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The Weekend Quiz – December 12-13, 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 public works program that digs holes and fills them in again has exactly the same impact on current economic growth ($-for-$) as a private investment plan which constructs a new factory.

The answer is True.

This question allows us to go back into J.M. Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Many mainstream economics characterise the Keynesian position on the use of public works as an expansionary employment measure as advocating useless work – digging holes and filling them up again. The critics focus on the seeming futility of that work to denigrate it and rarely examine the flow of funds and impacts on aggregate demand. They know that people will instinctively recoil from the idea if the nonsensical nature of the work is emphasised.

The critics actually fail in their stylisations of what Keynes actually said. They also fail to understand the nature of the policy recommendations that Keynes was advocating.

What Keynes demonstrated was that when private demand fails during a recession and the private sector will not buy any more goods and services, then government spending interventions were necessary. He said that while hiring people to dig holes only to fill them up again would work to stimulate demand, there were much more creative and useful things that the government could do.

Keynes maintained that in a crisis caused by inadequate private willingness or ability to buy goods and services, it was the role of government to generate demand.

But, he argued, merely hiring people to dig holes, while better than nothing, is not a reasonable way to do it.

In Chapter 16 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes wrote, in the book’s typically impenetrable style:

If — for whatever reason — the rate of interest cannot fall as fast as the marginal efficiency of capital would fall with a rate of accumulation corresponding to what the community would choose to save at a rate of interest equal to the marginal efficiency of capital in conditions of full employment, then even a diversion of the desire to hold wealth towards assets, which will in fact yield no economic fruits whatever, will increase economic well-being. In so far as millionaires find their satisfaction in building mighty mansions to contain their bodies when alive and pyramids to shelter them after death, or, repenting of their sins, erect cathedrals and endow monasteries or foreign missions, the day when abundance of capital will interfere with abundance of output may be postponed. “To dig holes in the ground,” paid for out of savings, will increase, not only employment, but the real national dividend of useful goods and services. It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends.

So while the narrative style is typical Keynes, the message is clear. Keynes clearly understands that digging holes will stimulate aggregate demand when private investment has fallen but not increase “the real national dividend of useful goods and services”.

He also notes that once the public realise how employment is determined and the role that government can play in times of crisis they would expect government to use their net spending wisely to create useful outcomes.

Earlier, in Chapter 10 of the General Theory you read the following:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

Again a similar theme. The government can stimulate demand in a number of ways when private spending collapses. But they should choose ways that will yield more “sensible” products such as housing. He notes too that politics might intervene in doing what is best. When that happens the sub-optimal but effective outcome would be suitable.

But the answer is true because as long as the hole-digging operation is paying on-going wages to the workers who spend them then this will add to aggregate demand and hence income (economic) growth in the current period.

The workers employed will spend a proportion of their weekly incomes on other goods and services which, in turn, provides wages to workers providing those outputs.

They spend a proportion of this income and the “induced consumption” (induced from the initial spending on the road) multiplies throughout the economy.

This is the idea behind the expenditure multiplier.

A private investment in the construction of a factory will have an identical effect.

Over time, clearly building productive capacity is an important determinant of future economic growth.

But if private spending is lagging then a public works scheme like that proposed is better than nothing.

The economy may not get much useful output from such a policy but aggregate demand would be stronger and employment higher as a consequence.

And, please do not get the impression I am advocating such public works programs.

Our imaginations are richer than that and we can come up with productive public works programs.

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

Question 2:

The automatic stabilisers increase deficits (or reduce surpluses) in times of slack aggregate demand. This sensitivity of the fiscal outcome to the economic cycle could be eliminated if the government followed a fiscal rule such that it had to balance its fiscal position at all times.

The answer is False.

The final fiscal outcome 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 outcome is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the fiscal outcome 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 outcome 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 outcome in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the fiscal outcome 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.

The first point to always be clear about then is that the fiscal balance is not determined by the government. Its discretionary policy stance certainly is an influence but the final outcome will reflect non-government spending decisions. In other words, the concept of a fiscal rule – where the government can set a desired balance (in the case of the question – zero) and achieve that at all times is fraught.

It is likely that in attempting to achieve a balanced fiscal outcome the government will set its discretionary policy settings counter to the best interests of the economy – either too contractionary or too expansionary.

If there was a balanced fiscal rule and private spending fell dramatically then the automatic stabilisers would push the fiscal outcome into the direction of deficit. The final outcome would depend on net exports and whether the private sector was saving overall or not. Assume, that net exports were in deficit (typical case) and private saving overall was positive. Then private spending declines.

In this case, the actual fiscal outcome would be a deficit equal to the sum of the other two balances.

Then in attempting to apply the fiscal rule, the discretionary component of the fiscal outcome would have to contract. This contraction would further reduce aggregate demand and the automatic stabilisers (loss of tax revenue and increased welfare payments) would be working against the discretionary policy choice.

In that case, the application of the fiscal rule would be undermining production and employment and probably not succeeding in getting the fiscal outcome into balance.

But every time a discretionary policy change was made the impact on aggregate demand and hence production would then trigger the automatic stabilisers via the income changes to work in the opposite direction to the discretionary policy shift.

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

Question 3:

It is clear that the central bank can use balance sheet management techniques to control yields on public debt at certain targetted maturities. However, this capacity to control the term structure of interest rates is diminished during periods of high inflation.

The answer is True.

The “term structure” of interest rates, in general, refers to the relationship between fixed-income securities (public and private) of different maturities. Sometimes commentators will confine the concept to public bonds but that would be apparent from the context. Usually, the term structure takes into account public and private bonds/paper.

The yield curve is a graphical depiction of the term structure – so that the interest rates on bonds are graphed against their maturities (or terms).

The term structure of interest rates provides financial markets with a indication of likely movements in interest rates and expectations of the state of the economy.

If the term structure is normal such that short-term rates are lower than long-term rates fixed-income investors form the view that economic growth will be normal. Given this is associated with an expectation of some stable inflation over the medium- to longer-term, long maturity assets have higher yields to compensate for the risk.

Short-term assets are less prone to inflation risk because holders are repaid sooner.

When the term structure starts to flatten, fixed-income markets consider this to be a transition phase with short-term rates on the rise and long-term rates falling or stable. This usually occurs late in a growth cycle and accompanies the tightening of monetary policy as the central bank seeks to reduce inflationary expectations.

Finally, if a flat terms structure inverts, the short-rates are higher than the long-rates. This results after a period of central bank tightening which leads the financial markets to form the view that interest rates will decline in the future with longer-term yields being lower. When interest rates decrease, bond prices rise and yields fall.

The investment mentality is tricky in these situations because even though yields on long-term bonds are expected to fall investors will still purchase assets at those maturities because they anticipate a major slowdown (following the central bank tightening) and so want to get what yields they can in an environment of overall declining yields and sluggish economic growth.

So the term structure is conditioned in part by the inflationary expectations that are held in the private sector.

It is without doubt that the central bank can manipulate the yield curve at all maturities to determine yields on public bonds. If they want to guarantee a particular yield on say a 30-year government bond then all they have to do is stand ready to purchase (or sell) the volume that is required to stabilise the price of the bond consistent with that yield.

Remember bond prices and yields are inverse. A person who buys a fixed-income bond for $100 with a coupon (return) of 10 per cent will expect $10 per year while they hold the bond. If demand rises for this bond in secondary markets and pushes the price up to say $120, then the fixed coupon (10 per cent on $100 = $10) delivers a lower yield.

Now it is possible that a strategy to fix yields on public bonds at all maturities would require the central bank to own all the debt (or most of it). This would occur if the targeted yields were not consistent with the private market expectations about future values of the short-term interest rate.

If the private markets considered that the central bank would start hiking rates then they would decline to buy at the fixed (controlled) yield because they would expect long-term bond prices to fall overall and yields to rise.

So given the current monetary policy emphasis on controlling inflation, in a period of high inflation, private markets would hold the view that the yields on fixed income assets would rise and so the central bank would have to purchase all the issue to hit its targeted yield.

In this case, while the central bank could via large-scale purchases control the yield on the particular asset, it is likely that the yield on that asset would become dislocated from the term structure (if they were only controlling one maturity) and private rates or private rates (if they were controlling all public bond yields).

So the private and public interest rate structure could become separated. While some would say this would mean that the central bank loses the ability to influence private spending via monetary policy changes, the reality is that the economic consequences of such a situation would be unclear and depend on other factors such as expectations of future movements in aggregate demand, to name one important influence.

That is enough for today!

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

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    This Post Has 6 Comments
    1. Question 3:

      It is clear that the central bank can use balance sheet management techniques to control yields on public debt at certain targetted maturities. However, this capacity to control the term structure of interest rates is diminished during periods of high inflation.

      The answer is True.

      The answer doesn’t tell me that the ability to control the term structure of interest rates diminishes- more that the willingness to use that control might diminish.

    2. On Q1: Bill says

      ‘But the answer is true because as long as the hole-digging operation is paying on-going wages to the workers who spend them then this will add to aggregate demand and hence income (economic) growth in the current period.

      The workers employed will spend a proportion of their weekly incomes on other goods and services which, in turn, provides wages to workers providing those outputs.

      They spend a proportion of this income and the “induced consumption” (induced from the initial spending on the road) multiplies throughout the economy.

      This is the idea behind the expenditure multiplier.

      A private investment in the construction of a factory will have an identical effect.’.

      The effect from wages earned and spent will be the same but in the case of the new factory the owners will end up with a capital good which can either be sold or will induce additional spending in other ways either of which will surely boost GDP.

    3. @’Rob Rawlings’ Sure, but I read Bill’s question with the emphasis on “current” economic growth. What you’re doing is adding nuance! To make use of their factory requires making stuff and selling it, finding buyers willing to part with cash, which I think is not part of the meaning of “current” in the question, no?

    4. re Q1, the ‘Furlough’ in the UK is identical to what Keynes suggested. Except bottles were not even buried and dug up. People were paid to sit at home and do nothing since that generated both demand and public health. There was the interesting question how much to pay them. The answer was to pay them as much as would not lead to a reduction in demand for those who could continue to work throughout the pandemic without endangering public health. One can only assume that, since they were paid some 80% of their previous earnings, then the Treasury had estimated that some 20% of the work force would be unable to work. Had the Treasury assumed that some 40% would be unable to safely work then the ‘Furlough’ would have been capped at 60% of previous earnings. Those 80% who continued to work through the pandemic have been accumulating the 20% of their wages that they have not been able to spend (in holidays, entertainment etc) in increased savings. This may have a small inflationary effect post pandemic as we all jump on planes to travel to sunnier regions.

    5. Quibbling over Q1, where you say the impact on (output, GDP) of hole digging is the same as for a private investment plan which constructs a new factory.

      Granted, the effect on aggregate demand from paying the workers is the same no matter what the workers are doing, but surely there are secondary effects from the fruits of their labour? That factory is going to be making things that are useful.

      Unless you’re going to claim that the value added by the factory come in the future, once the factory has been completed? But even then that’s not right – the incomplete factory can be capitalised (financialised), and therefore has value even before it is finished.

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