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The Weekend Quiz – January 4-5, 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 government has two macroeconomic policy arms available – fiscal and monetary policy. However, it only has control over monetary policy.

The answer is True.

First, this question relies on an understanding that the treasury and central bank are both part of the consolidated government sector.

Please read my blog post – The consolidated government – treasury and central bank (August 20, 2010) – for more discussion on this point.

In terms of monetary policy, 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 is issued as an interest-maintenance strategy by the central bank. It has no correspondence with any need to fund government spending. Debt might also be issued if the government wants the non-government sector to have less purchasing power.

Further, the idea that governments would simply get the central bank to “monetise” treasury debt (which is seen orthodox economists as the alternative “financing” method for government spending) is highly misleading. Debt monetisation is usually referred to as a process whereby the central bank buys government bonds directly from the treasury.

In other words, the national government borrows money from the central bank rather than the public. Debt monetisation is the process usually implied when a government is said to be printing money. Debt monetisation, all else equal, is said to increase the money supply and can lead to severe inflation.

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. 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. The central bank is 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. If the central bank purchased securities directly from the treasury and the treasury then spent the money, its expenditures would be excess reserves in the banking system. The central bank would be forced to sell an equal amount of securities to support the target interest rate.

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.

So the non-government sector cannot directly influence the central bank’s capacity to set interest rates. Clearly the central bank considers developments in the non-government sector but that is a different matter.

However, the non-government sector does ultimately determine the fiscal balance associated with fiscal policy (including how much tax revenue the government receives for a given set of tax rates and how much spending the government will provide for a given welfare structure).

The fiscal balance has two conceptual components. First, the part that is associated with the chosen (discretionary) fiscal stance of the government independent of cyclical factors. So this component is chosen by the government.

Second, the cyclical component which refer to the automatic stabilisers that operate in a counter-cyclical fashion. When economic growth is strong, 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 decreases during growth.

In times of economic decline, the automatic stabilisers work in the opposite direction and push the fiscal balance towards deficit, into deficit, or into a larger deficit. These automatic 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).

The cyclical component is not insignificant and if the swings in private spending are significant then there will be significant swings in the fiscal balance.

The importance of this component is that the government cannot reliably target a particular deficit outcome with any certainty. This is why adherence to fiscal rules are fraught and normally lead to pro-cyclical fiscal policy which is usually undesirable, especially when the economy is in recession.

While the short-term interest rate is exogenously set by the central bank, economists consider the fiscal outcome to be endogenous – that is, it is determined by private spending (saving) decisions. The government can set its discretionary net spending at some target to target a particular fiscal deficit outcome but it cannot control private spending fluctuations which will ultimately determine the final actual fiscal balance.

So the best answer is true.

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

Question 2:

Americans enjoy a higher material standard of living as a result of the Chinese holdings of US government debt.

The answer is True.

We are considering the macroeconomic outcomes only in this question. We might have concerns about the distributional consequences within the US that might arise from an on-going external deficit – that is that some might benefit while others will be losing jobs as manufacturing heads to China. But when we think in macroeconomic terms (which is mostly the case in this blog) we are dealing with aggregates and so the distributional questions, while very important, are abstracted from.

That qualification also has to be tempered by the important insights that progressive economists such as Michal Kalecki who showed how the distribution of income impacts on aggregate demand.

Please read my blog post – Michal Kalecki – The Political Aspects of Full Employment (August 13, 2010) – for more discussion on this point.

But with those caveats in mind here is the explanation.

First, China can only do what the Americans and everyone else it trades with allow them to do. They cannot sell a penny’s worth of output in USD and therefore accumulate the USD which they then use to buy US treasury bonds if the US citizens didn’t buy their stuff. Presumably, people buy imported goods made in China instead of locally-made goods (which are more expensive) because they perceive it is their best interests to do so.

There is often a curious inconsistency among those who advocate free markets. They hate government involvement in the economy yet propose complex regulative structures (for example, tariffs) which would increase government control on resource allocation and, not to mention it, force citizens (against their will) to purchase goods and services they reject in an open comparison (on price and whatever other characteristics).

Many economists do not fully understand how to interpret the balance of payments in a fiat monetary system. For example, most will associate the rise in the current account deficit (exports less than imports plus net invisibles) with an outflow of capital. They then argue that the only way the US (if we use it as an example) can counter this is if US financial institutions borrow from abroad.

They then assume that this is a problem because it means, allegedly, that the US nation is “living beyond its means”. It it true that the higher the level of US foreign debt, the more its economy becomes linked to changing conditions in international credit markets. But the way this situation is usually constructed is dubious.

First, exports are a cost – a nation has to give something real to foreigners that it we could use domestically – so there is an opportunity cost involved in exports.

Second, imports are a benefit – they represent foreigners giving a nation something real that they could use themselves but which the local economy will benefit from having. The opportunity cost is all theirs!

Thus, on balance, if a nation can persuade foreigners to send more ships filled with things than it has to send in return (net export deficit) then that is a net benefit to the local economy. I am abstracting from all the arguments (valid mostly!) that says we cannot measure welfare in a material way. I know all the arguments that support that position and largely agree with them.

So how can we have a situation where foreigners are giving up more real things than they get from the local economy (in a macroeconomic sense)? The answer lies in the fact that the local nation’s current account deficit “finances” the desire of foreigners to accumulate net financial claims denominated in $AUDs.

Think about that carefully. The standard conception is exactly the opposite – that the foreigners finance the local economy’s profligate spending patterns.

In fact, the local trade deficit allows the foreigners to accumulate these financial assets (claims on the local economy). The local economy gains in real terms – more ships full coming in than leave! – and foreigners achieve their desired financial portfolio. So in general that seems like a good outcome for all.

The problem is that if the foreigners change their desire to accumulate financial assets in the local currency then they will become unwilling to allow the “real terms of trade” (ships going and coming with real things) to remain in the local nation’s favour. Then the local economy has to adjust its export and import behaviour accordingly. If this transition is sudden then some disruptions can occur. In general, these adjustments are not sudden.

So if you understand this then you will be able to appreciate the following juxtaposition:

  • Neo-liberal myth: US consumers have to borrow $billions from foreigners to keep consuming.
  • MMT reality: US consumers are funding $billions in foreign savings (accumulation of $US-denominated financial assets by foreigners).

Here is a transactional account of how this works which starts off with a US citizen buying a Chinese product.

  • US citizen buys a nice little Chinese car.
  • If the US consumer pays cash, then his/her bank account is debited and the Chinese car dealer’s account is credited – this has the impact of increasing foreign savings of US dollar-denominated financial assets. Total deposits in the US banking system, so far, are unchanged.
  • If the US consumer takes out a loan to buy the car, then his/her bank’s balance sheet now records the loan as an asset and creates a deposit (the loan) on the liability side. When the US consumer then hands the cheque over to the car dealer (representing the Chinese firm – ignore intervening transactions) the Chinese car company has a new asset (bank deposit) and my loan boosts overall bank deposits (loans create deposits). Foreign savings in US dollars rise by the amount of the loan.
  • So the trade deficit (1 car in this case) results from the Chinese car firm’s desire to net save US dollar-denominated financial assets and sell goods and services to the US in order to get those assets – it is the only way they can accumulate financial assets in a foreign currency.

What if the Chinese car company then decided to buy US Government debt instead of holding the US dollar-denominated bank deposits?
Some more accounting transactions would occur.

  • The Chinese company would put in an order for the bonds which would transfer the bank deposit into the hands of the central bank (Federal Reserve) who is selling the bond (ignore the specifics of which particular account in the Government is relevant) and in return hand over a bit of paper called a bond to the Chinese car maker’s lawyers or representative.
  • The US Government’s foreign debt rises by that amount.
  • But this merely means that the US Government promises, on maturity of the bond, to credit the Chinese car firm’s bank account (add reserves to the commercial bank the car firm deals with) with the face value of the bond plus interest and debit some account at the central bank (or whatever specific accounting structure deals with bond sales and purchases).

If you understand all of that then you will clearly understand that this merely amounts to substituting a non-interest bearing reserve balance for an interest-bearing Government bond. That transaction can never present any problems of solvency for a sovereign government.

The US consumers get all the real goods and services and the Chinese have bits of paper.

I know some so-called progressives worry about the stock of debt that the Chinese are holding. But the US government holds all the cards. The debt is in US dollars and they never leave the US system.

The Chinese may decide they have accumulated enough and will seek to alter the real terms of trade (that is, reduce its desire to export to the US). In that situation the US will no longer be able to exploit the material advantages and the adjustment might be sharp and painful. But that doesn’t negate that while the situation is as described the material benefits are flowing in favour of the US citizens (overall).

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

Question 3:

A strategy to force the government to maintain a balanced fiscal position that the private domestic sector has to be continuously accumulating debt unless the external account moves into surplus.

The answer is True.

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 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:

(1) 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 tax revenue minus total 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 net taxes (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 lets you see the evolution of the balances expressed in terms of percent of GDP.

I have held the external deficit constant at 2 per cent of GDP (which is artificial because as economic activity changes imports also rise and fall).

To aid interpretation remember that (S-I) < 0 means that the private domestic sector is spending more than they are earning; that (G-T) < 0 means that the government is running a surplus because T > G; and (X-M) < 0 means the external position is in deficit because imports are greater than exports.

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

If we assume these periods are average positions over the course of each business cycle (that is, Period 1 is a separate business cycle to Period 2 etc).

In Period 1, there is an external deficit (2 per cent of GDP), a fiscal surplus of 1 per cent of GDP and the non-government sector is in deficit (I > S) to the tune of 3 per cent of GDP.

In Period 2, as the government fiscal balance enters balance (presumably the government increased spending or cut taxes or the automatic stabilisers were working), the private domestic deficit narrows and now equals the external deficit. This is the case that the question is referring to.

This provides another important rule that is typically overlooked – that if a nation records an average external deficit over the course of the business cycle (peak to peak) and you succeed in balancing the public fiscal balance then the private domestic sector will be in deficit equal to the external deficit.

That means, the non-government sector is increasingly building debt to fund its “excess expenditure”. That conclusion is inevitable when you balance a fiscal balance with an external deficit. It could never be a viable fiscal rule for most nations.

In Periods 3 and 4, the fiscal deficit rises from balance to 1 to 2 per cent of GDP and the private domestic balance moves towards surplus. At the end of Period 4, the non-government sector is spending as much as they earning.

Periods 5 and 6 show the benefits of fiscal deficits when there is an external deficit. The non-government sector now is able to generate surpluses overall (that is, save as a sector) as a result of the public deficit.

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 non-government sector to save 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:

That is enough for today!

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

This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. For question 1 the issue is what do you mean by ‘control’ over fiscal policy. I would say the government has comparable control to that of a ship captain in the times that wind powered movement of the ship. Yeah the captain had no control over the wind, but if they were trying to sail from London to New York- well they almost always got there. Meaning there was some level of control.

    Question 2. The problem here is there is nothing special about ‘Chinese’ holding US debt as opposed to any other nationality wanting to hold that debt. If the Chinese didn’t want to hold it but the Germans were just as happy to have it then there is not much of a difference in US living standards. China is a huge country with a very large population of productive people though. Maybe one out of eight people in this world are Chinese? So whatever they do together has got to have a large effect on anything.

    Question 3 is missing a word in the question part. Aside from that- what would be the result of a balanced fiscal position with a balanced external trade on the private sector? I don’t see how that necessarily results in the private sector accumulating debt.

    Thanks for the quiz, as always. Love to read it, love to take it, and everyone knows I love to argue about it. Thanks Bill.

  2. If the government has no control over fiscal policy then why do we continually exhort governments (in Australia for example) to run more expansionary fiscal policy?

  3. Sorry Bill, I have to respectfully disagree with “True” as an answer to Question 1 (and agree with David joy, above), if the question was really as stated:

    The government has two macroeconomic policy arms available – fiscal and monetary policy. However, it only has control over monetary policy.

    If the question really meant fiscal Outcomes, then of course, then yes, I agree it has no control – it cannot control the fiscal deficit or surplus (directly, anyway).

    But of course it can control its fiscal Policy – it can decide to spend more or spend less, and it can decide to tax more or tax less. That is fiscal policy, isn’t it?

  4. Jerry,
    I also have a “mental fight” over Q1. Although I would agree they(generally speaking) have no “control” over the “end result” of fiscal policy. I find it hard to accept there is no “control” of fiscal policy from an implementation point of view yet there is for “monetary policy”…… Although I understand it conceptually (I think). I find it almost “miserable and bothersome ” to accept; so this means I`m missing some part of that equation…. It could also mean that, I`m as usual, so I`m told , trying to be overly precise in my way of thinking….LOL
    Happy New Year all.

  5. So Jerry, I will join you on Q3……
    Sometimes Bill tries to test us…Forget the true false for a moment.
    There is the introduction of a “stock” variable “debt”, quietly wedged between two “flow variables”, the fiscal and external balances….(tut tut, naughty) There is also the question of “domestic debt issuance” being an institutional agreement and not an intrinsic reality for a “currency sovereign” In MMT thinking.
    A good argument to flow with,I think. :)

  6. Yes Philip. In any event, it is difficult to understand question 3 being even possible if you were to accept question 1’s assertion that the government can’t control fiscal policy. I mean if you accept that the government has no level of control over fiscal policy, then logically, there are no strategies that could possibly force the government to maintain a balanced fiscal position in the first place. So what would be the point of speculating about what couldn’t ever be done in the first place.

    But the government obviously has some level of control over what it is going to spend (and spend for!), and what it is going to tax away, even if that isn’t a precise control. And the government could increase that precision about its spending and taxation if it eliminated programs and tax policies that act like automatic stabilizers- but there are no MMTers that would advocate that.

  7. @David Joy asks:
    “If the government has no control over fiscal policy then why do we continually exhort governments (in Australia for example) to run more expansionary fiscal policy”?

    because
    1. while we want more expansionary policy and don’t actually like ‘austerity’
    2. at the same time we think (federal) governments must balance their budgets.

    … the effect of which is government has no control over fiscal policy, in the sense that no-one wants to pay the higher taxes necessary (according to neoliberal orthodoxy), to eliminate said austerity.

  8. To simplify it though Jerry(on Q1), The main point to understand in the argument would be that although spending can be “determined/ implemented”; tax levels can be “determined/ implemented”, it does not follow that expected tax income will materialise, if onerous. This then makes realised tax income endogenous therefore likewise, fiscal policy….. I get that. but! they still have “control” over spending and therefore, the more important element of fiscal policy for a currency issuing government. That is what plays on my mind, the word “control”

  9. I think that the intention of Question 1 would have been clearer if the question had referred to “the fiscal balance” rather than “fiscal policy”. The government does not control the fiscal balance because the fiscal balance has a cyclical, non-discretionary component. However, the government does decide what the tax system will be, what the welfare system will be, and what the discretionary fiscal stance will be. So my understanding is that the government DOES control fiscal policy. But it does not control the fiscal balance.

  10. Philip, one of the strange things about MMT and its supporters (like me) is that we generally consider the government to be our agent- our friend, so to speak, who looks out for the general well being of the population and uses its power on our behalf. But that isn’t always so and sometimes it can be very clear that it isn’t the case.

    I think my real introduction to MMT came from reading Randall Wray’s book “Understanding Modern Money”. Somewhere in there he explained how colonial powers would introduce a demand for their currency among the original population by imposing a ‘hut tax’. As soon as they destroyed several of the homes of the residents who had not paid the tax there was a very effective demand for that currency – it is a very coercive process that does not depend on the ruling power caring at all for the citizens. It is not a nice thing in the least and the more brutal and effective the government is willing to be to enforce its taxes, the more precise it can be about how much will be collected. In a very broad sense, I think Bill is addressing this issue in his most recent post about the CFA Franc, although I expect that the French Government is nowadays a bit more enlightened and less cruel than in the past.

    But it seems to me that modern governments could revert to ‘hut taxes’ or even ‘poll taxes’ and be quite precise about what they were going to collect back from their spending into the economy. If that is what they wanted to do. And they could be very precise, outside of any existential threat like war, about what they wanted to spend into the economy. So as far as I am concerned, governments have voluntarily chosen to have less than complete control over fiscal policy under most circumstances. And voluntarily choosing not to control something does not mean there is not control if that choice is changed.

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