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Saturday Quiz – October 26, 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:

Under current public sector debt-issuance arrangements (where sovereign governments match their deficits with issues of debt), the government and the private domestic sector cannot simultaneously spend less than they earn.

The answer is False.

This is a question about the sectoral balances – the government budget balance, the external balance and the private domestic balance – that have to always add to zero because they are derived as an accounting identity from the national accounts. The balances reflect the underlying economic behaviour in each sector which is interdependent – given this is a macroeconomic system we are considering.

To refresh your memory the balances are derived as follows. 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.

You can also write this as:

(S – I) + (T – G) = (X – M)

Which gives an easier interpretation (especially in relation to this question).

The sectoral balances derived are:

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

Using this version of the sectoral balance framework:

(S – I) + (T – G) = (X – M)

So the domestic balance (left-hand side) – which is the sum of the private domestic sector and the government sector equals the external balance.

For the left-hand side of the equation to be positive (that is, in surplus overall) and the individual sectoral components to be in surplus overall, the right-hand side has to be positive (that is, an external surplus) and of sufficient magnitude.

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

The following graph and accompanying table shows a 8-period sequence where for the first four years the nation is running an external deficit (2 per cent of GDP) and for the last four year the external sector is in surplus (2 per cent of GDP).

For the question to be true we should never see the government surplus (T – G > 0) and the private domestic surplus (S – I > 0) simultaneously occurring – which in the terms of the graph will be the green and navy bars being above the zero line together.

You see that in the first four periods that never juxtaposition never occurs which tells you that when there is an external deficit (X – M < 0) the private domestic and government sectors cannot simultaneously run surpluses, no matter how hard they might try. The income adjustments will always force one or both of the sectors into deficit.

The sum of the private domestic surplus and government surplus has to equal the external surplus. So that condition defines the situations when the private domestic sector and the government sector can simultaneously pay back debt.

It is only in Period 5 that we see the condition satisfied (see red circle).

That is because the private and government balances (both surpluses) exactly equal the external surplus.

If the private domestic sector tried to push for higher saving overall (say in Period 6), national income would fall (because overall spending fell) and the government surplus would vanish as the automatic stabilisers responded with lower tax revenue and higher welfare payments.

Periods 7 and 8 show what happens when the private domestic sector runs deficits with an external surplus. The combination of the external surplus and the private domestic deficit adding to demand drives the automatic stabilisers to push the government budget into further surplus as economic activity is high. But this growth scenario is unsustainable because it implies an increasing level of indebtedness overall for the private domestic sector which has finite limits. Eventually, that sector will seek to stabilise its balance sheet (which means households and firms will start to save overall). That would reduce domestic income and the budget would move back into deficit (or a smaller surplus) depending on the size of the external surplus.

So what is the economics that underpin these different situations?

If the nation is running an external deficit it means that the contribution to aggregate demand from the external sector is negative – that is net drain of spending – dragging output down.

The external deficit also means that foreigners are increasing financial claims denominated in the local currency. Given that exports represent a real cost and imports a real benefit, the motivation for a nation running a net exports surplus (the exporting nation in this case) must be to accumulate financial claims (assets) denominated in the currency of the nation running the external deficit.

A fiscal surplus also means the government is spending less than it is “earning” and that puts a drag on aggregate demand and constrains the ability of the economy to grow.

In these circumstances, for income to be stable, the private domestic sector has to spend more than they earn.

You can see this by going back to the aggregate demand relations above. For those who like simple algebra we can manipulate the aggregate demand model to see this more clearly.

Y = GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

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

So if the G is spending less than it is “earning” and the external sector is adding less income (X) than it is absorbing spending (M), then the other spending components must be greater than total income.

Only when the government budget deficit supports aggregate demand at income levels which permit the private sector to save overall out of that income will the latter achieve its desired outcome. At this point, income and employment growth are maximised and private debt levels will be stable.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

The government needs to raise tax revenue in order to spend.

The answer is True.

The answer is True but not for the reasons the mainstream economics textbooks would suggest – that is, that taxation revenue finances government spending.

To understand this we need to explore the role that taxation plays in a fiat monetary system and to note that the question talks about real spending capacity (the capacity to purchase real goods and services) rather than nominal spending capacity (the capacity to spend dollars).

Clearly, I was tempting the reader to follow a logic such that – Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows that taxpayers do not fund anything and sovereign governments are never revenue-constrained because they are the monopoly issuers of the currency in use. Therefore, the government can spend whatever it likes irrespective of the level of taxation. Therefore the answer is false.

But, that logic while correct for the most part ignores the underlying role of taxation.

In a fiat monetary system the currency has no intrinsic worth. Further the government has no intrinsic financial constraint. Once we realise that government spending is not revenue-constrained then we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light. The starting point of this new understanding is that taxation functions to promote offers from private individuals to government of goods and services in return for the necessary funds to extinguish the tax liabilities.

In this way, it is clear that the imposition of taxes creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector and allows a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector, which in turn, facilitates the government’s economic and social program.

The crucial point is that the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are provided to the non-government sector by government spending. Accordingly, government spending provides the paid work which eliminates the unemployment created by the taxes.

This train of logic also explains why mass unemployment arises. It is the introduction of State Money (government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economics that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment. For aggregate output to be sold, total spending must equal total income (whether actual income generated in production is fully spent or not each period). Involuntary unemployment is idle labour offered for sale with no buyers at current prices (wages).

Unemployment occurs when the private sector, in aggregate, desires to earn the monetary unit of account, but doesn’t desire to spend all it earns, other things equal. As a result, involuntary inventory accumulation among sellers of goods and services translates into decreased output and employment. In this situation, nominal (or real) wage cuts per se do not clear the labour market, unless those cuts somehow eliminate the private sector desire to net save, and thereby increase spending.

The purpose of State Money is for the government to move real resources from private to public domain. It does so by first levying a tax, which creates a notional demand for its currency of issue. To obtain funds needed to pay taxes and net save, non-government agents offer real goods and services for sale in exchange for the needed units of the currency. This includes, of-course, the offer of labour by the unemployed. The obvious conclusion is that unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low to accommodate the need to pay taxes and the desire to net save.

This analysis also sets the limits on government spending. It is clear that government spending has to be sufficient to allow taxes to be paid. In addition, net government spending is required to meet the private desire to save (accumulate net financial assets). From the previous paragraph it is also clear that if the Government doesn’t spend enough to cover taxes and desire to save the manifestation of this deficiency will be unemployment.

Keynesians have used the term demand-deficient unemployment. In our conception, the basis of this deficiency is at all times inadequate net government spending, given the private spending decisions in force at any particular time.

Accordingly, the concept of fiscal sustainability does not entertain notions that the continuous deficits required to finance non-government net saving desires in the currency of issue will ultimately require high taxes. Taxes in the future might be higher or lower or unchanged. These movements have nothing to do with “funding” government spending.

To understand how taxes are used to attenuate demand please read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory.

So to make the point clear – the taxes do not fund the spending. They free up space for the spending to occur in a non-inflationary environment.

You might say that this only applies at full employment where there are no free resources and so taxation has to take those resources off the non-government sector in order for the government to spend more. That would also be a true statement.

But it doesn’t negate the overall falsity of the main proposition.

Further, you might say that governments can spend whenever they like. That is also true but if it just kept spending the growth in nominal demand would outstrip real capacity and inflation would certainly result. So in that regard, this would not be a sensible strategy and is excluded as a reasonable proposition. Moreover, it would not be able to expand its real spending (which requires output to rise).

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

The estimates provided by institutions such as the OECD and the IMF of the size of the automatic stabilisers are typically biased downwards.

The answer is True.

This question is about decomposing the impacts of the automatic stabilisers from those attributable to the underlying fiscal stance. Both the revenue and spending side of the budget are adjusted.

The budget balance is the difference between total revenue and total 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 we conclude 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).

However, the complication is that we cannot then conclude that changes in the fiscal impact reflect discretionary policy changes. The reason for this uncertainty is that there are automatic stabilisers operating. To see this, the most simple model of the budget balance we might think of can be written as:

Budget Balance = Revenue – Spending.

Budget Balance = (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.

To overcome this uncertainty, economists devised what used to be called the Full Employment or High Employment Budget. In more recent times, this concept is now called the Structural Balance. The change in nomenclature is very telling because it occurred over the period that neo-liberal governments began to abandon their commitments to maintaining full employment and instead decided to use unemployment as a policy tool to discipline inflation. I will come back to this later.

The Full Employment Budget Balance was a hypothetical construct of the budget balance that would be realised if the economy was operating at potential or full employment. In other words, calibrating the budget position (and the underlying budget parameters) against some fixed point (full capacity) eliminated the cyclical component – the swings in activity around full employment.

So a full employment budget would be balanced if total outlays and total revenue were equal when the economy was operating at total capacity. If the budget was in surplus at full capacity, then we would conclude that the discretionary structure of the budget was contractionary and vice versa if the budget was in deficit at full capacity.

The calculation of the structural deficit spawned a bit of an industry in the past with lots of complex issues relating to adjustments for inflation, terms of trade effects, changes in interest rates and more.

Much of the debate centred on how to compute the unobserved full employment point in the economy. There were a plethora of methods used in the period of true full employment in the 1960s. All of them had issues but like all empirical work – it was a dirty science – relying on assumptions and simplifications. But that is the nature of the applied economist’s life.

Things changed in the 1970s and beyond. At the time that governments abandoned their commitment to full employment (as unemployment rise), the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) entered the debate – see my blog – The dreaded NAIRU is still about!.

The NAIRU became a central plank in the front-line attack on the use of discretionary fiscal policy by governments. It was argued, erroneously, that full employment did not mean the state where there were enough jobs to satisfy the preferences of the available workforce. Instead full employment occurred when the unemployment rate was at the level where inflation was stable.

NAIRU theorists then invented a number of spurious reasons (all empirically unsound) to justify steadily ratcheting the estimate of this (unobservable) inflation-stable unemployment rate upwards. So in the late 1980s, economists were claiming it was around 8 per cent. Now they claim it is around 5 per cent. The NAIRU has been severely discredited as an operational concept but it still exerts a very powerful influence on the policy debate.

Further, governments became captive to the idea that if they tried to get the unemployment rate below the NAIRU using expansionary policy then they would just cause inflation. I won’t go into all the errors that occurred in this reasoning.

Now I mentioned the NAIRU because it has been widely used to define full capacity utilisation. The IMF and OECD use various versions of the NAIRU to estimate potential output. If the economy is running an unemployment equal to the estimated NAIRU then it is concluded that the economy is at full capacity. Of-course, proponents of this method keep changing their estimates of the NAIRU which were in turn are accompanied by huge standard errors. These error bands in the estimates mean their calculated NAIRUs might vary between 3 and 13 per cent in some studies which made the concept useless for policy purposes.

But they still persist in using it because it carries the ideological weight – the neo-liberal attack on government intervention.

So they changed the name from Full Employment Budget Balance to Structural Balance to avoid the connotations of the past that full capacity arose when there were enough jobs for all those who wanted to work at the current wage levels. Now you will only read about structural balances.

And to make matters worse, they now estimate the structural balance by basing it on the NAIRU or some derivation of it – which is, in turn, estimated using very spurious models. This allows them to compute the tax and spending that would occur at this so-called full employment point. But it severely underestimates the tax revenue and overestimates the spending and thus concludes the structural balance is more in deficit (less in surplus) than it actually is.

They thus systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.

Accordingly, the underestimate the impact of the automatic stabilisers.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

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    This Post Has 6 Comments
    1. On Q2, while I accept your arguments, I think you’re a little unfair, from language ambiguities.
      Consider these possible interpretations:

      > The government needs to remove some of its money from circulation in order to buy what it needs at a reasonable price – plainly true;

      > The government needs to confiscate coercively in order to buy what it likes with its own money – false;

      > The government needs to increase tax revenue in order to spend more – either of the above.

      How about a third option, such as “indeterminate as stated”?

    2. Bill,
      Re Q2.

      I accept the answer is correct, but I have something to add.

      Where you say:
      “You might say that this only applies at full employment where there are no free resources and so taxation has to take those resources off the non-government sector in order for the government to spend more.”

      You could add that even when an economy is at full capacity, to create enough non-inflationary space more tax may need to be raised than the government intends to spend due to the difference between the fiscal multipliers associated with taxation, and those associated with government spending.

      In other words, government may need to raise, say, $3Bn of tax for every $1Bn of spending in some circumstances. Which also shows that taxation is not “funding” government spending.

      Kind Regards

    3. Dear Bill

      Before WWI, governments were rather small, but there were severe economic crises. That casts doubt on your assertion that the cause of unemployment is always. lack of government spending. If a government is very small, its share of aggregate demand is also small. In such a case, even a complete elimination of the government could not explain a massive increase in unemployment. Isn’t it much more plausible that depressions are made possible by a monetized economy. If the private sector borrows a lot and uses part of the the borrowed funds for investment in capital which can never become profitable, then eventually there will be a desire to reduce debt, and that leads to a fall in aggregate demand. As I see it, recessions can also occur in countries in which the government has only the role o fa nightwatchman and spends no more than 2% of GDP.

      Regards. James

    4. James,
      “even a complete elimination of the government could not explain a massive increase in unemployment.”

      As I understand it, know one is saying that, governments back then took a descrionary stance of reducing spending, which in turn caused the mass unemployment (though that can happen too). Rather, the private sector (for some reason) stopped spending and investing, and the government failed to increase their own spending to compensate. It amounts to the same thing.

      Kind Regards

    5. “If the private sector borrows a lot and uses part of the the borrowed funds for investment in capital which can never become profitable, then eventually there will be a desire to reduce debt, and that leads to a fall in aggregate demand.”

      So what James is trying to say is that the private sector does not always make rational decisions and as such the private sector is inherently unstable.


    6. Question 2, very sneaky :D

      I remember when I was in 2nd year (you were doing a number of public lectures with Randy Wray) and I was simultaneously introduced to MMT and the NAIRU (through my 2nd year macro course). The fury in the room was palpable! The NAIRU just seems inherently evil, the deliberate application of poverty and social expulsion to pursue a policy goal – and it just so unapologetic.

      “Yes, we aim to keep a portion of the population in abject poverty so that we can maintain a meaningless economic goal” – Satan.

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