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Saturday Quiz – March 9, 2013 – 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:

One advantage of low inflation is that the central bank can better use balance sheet management techniques to control yields on public debt at certain targetted maturities.

The answer is True.

The “term structure” of interest rates, in general, refers to the relationship between fixed-income securities (public and private) of different maturities. Sometimes commentators will confine the concept to public bonds but that would be apparent from the context. Usually, the term structure takes into account public and private bonds/paper.

The yield curve is a graphical depiction of the term structure – so that the interest rates on bonds are graphed against their maturities (or terms).

The term structure of interest rates provides financial markets with a indication of likely movements in interest rates and expectations of the state of the economy.

If the term structure is normal such that short-term rates are lower than long-term rates fixed-income investors form the view that economic growth will be normal. Given this is associated with an expectation of some stable inflation over the medium- to longer-term, long maturity assets have higher yields to compensate for the risk.

Short-term assets are less prone to inflation risk because holders are repaid sooner.

When the term structure starts to flatten, fixed-income markets consider this to be a transition phase with short-term rates on the rise and long-term rates falling or stable. This usually occurs late in a growth cycle and accompanies the tightening of monetary policy as the central bank seeks to reduce inflationary expectations.

Finally, if a flat terms structure inverts, the short-rates are higher than the long-rates. This results after a period of central bank tightening which leads the financial markets to form the view that interest rates will decline in the future with longer-term yields being lower. When interest rates decrease, bond prices rise and yields fall.

The investment mentality is tricky in these situations because even though yields on long-term bonds are expected to fall investors will still purchase assets at those maturities because they anticipate a major slowdown (following the central bank tightening) and so want to get what yields they can in an environment of overall declining yields and sluggish economic growth.

So the term structure is conditioned in part by the inflationary expectations that are held in the private sector.

It is without doubt that the central bank can manipulate the yield curve at all maturities to determine yields on public bonds. If they want to guarantee a particular yield on say a 30-year government bond then all they have to do is stand ready to purchase (or sell) the volume that is required to stabilise the price of the bond consistent with that yield.

Remember bond prices and yields are inverse. A person who buys a fixed-income bond for $100 with a coupon (return) of 10 per cent will expect $10 per year while they hold the bond. If demand rises for this bond in secondary markets and pushes the price up to say $120, then the fixed coupon (10 per cent on $100 = $10) delivers a lower yield.

Now it is possible that a strategy to fix yields on public bonds at all maturities would require the central bank to own all the debt (or most of it). This would occur if the targeted yields were not consistent with the private market expectations about future values of the short-term interest rate.

If the private markets considered that the central bank would stark hiking rates then they would decline to buy at the fixed (controlled) yield because they would expect long-term bond prices to fall overall and yields to rise.

So given the current monetary policy emphasis on controlling inflation, in a period of high inflation, private markets would hold the view that the yields on fixed income assets would rise and so the central bank would have to purchase all the issue to hit its targeted yield.

In this case, while the central bank could via large-scale purchases control the yield on the particular asset, it is likely that the yield on that asset would become dislocated from the term structure (if they were only controlling one maturity) and private rates or private rates (if they were controlling all public bond yields).

So the private and public interest rate structure could become separated. While some would say this would mean that the central bank loses the ability to influence private spending via monetary policy changes, the reality is that the economic consequences of such a situation would be unclear and depend on other factors such as expectations of future movements in aggregate demand, to name one important influence.

Question 2:

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) demonstrates that a currency-issuing government has no intrinsic financial constraint and any constraints that are observed in practice reflect voluntary decisions by government to restrict their options. It remains, however, that the inflation risk associated with government spending would be higher if such a government stopped issuing public debt to match its deficit spending.

The answer is False.

The mainstream macroeconomic textbooks all have a chapter on fiscal policy (and it is often written in the context of the so-called IS-LM model but not always).

The chapters always introduces the so-called Government Budget Constraint that alleges that governments have to “finance” all spending either through taxation; debt-issuance; or money creation. The writer fails to understand that government spending is performed in the same way irrespective of the accompanying monetary operations.

They claim that money creation (borrowing from central bank) is inflationary while the latter (private bond sales) is less so. These conclusions are based on their erroneous claim that “money creation” adds more to aggregate demand than bond sales, because the latter forces up interest rates which crowd out some private spending.

All these claims are without foundation in a fiat monetary system and an understanding of the banking operations that occur when governments spend and issue debt helps to show why.

So what would happen if a sovereign, currency-issuing government (with a flexible exchange rate) ran a budget deficit without issuing debt?

Like all government spending, the Treasury would credit the reserve accounts held by the commercial bank at the central bank. The commercial bank in question would be where the target of the spending had an account. So the commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a deposit would be made.

The transactions are clear: The commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a new deposit has been made. Further, the target of the fiscal initiative enjoys increased assets (bank deposit) and net worth (a liability/equity entry on their balance sheet). Taxation does the opposite and so a deficit (spending greater than taxation) means that reserves increase and private net worth increases.

This means that there are likely to be excess reserves in the “cash system” which then raises issues for the central bank about its liquidity management. The aim of the central bank is to “hit” a target interest rate and so it has to ensure that competitive forces in the interbank market do not compromise that target.

When there are excess reserves there is downward pressure on the overnight interest rate (as banks scurry to seek interest-earning opportunities), the central bank then has to sell government bonds to the banks to soak the excess up and maintain liquidity at a level consistent with the target. Some central banks offer a return on overnight reserves which reduces the need to sell debt as a liquidity management operation.

There is no sense that these debt sales have anything to do with “financing” government net spending. The sales are a monetary operation aimed at interest-rate maintenance. So M1 (deposits in the non-government sector) rise as a result of the deficit without a corresponding increase in liabilities. It is this result that leads to the conclusion that that deficits increase net financial assets in the non-government sector.

What would happen if there were bond sales? All that happens is that the banks reserves are reduced by the bond sales but this does not reduce the deposits created by the net spending. So net worth is not altered. What is changed is the composition of the asset portfolio held in the non-government sector.

The only difference between the Treasury “borrowing from the central bank” and issuing debt to the private sector is that the central bank has to use different operations to pursue its policy interest rate target. If it debt is not issued to match the deficit then it has to either pay interest on excess reserves (which most central banks are doing now anyway) or let the target rate fall to zero (the Japan solution).

There is no difference to the impact of the deficits on net worth in the non-government sector.

Mainstream economists would say that by draining the reserves, the central bank has reduced the ability of banks to lend which then, via the money multiplier, expands the money supply.

However, the reality is that:

  • Building bank reserves does not increase the ability of the banks to lend.
  • The money multiplier process so loved by the mainstream does not describe the way in which banks make loans.
  • Inflation is caused by aggregate demand growing faster than real output capacity. The reserve position of the banks is not functionally related with that process.

So the banks are able to create as much credit as they can find credit-worthy customers to hold irrespective of the operations that accompany government net spending.

This doesn’t lead to the conclusion that deficits do not carry an inflation risk. All components of aggregate demand carry an inflation risk if they become excessive, which can only be defined in terms of the relation between spending and productive capacity.

It is totally fallacious to think that private placement of debt reduces the inflation risk.

You may wish to read the following blogs for more information:

Question 3:

Adopting a fiscal rule that requires the government maintain an average budget balance over the course of each business cycle would mean its overall budget outcome would be insulated from the impacts of the automatic stabilisers.

The answer is False.

The final budget outcome is the difference between total federal revenue and total federal outlays. So if total revenue is greater than outlays, the budget is in surplus and vice versa. It is a simple matter of accounting with no theory involved. However, the budget balance is used by all and sundry to indicate the fiscal stance of the government.

So if the budget is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the budget is in deficit we say the fiscal impact expansionary (adding net spending).

Further, a rising deficit (falling surplus) is often considered to be reflecting an expansionary policy stance and vice versa. What we know is that a rising deficit may, in fact, indicate a contractionary fiscal stance – which, in turn, creates such income losses that the automatic stabilisers start driving the budget back towards (or into) deficit.

So the complication is that we cannot conclude that changes in the fiscal impact reflect discretionary policy changes. The reason for this uncertainty clearly relates to the operation of the automatic stabilisers.

To see this, the most simple model of the budget balance we might think of can be written as:

Budget Balance = Revenue – Spending = (Tax Revenue + Other Revenue) – (Welfare Payments + Other Spending)

We know that Tax Revenue and Welfare Payments move inversely with respect to each other, with the latter rising when GDP growth falls and the former rises with GDP growth. These components of the budget balance are the so-called automatic stabilisers.

In other words, without any discretionary policy changes, the budget balance will vary over the course of the business cycle. When the economy is weak – tax revenue falls and welfare payments rise and so the budget balance moves towards deficit (or an increasing deficit). When the economy is stronger – tax revenue rises and welfare payments fall and the budget balance becomes increasingly positive. Automatic stabilisers attenuate the amplitude in the business cycle by expanding the budget in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the budget goes into deficit doesn’t allow us to conclude that the Government has suddenly become of an expansionary mind. In other words, the presence of automatic stabilisers make it hard to discern whether the fiscal policy stance (chosen by the government) is contractionary or expansionary at any particular point in time.

The first point to always be clear about then is that the budget balance is not determined by the government. Its discretionary policy stance certainly is an influence but the final outcome will reflect non-government spending decisions. In other words, the concept of a fiscal rule – where the government can set a desired balance (in the case of the question – zero) and achieve that at all times is fraught.

It is likely that in attempting to achieve a balanced budget the government will set its discretionary policy settings counter to the best interests of the economy – either too contractionary or too expansionary.

If there was a balanced budget fiscal rule and private spending fell dramatically then the automatic stabilisers would push the budget into the direction of deficit. The final outcome would depend on net exports and whether the private sector was saving overall or not. Assume, that net exports were in deficit (typical case) and private saving overall was positive. Then private spending declines.

In this case, the actual budget outcome would be a deficit equal to the sum of the other two balances.

Then in attempting to apply the fiscal rule, the discretionary component of the budget would have to contract. This contraction would further reduce aggregate demand and the automatic stabilisers (loss of tax revenue and increased welfare payments) would be working against the discretionary policy choice.

In that case, the application of the fiscal rule would be undermining production and employment and probably not succeeding in getting the budget into balance.

But every time a discretionary policy change was made the impact on aggregate demand and hence production would then trigger the automatic stabilisers via the income changes to work in the opposite direction to the discretionary policy shift.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. I think something has gone wrong with the quiz! There is a different no.1 in the original quiz and the answers and the correct answer for no. 2 (false) is marked incorrect when answers are submitted.

      Still, I feel better because I thought no. 2 was false!

    2. Dear phil armstrong (at 2013/03/10 at 6:21)

      Sorry for the confusion. The database seems to have become a little confused (meaning: I stuffed up). I have fixed it now.

      Your prior on Q2 was correct.

      Thanks for bringing this to our notice.

      best wishes
      bill

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