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Saturday Quiz – July 26, 2014 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for yesterday’s quiz. The information provided should help you understand the reasoning behind the answers. 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:

A nation that issues its own currency and floats it on international foreign exchange markets can never be financially insolvent with respect to the debt it issues.

The answer is False.

The answer would be true if the sentence had added (to the debt it issues) … in its own currency. The national government can always service its debts so long as these are denominated in domestic currency.

The answer would be false because such nations sometimes borrow in foreign currencies in addition to their own currency.

It makes no significant difference for solvency whether the debt is held domestically or by foreign holders because it is serviced in the same manner in either case – by crediting bank accounts.

The situation changes when the government issues debt in a foreign-currency. Given it does not issue that currency then it is in the same situation as a private holder of foreign-currency denominated debt.

Private sector debt obligations have to be serviced out of income, asset sales, or by further borrowing. This is why long-term servicing is enhanced by productive investments and by keeping the interest rate below the overall growth rate.

Private sector debts are always subject to default risk – and should they be used to fund unwise investments, or if the interest rate is too high, private bankruptcies are the “market solution”.

Only if the domestic government intervenes to take on the private sector debts does this then become a government problem. Again, however, so long as the debts are in domestic currency (and even if they are not, government can impose this condition before it takes over private debts), government can always service all domestic currency debt.

The solvency risk the private sector faces on all debt is inherited by the national government if it takes on foreign-currency denominated debt. In those circumstances it must have foreign exchange reserves to allow it to make the necessary repayments to the creditors. In times when the economy is strong and foreigners are demanding the exports of the nation, then getting access to foreign reserves is not an issue.

But when the external sector weakens the economy may find it hard accumulating foreign currency reserves and once it exhausts its stock, the risk of national government insolvency becomes real.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

Under current institutional arrangements, the change in the ratio of public debt to GDP will exactly equal the primary deficit plus the interest service payments on the outstanding stock of debt both expressed as ratios to GDP minus the changes in the monetary base arising from official foreign exchange transactions conducted by the central bank.

The answer is False.

If we left out the last part of the question “minus the changes in the monetary base arising from official foreign exchange transactions” then the answer is true. The offical foreign exchange transactions do change the monetary base but have no accounting impact on the ratio of public debt to GDP

So without that addition, the answer would be true as long as you note the caveat “under current institutional arrangements”. What are the institutional arrangements that are applicable here? I am referring, of-course, to the voluntary choice by governments around the world to issue debt into the private bond markets to match $-for-$ their net spending flows in each period. A sovereign government within a fiat currency system does not have to issue any debt and could run continuous fiscal deficits (that is, forever) with a zero public debt.

The reason they is covered in the following blogs – On voluntary constraints that undermine public purpose.

So given they are intent on holding onto these gold standard/convertible currency relics the answer is true.

The framework for considering this question is provided by the accounting relationship linking the fiscal flows (spending, taxation and interest servicing) with relevant stocks (base money and government bonds).

This framework has been interpreted by the mainstream macroeconommists as constituting an a priori financial constraint on government spending (more on this soon) and by proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as an ex post accounting relationship that has to be true in a stock-flow consistent macro model but which carries no particular import other than to measure the changes in stocks between periods. These changes are also not particularly significant within MMT given that a sovereign government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency.

To understand the difference in viewpoint we might usefully start with the mainstream view. The way the mainstream macroeconomics textbooks build this narrative is to draw an analogy between the household and the sovereign government and to assert that the microeconomic constraints that are imposed on individual or household choices apply equally without qualification to the government. The framework for analysing these choices has been called the government budget constraint (GBC) in the literature.

The GBC is in fact an accounting statement relating government spending and taxation to stocks of debt and high powered money. However, the accounting character is downplayed and instead it is presented by mainstream economists as an a priori financial constraint that has to be obeyed. So immediately they shift, without explanation, from an ex post sum that has to be true because it is an accounting identity, to an alleged behavioural constraint on government action.

The GBC is always true ex post but never represents an a priori financial constraint for a sovereign government running a flexible-exchange rate non-convertible currency. That is, the parity between its currency and other currencies floats and the the government does not guarantee to convert the unit of account (the currency) into anything else of value (like gold or silver).

This literature emerged in the 1960s during a period when the neo-classical microeconomists were trying to gain control of the macroeconomic policy agenda by undermining the theoretical validity of the, then, dominant Keynesian macroeconomics. There was nothing particularly progressive about the macroeconomics of the day which is known as Keynesian although as I explain in this blog – Those bad Keynesians are to blame – that is a bit of a misnomer.

This is because the essential insights of Keynes were lost in the early 1940s after being kidnapped by what became known as the neo-classical synthesis characterised by the Hicksian IS-LM model. I cannot explain all that here so for non-economists I would say this issue is not particularly important in order to develop a comprehension of the rest of this answer and the issues at stake.

The neo-classical attack was centred on the so-called lack of microfoundations (read: contrived optimisation and rationality assertions that are the hallmark of mainstream microeconomics but which fail to stand scrutiny by, for example, behavioural economists). I also won’t go into this issue because it is very complicated and would occupy about 3 (at least) separate blogs by the time I had explained what it was all about.

For the non-economists, once again I ask for some slack. Take it from me – it was total nonsense and reflected the desire of the mainstream microeconomists to represent the government as a household and to “prove” analytically that its presence within the economy was largely damaging to income and wealth generation. The attack was pioneered, for example, by Milton Friedman in the 1950s – so that should give you an idea of what the ideological agenda was.

Anyway, just as an individual or a household is conceived in orthodox microeconomic theory to maximise utility (real income) subject to their fiscal constraints, this emerging approach also constructed the government as being constrained by a fiscal or “financing” constraint. Accordingly, they developed an analytical framework whereby the fiscal deficits had stock implications – this is the so-called GBC.

So within this model, taxes are conceived as providing the funds to the government to allow it to spend. Further, this approach asserts that any excess in government spending over taxation receipts then has to be “financed” in two ways: (a) by borrowing from the public; and (b) by printing money.

You can see that the approach is a gold standard approach where the quantity of “money” in circulation is proportional (via a fixed exchange price) to the stock of gold that a nation holds at any point in time. So if the government wants to spend more it has to take money off the non-government sector either via taxation of bond-issuance.

However, in a fiat currency system, the mainstream analogy between the household and the government is flawed at the most elemental level. The household must work out the financing before it can spend. The household cannot spend first. The government can spend first and ultimately does not have to worry about financing such expenditure.

From a policy perspective, they believed (via the flawed Quantity Theory of Money) that “printing money” would be inflationary (even though governments do not spend by printing money anyway. So they recommended that deficits be covered by debt-issuance, which they then claimed would increase interest rates by increasing demand for scarce savings and crowd out private investment. All sorts of variations on this nonsense has appeared ranging from the moderate Keynesians (and some Post Keynesians) who claim the “financial crowding out” (via interest rate increases) is moderate to the extreme conservatives who say it is 100 per cent (that is, no output increase accompanies government spending).

So the GBC is the mainstream macroeconomics framework for analysing these “financing” choices and it says that the fiscal deficit in year t is equal to the change in government debt (?B) over year t plus the change in high powered money (?H) over year t. If we think of this in real terms (rather than monetary terms), the mathematical expression of this is written as:

gbc

which you can read in English as saying that Budget deficit (BD) = Government spending (G) – Tax receipts (T) + Government interest payments (rBt-1), all in real terms.

However, this is merely an accounting statement. It has to be true if things have been added and subtracted properly in accounting for the dealings between the government and non-government sectors.

In mainstream economics, money creation is erroneously depicted as the government asking the central bank to buy treasury bonds which the central bank in return then prints money. The government then spends this money. This is called debt monetisation and we have shown in the Deficits 101 series how this conception is incorrect. Anyway, the mainstream claims that if the government is willing to increase the money growth rate it can finance a growing deficit but also inflation because there will be too much money chasing too few goods! But an economy constrained by deficient demand (defined as demand below the full employment level) responds to a nominal impulse by expanding real output not prices.

But because they believe that inflation is inevitable if “printing money” occurs, mainstream economists recommend that governments use debt issuance to “finance” their deficits. But then they scream that this will merely require higher future taxes. Why should taxes have to be increased?

Well the textbooks are full of elaborate models of debt pay-back, debt stabilisation etc which all “prove” (not!) that the legacy of past deficits is higher debt and to stabilise the debt, the government must eliminate the deficit which means it must then run a primary surplus equal to interest payments on the existing debt.

Nothing is included about the swings and roundabouts provided by the automatic stabilisers as the results of the deficits stimulate private activity and welfare spending drops and tax revenue rises automatically in line with the increased economic growth. Most orthodox models are based on the assumption of full employment anyway, which makes them nonsensical depictions of the real world.

More sophisticated mainstream analyses focus on the ratio of debt to GDP rather than the level of debt per se. They come up with the following equation – nothing that they now disregard the obvious opportunity presented to the government via ΔH. So in the following model all net public spending is covered by new debt-issuance (even though in a fiat currency system no such financing is required). Accordingly, the change in the public debt ratio is:

debt_gdp_ratio

So the change in the debt ratio is the sum of two terms on the right-hand side: (a) the difference between the real interest rate (r) and the GDP growth rate (g) times the initial debt ratio; and (b) the ratio of the primary deficit (G-T) to GDP.

A growing economy can absorb more debt and keep the debt ratio constant. For example, if the primary deficit is zero, debt increases at a rate r but the debt ratio increases at rg.

Thus, if we ignore the possibilities presented by the ΔH option (which is what I meant by current institutional arrangements), the proposition is true but largely irrelevant.

You may be interested in reading these blogs which have further information on this topic:

Question 3:

As a matter of accounting, the financial assets held by the non-government sector rise $-for-$ when a sovereign government issues debt.

The answer is False.

The fundamental principles that arise in a fiat monetary system are as follows.

  • The central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations.
  • Government spending is independent of borrowing and 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 that are not accompanied by corresponding monetary operations (debt-issuance) 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.

National governments have cash operating accounts with their central bank. The specific arrangements vary by country but the principle remains the same. When the government spends it debits these accounts and credits various bank accounts within the commercial banking system. Deposits thus show up in a number of commercial banks as a reflection of the spending. It may issue a cheque and post it to someone in the private sector whereupon that person will deposit the cheque at their bank. It is the same effect as if it had have all been done electronically.

All federal spending happens like this. You will note that:

  • Governments do not spend by “printing money”. They spend by creating deposits in the private banking system. Clearly, some currency is in circulation which is “printed” but that is a separate process from the daily spending and taxing flows.
  • There has been no mention of where they get the credits and debits come from! The short answer is that the spending comes from no-where but we will have to wait for another blog soon to fully understand that. Suffice to say that the Federal government, as the monopoly issuer of its own currency is not revenue-constrained. This means it does not have to “finance” its spending unlike a household, which uses the fiat currency.
  • Any coincident issuing of government debt (bonds) has nothing to do with “financing” the government spending.

All the commercial banks maintain reserve accounts with the central bank within their system. These accounts permit reserves to be managed and allows the clearing system to operate smoothly. The rules that operate on these accounts in different countries vary (that is, some nations have minimum reserves others do not etc). For financial stability, these reserve accounts always have to have positive balances at the end of each day, although during the day a particular bank might be in surplus or deficit, depending on the pattern of the cash inflows and outflows. There is no reason to assume that these flows will exactly offset themselves for any particular bank at any particular time.

The central bank conducts “operations” to manage the liquidity in the banking system such that short-term interest rates match the official target – which defines the current monetary policy stance. The central bank may: (a) Intervene into the interbank (overnight) money market to manage the daily supply of and demand for reserve funds; (b) buy certain financial assets at discounted rates from commercial banks; and (c) impose penal lending rates on banks who require urgent funds, In practice, most of the liquidity management is achieved through (a). That being said, central bank operations function to offset operating factors in the system by altering the composition of reserves, cash, and securities, and do not alter net financial assets of the non-government sectors.

Fiscal policy impacts on bank reserves – government spending (G) adds to reserves and taxes (T) drains them. So on any particular day, if G > T (a fiscal deficit) then reserves are rising overall. Any particular bank might be short of reserves but overall the sum of the bank reserves are in excess. It is in the commercial banks interests to try to eliminate any unneeded reserves each night given they usually earn a non-competitive return. Surplus banks will try to loan their excess reserves on the Interbank market. Some deficit banks will clearly be interested in these loans to shore up their position and avoid going to the discount window that the central bank offeres and which is more expensive.

The upshot, however, is that the competition between the surplus banks to shed their excess reserves drives the short-term interest rate down. These transactions net to zero (a equal liability and asset are created each time) and so non-government banking system cannot by itself (conducting horizontal transactions between commercial banks – that is, borrowing and lending on the interbank market) eliminate a system-wide excess of reserves that the fiscal deficit created.

What is needed is a vertical transaction – that is, an interaction between the government and non-government sector. So bond sales can drain reserves by offering the banks an attractive interest-bearing security (government debt) which it can purchase to eliminate its excess reserves.

However, the vertical transaction just offers portfolio choice for the non-government sector rather than changing the holding of financial assets.

So the issuance of public debt does not increases the assets that are held by the non-government sector $-for-$.

Further, mainstream macroeconomics claims that public debt-issuance reduces the capacity of the private sector to borrow from banks because they use their deposits to buy the bonds. That is also clearly an incorrect statement.

It is based on the erroneous belief that the banks need deposits and reserves before they can lend. Mainstream macroeconomics wrongly asserts that banks only lend if they have prior reserves. The illusion is that a bank is an institution that accepts deposits to build up reserves and then on-lends them at a margin to make money. The conceptualisation suggests that if it doesn’t have adequate reserves then it cannot lend. So the presupposition is that by adding to bank reserves, quantitative easing will help lending.

But this is an incorrect depiction of how banks operate. Bank lending is not “reserve constrained”. Banks lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. If they are short of reserves (their reserve accounts have to be in positive balance each day and in some countries central banks require certain ratios to be maintained) then they borrow from each other in the interbank market or, ultimately, they will borrow from the central bank through the so-called discount window. They are reluctant to use the latter facility because it carries a penalty (higher interest cost).

The point is that building bank reserves will not increase the bank’s capacity to lend. Loans create deposits which generate reserves.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

(c) Copyright 2014 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. The sentence “A nation that issues its own currency and floats it on international foreign exchange markets can never be financially insolvent with respect to the debt it issues in its own currency” would still be false.

      In the way that it is written, it sounds like there is some invisible force that makes a nation unable to default in its own local currency, and that it would be impossible to observe throughout history a nation defaulting in its currency. I know that it’s not what you meant, but that’s the message I get from the sentence (and I guess most people get the same message). The fact is that a lot of nations defaulted in their own currency, like: Venezuela (1998), Russia (1998), Ukraine (1998), Ecuador (1999), Argentina (2001) and Jamaica (2010 and 2013).

      We MMTers have to be cautious with the words we use to avoid creating more unecessary critics. If we had been more cautious before, maybe MMT would have already been spread around the world. I really would like to see people being taught about MMT in economics undergraduate courses, but that’s life.

      Nations can be finacially insolvent in its own currency if it chooses so. It’s a political decision, of course, but it’s still possible. And maybe there are some good reasons for a nation doing so. I have a lot of complex examples here in my mind, most involving revolutions, wars and political trouble, but I guess it’s a discussion for another topic.

      Maybe the true sentece would be something like that:
      “A nation that issues its own currency and floats it on international foreign exchange markets can never be financially insolvent with respect to the debt it issues in its own currency if it chooses so”

      That’s still not very good, but at least it’s more accurate…

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