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Saturday Quiz – June 27, 2015 – 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:

If the government achieves in reducing its net spending by say $10 billion, the net financial assets destroyed by this fiscal withdrawal could be replaced by the central bank engaging in a $10 billion quantitative easing program.

The answer is False.

Quantitative easing then involves the central bank buying assets from the private sector – government bonds and high quality corporate debt. QE involves the central bank swapping financial assets with the banks – that is, 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.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

When a country runs an external surplus, the national government can safely run a fiscal surplus without impeding economic growth.

The answer is False.

First, you need to understand the basic relationship between the sectoral flows and the balances that are derived from them. The flows are derived from the National Accounting relationship between aggregate spending and income. So:

(1) Y = C + I + G + (X – M)

where Y is GDP (income), C is consumption spending, I is investment spending, G is government spending, X is exports and M is imports (so X – M = net exports).

Another perspective on the national income accounting is to note that households can use total income (Y) for the following uses:

(2) Y = C + S + T

where S is total saving and T is total taxation (the other variables are as previously defined).

You than then bring the two perspectives together (because they are both just “views” of Y) to write:

(3) C + S + T = Y = C + I + G + (X – M)

You can then drop the C (common on both sides) and you get:

(4) S + T = I + G + (X – M)

Then you can convert this into the familiar sectoral balances accounting relations which allow us to understand the influence of fiscal policy over private sector indebtedness.

So we can re-arrange Equation (4) to get the accounting identity for the three sectoral balances – private domestic, government fiscal balance and external:

(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.

Another way of saying this is that total private savings (S) is equal to private investment (I) plus 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.

All these relationships (equations) hold as a matter of accounting and not matters of opinion.

Thus, when an external deficit (X – M < 0) and public surplus (G – T < 0) coincide, there must be a private deficit. 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.

Second, you then have to appreciate the relative sizes of these balances to answer the question correctly.

Consider the following Table which depicts three cases – two that define a state of macroeconomic equilibrium (where aggregate demand equals income and firms have no incentive to change output) and one (Case 2) where the economy is in a disequilibrium state and income changes would occur.

Note that in the equilibrium cases, the (S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M) whereas in the disequilibrium case (S – I) > (G – T) + (X – M) meaning that aggregate demand is falling and a spending gap is opening up. Firms respond to that gap by decreasing output and income and this brings about an adjustment in the balances until they are back in equality.

So in Case 1, assume that the private domestic sector desires to save 2 per cent of GDP overall (spend less than they earn) and the external sector is running a surplus equal to 4 per cent of GDP.

In that case, aggregate demand will be unchanged if the government runs a surplus of 2 per cent of GDP (noting a negative sign on the government balance means T > G).

In this situation, the surplus does not undermine economic growth because the injections into the spending stream (NX) are exactly offset by the leakages in the form of the private saving and the fiscal surplus. This is the Norwegian situation.

In Case 2, we hypothesise that the private domestic sector now wants to save 6 per cent of GDP and they translate this intention into action by cutting back consumption (and perhaps investment) spending.

Clearly, aggregate demand now falls by 4 per cent of GDP and if the government tried to maintain that surplus of 2 per cent of GDP, the spending gap would start driving GDP downwards.

The falling income would not only reduce the capacity of the private sector to save but would also push the fiscal balance towards deficit via the automatic stabilisers. It would also push the external surplus up as imports fell. Eventually the income adjustments would restore the balances but with lower GDP overall.

So Case 2 is a not a position of rest – or steady growth. It is one where the government sector (for a given net exports position) is undermining the changing intentions of the private sector to increase their overall saving.

In Case 3, you see the result of the government sector accommodating that rising desire to save by the private sector by running a deficit of 2 per cent of GDP.

So the injections into the spending stream are 4 per cent from NX and 2 per cent from the deficit which exactly offset the desire of the private sector to save 6 per cent of GDP. At that point, the system would be in rest.

This is a highly stylised example and you could tell a myriad of stories that would be different in description but none that could alter the basic point.

If the drain on spending outweighs the injections into the spending stream then GDP falls (or growth is reduced).

So even though an external surplus is being run, the desired fiscal balance still depends on the saving desires of the private domestic sector. Under some situations, these desires could require a deficit even with an external surplus.

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

Question 3:

Which fiscal deficit outcome is the most expansionary?

(a) 1 per cent of GDP.

(b) 2 per cent of GDP.

(c) 3 per cent of GDP

(d) Depends on the decomposition of the structural and cyclical components.

The answer is Option (c) – 3 per cent of GDP.

The question probes an understanding of the forces (components) that drive the fiscal balance that is reported by government agencies at various points in time.

Option (d) is included to cast doubt in your mind because if you were asked which outcome signalled the most expansionary discretionary position adopted by the government the Option (d) would be correct.

In other words, you cannot tell from the information provided anything about the discretionary fiscal stance adopted by the government

But in outright terms, a fiscal deficit that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP is the most expansionary.

To see the difference between these statements we have to explore the issue of decomposing the observed fiscal balance into the discretionary (now called structural) and cyclical components. The latter component is driven by the automatic stabilisers that are in-built into the fiscal process.

The federal (or national) government fiscal balance is the difference between total federal revenue and total federal outlays. So if total revenue is greater than outlays, the fiscal balance is in surplus and vice versa. It is a simple matter of accounting with no theory involved.

However, the fiscal balance is used by all and sundry to indicate the fiscal stance of the government.

So if the fiscal balance is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the fiscal balance 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 fiscal balance 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 fiscal 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 fiscal balance are the so-called automatic stabilisers.

In other words, without any discretionary policy changes, the fiscal 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 fiscal balance moves towards deficit (or an increasing deficit).

When the economy is stronger – tax revenue rises and welfare payments fall and the fiscal balance becomes increasingly positive. Automatic stabilisers attenuate the amplitude in the business cycle by expanding the fiscal balance in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the fiscal balance goes into deficit or the deficit increases as a proportion of GDP 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 Full Employment Budget Balance was a hypothetical construct of the fiscal balance that would be realised if the economy was operating at potential or full employment. In other words, calibrating the fiscal position (and the underlying fiscal parameters) against some fixed point (full capacity) eliminated the cyclical component – the swings in activity around full employment.

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

As I explain in the blogs cited below, the measurement issues have a long history and current techniques and frameworks based on the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) bias the resulting analysis such that actual discretionary positions which are contractionary are seen as being less so and expansionary positions are seen as being more expansionary.

The result is that modern depictions of the structural deficit systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.

So the data provided by the question could indicate a more expansionary fiscal intent from government but it could also indicate a large automatic stabiliser (cyclical) component.

But it remains true that the total deficit outcome (the sum of the structural and cyclical components) tells us the public sector impact on aggregate demand and the higher that is as a proportion of GDP the more expansionary is the impact of the government sector.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

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    This Post Has 3 Comments
    1. Quantitative easing involves the Central Bank buying assets from the private sector…”high quality corporate debt”

      Erm wasn’t programs like TARP set up in the US to take toxic non-performing worthless CDO’s and MBS’s off the banks.

      Nothing high quality about that type of debt.

    2. I sort of agree with Jake. If a central bank does quantitative easing it would seem that it would have to push up the prices of the assets it is bidding on from where they would have been without the QE policy. So wouldn’t that change in asset price constitute an injection into the economy? Not the whole purchase price, just the increase in price due to the QE policy. And if Jake is right about the assets being purchased consisting of total junk, then that change in asset price might approach the purchase price paid by the central bank.

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