The Weekend Quiz – August 5-6, 2017 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’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:

Which scenario represents a more expansionary outcome:

(a) A fiscal deficit of 5 per cent of GDP with an automatic stabiliser component equal to 3 per cent of GDP.

(b) A fiscal deficit of 3 per cent of GDP

(c) You cannot tell because you do not know the decomposition between the cyclical and structural components in Option (B)

The answer is Option (a).

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 and how to correctly interpret a fiscal balance.

In outright terms, a fiscal deficit that is equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP is more expansionary than a fiscal deficit outcome that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP irrespective of the cyclical and structural components.

In that sense, the question lured you into thinking that only the discretionary component (the actual policy settings) were of interest. In that context, Option (c) would have been the correct answer.

To see the why Option (a) is the best answer 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 position 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 position is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the fiscal position 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 position 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:

Fiscal Balance = Revenue – Spending.

Fiscal 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 position in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the fiscal position 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 position would be balanced if total outlays and total revenue were equal when the economy was operating at total capacity. If the fiscal position was in surplus at full capacity, then we would conclude that the discretionary structure of the fiscal position was contractionary and vice versa if the fiscal position 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 unambiguously points to Option (a) being the more expansionary impact – made up of a discretionary (structural) deficit of 2 per cent and a cyclical impact of 3 per cent. The cyclical impact is still expansionary – lower tax revenue and higher welfare payments.

Option (b) might in fact signal a higher structural deficit which would indicate a more expansionary fiscal intent from government but it could also indicate a large automatic stabiliser (cyclical) component.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

Question 2:

When the government matches an increase in deficit spending with debt issued to the private sector, the growth in aggregate demand is less than would be the case if the government didn’t borrow.

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.

The textbook argument claims 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 fiscal 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. It does not.

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

Question 3

In the context of population ageing, the fact that a sovereign government is never financially constrained means that it can always provide first-class health care to its citizens.

The answer is False.

Does the dependency ratio matter? It surely does but not in the way that is usually assumed.

The standard dependency ratio is normally defined as 100*(population 0-15 years) + (population over 65 years) all divided by the (population between 15-64 years). Historically, people retired after 64 years and so this was considered reasonable. The working age population (15-64 year olds) then were seen to be supporting the young and the old.

The aged dependency ratio is calculated as:

100*Number of persons over 65 years of age divided by the number of persons of working age (15-65 years).

The child dependency ratio is calculated as:

100*Number of persons under 15 years of age divided by the number of persons of working age (15-65 years).

The total dependency ratio is the sum of the two. You can clearly manipulate the “retirement age” and add workers older than 65 into the denominator and subtract them from the numerator.

If we want to actually understand the changes in active workers relative to inactive persons (measured by not producing national income) over time then the raw computations are inadequate.

Then you have to consider the so-called effective dependency ratio which is the ratio of economically active workers to inactive persons, where activity is defined in relation to paid work. So like all measures that count people in terms of so-called gainful employment they ignore major productive activity like housework and child-rearing. The latter omission understates the female contribution to economic growth.

Given those biases, the effective dependency ratio recognises that not everyone of working age (15-64 or whatever) are actually producing. There are many people in this age group who are also “dependent”. For example, full-time students, house parents, sick or disabled, the hidden unemployed, and early retirees fit this description.

I would also include the unemployed and the underemployed in this category although the statistician counts them as being economically active.

If we then consider the way the neo-liberal era has allowed mass unemployment to persist and rising underemployment to occur you get a different picture of the dependency ratios.

The reason that mainstream economists believe the dependency ratio is important is typically based on false notions of the government fiscal constraint.

So a rising dependency ratio suggests that there will be a reduced tax base and hence an increasing fiscal crisis given that public spending is alleged to rise as the ratio rises as well.

So if the ratio of economically inactive rises compared to economically active, then the economically active will have to pay much higher taxes to support the increased spending. So an increasing dependency ratio is meant to blow the deficit out and lead to escalating debt.

These myths have also encouraged the rise of the financial planning industry and private superannuation funds which blew up during the recent crisis losing millions for older workers and retirees. The less funding that is channelled into the hands of the investment banks the better is a good general rule.

But all of these claims are not in the slightest bit true and should be rejected out of hand.

So the predominant debate is that a fiscal crisis is emerging and that we have to make people work longer despite this being very biased against the lower-skilled workers who physically are unable to work hard into later life.

We are also encouraged to increase our immigration levels to lower the age composition of the population and expand the tax base. Further, we are told relentlessly that the government will be unable to afford to provide the quality and quantity of the services that we have become used too.

However, all of these remedies miss the point overall. It is not a financial crisis that beckons but a real one. Dependency ratios matter because they tell us how many workers will be available to produce real goods and services at any point in time. So we can make projections about real GDP growth for given projections about productivity once we have an idea of these underlying dependency ratios.

Clearly we want to be sure that the projected real needs of the population are capable of being met with the likely available resources.

So the only question we need to ask about the future population trends relate to whether there will be enough real resources available to provide aged-care, etc at a desirable level in the future? However, that is never the way the debate is framed. The worry is always that public outlays will rise because more real resources will be required “in the public sector” than previously.

However these outlays are irrelevant from a financial point of view. The government can purchase anything that is for sale in the currency it issues at any time. There is never a question that the government cannot afford to buy something that is available.

It is the availability that is the issue. As long as these real resources are available there will be no problem. In this context, the type of policy strategy that is being driven by these myths will probably undermine the future productivity and provision of real goods and services in the future.

It is clear that the goal should be to maintain efficient and effective medical care systems. Clearly the real health care system matters by which I mean the resources that are employed to deliver the health care services and the research that is done by universities and elsewhere to improve our future health prospects. So real facilities and real know how define the essence of an effective health care system.

Further, productivity growth comes from research and development and in Australia the private sector has an abysmal track record in this area. Typically they are parasites on the public research system which is concentrated in the universities and public research centres (for example, CSIRO).

Unfortunately, tackling the problems of the distant future in terms of current “monetary” considerations which have led to the conclusion that fiscal austerity is needed today to prepare us for the future will actually undermine our future.

The irony is that the pursuit of fiscal austerity leads governments to target public education almost universally as one of the first expenditures that are reduced.

Most importantly, maximising employment and output in each period is a necessary condition for long-term growth. The emphasis in mainstream integeneration debate that we have to lift labour force participation by older workers is sound but contrary to current government policies which reduces job opportunities for older male workers by refusing to deal with the rising unemployment.

Anything that has a positive impact on the dependency ratio is desirable and the best thing for that is ensuring that there is a job available for all those who desire to work.

Further encouraging increased casualisation and allowing underemployment to rise is not a sensible strategy for the future. The incentive to invest in one’s human capital is reduced if people expect to have part-time work opportunities increasingly made available to them.

But all these issues are really about political choices rather than government finances. The ability of government to provide necessary goods and services to the non-government sector, in particular, those goods that the private sector may under-provide is independent of government finance.

Any attempt to link the two via fiscal policy “discipline:, will not increase per capita GDP growth in the longer term. The reality is that fiscal drag that accompanies such “discipline” reduces growth in aggregate demand and private disposable incomes, which can be measured by the foregone output that results.

Clearly surpluses help control inflation because they act as a deflationary force relying on sustained excess capacity and unemployment to keep prices under control. This type of fiscal “discipline” is also claimed to increase national savings but this equals reduced non-government savings, which arguably is the relevant measure to focus upon.

So even though the government is not financially constrained it might adopt a policy platform that undermines productivity growth and leaves the economy short of real productive resources at a time in the future when they will be needed to fulfill its socio-economic program.

You might like to read this blogs for further information:

Crowdfunding Request – Economics for a progressive agenda

I received a request to promote this Crowdfunding effort. I note that I will receive a portion of the funds raised in the form of reimbursement of some travel expenses. I have waived my usual speaking fees and some other expenses to help this group out.

The Crowdfunding Site is for an – Economics for a progressive agenda.

As the site notes:

Professor Bill Mitchell, a leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, has agreed to be our speaker at a fringe meeting to be held during Labour Conference Week in Brighton in September 2017.

The meeting is being organised independently by a small group of Labour members whose goal is to start a conversation about reframing our understanding of economics to match a progressive political agenda. Our funds are limited and so we are seeking to raise money to cover the travel and other costs associated with the event. Your donations and support would be really appreciated.

For those interested in joining us the meeting will be held on Monday 25th September between 2 and 5pm and the venue is The Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton, BN1 1YD. All are welcome and you don’t have to be a member of the Labour party to attend.

It will be great to see as many people in Brighton as possible.

Please give generously to ensure the organisers are not out of pocket.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    7 Responses to The Weekend Quiz – August 5-6, 2017 – answers and discussion

    1. Jerry Brown says:

      Thank you as always for the quiz. I would like to point out that you have been doing a much better job of supplying the correct questions for my answers lately. In fact, you are at 100% for the last 5 weeks I think.

      More seriously, thank you. Thank you for the quiz, thank you for writing your blog which I enjoy so much, and thank you for educating me about MMT.

    2. Erik says:

      Hello Bill,

      Thanks for adressing Bond issues. I just have a quick question that still won’t leave my mind.

      Does the creation of Bonds, as a side effect of their true purpose (hitting the target rate), create safe investment options for households? And by doing that may incentivize them to save rather than spend their income, reducing aggregate demand?

      Some people already gave some inputs to my questions in a different blog, but this one does not seem to leave me alone!

      Thank you very much!

      Erik

    3. Jake says:

      Professor Mitchell,

      Found this paper which exposes the ‘savings leads to investment’ fallacy via a basic exposition of the fallacies inherent in it with the help of accounting. Really good for beginners and I think worth a read. Hope you like it. –

      https://www.boeckler.de/pdf/p_imk_wp_100_2012.pdf

      Abstract – The paper analyses the accounting relationships between the financial and the real economy. It will be shown that accounting can clarify the nature of economic phenomena and be an important building block for economic theory. The paper will argue that there is much confusion about key macroeconomic concepts like saving, investment and finance. This confusion is best summarised in the statement “saving finances investment”. After clearly defining the accounting relationships between lending, financial saving and physical investment it will be shown that this is a nonsense statement. The theory behind it – the loanable funds theory – will be analysed and critiqued. It will be shown that the loanable funds theory confuses the concepts of income and production, lending and saving, and financial saving and non-financial saving. It will further be shown that this has not only theoretical but also important policy implications.

    4. Simon Cohen says:

      Erik -I think household ownership of public debt is probably very low. here in the UK, although I haven’t got the figure, I’d guess it was VERY low. Given that household debt is very high there isn’t going to be much money around for bond purchases.

      I think household ownership of bonds is higher in Japan -but I haven’t got the figures.

    5. Simon Cohen says:

      ‘It is not a financial crisis that beckons but a real one.’

      It’s a great way of framing things! This puts resources first and not the artificial constraints about countries going ‘bankrupt’ as Theresa May keeps robotically repeating.

    6. Salford Lad says:

      Bill.
      Off topic from your quiz, but am curious.I have been watching the political crisis in Venezuela and the Media attacks on the Socialist Govt of Maduro.
      It would appear that apart from US sanctions and the withholding of food and medicines by the Venezuealan Oligarchs, the Bolivar Currency has now come under attack to create hyper-inflation.
      I presume that the method to undermine a currency is to use ‘naked short-selling and drive its exchange rate down.
      My question is,, What are the options of defence against this type of Financial warfare. Appreciate your take on this.

    7. Jerry Brown says:

      Erik, I am apparently full of opinions today, so I will give you one. In my opinion government bonds offer a very safe form of ‘Savings’ for the private sector, including households. It is not ‘Investment’ as the term is used in economics. Now how responsive the savings rate is, in an economy, to various interest rates is a very different question. And you will find many different opinions about that. In my opinion it is not very sensitive to interest rates- I believe households mostly save, when they can, for very normal human reasons such as life-span considerations, and desire to buy a house or educate their children and that kind of thing. And how much they save is much more dependent on their income rather than what they get in return for their savings.

      So I doubt you find a lot of people debating if they should save in the form of a government bond because it is offering a half a percent higher return rather than spending the money repairing their leaking roof. But that’s just my opinion.

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