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The Weekend Quiz – April 11-12, 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:

The public debt ratio will always fall when economic growth is positive because the primary fiscal deficit falls due to the automatic stabilisers (more tax revenue, less welfare spending), and, the denominator, GDP rises.

The answer is False.

First, some background.

We start with ex post accounting statement that connects the fiscal flows to the debt ratio (the mainstream call this the ‘government budget constraint’ but, for a currency-issuing government there is no such constraint):

FDt = Gt + rBt-1Tt = ΔB + ΔH

which you can read in English as saying that fiscal deficit (FD) = Government spending (G) – Tax receipts (T) + Government interest payments (rBt-1), all in real terms.

The subscripts t and t-1 just refer to time, t being now, and t-1 being last period (whatever the period is – annual, quarterly, etc).

r is the yield on outstanding bonds, B, measured at t-1, so rBt-1 are the total interest payments on outstanding government debt in time t.

The fiscal position (assume a deficit), which is a flow (the difference between outflows from the government to the non-government sector and inflows the other way, have a stock manifestation = ΔB + ΔH.

So the government can match the deficit with a mix of ΔB and ΔH

These expressions are merely accounting statements and have to be true if things have been added and subtracted properly in accounting for the dealings between the government and non-government sectors.

In mainstream economics, money creation (ΔH) is erroneously depicted as the government asking the central bank to buy treasury bonds which the central bank in return then ‘prints’ money.

According to the narrative, the government then spends this money. This is called debt monetisation and we have shown in the – Deficits 101 series – how this conception is incorrect.

We usually express the ratio of public debt to GDP rather than discuss the level of debt per se.

The following expression is typically used, with the reality that government may deploy ΔH ignored because it has generally been considered to be taboo.

Accordingly, the change in the public debt ratio is:

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.

A growing economy can absorb more debt and keep the debt ratio constant. For example, if the primary deficit is zero, debt increases at a rate r but the debt ratio increases at rg.

Now to the question at hand.

First, the use of the word always makes the proposition false per se.

Second, the primary deficit may not fall when economic growth is positive if discretionary policy changes offset the declining net spending as tax revenue increases and welfare payments fall (the automatic stabilisation).

Using the framework developed and explained above we saw that a change in 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.

Consider the following table which simulates two different scenarios. Case A shows a real interest rate of zero and a steadily increasing annual GDP growth rate across 10 years. The initial public debt ratio is 100 per cent.

The primary fiscal deficit also starts at 5 per cent of GDP then reduces as the GDP growth induce the automatic stabilisers. It then reaches a steady 2 per cent per annum which might be sufficient to support the saving intentions of the non-government sector while still promoting steady economic growth.

You can see that the even with a continuous deficit, the public debt ratio declines steadily and would continue to do so as the growth continued. The central bank could of-course cut the nominal interest rate to speed the contraction in the debt ratio although I would not undertake that policy change for that reason.

In Case B we assume that the government stops issuing debt with everything else the same. The public debt ratio drops very quickly under this scenario.

However, should the real interest rate exceed the economic growth rate, then unless the primary fiscal balance offsets the rising interest payments as percent of GDP, then the public debt ratio will rise.

The only concern I would have in this situation does not relate to the rising ratio.

Focusing on the cause should be the policy concern. If the real economy is faltering because interest rates are too high or more likely because the primary fiscal deficit is too low then the rising public debt ratio is just telling us that the central bank should drop interest rates or the treasury should increase the discretionary component of the fiscal statement.

In general though, the public debt ratio is a relatively uninteresting macroeconomic figure and should be disregarded. If the government is intent on promoting growth, then the primary deficit ratio and the public debt ratio will take care of themselves.

Question 2:

The Bank of England will, under a new arrangement with H.M. Treasury, be able to credit bank accounts on behalf of government, without the government having to match its fiscal deficits with private debt issuance. This means they will not be able to maintain an interest rate target above zero per cent.

The answer is False.

The answer is false because the central bank can always bypass conventional open market operations (swapping debt for reserves and vice versa with the banks) and offer a support rate on excess reserves.

That option would apply even if there was no government debt in existences.

So what is the explanation?

The central bank conducts what are called liquidity management operations for two reasons. First, it has 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, it must maintain aggregate bank reserves at a level that is consistent with its 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 GFC.

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 has traditionally been 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.
  • Fiscal 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 serves an interest-maintenance strategy by the central bank when used for this purpose. 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.

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 if only open market operations are relied on to manage liquidity. 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 when only OMO are deployed. The central bank would be 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.

However, if the central bank purchased securities directly from the treasury and the treasury then spent the money, its expenditures would show up as excess reserves in the banking system.

Under the exclusive OMO option, the central bank would be forced to sell an equal amount of securities to support the target interest rate.

In that case, 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.

That is the norm these days.

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

Question 3:

One important lesson to be drawn from Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which is overlooked in the current pandemic, is that when economic growth resumes, the automatic stabilisers work will 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 proposition 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 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. 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 government into 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 government 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:

That is enough for today!

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

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    This Post Has 2 Comments
    1. These are strange times – leaving me wonder how MMT explains what is going on.
      1. Normally the RBA defends the interbank rate otherwise it would sink to zero – what is happening when the overnight rate is close to or at zero?
      2. Much talk on “The Insiders” of “borrowing” and “paying off the debt”. First, who would the “borrowing” be from, and In normal circumstances when deficit spending bonds are issued to soak up liquidity – At the moment spending is atmospheric and QE is the go. Surely there cant be bond issue right now and where is the debt that will take a decade to pay off?

    2. Of course the “The Insiders” are talking about “borrowing” and “paying off the debt”, because they think the government’s finances are like their own finances.

      This morning, on a local ABC radio station, the state premier, when asked by the announcer about the consequences of the covid-19 debt on the budget, the premier said “we will do what we have to do”. End of discussion!

      When I called the talkback line, to explain to listeners the capacity of sovereign currency issuing governments, and the relationship of inflation to available resources, the phone operator said “that’s not going to work” and declined to put me on air.

      Seems like censorship happening at the ABC.

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