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The Weekend Quiz – June 15-16, 2019 – 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:

Bank reserves are maintained to ensure that all the cheques written every day clear when presented. If a bank doesn’t have enough reserves then cheques drawn against it will bounce.

The answer is False.

Banks can always get reserves from the central bank. So if they have extended loans to credit-worthy customers these loans are made independent of their reserve positions. Depending on the way the central bank accounts for commercial bank reserves, the latter will then seek funds to ensure they have the required reserves in the relevant accounting period.

They can borrow from each other in the interbank market but if the system overall is short of reserves these “horizontal” transactions will not add the required reserves. In these cases, the bank will sell bonds back to the central bank or borrow outright through the device called the “discount window”. There is typically a penalty for using this source of funds.

At the individual bank level, certainly the “price of reserves” will play some role in the credit department’s decision to loan funds. But the reserve position per se will not matter. So as long as the margin between the return on the loan and the rate they would have to borrow from the central bank through the discount window is sufficient, the bank will lend.

So the idea that reserve balances are required initially to “finance” bank balance sheet expansion via rising excess reserves is inapplicable. A bank’s ability to expand its balance sheet is not constrained by the quantity of reserves it holds or any fractional reserve requirements.

The bank expands its balance sheet by lending. Loans create deposits which are then backed by reserves after the fact. The process of extending loans (credit) which creates new bank liabilities is unrelated to the reserve position of the bank.

The major insight is that any balance sheet expansion which leaves a bank short of the required reserves may affect the return it can expect on the loan as a consequence of the “penalty” rate the central bank might exact through the discount window. But it will never impede the bank’s capacity to effect the loan in the first place.

So a cheque will only bounce if the account that the cheque is drawn on has insufficient funds and there is no overdraft arrangement in place. That process has nothing to do with banks running out of reserves.

The following blog posts may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

The crucial difference between a monetary system based on the gold standard world and a fiat currency monetary is that under the former system:

(a) Excessive national government spending led to inflation.

(b) The national government had to issue debt to cover spending above taxation.

(c) The national government could not use net spending to achieve full employment.

The correct (best) answer is – (c) The national government had to issue debt to cover spending above taxation.

Under the gold standard the paper money issued by a central bank was backed by gold. A currency’s value was expressed in terms of a specified unit of gold and there was convertibility which allowed a person to swap the paper money for the relevant amount of gold. A parity was fixed and central banks agreed to maintain the “mint price” of gold fixed by standing ready to buy or sell gold to meet any supply or demand imbalance.

Further, the central bank (or equivalent in those days) had to maintain stores of gold sufficient to back the circulating currency (at the agreed convertibility rate).

Gold was also considered to be the principle method of making international payments. Accordingly, as trade unfolded, imbalances in trade (imports and exports) arose and this necessitated that gold be transferred between nations to fund these imbalances. Trade deficit countries had to ship gold to trade surplus countries.

This inflow of gold would allow the governments in surplus nations to expand the money supply (issue more notes) because they now had more gold to back the currency. This expansion was in strict proportion to the set value of the local currency in terms of grains of gold. The rising money supply would push against the inflation barrier (given no increase in the real capacity of the economy) which would ultimately render exports less attractive to foreigners and the external deficit would decline.

From the perspective of an external deficit nation, the loss of gold reserves forced their government to withdraw paper currency which was deflationary – rising unemployment and falling output and prices. The latter improved the competitiveness of their economy which also helped resolve the trade imbalance. But it remains that the deficit nations were forced to bear rising unemployment and vice versa as the trade imbalances resolved.

The proponents of the gold standard focus on the way it prevents the government from issuing paper currency as a means of stimulating their economies. Under the gold standard, the government could not expand base money if the economy was in trade deficit. It was considered that the gold standard acted as a means to control the money supply and generate price levels in different trading countries which were consistent with trade balance. The domestic economy however was forced to make the adjustments to the trade imbalances.

Monetary policy became captive to the amount of gold that a country possessed (principally derived from trade). Variations in the gold production levels also influenced the price levels of countries.

After World War 2, the IMF was created to supercede the gold standard and the so-called gold exchange standard emerged. Convertibility to gold was abandoned and replaced by convertibility into the US dollar, reflecting the dominance of the US in world trade (and the fact that they won the war!). This new system was built on the agreement that the US government would convert a USD into gold at $USD35 per ounce of gold. This provided the nominal anchor for the exchange rate system.

The Bretton Woods System was introduced in 1946 and created the fixed exchange rates system. Governments could now sell gold to the United States treasury at the price of $USD35 per ounce. So now a country would build up US dollar reserves and if they were running a trade deficit they could swap their own currency for US dollars (drawing from their reserves) and then for their own currency and stimulate the economy (to increase imports and reduce the trade deficit).

The fixed exchange rate system however rendered fiscal policy relatively restricted because monetary policy had to target the exchange parity. If the exchange rate was under attack (perhaps because of a balance of payments deficit) which would manifest as an excess supply of the currency in the foreign exchange markets, then the central bank had to intervene and buy up the local currency with its reserves of foreign currency (principally $USDs).

This meant that the domestic economy would contract (as the money supply fell) and unemployment would rise. Further, the stock of $US dollar reserves held by any particular bank was finite and so countries with weak trading positions were always subject to a recessionary bias in order to defend the agreed exchange parities. The system was politically difficult to maintain because of the social instability arising from unemployment.

So if fiscal policy was used too aggressively to reduce unemployment, it would invoke a monetary contraction to defend the exchange rate as imports rose in response to the rising national income levels engendered by the fiscal expansion. Ultimately, the primacy of monetary policy ruled because countries were bound by the Bretton Woods agreement to maintain the exchange rate parities. They could revalue or devalue (once off realignments) but this was frowned upon and not common.

Whichever system we want to talk off – pure gold standard or USD-convertible system backed by gold – the constraints on government were obvious.

The gold standard as applied domestically meant that existing gold reserves controlled the domestic money supply. Given gold was in finite supply (and no new discoveries had been made for years), it was considered to provide a stable monetary system. But when the supply of gold changed (a new field discovered) then this would create inflation.

So gold reserves restricted the expansion of bank reserves and the supply of high powered money (government currency). The central bank thus could not expand their liabilities beyond their gold reserves. In operational terms this means that once the threshold was reached, then the monetary authority could not buy any government debt or provide loans to its member banks.

As a consequence, bank reserves were limited and if the public wanted to hold more currency then the reserves would contract. This state defined the money supply threshold.

The concept of (and the term) monetisation comes from this period. When the government acquired new gold (say by purchasing some from a gold mining firm) they could create new money. The process was that the government would order some gold and sign a cheque for the delivery. This cheque is deposited by the miner in their bank. The bank then would exchange this cheque with the central bank in return for added reserves. The central bank then accounts for this by reducing the government account at the bank. So the government’s loss is the commercial banks reserve gain.

The other implication of this system is that the national government can only increase the money supply by acquiring more gold. Any other expenditure that the government makes would have to be “financed” by taxation or by debt issuance. The government cannot just credit a commercial bank account under this system to expand its net spending independent of its source of finance.

As a consequence, whenever the government spent it would require offsetting revenue in the form of taxes or borrowed funds.

The move to fiat currencies fundamentally altered the way the monetary system operated even though the currency was still, say, the $AUD.

This system had two defining characteristics: (a) non-convertibility; and (b) flexible exchange rates.

First, under a fiat monetary system, “state money” has no intrinsic value. It is non-convertible. So for this otherwise “worthless” currency to be acceptable in exchange (buying and selling things) some motivation has to be introduced. That motivation emerges because the sovereign government has the capacity to require its use to relinquish private tax obligations to the state. Under the gold standard and its derivatives money was always welcome as a means of exchange because it was convertible to gold which had a known and fixed value by agreement. This is a fundamental change.

Second, given the relationship between the commodity backing (gold) and the ability to spend is abandoned and that the Government is the monopoly issuer of the fiat currency in use (defined by the tax obligation) then the spending by this government is revenue independent. It can spend however much it likes subject to there being real goods and services available for sale. This is a dramatic change.

Irrespective of whether the government has been spending more than revenue (taxation and bond sales) or less, on any particular day the government has the same capacity to spend as it did yesterday. There is no such concept of the government being “out of money” or not being able to afford to fund a program. How much the national government spends is entirely of its own choosing. There are no financial restrictions on this capacity.

This is not to say there are no restrictions on government spending. There clearly are – the quantity of real goods and services available for sale including all the unemployed labour. Further, it is important to understand that while the national government issuing a fiat currency is not financially constrained its spending decisions (and taxation and borrowing decisions) impact on interest rates, economic growth, private investment, and price level movements.

We should never fall prey to the argument that the government has to get revenue from taxation or borrowing to “finance” its spending under a fiat currency system. It had to do this under a gold standard (or derivative system) but not under a fiat currency system. Most commentators fail to understand this difference and still apply the economics they learned at university which is fundamentally based on the gold standard/fixed exchange rate system.

Third, in a fiat currency system the government does not need to finance spending in which case the issuing of debt by the monetary authority or the treasury has to serve other purposes. Accordingly, it serves a interest-maintenance function by providing investors with an interest-bearing asset that drains the excess reserves in the banking system that result from deficit spending. If these reserves were not drained (that is, if the government did not borrow) then the spending would still occur but the overnight interest rate would plunge (due to competition by banks to rid themselves of the non-profitable reserves) and this may not be consistent with the stated intention of the central bank to maintain a particular target interest rate.

Importantly, the source of funds that investors use to buy the bonds is derived from the net government spending anyway (that is, spending above taxation). The private sector cannot buy bonds in the fiat currency unless the government has spent the same previously. This is a fundamental departure from the gold standard mechanisms where borrowing was necessary to fund government spending given the fixed money supply (fixed by gold stocks). Taxation and borrowing were intrinsically tied to the government’s management of its gold reserves.

So in a fiat currency system, government borrowing doesn’t fund its spending. It merely stops interbank competition which allows the central bank to defend its target interest rate.

The flexible exchange rate system means that monetary policy is freed from defending some fixed parity and thus fiscal policy can solely target the spending gap to maintain high levels of employment. The foreign adjustment is then accomplished by the daily variations in the exchange rate.

The following blog posts may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

When the national government’s fiscal balance moves into deficit:

(a) It is a sign that the government is trying to stimulate the economy.

(b) It is a sign that the government is worried that unemployment is rising.

(c) (a) and (b)

(d) One cannot conclude anything about the government’s policy intentions.

The answer is that (d) One cannot conclude anything about the government’s policy intentions.

The actual fiscal deficit outcome that is reported in the press and by Treasury departments is not a pure measure of the fiscal policy stance adopted by the government at any point in time. As a result, a straightforward interpretation of the government’s discretionary fiscal intentions is not possible when using the actual reported fiscal deficit.

Economists conceptualise the actual fiscal outcome as being the sum of two components: (a) a discretionary component – that is, the actual fiscal stance intended by the government; and (b) a cyclical component reflecting the sensitivity of certain fiscal items (tax revenue based on activity and welfare payments to name the most sensitive) to changes in the level of activity.

The former component is now called the “structural deficit” and the latter component is sometimes referred to as the automatic stabilisers.

The structural deficit thus conceptually reflects the chosen (discretionary) fiscal stance of the government independent of cyclical factors.

The cyclical factors refer to the automatic stabilisers which operate in a counter-cyclical fashion. When economic growth is strong, tax revenue improves given it is typically tied to income generation in some way. Further, most governments provide transfer payment relief to workers (unemployment benefits) and this decreases during growth.

In times of economic decline, the automatic stabilisers work in the opposite direction and push the fiscal balance towards deficit, into deficit, or into a larger deficit. These automatic movements in aggregate demand play an important counter-cyclical attenuating role.

So when GDP is declining due to falling aggregate demand, the automatic stabilisers work to add demand (falling taxes and rising welfare payments). When GDP growth is rising, the automatic stabilisers start to pull demand back as the economy adjusts (rising taxes and falling welfare payments).

The problem is then how to determine whether the chosen discretionary fiscal stance is adding to demand (expansionary) or reducing demand (contractionary). It is a problem because a government could be run a contractionary policy by choice but the automatic stabilisers are so strong that the fiscal position goes into deficit which might lead people to think the “government” is expanding the economy.

So just because the fiscal position 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 ambiguity, economists decided to measure the automatic stabiliser impact against some benchmark or “full capacity” or potential level of output, so that we can decompose the fiscal balance into that component which is due to specific discretionary fiscal policy choices made by the government and that which arises because the cycle takes the economy away from the potential level of output.

As a result, 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. As I have noted in previous blogs, the change in nomenclature here 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 construction 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.

This framework allowed economists to decompose the actual fiscal balance into (in modern terminology) the structural (discretionary) and cyclical fiscal balances with these unseen fiscal components being adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.

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.

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 position 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 position into a deficit but the underlying structural position could be contractionary (that is, a surplus). And vice versa.

The question then relates to how the “potential” or benchmark level of output is to be measured. The calculation of the structural deficit spawned a bit of an industry among the profession raising 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.

As the neo-liberal resurgence gained traction in the 1970s and beyond and governments abandoned their commitment to full employment , the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) entered the debate – see my blogs – The dreaded NAIRU is still about and Redefing full employment … again!.

The NAIRU became a central plank in the front-line attack on the use of discretionary fiscal policy by governments. It was argued, erroneously, that full employment did not mean the state where there were enough jobs to satisfy the preferences of the available workforce. Instead full employment occurred when the unemployment rate was at the level where inflation was stable.

The estimated NAIRU (it is not observed) became the standard measure of full capacity utilisation. If the economy is running an unemployment equal to the estimated NAIRU then mainstream economists concluded that the economy is at full capacity. Of-course, they kept changing their estimates of the NAIRU which were in turn accompanied by huge standard errors. These error bands in the estimates meant their calculated NAIRUs might vary between 3 and 13 per cent in some studies which made the concept useless for policy purposes.

Typically, the NAIRU estimates are much higher than any acceptable level of full employment and therefore full capacity. The change of the the name from ‘Full Employment Budget Balance’ to ‘Structural Balance’ was to avoid the connotations of the past where full capacity arose when there were enough jobs for all those who wanted to work at the current wage levels.

Now you will only read about structural balances which are benchmarked using the NAIRU or some derivation of it – which is, in turn, estimated using very spurious models. This allows them to compute the tax and spending that would occur at this so-called full employment point. But it severely underestimates the tax revenue and overestimates the spending because typically the estimated NAIRU always exceeds a reasonable (non-neo-liberal) definition of full employment.

So the estimates of structural deficits provided by all the international agencies and treasuries etc all conclude that the structural balance is more in deficit (less in surplus) than it actually is – that is, bias the representation of fiscal expansion upwards.

As a result, they systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.

The only qualification is if the NAIRU measurement actually represented full employment. Then this source of bias would disappear.

The following blog posts may be of further interest to you:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 7 Comments
    1. As to question #1- if the commercial bank finds that it cannot access reserves necessary to clear the checks drawn on its accounts except through the central bank “discount window” and that happens often, is it fair to say that while the bank’s checks might still clear, that the bank is liable to be shut down entirely by the regulators at the central bank? I mean is the central bank going to supply reserves to the same bank through the discount window forever, or do they start to think maybe there is a problem with that particular bank?

    2. I asked the question above because of a recent discussion we have been having with Henry Rech here in the comments section. It seems to me that if MMT is going to maintain that the Central Bank will always, always provide reserves to individual banks, then Henry is substantially correct (and I would be wrong- again) about his claim that bank creation of money through loan generation is used to pay taxes to the currency issuing government. Because it doesn’t make any real difference that the government requires that central bank reserves held by the loaning bank are transferred to the Treasury’s account at the CB when taxes are paid if the CB is just going to provide those reserves willy-nilly. If this is true then loan creation will, in effect, cause central bank reserve creation. And then the distinction that MMT makes about taxation being thought of as money ‘destruction’ is probably of little relevance. And increasing taxes wouldn’t necessarily slow down an economy either so long as banks were happy to loan the money to the taxpayers.

      So I am wondering if MMT is stating something very contradictory to most parts of MMT thinking when it says that the central bank will always accommodate the reserve requirements of the banking system while maybe neglecting some of the wider implications of that.

    3. @Jerry Brown: ” if MMT is going to maintain that the Central Bank will always, always provide reserves to individual banks,…” provided there is sufficient supply of *credit-worthy* customers, which depends on the nation’s available resources AND macro policy settings. (That’s al I can offer at present)..

    4. “If a bank doesn’t have enough reserves then cheques drawn against it will bounce.”

      This is true. Regardless of whether or not the bank can get reserves at any time from the Federal Reserve, the bank still needs reserves for settlement.

      “The major insight is that any balance sheet expansion which leaves a bank short of the required reserves may affect the return it can expect on the loan as a consequence of the “penalty” rate the central bank might exact through the discount window. But it will never impede the bank’s capacity to effect the loan in the first place.”

      If the bank’s decision to make a loan is impacted by the return it can expect on the loan and the return the bank can expect on the loan can be impacted by whether or not it has existing reserves, how can its supply of existing reserves “never impede the bank’s capacity to effect the loan in the first place”? The point you’re making seems trivial here. The fact of the matter is that a bank’s lending decisions CAN be effected by its supply of existing reserves. If a bank knows it will likely be forced to get reserves from the Federal Reserve at a high rate as a consequence of making a loan, then certain loans will not be profitable anymore in the bank’s eyes.

    5. Docta Procta,

      Isn’t it the case that a private bank can always get reserves (it can borrow from CB, it can sell an asset, it can borrow reserves from other banks, it can raise new equity or new loans).

      It’s not a question of reserve availability but their cost as you say. Quite different from saying the private bank can’t get reserves – it can – always, as far as I can see.

    6. DoctaProcta, if a) the bank needs reserves for settlement and b) can get reserves at anytime, then the bank can obtain the reserves to cover the cheque. QED.

      The people writing the loan have no knowledge of the bank’s reserve level, and they do not take it into account at all. Ever. Or are you saying that the bank would treat the reserve requirements from a ten million dollar loan and 10,000 $1,000 dollar loans differently?

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