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The Weekend Quiz – November 7-8, 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:

Using national accounting rules which dictate that the government balance is always equal to the non-government balance with an opposite sign, we can conclude that if the public sector successfully achieves a fiscal surplus then the private domestic sector must be spending more than it is earning (that is, running a deficit).

The answer is False.

The point is that the non-government sector is not equivalent to the private domestic sector in the sectoral balance framework. We have to include the impact of the external sector.

This is a question about the sectoral balances – the government fiscal balance, the external balance and the private domestic balance – that have to always add to zero because they are derived as an accounting identity from the national accounts. The balances reflect the underlying economic behaviour in each sector which is interdependent – given this is a macroeconomic system we are considering.

To refresh your memory the sectoral balances are derived as follows. The basic income-expenditure model in macroeconomics can be viewed in (at least) two ways: (a) from the perspective of the sources of spending; and (b) from the perspective of the uses of the income produced. Bringing these two perspectives (of the same thing) together generates the sectoral balances.

From the sources perspective we write:

GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

which says that total national income (GDP) is the sum of total final consumption spending (C), total private investment (I), total government spending (G) and net exports (X – M).

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

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

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

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

(2) GNP = C + I + G + (X – M) + FNI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In English we could say that:

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

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

(5) (S – I) = (G – T) + CAB

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

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

Expression (5) can also be written as:

(6) [(S – I) – CAB] = (G – T)

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

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

The sectoral balances equation says that total private savings (S) minus private investment (I) has to equal the public deficit (spending, G minus taxes, T) plus net exports (exports (X) minus imports (M)) plus net income transfers.

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

The following table shows a 8-period sequence where for the first four years the nation is running an external deficit (2 per cent of GDP) and for the last four year the external sector is in surplus (2 per cent of GDP).

Sectoral Balance Period 1 Period 2 Period 3 Period 4 Period 5 Period 6 Period 7 Period 8
External (X – M) -2 -2 -2 -2 2 2 2 2
Fiscal (G – T) 3 4 1 0 -1 0 -3 -4
Private Domestic (S – I) 1 2 -1 -2 1 2 -1 -2

For the question to be true we should never see the government surplus (G – T < 0) and the private domestic surplus (S – I > 0) simultaneously occurring.

You see that in the first four periods that never juxtaposition never occurs which tells you that when there is an external deficit (X – M < 0) the private domestic and government sectors cannot simultaneously run surpluses, no matter how hard they might try. The income adjustments will always force one or both of the sectors into deficit.

The sum of the private domestic surplus and government surplus has to equal the external surplus. So that condition defines the situations when the private domestic sector and the government sector can simultaneously pay back debt.

It is only in Period 5 that we see the condition satisfied.

That is because the private and government balances (both surpluses) exactly equal the external surplus.

If the private domestic sector tried to push for higher saving overall (say in Period 6), national income would fall (because overall spending fell) and the government surplus would vanish as the automatic stabilisers responded with lower tax revenue and higher welfare payments.

Periods 7 and 8 show what happens when the private domestic sector runs deficits with an external surplus. The combination of the external surplus and the private domestic deficit adding to demand drives the automatic stabilisers to push the government fiscal position into further surplus as economic activity is high.

But this growth scenario is unsustainable because it implies an increasing level of indebtedness overall for the private domestic sector which has finite limits.

Eventually, that sector will seek to stabilise its balance sheet (which means households and firms will start to save overall). That would reduce domestic income and the fiscal balance would move back into deficit (or a smaller surplus) depending on the size of the external surplus.

So what is the economics that underpin these different situations?

If the nation is running an external deficit it means that the contribution to aggregate demand from the external sector is negative – that is net drain of spending – dragging output down.

The external deficit also means that foreigners are increasing financial claims denominated in the local currency. Given that exports represent a real cost and imports a real benefit, the motivation for a nation running a net exports surplus (the exporting nation in this case) must be to accumulate financial claims (assets) denominated in the currency of the nation running the external deficit.

A fiscal surplus also means the government is spending less than it is “earning” and that puts a drag on aggregate demand and constrains the ability of the economy to grow.

In these circumstances, for income to be stable, the private domestic sector has to spend more than they earn.

You can see this by going back to the aggregate demand relations above. For those who like simple algebra we can manipulate the aggregate demand model to see this more clearly.

Y = GDP = C + I + G + (X – M)

which says that the total national income (Y or GDP) is the sum of total final consumption spending (C), total private investment (I), total government spending (G) and net exports (X – M).

So if the G is spending less than it is “earning” and the external sector is adding less income (X) than it is absorbing spending (M), then the other spending components must be greater than total income.

Only when the government fiscal deficit supports aggregate demand at income levels which permit the private sector to save overall out of that income will the latter achieve its desired outcome. At this point, income and employment growth are maximised and private debt levels will be stable.

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

Question 2:

If the stock of aggregate demand exceeds the capacity of the productive sector to respond by producing extra real goods and services then inflation is inevitable.

The answer is False.

Spending definitely equals income and too much spending relative to the real capacity of the economy to absorb it will create inflation. But those facts do not relate to the point of the question, which is, in fact, a very easy test of the difference between flows and stocks.

All expenditure aggregates – such as government spending and investment spending are flows. They add up to total expenditure or aggregate demand which is also a flow rather than a stock. Aggregate demand (a flow) in any period and it jointly determines the flow of income and output in the same period (that is, GDP) (in partnership with aggregate supply).

So while flows can add to stock – for example, the flow of saving adds to wealth or the flow of investment adds to the stock of capital – flows can also be added together to form a “larger” flow.

For example, if you wanted to work out annual GDP from the quarterly national accounts you would sum the individual quarterly observations for the 12-month period of interest. Conversely, employment is a stock so if you wanted to create an annual employment time series you would average the individual quarterly observations for the 12-month period of interest.

The question thus tests the precision of language as they relate to economic concepts. Too often the language is loose and the concepts become confused as a result.

The following blog may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

Assume that the government increases spending by $200 billion at the start of each year and maintains this policy for the next three years from now. Economists estimate the spending multiplier to be 2 and the impact is exhausted within each year (all induced consumption is completed within 12 months). The tax multiplier is estimated to be equal to 1 and the current average tax rate is equal to 25 per cent (so tax revenue rises by 25 cents for every extra dollar of GDP produced ). What is the cumulative impact of this fiscal expansion on GDP after three years?

(a) $1200 billion
(b) $400 billion
(c) $300 billion
(d) $900 billion

The answer is $1200 billion.

In Year 1, government spending rises by $200 billion, which leads to a total increase in GDP of $400 billion via the spending multiplier. The multiplier process is explained in the following way. Government spending, say, on some equipment or construction, leads to firms in those areas responding by increasing real output. In doing so they pay out extra wages and other payments which then provide the workers (consumers) with extra disposable income (once taxes are paid).

Higher consumption is thus induced by the initial injection of government spending. Some of the higher income is saved and some is lost to the local economy via import spending. So when the workers spend their higher wages (which for some might be the difference between no wage as an unemployed person and a positive wage), broadly throughout the economy, this stimulates further induced spending and so on, with each successive round of spending being smaller than the last because of the leakages to taxation, saving and imports.

Eventually, the process exhausts and the total rise in GDP is the “multiplied” effect of the initial government injection. In this question we adopt the simplifying (and unrealistic) assumption that all induced effects are exhausted within the same year. In reality, multiplier effects of a given injection usually are estimated to go beyond 4 quarters.

So this process goes on for 3 years so the $600 billion cumulative injection leads to a cumulative increase in GDP of $1200 billion.

It is true that total tax revenue rises by $300 billion but this is just an automatic stabiliser effect. There was no change in the tax structure (that is, tax rates) posited in the question.

That means that the tax multiplier, whatever value it might have been, is irrelevant to this example.

Some might have decided to subtract the $300 billion from the $1200 billion to get answer (d) on the presumption that there was a tax effect. But the automatic stabiliser effect of the tax system is already built into the expenditure multiplier.

Some might have just computed $300 billion and said (c). Clearly, not correct.

Some might have thought it was a total injection of $200 billion and multiplied that by 2 to get answer (b). Also, not correct.

You may wish to read the following blog posts for more information:

That is enough for today!

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

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