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The Weekend Quiz – May 2-3, 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:

In a fixed coupon government bond auction, the higher is the demand for the bonds:

(a) the higher the yields will be at that asset maturity which suggests that higher fiscal deficits will eventually drive short-term interest rates down.

(b) the lower the yields will be at that asset maturity which suggests that higher fiscal deficits will eventually drive short-term interest rates down.

(c) the lower the yields will be at that asset maturity but this tells us nothing about the effect of fiscal deficits on short-term interest rates.

The answer is Option (c) – the lower the yields will be at that asset maturity but this tells us nothing about the effect of fiscal deficits on short-term interest rates.

Option (b) might have attracted your attention given that it correctly associates higher demand for bonds will lower yields. You then may have been led by your understanding of the fundamental principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) that include the fact that government spending provides the net financial assets (bank reserves) and fiscal deficits put downward pressure on interest rates (with no accompanying central bank operations), which is contrary to the myths that appear in macroeconomic textbooks about “crowding out”.

But of-course, the central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations and conducts the necessary liquidity management operations to ensure the actual short-term market interest rate is consistent with the desired policy rate. That doesn’t mean the central bank has a free rein.

It has to either offer a return on reserves equivalent to the policy rate or sell government bonds if it is to maintain a positive target rate. 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.

This situation arises because the central bank essentially lacks control over the quantity of reserves in the system.

So the correct answer is that movements in public bond yields at the primary issue stage, tell us nothing about the intentions of central bank with respect to monetary policy (interest rate setting).

Given that the correct answer includes lower yields the logic developed will tell you why the option “the higher the yields will be at that asset maturity which suggests that higher fiscal deficits will eventually drive short-term interest rates down” was incorrect.

Why are yields inverse to price in a primary issue? The standard bond has three parameters: (a) the face value – say $A1000; (b) the coupon rate – say 5 per cent; and (c) some maturity – say 10 years. Taken together, this public debt instrument will provide the bond holder with $50 dollar per annum in interest income for 10 years whereupon they will get the $1000 face value returned.

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.

Most primary market issuance is 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 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.

Alternatively if the market wanted security and considered the coupon rate on offer was more than competitive then the bonds will be very attractive. Under the auction system they will bid higher than the face value up to the yields that they think are market-based. The yield reflects the last auction bid in the bond issue

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.

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

Question 2:

The more public debt a currency-issuing government voluntarily issues:

(a) the less is the volume of funds in the non-government sector that can be used for other investments.

(b) the greater is non-government wealth held in the form of public debt.

(c) the more difficult it is for banks to attract deposits to initiate loans from.

The answer is Option (b) the greater is non-government wealth held in the form of public debt.

You may have been tempted to select Option (a) given that the government is withdrawing bank reserves from the system. So a bond issue is a financial asset portfolio swap.

However, banks do not need deposits and reserves before they can lend. Mainstream macroeconomics wrongly asserts that banks only lend if they have prior reserves. The illusion is that a bank is an institution that accepts deposits to build up reserves and then on-lends them at a margin to make money. The conceptualisation suggests that if it doesn’t have adequate reserves then it cannot lend. So the presupposition is that by adding to bank reserves, quantitative easing will help lending.

But this is not how banks operate. Bank lending is not “reserve constrained”. Banks lend to any credit worthy customer they can find and then worry about their reserve positions afterwards. If they are short of reserves (their reserve accounts have to be in positive balance each day and in some countries central banks require certain ratios to be maintained) then they borrow from each other in the interbank market or, ultimately, they will borrow from the central bank through the so-called discount window. They are reluctant to use the latter facility because it carries a penalty (higher interest cost).

The point is that building bank reserves will not increase the bank’s capacity to lend. Loans create deposits which generate reserves. As a result, investors can always borrow if they are credit-worthy.

Further, Option (c) also reflects the erroneous view of the banking system.

The correct answer is based on the fact that the when the government swaps bonds for reserves (which it has itself created via its spending) it is providing the non-government sector with an interest-bearing, risk free asset (for a sovereign government) in return for a non-interest bearing reserve. Reserves may earn a return but typically have not.

The bonds are thus part of the non-government sector’s stock of wealth and the interest payments comprising a flow of income for the non-government sector. So all those national debt clocks are really just indicators of public debt wealth held by the non-government sector.

I realise some people will say that the stylisation of government funds being provided by MMT doesn’t match the institutional reality where governments is seen to borrow first and spend second. But these institutional arrangements – the democratic repression – only obscure the essence of a fiat currency system and are largely irrelevant.

If they ever created a constraint that the government didn’t wish to accept then you would see institutional change being implemented very quickly. The reality is that it is a wash – net government spending is matched by bond issuance – irrespective of these institutional procedures and the government never “needs” these funds to spend.

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

Question 3:

A fiscal deficit that is equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP always signals a more expansionary fiscal intent from government than a fiscal deficit outcome that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP.

The answer is False.

If I had left the “always” out of the question then the answer would have been Maybe. The inclusion of that more strict requirement (always) renders the proposition false.

The question probes an understanding of the forces (components) that drive the fiscal balance that is reported by government agencies at various points in time.

In outright terms, a fiscal deficit that is equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP is more expansionary than a fiscal deficit outcome that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP. But that is not what the question asked. The question asked whether that signalled a more expansionary fiscal intent from government.

In other words, what does the fiscal outcome signal about the discretionary fiscal stance adopted by the government.

To see the difference between these statements we have to explore the issue of decomposing the observed fiscal balance into the discretionary (now called structural) and cyclical components. The latter component is driven by the automatic stabilisers that are in-built into the fiscal process.

The federal (or national) government fiscal balance is the difference between total federal revenue and total federal outlays. So if total revenue is greater than outlays, the fiscal position is in surplus and vice versa. It is a simple matter of accounting with no theory involved. However, the fiscal balance is used by all and sundry to indicate the fiscal stance of the government.

So if the fiscal position is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the fiscal position is in deficit we say the fiscal impact expansionary (adding net spending).

Further, a rising deficit (falling surplus) is often considered to be reflecting an expansionary policy stance and vice versa. What we know is that a rising deficit may, in fact, indicate a contractionary fiscal stance – which, in turn, creates such income losses that the automatic stabilisers start driving the fiscal position back towards (or into) deficit.

So the complication is that we cannot conclude that changes in the fiscal impact reflect discretionary policy changes. The reason for this uncertainty clearly relates to the operation of the automatic stabilisers.

To see this, the most simple model of the fiscal balance we might think of can be written as:

Fiscal Balance = Revenue – Spending = (Tax Revenue + Other Revenue) – (Welfare Payments + Other Spending)

We know that Tax Revenue and Welfare Payments move inversely with respect to each other, with the latter rising when GDP growth falls and the former rises with GDP growth. These components of the fiscal balance are the so-called automatic stabilisers.

In other words, without any discretionary policy changes, the fiscal balance will vary over the course of the business cycle. When the economy is weak – tax revenue falls and welfare payments rise and so the fiscal balance moves towards deficit (or an increasing deficit). When the economy is stronger – tax revenue rises and welfare payments fall and the fiscal balance becomes increasingly positive. Automatic stabilisers attenuate the amplitude in the business cycle by expanding the fiscal position in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the fiscal position goes into deficit or the deficit increases as a proportion of GDP doesn’t allow us to conclude that the Government has suddenly become of an expansionary mind. In other words, the presence of automatic stabilisers make it hard to discern whether the fiscal policy stance (chosen by the government) is contractionary or expansionary at any particular point in time.

To overcome this uncertainty, economists devised what used to be called the ‘Full Employment’ or ‘High Employment Budget’. In more recent times, this concept is now called the Structural Balance. The 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 position would be balanced if total outlays and total revenue were equal when the economy was operating at total capacity. If the fiscal position was in surplus at full capacity, then we would conclude that the discretionary structure of the fiscal position was contractionary and vice versa if the fiscal position was in deficit at full capacity.

The calculation of the structural deficit spawned a bit of an industry in the past with lots of complex issues relating to adjustments for inflation, terms of trade effects, changes in interest rates and more.

Much of the debate centred on how to compute the unobserved full employment point in the economy. There were a plethora of methods used in the period of true full employment in the 1960s. All of them had issues but like all empirical work – it was a dirty science – relying on assumptions and simplifications. But that is the nature of the applied economist’s life.

As I explain in the blogs cited below, the measurement issues have a long history and current techniques and frameworks based on the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) bias the resulting analysis such that actual discretionary positions which are contractionary are seen as being less so and expansionary positions are seen as being more expansionary.

The result is that modern depictions of the structural deficit systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.

So the data provided by the question could indicate a more expansionary fiscal intent from government but it could also indicate a large automatic stabiliser (cyclical) component.

Therefore the best answer is false because there are circumstances where the proposition will not hold. It doesn’t always hold.

You might like to read these blog posts for further information:

That is enough for today!

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

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    This Post Has 9 Comments
    1. Bill, I would like to argue that the answer to Q2 could either be A of B depending on the state of the “real” interest rate. A, if the rate is below zero or B, if above zero…..
      Would you find that plausible ??

    2. Q1. shouldn’t,
      “… the central bank essentially lacks control over the quantity of reserves in the system”,
      “… the central bank essentially lacks control over fluctuations in the quantity of reserves in the system.”

    3. PhilipO : not sure I understand your rationale. How could a negative real rate possibly reduce the volume of funds available for investment? What sort of notion of, “volume of funds in the non-government sector,” are you assuming? I get what you mean, investors would effectively be paying for holding bonds. But so what? Then wouldn’t bond holders sell or swap the bonds to get better interest bearing assets, and would not bank loans be also a source of funds for other investment? So the effect could plausibly be even more financial assets freed up for other investment!

    4. Bijoy,
      Here is the way I read this:
      The bond purchase by itself, at zero interest is only a straight asset swap. At that point there is no non- gov. sector increase or decrease in financial wealth. It isn`t a zero or negative rate that reduces the volume of funds, it is the asset swap itself. What makes option B. correct would be a positive interest rate which through increased income increases the financial wealth of the non-gov. sector. Important in the B. answer are the words, “held in the form of public debt”
      Yes, I agree. Bank loans are an added source of funds and they do not need deposits to do that; loans within the sector however, will not increase the net financial wealth of that sector, there is through double entry accounting, an asset/liability offset. This then, does not satisfy answer B. As the question is put, the only thing that will bring answer B. into play is a positive interest rate.

    5. Philip O, presumably a private person or company will purchase something because they figure they will be better off with that purchase than with the cash they spend on it. So regardless of the return on their purchase of the bond, at that time of the purchase they must be thinking that they are better off and they definitely are holding a greater amount of their assets (wealth) in the form of public debt. I don’t think the question is about what happens to the value of those assets 5 years in the future.

    6. Hi Jerry, long time no chat…..I agree with you 100%. The question though, was not about if someone “thinks” they are better off; definitely not about future asset values.

    7. Hi everyone,

      Based on my second reading of Bill, Philip O, Bijou, Jerry, I think the yield of any debt instruments will always try to convert to the real interest rate, like Philip O said (so A is possible).

      But C, will still be the correct ‘answer’. Because as I remember from Warren’s loud and clear, central bank can set the interest rate any where it wants (like Japan, Fed, etc.).

      Therefore, the key point of the question is at the last clause – ‘higher deficit tells us nothing about the short-term interest rates’. This will always be true despite central banks’ inability to control the bank reserve or the supply of money (but this does not matter in the fiat currency system, government can spend however it wants depending on the real resources, not the quantity of money available) .

      This is the catch. So C, is the best, as A and B can never happen, i think.

      Please correct me if i am wrong.

      Best regards,

    8. Oops, so sorry Philip O, my mistake!

      Es tut mid Lied.

      But in that case, for me, the answer has always been clear (b). Because we are talking about the public debt in general, not only in the form of bond issuing.

      Even then, MMT says that central bank can always finance any left over, as in the case of BOJ which holds lot of public debt, regardless of the interest rate level.

      I understand that in the long term the amount owe by the government will be less due to negative interest rate, but still, the main wealth is still there.

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