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The Weekend Quiz – January 23-24, 2021 – 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:

Government spending which is accompanied by a bond sale to the non-government sector adds less to aggregate demand than would be the case if there was no bond sale because some spending capacity in the non-government sector is withdrawn.

The answer is False.

The mainstream macroeconomic textbooks all have a chapter on fiscal policy (and it is often written in the context of the so-called IS-LM model but not always).

The chapters always introduces the so-called ‘Government Budget Constraint’ that alleges that governments have to “finance” all spending either through taxation; debt-issuance; or money creation. These chapters always fail to convey the understanding that government spending is performed in the same way irrespective of the accompanying monetary operations.

Note: because language matters, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) eschews the use of the term “budget” to describe the fiscal position of a currency-issuing government. The term ‘budget’ invokes the household finances which have not application to the spending and revenue flows of such a government. But the ‘Government Budget Constraint’ is historical terminology and retained for descriptive purposes.

Anyway, they claim that money creation (borrowing from central bank) is inflationary while the latter (private bond sales) is less so. These conclusions are based on their erroneous claim that “money creation” adds more to aggregate demand than bond sales, because the latter forces up interest rates which crowd out some private spending.

All these claims are without foundation in a fiat monetary system and an understanding of the banking operations that occur when governments spend and issue debt helps to show why.

So what would happen if a sovereign, currency-issuing government (with a flexible exchange rate) ran a fiscal deficit without issuing debt?

Like all government spending, the Treasury would credit the reserve accounts held by the commercial bank at the central bank. The commercial bank in question would be where the target of the spending had an account. So the commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a deposit would be made.

The transactions are clear: The commercial bank’s assets rise and its liabilities also increase because a new deposit has been made.

Further, the target of the fiscal initiative enjoys increased assets (bank deposit) and net worth (a liability/equity entry on their balance sheet).

Taxation does the opposite and so a deficit (spending greater than taxation) means that reserves increase and private net worth increases.

This means that there are likely to be excess reserves in the ‘cash system’ which then raises issues for the central bank about its liquidity management.

The aim of the central bank is to ‘hit’ a target interest rate and so it has to ensure that competitive forces in the interbank market do not compromise that target.

When there are excess reserves there is downward pressure on the overnight interest rate (as banks scurry to seek interest-earning opportunities), the central bank then has options to manage the excess liquidity.

It can pay and interest rate on the excess reserves to discourage banks from trying to off-load their excesses to other banks, which might have a shortage, even though the overall system is in excess.

An operationally equivalent option would be to sell government bonds to the banks to soak the excess up and maintain liquidity at a level consistent with the target.

Either way, the operational equivalence arises because both options provide an interest-earning opportunity to banks and curtails interbank competition in the face of excess reserves.

In the second case, there is no sense that these debt sales have anything to do with ‘financing’ government net spending. The sales are a monetary operation aimed at interest-rate maintenance.

So M1 (deposits in the non-government sector) rise as a result of the deficit without a corresponding increase in liabilities. It is this result that leads to the conclusion that that deficits increase net financial assets in the non-government sector.

The only other qualification relates to the liquidity characteristics of the bonds. While bonds are relatively liquid (meaning they can be converted to cash fairly quickly) they are not as liquid as cash. But the points to bear in mind are that holding a bond doesn’t constrain a person from spending.

Further, the government sells bonds to an investor who is already saving (that is, not spending). When a private sector saver buys a government bond, there is not reduced funding available for private sector borrowers relative to when a fiscal deficit is accompanied by no bond sales. The overarching principle in the banking sector is that loans create deposits.

The fiscal deficit, whether a bond is sold or not, creates a deposit for the recipient of the spending, or (in the case of a tax cut) leaves a taxpayer with more deposits than otherwise. A bond sale doesn’t change this fact, unless it is the exact same recipient of the spending/tax cut that also purchases the bond. Again, though, this just means that the recipient was already a saver.

What would happen if there were bond sales? All that happens is that the banks reserves are reduced by the bond sales but this does not reduce the deposits created by the net spending. So net worth is not altered. What is changed is the composition of the asset portfolio held in the non-government sector.

The only difference between the Treasury ‘borrowing from the central bank’ and issuing debt to the private sector is that the central bank has to use different operations to pursue its policy interest rate target. If it debt is not issued to match the deficit then it has to either pay interest on excess reserves (which most central banks are doing now anyway) or let the target rate fall to zero (the Japan solution).

There is no difference to the impact of the deficits on net worth in the non-government sector.

Mainstream economists would say that by draining the reserves, the central bank has reduced the ability of banks to lend which then, via the money multiplier, expands the money supply.

However, the reality is that:

  • Building bank reserves does not increase the ability of the banks to lend.
  • The money multiplier process so loved by the mainstream does not describe the way in which banks make loans.
  • Inflation is caused by aggregate demand growing faster than real output capacity. The reserve position of the banks is not functionally related with that process.

So the banks are able to create as much credit as they can find credit-worthy customers to hold irrespective of the operations that accompany government net spending.

This doesn’t lead to the conclusion that deficits do not carry an inflation risk. All components of aggregate demand carry an inflation risk if they become excessive, which can only be defined in terms of the relation between spending and productive capacity.

It is totally fallacious to think that private placement of debt reduces the inflation risk. It does not.

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

Question 2:

If the external sector is always in surplus, then the government can safely run a surplus and not impede economic growth.

The answer is False.

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 (CAB). 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.

Thus, when an external deficit (X – M < 0) and public surplus (G – T < 0) coincide, there must be a private deficit. While private spending can persist for a time under these conditions using the net savings of the external sector, the private sector becomes increasingly indebted in the process.

Second, you then have to appreciate the relative sizes of these balances to answer the question correctly.

Consider the following Table which depicts three cases – two that define a state of macroeconomic equilibrium (where aggregate demand equals income and firms have no incentive to change output) and one (Case 2) where the economy is in a disequilibrium state and income changes would occur.

Note that in the equilibrium cases, the (S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M) whereas in the disequilibrium case (S – I) > (G – T) + (X – M) meaning that aggregate demand is falling and a spending gap is opening up. Firms respond to that gap by decreasing output and income and this brings about an adjustment in the balances until they are back in equality.

So in Case 1, assume that the private domestic sector desires to save 2 per cent of GDP overall (spend less than they earn) and the external sector is running a surplus equal to 4 per cent of GDP.

In that case, aggregate demand will be unchanged if the government runs a surplus of 2 per cent of GDP (noting a negative sign on the government balance means T > G).

In this situation, the surplus does not undermine economic growth because the injections into the spending stream (NX) are exactly offset by the leakages in the form of the private saving and the fiscal surplus. This is the Norwegian situation.

In Case 2, we hypothesise that the private domestic sector now wants to save 6 per cent of GDP and they translate this intention into action by cutting back consumption (and perhaps investment) spending.

Clearly, aggregate demand now falls by 4 per cent of GDP and if the government tried to maintain that surplus of 2 per cent of GDP, the spending gap would start driving GDP downwards.

The falling income would not only reduce the capacity of the private sector to save but would also push the fiscal balance towards deficit via the automatic stabilisers. It would also push the external surplus up as imports fell. Eventually the income adjustments would restore the balances but with lower GDP overall.

So Case 2 is a not a position of rest – or steady growth. It is one where the government sector (for a given net exports position) is undermining the changing intentions of the private sector to increase their overall saving.

In Case 3, you see the result of the government sector accommodating that rising desire to save by the private sector by running a deficit of 2 per cent of GDP.

So the injections into the spending stream are 4 per cent from NX and 2 per cent from the deficit which exactly offset the desire of the private sector to save 6 per cent of GDP. At that point, the system would be in rest.

This is a highly stylised example and you could tell a myriad of stories that would be different in description but none that could alter the basic point.

If the drain on spending outweighs the injections into the spending stream then GDP falls (or growth is reduced).

So even though an external surplus is being run, the desired fiscal balance still depends on the overall net saving desires of the private domestic sector. Under some situations, these desires could require a deficit even with an external surplus.

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

Question 3:

In a stock-flow consistent macroeconomics, we have to always trace the impact of flows during a period on the relevant stocks at the end of the period. Accordingly, if household consumption expenditure out of disposable income rises by 80 cents in each extra dollar received, then the residual will flow into the stock of saving.

The answer is False.

This is 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) determines the flow of income and output in the same period (that is, GDP).

Flows can also be added together to form a “larger” flow.

Saving is a residual flow left after household consumption decisions out of disposable income are made.

The flow of saving adds to wealth in the form of financial assets.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 8 Comments
    1. What is the difference between the ‘stock of saving’, which I would assume means the aggregate of all saving to date, and the stock of wealth? I got this one wrong but I want to know if it is just because of the definitions of stock and flows or because there is a more significant issue I don’t understand. Is it because ‘wealth’ could include the results of prior Investment and Consumption spending in addition to the aggregate of all saving?

    2. I guess that we’re being encouraged to treat saving as a technical term meaning unspent money over some period of time. I.e., a flow. Accumulating flows, if it means adding them up, changes nothing, as in 3 miles-per-hour plus 4 miles-per-hour adds to 7 miles-per-hour: still a flow.
      Integrating over time changes a flow to a stock, if that’s what we mean by accumulating.
      Also, Mel, households are not the entire domestic sector.

    3. Jerry,

      “What is the difference between the ‘stock of saving….”

      Bill is playing with words a little here.

      A distinction has to be made between saving and savings.

      Saving is a flow – savings is a stock (and is equivalent to wealth).

      Technically, to talk of a stock of saving is inappropriate.

    4. For me, after rereading all the comments, the question and answer by bill again, I think the “residual” and the “residual of flow” are different. The residual of any period can be added to the existing flow, hence possibly a larger flow, but only that “residual of that flow” can be added into the stock of saving (as determined by the sectoral balances identity after all the final household consumption decisions out of disposable income have been finally made, in any period).

      What do you think…

    5. Dear Henry Rech (at 2021/01/25 at 8:40 am)

      I was not playing with words. These are essential distinctions that underpin a solid understanding of macroeconomics, which you clearly demonstrate.

      Education is not playing.

      best wishes
      bill

    6. Thank you all for the assistance.

      Bill, since the distinctions are essential, perhaps you should create a new word besides ‘saving’ to allow the distinctions to be apparent. Savings, or saving, already have numerous meanings in English that apparently do not apply when discussing economics. For example, ‘fever’ is an important distinction from ‘hyperthermia’ although both describe elevated body temperature. That they are different words altogether helps a lot to avoid confusion in treatments.

    7. @’Jerry Brown’
      I sympathize with you, Henry and Mel. To get a bit philosophical… the language flippin’ sucks, my guess because mainstream econs either do not appreciate the nuance or do not care (IS-LM model thinking). I do not see anything wrong with adopting clearer language and avoiding the “saving” versus “savings” distinction. A physicist does not talk about ‘velocitying’ or ‘moving’ being a flow of “velocityings’ or ‘movings’. So, for my money, the common usage of the word “savings” is more than a tad archaic and primitive, a sort of child’s language, and should not be regarded as a ‘standard underpinning of macroeconomics’ — I mean it is, but it shouldn’t be. It reflects the lack of understanding of monetary dynamics we’ve inherited in economics language.

      So: I should not say I have a savings account at the bank, rather I have a credit account. Then my net savings flow into my credit stock. No ambiguity now. The language becomes clear. I do not have any flow of “creditings” or “crediting”. My savings add to my credit, dis-saving subtracts from my credit.

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