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The Weekend Quiz – January 7-8, 2017 – 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:

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) characterises the interaction between the government sector (treasury and central bank) and the non-government sector in terms of vertical transactions, which change the net financial asset position of the non-government sector. These are in contrast with transactions within the non-government sector, which net to zero in terms of the impact on that sector’s net financial asset position. Both quantitative easing (a central bank operation) and net public spending (a treasury operation) satisfy this definition of a vertical transaction.

The answer is False.

Quantitative easing involves the central bank buying assets from the private sector – government bonds and high quality corporate debt. So what the central bank is doing is swapping financial assets with the banks – they sell their financial assets and receive back in return extra reserves.

So the central bank is buying one type of financial asset (private holdings of bonds, company paper) and exchanging it for another (reserve balances at the central bank).

The net financial assets in the private sector are in fact unchanged although the portfolio composition of those assets is altered (maturity substitution) which changes yields and returns.

In terms of changing portfolio compositions, quantitative easing increases central bank demand for “long maturity” assets held in the private sector which reduces interest rates at the longer end of the yield curve. These are traditionally thought of as the investment rates. This might increase aggregate demand given the cost of investment funds is likely to drop.

But on the other hand, the lower rates reduce the interest-income of savers who will reduce consumption (demand) accordingly.

How these opposing effects balance out is unclear but the evidence suggests there is not very much impact at all.

Fiscal policy adds net financial assets to the non-government sector by way of contradistinction to quantitative easing.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

The real wage can only grow if the rate of growth in earnings outstrips labour productivity growth.

The answer is False.

The question requires you to understand what determines the real wage and what the relationship between earnings and labour productivity growth is. When economists do not specify the unit you should always assume they are talking in nominal terms. So the reference to the “rate of growth of earnings” is in terms of the monetary unit which is the common understanding that people would have of the term.

In terms of the logic of the question, that would also be the only sensible interpretation.

The real wage is defined as the purchasing power equivalent on the nominal wage that workers get paid each period. To compute the real wage we need to consider two variables: (a) the nominal wage (W) and the aggregate price level (P).

We might consider the aggregate price level to be measured by the consumer price index (CPI) although there are huge debates about that. But in a sense, this macroeconomic price level doesn’t exist but represents some abstract measure of the general movement in all prices in the economy.

Macroeconomics is hard to learn because it involves these abstract variables that are never observed – like the price level, like “the interest rate” etc. They are just stylisations of the general tendency of all the different prices and interest rates.

Now the nominal wage (W) – that is paid by employers to workers is determined in the labour market – by the contract of employment between the worker and the employer. The price level (P) is determined in the goods market – by the interaction of total supply of output and aggregate demand for that output although there are complex models of firm price setting that use cost-plus mark-up formulas with demand just determining volume sold. We shouldn’t get into those debates here.

The inflation rate is just the continuous growth in the price level (P). A once-off adjustment in the price level is not considered by economists to constitute inflation.

So the real wage (w) tells us what volume of real goods and services the nominal wage (W) will be able to command and is obviously influenced by the level of W and the price level. For a given W, the lower is P the greater the purchasing power of the nominal wage and so the higher is the real wage (w).

We write the real wage (w) as W/P. So if W = 10 and P = 1, then the real wage (w) = 10 meaning that the current wage will buy 10 units of real output. If P rose to 2 then w = 5, meaning the real wage was now cut by one-half.

The relationship between the real wage and labour productivity relates to movements in the unit costs, real unit labour costs and the wage and profit shares in national income.

The wage share in nominal GDP is expressed as the total wage bill as a percentage of nominal GDP. Economists differentiate between nominal GDP ($GDP), which is total output produced at market prices and real GDP (GDP), which is the actual physical equivalent of the nominal GDP. We will come back to that distinction soon.

To compute the wage share we need to consider total labour costs in production and the flow of production ($GDP) each period.

Employment (L) is a stock and is measured in persons (averaged over some period like a month or a quarter or a year.

The wage bill is a flow and is the product of total employment (L) and the average wage (w) prevailing at any point in time. Stocks (L) become flows if it is multiplied by a flow variable (W). So the wage bill is the total labour costs in production per period.

So the wage bill = W.L

The wage share is just the total labour costs expressed as a proportion of $GDP – (W.L)/$GDP in nominal terms, usually expressed as a percentage. We can actually break this down further.

Labour productivity (LP) is the units of real GDP per person employed per period. Using the symbols already defined this can be written as:


so it tells us what real output (GDP) each labour unit that is added to production produces on average.

Nominal GDP ($GDP) can be written as P.GDP, where the P values the real physical output.

Now if you put of these concepts together you get an interesting framework. To help you follow the logic here are the terms developed and be careful not to confuse $GDP (nominal) with GDP (real):

  • Wage share = (W.L)/$GDP
  • Nominal GDP: $GDP = P.GDP
  • Labour productivity: LP = GDP/L
  • Real wage: w = W/P

By substituting the expression for Nominal GDP into the wage share measure we get:

Wage share = (W.L)/P.GDP

In this area of economics, we often look for alternative way to write this expression – it maintains the equivalence (that is, obeys all the rules of algebra) but presents the expression (in this case the wage share) in a different “view”.

So we can write as an equivalent:

Wage share – (W/P).(L/GDP)

Now if you note that (L/GDP) is the inverse (reciprocal) of the labour productivity term (GDP/L). We can use another rule of algebra (reversing the invert and multiply rule) to rewrite this expression again in a more interpretable fashion.

So an equivalent but more convenient measure of the wage share is:

Wage share = (W/P)/(GDP/L) – that is, the real wage (W/P) divided by labour productivity (GDP/L).

I won’t show this but I could also express this in growth terms such that if the growth in the real wage equals labour productivity growth the wage share is constant. The algebra is simple but we have done enough of that already.

That journey might have seemed difficult to non-economists (or those not well-versed in algebra) but it produces a very easy to understand formula for the wage share.

Two other points to note. The wage share is also equivalent to the real unit labour cost (RULC) measures that Treasuries and central banks use to describe trends in costs within the economy. Please read my blog – Saturday Quiz – May 15, 2010 – answers and discussion – for more discussion on this point.

Now it becomes obvious that if the nominal wage (W) and the price level (P) are growing at the pace the real wage is constant. And if the real wage is growing at the same rate as labour productivity, then both terms in the wage share ratio are equal and so the wage share is constant.

The wage share was constant for a long time during the Post Second World period and this constancy was so marked that Kaldor (the Cambridge economist) termed it one of the great “stylised” facts. So real wages grew in line with productivity growth which was the source of increasing living standards for workers.

The productivity growth provided the “room” in the distribution system for workers to enjoy a greater command over real production and thus higher living standards without threatening inflation.

Since the mid-1980s, the neo-liberal assault on workers’ rights (trade union attacks; deregulation; privatisation; persistently high unemployment) has seen this nexus between real wages and labour productivity growth broken. So while real wages have been stagnant or growing modestly, this growth has been dwarfed by labour productivity growth.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

A fiscal deficit equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP is more stimulatory than a deficit equivalent to 1 per cent of GDP< even if we do not know what the structural and cyclical break down of the aggregate figure is.

The answer is True.

The actual fiscal deficit outcome that is reported in the press and by Treasury departments is not a pure measure of the fiscal policy stance adopted by the government at any point in time. As a result, a straightforward interpretation of movements in the actual outcome is difficult.

But it remains the fact – that quite apart from whether the deficit is coming from discretionary measures of the automatic stabilisers (cylical component), a larger deficit supports aggregate demand more than a smaller deficit.

To understand that point we need to realise that the actual fiscal outcome as being the sum of two components: (a) a discretionary component – that is, the actual fiscal stance intended by the government; and (b) a cyclical component reflecting the sensitivity of certain fiscal items (tax revenue based on activity and welfare payments to name the most sensitive) to changes in the level of activity.

The former component is now called the “structural deficit” and the latter component is sometimes referred to as the automatic stabilisers.

The structural deficit thus conceptually reflects the chosen (discretionary) fiscal stance of the government independent of cyclical factors.

The cyclical factors refer to the automatic stabilisers which 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 problem is then how to determine whether the chosen discretionary fiscal stance is adding to demand (expansionary) or reducing demand (contractionary). It is a problem because a government could be run a contractionary policy by choice but the automatic stabilisers are so strong that the fiscal balance goes into deficit which might lead people to think the “government” is expanding the economy.

So just because the fiscal balance 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.

To overcome this ambiguity, economists decided to measure the automatic stabiliser impact against some benchmark or “full capacity” or potential level of output, so that we can decompose the fiscal balance into that component which is due to specific discretionary fiscal policy choices made by the government and that which arises because the cycle takes the economy away from the potential level of output.

As a result, 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. As I have noted in previous blogs, the change in nomenclature here 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 construction 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.

This framework allowed economists to decompose the actual fiscal balance into (in modern terminology) the structural (discretionary) and cyclical fiscal balances with these unseen fiscal components being adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.

The difference between the actual fiscal outcome and the structural component is then considered to be the cyclical fiscal outcome and it arises because the economy is deviating from its potential.

So if the economy is operating below capacity then tax revenue would be below its potential level and welfare spending would be above. In other words, the fiscal balance would be smaller at potential output relative to its current value if the economy was operating below full capacity. The adjustments would work in reverse should the economy be operating above full capacity.

If the fiscal balance is in deficit when computed at the “full employment” or potential output level, then we call this a structural deficit and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is expansionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently. If it is in surplus, then we have a structural surplus and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is contractionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently.

So you could have a downturn which drives the fiscal balance into a deficit but the underlying structural position could be contractionary (that is, a surplus). And vice versa.

So the fact that the fiscal deficit is rising might actually indicate that the fiscal austerity program is more contractionary that the Government initially estimated and the automatic stabilisers (loss of tax revenue etc) are more than offsetting the discretionary cuts in net public spending.

But none of this is denying that a flow of net spending equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP is more stimulatory than a flow of net public spening of 1 per cent of GDP.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. regarding Q1 – JD Alt in his little book compares RB accounts & Bonds with cheque accounts & term deposit accounts. Of course the bond market is more complex but not a bad comparison.

  2. In regards to Question 1. I just have a query, I remember watching an interview with Mosler where he was discussing QE and that he described it as a contractionary fiscal operation (as well as a monetary operation), due to the fact that these types of government notes have a interest payments also, and that in buying the notes now this interest is being paid out to the consolidated government sector by itself, rather than to the private sector reducing future net financial assets on private sector balance sheets

  3. Hi Bill,
    I’m an avid reader of your blog. You may be interested in responding to the latest bitch slap attempt by Richard Holden, a Prof in the dark art at UNSW see where he trots out the old running the printing presses meme; but what disturbed me was the swipe at you personally and comparing confusing neo-chartalism with MMT. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of commentators responding who support the MMT principles so at least the message seem to be getting through to the populace, if not the academics. I think anyone interested would be delighted if you had the time or inclination to respond to the learned Prof who has gone in for some fairly shabby and unsupported hectoring of MMT. Cheers mate.

  4. Dear Malcolm (at 2017/01/19 at 10:37 am)

    I respond to the likes of Holden every day in my blog. I think his quotation from my work tells all:

    “the Federal government is not financially constrained and can spend as much as it chooses up to the limit of what is offered for sale. There is not inevitability that this spending will be inflationary and it does not necessarily require any increase in government debt”.

    Note “UP TO THE LIMIT OF WHAT IS OFFERED FOR SALE”. After that, any spending is inflationary whether it is private or public.

    Before that full capacity point is reached, the empirical evidence is strongly that firms are quantity-adjusters (that is, offer more products for sale) when new orders come into their sales department.

    Holden is just prattling an intermediate mainstream textbook which has nothing to offer by way of knowledge.

    best wishes

  5. Thanks for the response Bill and it was timely as I had at that very moment pen to paper, when you responded, so I included a quote as a clipped version of your response to the comments section of the Conversation. (I left out the colourful bits of course – but was sorely tempted to include them) as follows;

    “Whenever critics of MMT trot out the examples of failed African or South American countries I sense they have some difficulty in articulating a coherent and objective summation of MMT in relation to macroeconomic theory. These are not relevant comparisons as those economies have each failed for a variety of reasons, so suggesting their macroeconomic problems can be resolved by simply issuing more paper is really quite trite.

    MMT predominately utilises the sectoral balances modelling of the macro economy to underpin it’s works. I recall as a freshman in economics some thirty years past, this equation was the model utilised which was used to indoctrinate me in the dark art, so I’m struggling to understand why an economics academic of some standing would be suggesting that MMT is snake oil.

    I also note that the Professor quotes sections of Mitchell who issues daily blogs of his work which includes, but is not isolated to MMT so I went in search of these “quotations” only to find that they misrepresent what Mitchell is arguing. The “quotations” are just dot points which are supported and qualified throughout the articles. To quote these dot points without the supporting information is unjust. They are not proposed as maxims per se but merely form part of the commentary of what a currency issuing sovereign with a floating exchange can do, not necessarily what it should do.

    I contact Mitchell who kindly responded with the following, and I quote his response:

    “‘the Federal government is not financially constrained and can spend as much as it chooses up to the limit of what is offered for sale. There is not inevitability that this spending will be inflationary and it does not necessarily require any increase in government debt”.

    “Note “UP TO THE LIMIT OF WHAT IS OFFERED FOR SALE”. After that, any spending is inflationary whether it is private or public.Before that full capacity point is reached, the empirical evidence is strongly that firms are quantity-adjusters (that is, offer more products for sale) when new orders come into their sales department.” unquote

    I hope this provides some clarity to the concerns the author has expressed and would hope this corrects the record.”

    Please excuse my use of your words, but we rarely get a crack at these Neanderthals, so I couldn’t resist, but I did exclude the colourful. (which I enjoyed reading by the way!)

    Keep up the good work and again thank you for your response.

    I note the ABC ran a good article this morning comparing a JG and UIG, quoting your good self, which you may be aware of;


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