The Weekend Quiz – June 16-17, 2018 – 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:

An external surplus is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a nation that wishes to grow during a period of fiscal surpluses and private domestic deleveraging.

The answer is True.

This is a question about the relative magnitude of the sectoral balances – the government fiscal balance, the external balance and the private domestic balance. The balances taken together 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:

(1) 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).

Expression (1) tells us that total income in the economy per period will be exactly equal to total spending from all sources of expenditure.

We also have to acknowledge that financial balances of the sectors are impacted by net government taxes (T) which includes all tax revenue minus total transfer and interest payments (the latter are not counted independently in the expenditure Expression (1)).

Further, as noted above the trade account is only one aspect of the financial flows between the domestic economy and the external sector. we have to include net external income flows (FNI).

Adding in the net external income flows (FNI) to Expression (2) for GDP we get the familiar gross national product or gross national income measure (GNP):

(2) GNP = C + I + G + (X – M) + FNI

To render this approach into the sectoral balances form, we subtract total net taxes (T) from both sides of Expression (3) to get:

(3) GNP – T = C + I + G + (X – M) + FNI – T

Now we can collect the terms by arranging them according to the three sectoral balances:

(4) (GNP – C – T) – I = (G – T) + (X – M + FNI)

The the terms in Expression (4) are relatively easy to understand now.

The term (GNP – C – T) represents total income less the amount consumed less the amount paid to government in taxes (taking into account transfers coming the other way). In other words, it represents private domestic saving.

The left-hand side of Equation (4), (GNP – C – T) – I, thus is the overall saving of the private domestic sector, which is distinct from total household saving denoted by the term (GNP – C – T).

In other words, the left-hand side of Equation (4) is the private domestic financial balance and if it is positive then the sector is spending less than its total income and if it is negative the sector is spending more than it total income.

The term (G – T) is the government financial balance and is in deficit if government spending (G) is greater than government tax revenue minus transfers (T), and in surplus if the balance is negative.

Finally, the other right-hand side term (X – M + FNI) is the external financial balance, commonly known as the current account balance (CAD). It is in surplus if positive and deficit if negative.

In English we could say that:

The private financial balance equals the sum of the government financial balance plus the current account balance.

We can re-write Expression (6) in this way to get the sectoral balances equation:

(5) (S – I) = (G – T) + CAD

which is interpreted as meaning that government sector deficits (G – T > 0) and current account surpluses (CAD > 0) generate national income and net financial assets for the private domestic sector.

Conversely, government surpluses (G – T < 0) and current account deficits (CAD < 0) reduce national income and undermine the capacity of the private domestic sector to add financial assets.

Expression (5) can also be written as:

(6) [(S – I) – CAD] = (G – T)

where the term on the left-hand side [(S – I) – CAD] is the non-government sector financial balance and is of equal and opposite sign to the government financial balance.

This is the familiar MMT statement that a government sector deficit (surplus) is equal dollar-for-dollar to the non-government sector surplus (deficit).

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)) plus net income transfers.

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

The following graph with accompanying data table lets you see the evolution of the balances expressed in terms of percent of GDP. In each period I just held the fiscal balance at a constant surplus (2 per cent of GDP) (green bars). This is is artificial because as economic activity changes the automatic stabilisers would lead to endogenous changes in the fiscal balance. But we will just assume there is no change for simplicity. It doesn’t violate the logic.

To aid interpretation remember that (I-S) > 0 means that the private domestic sector is spending more than they are earning; that (G-T) < 0 means that the government is running a surplus because T > G; and (X-M) < 0 means the external position is in deficit because imports are greater than exports.

If the nation is running an external surplus it means that the contribution to aggregate demand from the external sector is positive – that is net addition to spending which would increase output and national income.

The external surplus also means that foreigners are decreasing 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 means the government is spending less than it is taking out of the economy via taxations which puts a drag on aggregate demand and constrains the ability of the economy to grow. So the question is what are the relative magnitudes of the external add and the net public spending subtract from income?

The following graph shows the range of options for a given external surplus (of 2 per cent of GDP).

In Periods 1 to 5, the private domestic sector is saving because the public sector does not negate the overall contribution of the external sector to demand and hence growth. Clearly, the larger is the fiscal deficit the greater is the capacity of the private domestic sector to save overall because the growth in income would be stronger.

In Periods 4 and 5, the fiscal balance moves from deficit to balance then surplus, yet the private domestic sector can still net save. That is because the fiscal drag coming from the fiscal balance in Period 4 is zero and in Period 5 less than the aggregate demand add derived from the external sector.

In Periods 6 and 7, the private domestic sector stops net saving because the fiscal drag coming from the fiscal surplus offsets (Period 6) and then overwhelms (Period 7) the aggregate demand add from the external sector.

The general rule when the economy runs an external surplus is that the private domestic sector will be able to net save if the fiscal surplus is less than the external surplus.

That is why the external surplus is necessary but not sufficient. It relies on the fiscal surplus being large enough for the private domestic sector to be able to net save.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

When a nation’s fiscal deficit is declining it tells us that the government has fallen into an austerity mindset.

The answer is False.

Intuitively, we might think that if the deficit rises the government must be pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy. But intuition is not always a good guide and doesn’t replace understanding.

The question is exploring 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 fiscal balance is the difference between total government revenue and total government 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 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.

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.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

Question 3:

The only way a nation can reduce its public debt ratio (short of defaulting) is for the government to start running primary fiscal surpluses (that is, when spending net of interest payments is less than taxation revenue).

The answer is False.

While Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) places no particular importance in the public debt to GDP ratio for a sovereign government, given that insolvency is not an issue, the mainstream debate is dominated by the concept. The unnecessary practice of fiat currency-issuing governments of issuing public debt $-for-$ to match public net spending (deficits) ensures that the debt levels will always rise when there are deficits.

But the rising debt levels do not necessarily have to rise at the same rate as GDP grows. The question is about the debt ratio not the level of debt per se.

Rising deficits often are associated with declining economic activity (especially if there is no evidence of accelerating inflation) which suggests that the debt/GDP ratio may be rising because the denominator is also likely to be falling or rising below trend.

Further, historical experience tells us that when economic growth resumes after a major recession, during which the public debt ratio can rise sharply, the latter always declines again.

It is this endogenous nature of the ratio that suggests it is far more important to focus on the underlying economic problems which the public debt ratio just mirrors.

The mainstream framework for analysing the dynamics in public debt ratios starts with the concept of the government budget constraint (GBC). The GBC says that the fiscal deficit in year t is equal to the change in government debt over year t plus the change in high powered money over year t. So in mathematical terms it is written as:

gbc

Which you can read in English as saying that Budget deficit = Government spending + Government interest payments – Tax receipts must equal (be “financed” by) a change in Bonds (B) and/or a change in high powered money (H). The triangle sign (delta) is just shorthand for the change in a variable.

However, this is merely an accounting statement. In a stock-flow consistent macroeconomics, this statement will always hold. That is, it has to be true if all the transactions between the government and non-government sector have been correctly added and subtracted.

For a sovereign government that issues its own currency, the previous equation is just an ex post accounting identity that has to be true by definition and has no real economic importance.

However, for nations such as Greece, which has ceded its currency sovereignty, the GBC becomes an financial constraints given that it has to fund its spending from taxation and/or bond issues.

A primary fiscal balance is the difference between government spending (excluding interest rate servicing) and taxation revenue.

The standard mainstream framework is usually expressed in terms of the ratio of debt to GDP rather than the level of debt per se. Even so-called progressives (deficit-doves) use this framework as if it applies to all governments.

The following equation captures the approach:
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.

The real interest rate is the difference between the nominal interest rate and the inflation rate.

This standard mainstream framework is used to highlight the dangers of running deficits. But even progressives (not me) use it in a perverse way to justify deficits in a downturn balanced by surpluses in the upturn.

Many mainstream economists and a fair number of so-called progressive economists say that governments should as some point in the business cycle run primary surpluses (taxation revenue in excess of non-interest government spending) to start reducing the debt ratio back to “safe” territory.

Almost all the media commentators that you read on this topic take it for granted that the only way to reduce the public debt ratio is to run primary surpluses. That is what the whole “credible exit strategy” rhetoric is about and what is driving the austerity push around the world at present.

So the question is whether continuous national governments deficits imply continuously rising public debt levels as a percentage of GDP and whether primary fiscal surpluses are required to reduce the public debt ratio.

While MMT advocates running fiscal deficits when they are necessary to fill a spending gap left by non-government saving, it also emphasises that a government running a deficit can also reduce the debt ratio if it stimulates growth.

The standard formula above can easily demonstrate that a nation running a primary deficit can reduce its public debt ratio over time.

Furthermore, depending on contributions from the external sector, a nation running a deficit will more likely create the conditions for a reduction in the public debt ratio than a nation that introduces an austerity plan aimed at running primary surpluses.

Here is why that is the case. A growing economy can absorb more debt and keep the debt ratio constant or falling. From the formula above, if the primary fiscal balance is zero, public debt increases at a rate r but the public debt ratio increases at rg.

The orthodox economists use this analysis to argue that permanent deficits are bad because the financial markets will “penalise” a government living on debt. If the public debt ratio is “too high” (whatever that is or means), markets “lose faith” in the government.

Consider the following Table which shows two years in the life of an economy.

It keeps things simple by assuming a public debt ratio at the start of the period of 100 per cent (so B/Y(-1) = 1).

Assume that the real rate of interest is 0 (so the nominal interest rate equals the inflation rate) – not to dissimilar to the situation at present in many countries.

Assume that the rate of real GDP growth is minus 2 per cent (that is, the nation is in recession) and the automatic stabilisers push the primary fiscal balance into deficit equal to 1 per cent of GDP. As a consequence, the public debt ratio will rise by 3 per cent. So in Year 2, the debt ratio is 1.03 of GDP.

The government reacts to the recession in the correct manner and increases its discretionary net spending to take the deficit in Year 2 to 2 per cent of GDP (noting a positive number in this instance is a deficit).

The central bank maintains its zero interest rate policy and the inflation rate also remains at zero so the real interest rate doesn’t move.

The increasing deficit stimulates economic growth in Year 2 such that real GDP grows by 3 per cent. In this case the public debt ratio falls by 1 per cent.

So even with an increasing (or unchanged) deficit, real GDP growth can reduce the public debt ratio, which is what has happened many times in past history following economic slowdowns.

In other words, a government does not have to run fiscal surpluses to bring its public debt ratio down. What it needs is growth and that is more likely to occur if it holds its nerve and runs deficits.

The best way to reduce the public debt ratio is to stop issuing debt. A sovereign government doesn’t have to issue debt if the central bank is happy to keep its target interest rate at zero or pay interest on excess reserves.

The discussion also demonstrates why tightening monetary policy makes it harder for the government to reduce the public debt ratio – which, of-course, is one of the more subtle mainstream ways to force the government to run surpluses.

The following blog may be of further interest to you:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    8 Responses to The Weekend Quiz – June 16-17, 2018 – answers and discussion

    1. PhilipO says:

      Hello Bill,
      Question one comes up as false on the questionnaire.

    2. Jerry Brown says:

      The answer to question 1 is false because a nation can grow no matter what the economy is doing, unless you maintain that people forget how to make babies while deleveraging or importing. Population-wise at least, and the question was rather non-specific about what growth means. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it :)

      Actually, is it really always true that a country experiencing a growing labor force or increases in labor productivity necessarily experiences a decline in real GDP if the government is taxing more than it spends while they are running a current account deficit? Even if it happens that the private sector in total is deleveraging (net saving)? Is it not possible that real production could increase even while prices fell a lot and that large fall in prices caused NGDP to fall while real GDP managed to eke out an increase? Might be very unlikely, but is it impossible?

    3. Mel says:

      Hmmm … Real GDP is the goods/services distributed through the market, valued (for the sake of getting a number) by a standard dollar with inflation divided out of it. If the total of all the money flows through the market have fallen, then the real GDP has to fall.
      Unless we recognize somehow that there are goods/services distributed outside the market.

      ???

    4. totaram says:

      Hi Bill,
      I’ll just repeat what PhillipO has said. It was very puzzling when the quiz answer “true” for question one was marked wrong. I actually lost some sleep over it! What a relief to know I was right all along and this was a “misprint”!

    5. totaram says:

      Jerry Brown: An external surplus is necessary, by Identity, irrespective of whether the economy is growing or not. It is not possible to have fiscal surpluses, and private sector deleveraging, without an external surplus.

    6. PhilipO says:

      Totaram,

      I didn`t have a sleepless night. I decided that I was right whichever way I “interpreted” the question.

      “external surplus” could be interpreted as either “Rest of world deficit” or “current account Surplus.”

      It was the “necessary but not sufficient” that at first caused me pause..

    7. PhilipO says:

      The best way to reduce the public debt ratio is to stop issuing debt. A sovereign government doesn’t have to issue debt if the central bank is happy to keep its target interest rate at zero or pay interest on excess reserves.

      For the sake of discussion, let me throw the following “on the table”:

      Dismiss the target interest rate, pay interest on reserves and impose a minimum deposit rate leaving say, a 2% spared. The two rates then move dynamically depending on liquidity in the system but maintain the spread…….(probably not workable in the USA)

    8. Jerry Brown says:

      Totarum @14:49, Yes I got myself confused in the difference between ‘nominal’ and ‘real’ terms. However, question 1 asks about private ‘domestic’ deleveraging. If the private domestic sector owed a large debt to the foreign sector and defaulted on that (declared bankruptcy and refused to pay it or recognize it) perhaps the instantaneous deleveraging of the private domestic sector which occurs as a result would be enough to overcome the government surplus and the current account deficit. Yeah I know this is a really unlikely scenario :). (But it is something Greece maybe should have considered). I like my first answer which goes to the nature of what it means for a nation to ‘grow’ much better.

      Mel, I believe that with enough deflation it would be theoretically possible for the Nominal values to fall while the ‘real’ values rose. So it would be possible for the total of all money flows to fall while real GDP did not- it is just that the money itself has a higher value and exchanges for more real goods.

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