arrangements, they increase public debt holdings.

So the expenditure impacts of deficit exhaust each period and underpin production and income generation and saving. Aggregate saving is also a flow but can add to stocks of financial assets when stored.

Under current institutional arrangements (where governments unnecessarily issue debt to match its net spending $-for-$) the deficits will also lead to a rise in the stock of public debt outstanding. But of-course, the increase in debt is not a consequence of any “financing” imperative for the government because a sovereign government is never revenue constrained being the monopoly issuer of the currency.

The point is that there is no inflation risk per se with continuous budget deficits. The only time inflation becomes a risk from the demand side if nominal spending outstrips the capacity of the real economy to expand output.

A continuously increasing budget deficit might create those conditions, but a correctly calibrated continuous budget deficit will not because it will be just filling the non-government spending gap.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Premium Question 5:

Domestic deflation (reducing domestic wages and prices relative to other nations), which some Eurozone nations are pursuing because they effectively face a fixed exchange rate, may not increase export competitiveness.

The answer is True.

The temptation is to accept the rhetoric after understanding the constraints that the EMU places on member countries and conclude that the only way that competitiveness can be restored is to cut wages and prices. That is what the dominant theme emerging from the public debate is telling us.

However, deflating an economy under these circumstance is only part of the story and does not guarantee that a nations competitiveness will be increased.

We have to differentiate several concepts: (a) the nominal exchange rate; (b) domestic price levels; (c) unit labour costs; and (d) the real or effective exchange rate.

It is the last of these concepts that determines the “competitiveness” of a nation. This Bank of Japan explanation of the real effective exchange rate is informative. Their English-language services are becoming better by the year.

Nominal exchange rate (e)

The nominal exchange rate (e) is the number of units of one currency that can be purchased with one unit of another currency. There are two ways in which we can quote a bi-lateral exchange rate. Consider the relationship between the $A and the $US.

  • The amount of Australian currency that is necessary to purchase one unit of the US currency ($US1) can be expressed. In this case, the $US is the (one unit) reference currency and the other currency is expressed in terms of how much of it is required to buy one unit of the reference currency. So $A1.60 = $US1 means that it takes $1.60 Australian to buy one $US.
  • Alternatively, e can be defined as the amount of US dollars that one unit of Australian currency will buy ($A1). In this case, the $A is the reference currency. So, in the example above, this is written as $US0.625= $A1. Thus if it takes $1.60 Australian to buy one $US, then 62.5 cents US buys one $A. (i) is just the inverse of (ii), and vice-versa.

So to understand exchange rate quotations you must know which is the reference currency. In the remaining I use the first convention so e is the amount of $A which is required to buy one unit of the foreign currency.

International competitiveness

Are Australian goods and services becoming more or less competitive with respect to goods and services produced overseas? To answer the question we need to know about:

  • movements in the exchange rate, ee; and
  • relative inflation rates (domestic and foreign).

Clearly within the EMU, the nominal exchange rate is fixed between nations so the changes in competitiveness all come down to the second source and here foreign means other nations within the EMU as well as nations beyond the EMU.

There are also non-price dimensions to competitiveness, including quality and reliability of supply, which are assumed to be constant.

We can define the ratio of domestic prices (P) to the rest of the world (Pw) as Pw/P.

For a nation running a flexible exchange rate, and domestic prices of goods, say in the USA and Australia remaining unchanged, a depreciation in Australia’s exchange means that our goods have become relatively cheaper than US goods. So our imports should fall and exports rise. An exchange rate appreciation has the opposite effect.

But this option is not available to an EMU nation so the only way goods in say Greece can become cheaper relative to goods in say, Germany is for the relative price ratio (Pw/P) to change:

  • If Pw is rising faster than P, then Greek goods are becoming relatively cheaper within the EMU; and
  • If Pw is rising slower than P, then Greek goods are becoming relatively more expensive within the EMU.

The inverse of the relative price ratio, namely (P/Pw) measures the ratio of export prices to import prices and is known as the terms of trade.

The real exchange rate

Movements in the nominal exchange rate and the relative price level (Pw/P) need to be combined to tell us about movements in relative competitiveness. The real exchange rate captures the overall impact of these variables and is used to measure our competitiveness in international trade.

The real exchange rate (R) is defined as:

R = (e.Pw/P)

where P is the domestic price level specified in $A, and Pw is the foreign price level specified in foreign currency units, say $US.

The real exchange rate is the ratio of prices of goods abroad measured in $A (ePw) to the $A prices of goods at home (P). So the real exchange rate, R adjusts the nominal exchange rate, e for the relative price levels.

For example, assume P = $A10 and Pw = $US8, and e = 1.60. In this case R = (8×1.6)/10 = 1.28. The $US8 translates into $A12.80 and the US produced goods are more expensive than those in Australia by a ratio of 1.28, ie 28%.

A rise in the real exchange rate can occur if:

  • the nominal e depreciates; and/or
  • Pw rises more than P, other things equal.

A rise in the real exchange rate should increase our exports and reduce our imports.

A fall in the real exchange rate can occur if:

  • the nominal e appreciates; and/or
  • Pw rises less than P, other things equal.

A fall in the real exchange rate should reduce our exports and increase our imports.

In the case of the EMU nation we have to consider what factors will drive Pw/P up and increase the competitive of a particular nation.

If prices are set on unit labour costs, then the way to decrease the price level relative to the rest of the world is to reduce unit labour costs faster than everywhere else.

Unit labour costs are defined as cost per unit of output and are thus ratios of wage (and other costs) to output. If labour costs are dominant (we can ignore other costs for the moment) so total labour costs are the wage rate times total employment = w.L. Real output is Y.

So unit labour costs (ULC) = w.L/Y.

L/Y is the inverse of labour productivity(LP) so ULCs can be expressed as the w/(Y/L) = w/LP.

So if the rate of growth in wages is faster than labour productivity growth then ULCs rise and vice-versa. So one way of cutting ULCs is to cut wage levels which is what the austerity programs in the EMU nations (Ireland, Greece, Portugal etc) are attempting to do.

But LP is not constant. If morale falls, sabotage rises, absenteeism rises and overall investment falls in reaction to the extended period of recession and wage cuts then productivity is likely to fall as well. Thus there is no guarantee that ULCs will fall by any significant amount.

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. Q3, “The main instrument of this liquidity management is through open market operations, that is, buying and selling government debt.”

      So what happens when people smarten up and send gov’t debt to zero(0)? Would that make it tougher for the fed to “manage” the fed funds rate? Is that the REAL reason geekspeak didn’t want the gov’t debt paid off?

    2. A little off topic but “quiz” related and from:

      http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2011/07/good-exam-question.html

      “Sunday, July 03, 2011
      A Good Exam Question
      Dean Baker endorses and expands upon an idea of Ron Paul’s. I think the idea is crazy, but at least it is crazy in an interesting way. Here it is, in a nutshell:

      1.According to Congressman Paul, to deal with the debt-ceiling impasse, we should tell the Federal Reserve to destroy its vast holding of government bonds.
      2.Because the Fed might have planned on selling those bonds in open-market operations to drain the banking system of the currently high level of excess reserves, the Fed should (according to Baker) substantially increase reserve requirements.
      This would be a great exam question: What are the effects of this policy? Who wins and who loses if this proposal is adopted?

      STOP READING. Think about the question yourself for a few minutes.

      —–
      DID YOU REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION?
      —–

      Okay. Here is my answer:

      Part 1 is just an accounting gimmick. Since the Fed is really part of the government, the bonds it holds are liabilities the government owes to itself. Destroying the bonds has no direct economic effect. It is just like an increase in the debt ceiling, without any other policy changes attached.

      Part 2 is a form of financial repression. Assuming the Fed does not pay market interest rates on those newly required reserves, it is like a tax on bank financing. The initial impact is on those small businesses that rely on banks to raise funds for investment. The policy will therefore impede the financial system’s ability to intermediate between savers and investors. As a result, the economy’s capital stock will be allocated less efficiently. In the long run, there will be lower growth in productivity and real wages.”

      I’d like to get bill’s and everyone else’s answer to that. Thanks!!!

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