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The Weekend Quiz – January 25-26, 2020 – 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:

A fact that is overlooked by those promoting austerity programs, is that when economic growth resumes, the automatic stabilisers work in a counter-cyclical fashion to ensure that the government fiscal balance returns to its appropriate level.

The answer is False.

The factual statement in the proposition is that the automatic stabilisers do operate in a counter-cyclical fashion when economic growth resumes. This is because 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 increases when there is an economic slowdown.

The question is false though because this process while important may not ensure that the government fiscal balance returns to its appropriate level.

The automatic stabilisers just push the fiscal balance towards deficit, into deficit, or into a larger deficit when GDP growth declines and vice versa when GDP growth increases. These 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).

We also 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.

This decomposition provides (in modern terminology) the structural (discretionary) and cyclical fiscal balances. The fiscal components are adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.

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

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

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

In some of the blog posts listed below I go into the measurement issues involved in this decomposition in more detail. However for this question it these issues are less important to discuss.

The point is that structural fiscal balance has to be sufficient to ensure there is full employment. The only sensible reason for accepting the authority of a national government and ceding currency control to such an entity is that it can work for all of us to advance public purpose.

In this context, one of the most important elements of public purpose that the state has to maximise is employment. Once the private sector has made its spending (and saving decisions) based on its expectations of the future, the government has to render those private decisions consistent with the objective of full employment.

Given the non-government sector will typically desire to net save (accumulate financial assets in the currency of issue) over the course of a business cycle this means that there will be, on average, a spending gap over the course of the same cycle that can only be filled by the national government. There is no escaping that.

So then the national government has a choice – maintain full employment by ensuring there is no spending gap which means that the necessary deficit is defined by this political goal. It will be whatever is required to close the spending gap. However, it is also possible that the political goals may be to maintain some slack in the economy (persistent unemployment and underemployment) which means that the government deficit will be somewhat smaller and perhaps even, for a time, a fiscal surplus will be possible.

But the second option would introduce fiscal drag (deflationary forces) into the economy which will ultimately cause firms to reduce production and income and drive the fiscal outcome towards increasing deficits.

Ultimately, the spending gap is closed by the automatic stabilisers because falling national income ensures that that the leakages (saving, taxation and imports) equal the injections (investment, government spending and exports) so that the sectoral balances hold (being accounting constructs). But at that point, the economy will support lower employment levels and rising unemployment. The fiscal outcome will also be in deficit – but in this situation, the deficits will be what I call “bad” deficits. Deficits driven by a declining economy and rising unemployment.

So fiscal sustainability requires that the government fills the spending gap with “good” deficits at levels of economic activity consistent with full employment – which I define as 2 per cent unemployment and zero underemployment.

Fiscal sustainability cannot be defined independently of full employment. Once the link between full employment and the conduct of fiscal policy is abandoned, we are effectively admitting that we do not want government to take responsibility of full employment (and the equity advantages that accompany that end).

So it will not always be the case that the dynamics of the automatic stabilisers will leave a structural deficit sufficient to finance the saving desire of the non-government sector at an output level consistent with full utilisation of resources.

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

Question 2:

From a monetary perspective, it would be impossible for a central bank to directly purchase Treasury debt to facilitate a national government’s fiscal deficit while still targeting a non-zero policy rate.

The answer is False.

Central banks conducts what are called liquidity management operations for two reasons. First, they have to ensure that all private cheques (that are funded) clear and other interbank transactions occur smoothly as part of its role of maintaining financial stability. Second, they must maintain aggregate bank reserves at a level that is consistent with their target policy setting given the relationship between the two.

So operating factors link the level of reserves to the monetary policy setting under certain circumstances. These circumstances require that the return on “excess” reserves held by the banks is below the monetary policy target rate. In addition to setting a lending rate (discount rate), the central bank also sets a support rate which is paid on commercial bank reserves held by the central bank.

Commercial banks maintain accounts with the central bank which permit reserves to be managed and also the clearing system to operate smoothly. In addition to setting a lending rate (discount rate), the central bank also can set a support rate which is paid on commercial bank reserves held by the central bank (which might be zero).

Many countries (such as Australia, Canada and zones such as the European Monetary Union) maintain a default return on surplus reserve accounts (for example, the Reserve Bank of Australia pays a default return equal to 25 basis points less than the overnight rate on surplus Exchange Settlement accounts). Other countries like Japan and the US have typically not offered a return on reserves until the onset of the current crisis.

If the support rate is zero then persistent excess liquidity in the cash system (excess reserves) will instigate dynamic forces which would drive the short-term interest rate to zero unless the government sells bonds (or raises taxes). This support rate becomes the interest-rate floor for the economy.

The short-run or operational target interest rate, which represents the current monetary policy stance, is set by the central bank between the discount and support rate. This effectively creates a corridor or a spread within which the short-term interest rates can fluctuate with liquidity variability. It is this spread that the central bank manages in its daily operations.

In most nations, commercial banks by law have to maintain positive reserve balances at the central bank, accumulated over some specified period. At the end of each day commercial banks have to appraise the status of their reserve accounts. Those that are in deficit can borrow the required funds from the central bank at the discount rate.

Alternatively banks with excess reserves are faced with earning the support rate which is below the current market rate of interest on overnight funds if they do nothing. Clearly it is profitable for banks with excess funds to lend to banks with deficits at market rates. Competition between banks with excess reserves for custom puts downward pressure on the short-term interest rate (overnight funds rate) and depending on the state of overall liquidity may drive the interbank rate down below the operational target interest rate. When the system is in surplus overall this competition would drive the rate down to the support rate.

The main instrument of this liquidity management is through open market operations, that is, buying and selling government debt. When the competitive pressures in the overnight funds market drives the interbank rate below the desired target rate, the central bank drains liquidity by selling government debt. This open market intervention therefore will result in a higher value for the overnight rate. Importantly, we characterise the debt-issuance as a monetary policy operation designed to provide interest-rate maintenance. This is in stark contrast to orthodox theory which asserts that debt-issuance is an aspect of fiscal policy and is required to finance deficit spending.

So the fundamental principles that arise in a fiat monetary system are as follows.

  • The central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations.
  • Government spending is independent of borrowing which the latter best thought of as coming after spending.
  • Government spending provides the net financial assets (bank reserves) which ultimately represent the funds used by the non-government agents to purchase the debt.
  • Budget deficits put downward pressure on interest rates contrary to the myths that appear in macroeconomic textbooks about ‘crowding out’.
  • The “penalty for not borrowing” is that the interest rate will fall to the bottom of the “corridor” prevailing in the country which may be zero if the central bank does not offer a return on reserves.
  • Government debt-issuance is a “monetary policy” operation rather than being intrinsic to fiscal policy, although in a modern monetary paradigm the distinctions between monetary and fiscal policy as traditionally defined are moot.

Accordingly, debt is issued as an interest-maintenance strategy by the central bank. It has no correspondence with any need to fund government spending. Debt might also be issued if the government wants the private sector to have less purchasing power.

Further, the idea that governments would simply get the central bank to “monetise” treasury debt (which is seen orthodox economists as the alternative “financing” method for government spending) is highly misleading. Debt monetisation is usually referred to as a process whereby the central bank buys government bonds directly from the treasury.

In other words, the federal government borrows money from the central bank rather than the public. Debt monetisation is the process usually implied when a government is said to be printing money. Debt monetisation, all else equal, is said to increase the money supply and can lead to severe inflation.

However, as long as the central bank has a mandate to maintain a target short-term interest rate, the size of its purchases and sales of government debt are not discretionary. Once the central bank sets a short-term interest rate target, its portfolio of government securities changes only because of the transactions that are required to support the target interest rate.

The central bank’s lack of control over the quantity of reserves underscores the impossibility of debt monetisation. The central bank is unable to monetise the federal debt by purchasing government securities at will because to do so would cause the short-term target rate to fall to zero or to the support rate. If the central bank purchased securities directly from the treasury and the treasury then spent the money, its expenditures would be excess reserves in the banking system. The central bank would be forced to sell an equal amount of securities to support the target interest rate.

The central bank would act only as an intermediary. The central bank would be buying securities from the treasury and selling them to the public. No monetisation would occur.

However, the central bank may agree to pay the short-term interest rate to banks who hold excess overnight reserves. This would eliminate the need by the commercial banks to access the interbank market to get rid of any excess reserves and would allow the central bank to maintain its target interest rate without issuing debt.

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

Question 3:

Rising government bond yields for new issues indicate:

(a) that government spending is becoming more expensive.

(b) that economic growth is reducing private risk assessments of alternative financial investments.

(c) that government spending is increasing the cost of borrowing for private investors.

(d) that private investors consider public debt to be riskier.

(e) Answers (a) and (d) depending on the situation.

(f) Answers (b) and (d) depending on the situation.

The answer is Option (f) – that is, it could reflect that economic growth is reducing private risk assessments of alternative financial investments. but it also could reflect the fact that private investors consider public debt to be riskier.

The first option provided “that government spending is becoming more expensive” assumes that there is some revenue constraint on government spending. The interest servicing payments come from the same source as all government spending – its infinite (minus $1!) capacity to issue fiat currency. There is no “cost” – in real terms to the government doing this.

The concept of more or less expensive is therefore inapplicable to government spending.

The third option “that government spending is increasing the cost of borrowing for private investors” is also based on the flawed mainstream concept of crowding out. The normal presentation of the crowding out hypothesis, which is a central plank in the mainstream economics attack on government fiscal intervention, is more accurately called “financial crowding out”.

In this blog post – Studying macroeconomics – an exercise in deception – I provide detailed analysis of this hypothesis.

By way of summary, the underpinning of the crowding out hypothesis is the old Classical theory of loanable funds, which is an aggregate construction of the way financial markets are meant to work in mainstream macroeconomic thinking. The original conception was designed to explain how aggregate demand could never fall short of aggregate supply because interest rate adjustments would always bring investment and saving into equality.

Mainstream textbook writer Mankiw assumes that it is reasonable to represent the financial system to his students as the “market for loanable funds” where “all savers go to this market to deposit their savings, and all borrowers go to this market to get their loans. In this market, there is one interest rate, which is both the return to saving and the cost of borrowing.”

This doctrine was a central part of the so-called classical model where perfectly flexible prices delivered self-adjusting, market-clearing aggregate markets at all times. If consumption fell, then saving would rise and this would not lead to an oversupply of goods because investment (capital goods production) would rise in proportion with saving. So while the composition of output might change (workers would be shifted between the consumption goods sector to the capital goods sector), a full employment equilibrium was always maintained as long as price flexibility was not impeded. The interest rate became the vehicle to mediate saving and investment to ensure that there was never any gluts.

The supply of funds comes from those people who have some extra income they want to save and lend out. The demand for funds comes from households and firms who wish to borrow to invest (houses, factories, equipment etc). The interest rate is the price of the loan and the return on savings and thus the supply and demand curves (lines) take the shape they do.

This framework is then used to analyse fiscal policy impacts and the alleged negative consequences of fiscal deficits – the so-called financial crowding out – is derived. Mankiw (in his First Principles) says:

One of the most pressing policy issues … has been the government budget deficit … In recent years, the U.S. federal government has run large budget deficits, resulting in a rapidly growing government debt. As a result, much public debate has centred on the effect of these deficits both on the allocation of the economy’s scarce resources and on long-term economic growth.

So what would happen if there is a fiscal deficit? The erroneous mainstream logic is that investment falls because when the government borrows to finance its fiscal deficit, it increases competition for scarce private savings pushes up interest rates. The higher cost of funds crowds thus crowds out private borrowers who are trying to finance investment. This leads to the conclusion that given investment is important for long-run economic growth, government fiscal deficits reduce the economy’s growth rate.

The analysis relies on layers of myths which have permeated the public space to become almost “self-evident truths”. Obviously, national governments are not revenue-constrained so their borrowing is for other reasons – we have discussed this at length. This trilogy of blogs will help you understand this if you are new to my blog posts – Deficit spending 101 – Part 1 | Deficit spending 101 – Part 2 | Deficit spending 101 – Part 3.

But governments do borrow – for stupid ideological reasons and to facilitate central bank operations – so doesn’t this increase the claim on saving and reduce the “loanable funds” available for investors? Does the competition for saving push up the interest rates?

The answer to both questions is no! Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) does not claim that central bank interest rate hikes are not possible. There is also the possibility that rising interest rates reduce aggregate demand via the balance between expectations of future returns on investments and the cost of implementing the projects being changed by the rising interest rates.

But the Classical claims about crowding out are not based on these mechanisms. In fact, they assume that savings are finite and the government spending is financially constrained which means it has to seek “funding” in order to progress their fiscal plans. The result competition for the “finite” saving pool drives interest rates up and damages private spending.

A related theory which is taught under the banner of IS-LM theory (in macroeconomic textbooks) assumes that the central bank can exogenously set the money supply. Then the rising income from the deficit spending pushes up money demand and this squeezes interest rates up to clear the money market. This is the Bastard Keynesian approach to financial crowding out.

Neither theory is remotely correct and is not related to the fact that central banks push up interest rates up because they believe they should be fighting inflation and interest rate rises stifle aggregate demand.

Further, from a macroeconomic flow of funds perspective, the funds (net financial assets in the form of reserves) that are the source of the capacity to purchase the public debt in the first place come from net government spending. Its what astute financial market players call “a wash”. The funds used to buy the government bonds come from the government!

There is also no finite pool of saving that is competed for. Loans create deposits so any credit-worthy customer can typically get funds. Reserves to support these loans are added later – that is, loans are never constrained in an aggregate sense by a “lack of reserves”. The funds to buy government bonds come from government spending! There is just an exchange of bank reserves for bonds – no net change in financial assets involved. Saving grows with income.

But importantly, deficit spending generates income growth which generates higher saving. It is this way that MMT shows that deficit spending supports or “finances” private saving not the other way around.

Acknowledging the point that increased aggregate demand, in general, generates income and saving, Luigi Passinetti the famous Italian economist had a wonderful sentence I remember from my graduate school days – “investment brings forth its own savings” – which was the basic insight of Keynes and Kalecki – and the insight that knocked out classical loanable funds theory upon which the neo-liberal crowding out theory was originally conceived.

So that leaves the two options:

(b) that economic growth is reducing private risk assessments of alternative financial investments.

(d) that private investors consider public debt to be riskier.

In terms of Option (b) the following discussion is relevant. In macroeconomics, we summarise the plethora of public debt instruments with the concept of a bond. The standard bond has a face value – say $A1000 and a coupon rate – say 5 per cent and a maturity – say 10 years. This means that the bond holder will will get $50 dollar per annum (interest) for 10 years and when the maturity is reached they would get $1000 back.

Bonds are issued by government into the primary market, which is simply the institutional machinery via which the government sells debt to “raise funds”. In a modern monetary system with flexible exchange rates it is clear the government does not have to finance its spending so the the institutional machinery is voluntary and reflects the prevailing neo-liberal ideology – which emphasises a fear of fiscal excesses rather than any intrinsic need.

Once bonds are issued they are traded in the secondary market between interested parties. Clearly secondary market trading has no impact at all on the volume of financial assets in the system – it just shuffles the wealth between wealth-holders. In the context of public debt issuance – the transactions in the primary market are vertical (net financial assets are created or destroyed) and the secondary market transactions are all horizontal (no new financial assets are created). Please read my blog – Deficit spending 101 – Part 3 – for more discussion on this point.

Further, most primary market issuance is now done via auction. Accordingly, the government would determine the maturity of the bond (how long the bond would exist for), the coupon rate (the interest return on the bond) and the volume (how many bonds) being specified.

The issue would then be put out for tender and the market then would determine the final price of the bonds issued. Imagine a $1000 bond had a coupon of 5 per cent, meaning that you would get $50 dollar per annum until the bond matured at which time you would get $1000 back.

Imagine that the market wanted a yield of 6 per cent to accommodate risk expectations (inflation or something else). So for them the bond is unattractive and they would avoid it under the tap system. But under the tender or auction system they would put in a purchase bid lower than the $1000 to ensure they get the 6 per cent return they sought.

The mathematical formulae to compute the desired (lower) price is quite tricky and you can look it up in a finance book.

The general rule for fixed-income bonds is that when the prices rise, the yield falls and vice versa. Thus, the price of a bond can change in the market place according to interest rate fluctuations.

When interest rates rise, the price of previously issued bonds fall because they are less attractive in comparison to the newly issued bonds, which are offering a higher coupon rates (reflecting current interest rates).

When interest rates fall, the price of older bonds increase, becoming more attractive as newly issued bonds offer a lower coupon rate than the older higher coupon rated bonds.

Further, rising yields may indicate a rising sense of risk (mostly from future inflation although sovereign credit ratings will influence this). But they may also indicated a recovering economy where people are more confidence investing in commercial paper (for higher returns) and so they demand less of the “risk free” government paper.

So you see how an event (yield rises) that signifies growing confidence in the real economy is reinterpreted (and trumpeted) by the conservatives to signal something bad (crowding out). In this case, the reason long-term yields would be rising is because investors were diversifying their portfolios and moving back into private financial assets. The yield reflects the last auction bid in the bond issue. So if diversification is occurring reflecting confidence and the demand for public debt weakens and yields rise this has nothing at all to do with a declining pool of funds being soaked up by the binging government!

In terms of Option (d), it might be the case that bond investors form irrational views about the risk embodied in a sovereign bond and thus demand higher yields. The mechanisms will be the same as outlined above. They will be prepared to bid lower prices in the issue tenders and thus extract a higher yield to cover their assessment of increased risk.

The reality is that for true sovereigns, Option (b) will be the overwhelming reason public debt yields rise which is a good sign in a growing economy.

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

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. I found one quote above curious: “Debt might also be issued if the government wants the private sector to have less purchasing power.” This contradicts a long-standing mantra or lesson on this site, which is that government bond issues do not reduce private sector financial capacity or purchasing capacity or economic activity. The latter is explained by saying that money used to buy bonds always comes from other passive investments, and so was not intended for purchases or economic flows otherwise. This always seemed a bit pat, as the marginal effects, and the effects on the targets of reduced private investment, would be negative on economic activity. Perhaps not to a great degree, but some. Also, if one thinks back to WW2 or 1, when our governments were pushing war bonds, those were definitely a way of crimping private economic activity to allow more space for government needs. So while private wealth might be unaffected 1:1, private economic activity is affected by bond issuance.

    2. Burk,

      The way I understand it is that government bond issues do not change the net financial assets, but do lock away said net financial assets for the term of the bond.

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