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Saturday Quiz – April 18, 2015 – 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:

This week, a ratings agency downgraded Greek government debt because the nation faces insolvency risk. If Greece left the Eurozone and re-established its own currency, converted all euro liabilities to their own currency, they would eliminate that risk on all future liabilities.

The answer is False.

The answer would be true if the sentence had added (on all future liabilities) … in its own currency. The national government can always service its debts so long as these are denominated in domestic currency.

The answer is false because there is a possibility that the government may borrow in foreign currencies in addition to its own currency.

It also 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:

European Commission estimates of structural fiscal deficits in the Eurozone under the Excessive Deficit Mechanism lead to the conclusion that a government’s discretionary fiscal position is less expansionary than it actually is.

The answer is False.

The implicit estimates of potential GDP that are produced by central banks, treasuries and other bodies like the OECD are typically too pessimistic.

The reason is that they typically use the NAIRU to compute the “full capacity” or potential level of output which is then used as a benchmark to compare actual output against. The reason? To determine whether there is a positive output gap (actual output below potential output) or a negative output gap (actual output above potential output).

These measurements are then used to decompose the actual fiscal outcome at any point in time into structural and cyclical fiscal balances. The fiscal components are adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.

So if the economy is operating below capacity then tax revenue would be below its potential level and welfare spending would be above. In other words, the fiscal balance would be smaller at potential output relative to its current value if the economy was operating below full capacity. The adjustments would work in reverse should the economy be operating above full capacity.

If the fiscal balance is in deficit when computed at the “full employment” or potential output level, then we call this a structural deficit and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is expansionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently. If it is in surplus, then we have a structural surplus and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is contractionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently.

So you could have a downturn which drives the fiscal balance into a deficit but the underlying structural position could be contractionary (that is, a surplus). And vice versa.

The difference between the actual fiscal outcome and the structural component is then considered to be the cyclical fiscal outcome and it arises because the economy is deviating from its potential.

As you can see, the estimation of the benchmark is thus a crucial component in the decomposition of the fiscal outcome and the interpretation we place on the fiscal policy stance.

If the benchmark (potential output) is estimated to be below what it truly is, then a sluggish economy will be closer to potential than if you used the true full employment level of output. Under these circumstances, one would conclude that the fiscal stance was more expansionary than it truly was.

This is very important because the political pressures may then lead to discretionary cut backs to “reign in the structural deficit” even though it is highly possible that at that point in time, the structural component is actually in surplus and therefore constraining growth.

The mainstream methodology involved in estimating potential output almost always uses some notion of a NAIRU which itself is unobserved. The NAIRU estimates produced by various agencies (OECD, IMF etc) always inflate the true full employment unemployment rate and completely ignore underemployment, which has risen sharply over the last 20 years.

What is a true full employment level? We know that unemployment will always be non-zero because of frictions – people leaving jobs and reconnecting with other employers. This component is somewhere around 2 per cent. The other components of unemployment which economists define are seasonal, structural and demand-deficient. Seasonal unemployment is tied up with frictional and likely to be small.

The concept of structural unemployment is vexed. I actually don’t think it exists because ultimately comes down to demand-deficient. The concept is biased towards a view that only private market employment are real jobs and so if the market doesn’t want a particular skill group or does not choose to provide work in a particular geographic area then the mis-match unemployment is structural.

The problem is that often there are unemployed workers in areas where employers claim there are skills shortages. The firms will not employ these workers and offer them training opportunities within the paid work environment because they exercise discrimination. So what is actually considered structural is just a reflection of employer prejudice and an unwillingness to extend training opportunities to some cohorts of workers.

Also, the government can always generate enough demand to provide jobs to all in every area should it choose. So ultimately, any unemployment that looks like it is “structural” is in fact due to a lack of demand.

So there is no reason why any economy cannot get their unemployment rate down to 2 or 3 per cent.

Given that, the NAIRU estimates not only inflate the true full employment unemployment rate but also completely ignore the underemployment, which has risen sharply over the last 20 years.

The point is that by reducing the potential GDP estimates (by inflating the estimate of full employment unemployment) the structural deficits always contain some cyclical component and suggest that the discreationary policy choice is more expansionary than what it truly is when calibrated against a more meaningful potential GDP measure.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

Under current institutional arrangements, the change in the ratio of public debt to GDP will exactly equal the primary fiscal 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.

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 budget constraints, this emerging approach also constructed the government as being constrained by a ‘budget’ or a ‘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 (&DeltaB) over year t plus the change in high powered money (&DeltaH) 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 &DeltaH. 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 &DeltaH 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:

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. “The answer is false because there is a possibility that the government may borrow in foreign currencies in addition to its own currency.”
      Why would it do that?

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