The Weekend Quiz – August 11-12, 2018 – 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:

1. Which scenario represents a more expansionary outcome:

(a) A fiscal deficit equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP (including the impact of automatic stabilisers equivalent to 2 per cent of GDP).

(b) A fiscal deficit equivalent to 4 per cent of GDP (where the automatic stabiliser component is zero).

(c) A fiscal deficit of 2 per cent.

(d) You cannot tell because you do not know the decomposition between the cyclical and structural components in Option (c)

The answer is Option (a).

The question probes an understanding of the forces (components) that drive the fiscal balance that is reported by government agencies at various points in time and how to correctly interpret a fiscal balance.

In outright terms, a fiscal deficit that is equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP is more expansionary than a fiscal deficit outcome that is equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP or 4 per cent of GDP, irrespective of the cyclical and structural components and irrespective of the presence of the automatic stabilisers.

In that sense, the question lured you into thinking that only the discretionary component (the actual policy settings) were of interest.

To see the why Option (a) is the best answer we have to explore the issue of decomposing the observed fiscal balance into the discretionary (now called structural) and cyclical components. The latter component is driven by the automatic stabilisers that are in-built into the fiscal process.

The federal (or national) government fiscal balance 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 position is in surplus it is often concluded that the fiscal impact of government is contractionary (withdrawing net spending) and if the fiscal position 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 position 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.

Fiscal Balance = (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 position in a recession and contracting it in a boom.

So just because the fiscal position goes into deficit or the deficit increases as a proportion of GDP 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 uncertainty, 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. The Full Employment Budget Balance was a hypothetical construct 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.

So a full employment fiscal position would be balanced if total outlays and total revenue were equal when the economy was operating at total capacity. If the fiscal position was in surplus at full capacity, then we would conclude that the discretionary structure of the fiscal position was contractionary and vice versa if the fiscal position was in deficit at full capacity.

The calculation of the structural deficit spawned a bit of an industry in the past with lots of complex issues relating to adjustments for inflation, terms of trade effects, changes in interest rates and more.

Much of the debate centred on how to compute the unobserved full employment point in the economy. There were a plethora of methods used in the period of true full employment in the 1960s. All of them had issues but like all empirical work – it was a dirty science – relying on assumptions and simplifications. But that is the nature of the applied economist’s life.

As I explain in the blogs cited below, the measurement issues have a long history and current techniques and frameworks based on the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) bias the resulting analysis such that actual discretionary positions which are contractionary are seen as being less so and expansionary positions are seen as being more expansionary.

The result is that modern depictions of the structural deficit systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.

So the data provided by the question unambiguously points to Option (a) being the more expansionary impact – made up of a discretionary (structural) deficit of 3 per cent and a cyclical impact of 2 per cent. The cyclical impact is still expansionary – lower tax revenue and higher welfare payments.

Option (b) signals that the economy is at full employment.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

Question 2:

When the government matches an increase in its deficit spending with debt issued to the non-government sector, the immediate stimulus to aggregate expenditure is less than would be the case if the government didn’t borrow at all.

The answer is False.

Note the use of the term ‘immediate’, which is included so that you ignore any income flows that subsequently flow from any debt issued.

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. The writer fails to understand that government spending is performed in the same way irrespective of the accompanying monetary operations.

The textbook argument claims 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 to sell government bonds to the banks to soak the excess up and maintain liquidity at a level consistent with the target.

Some central banks offer a return on overnight reserves which reduces the need to sell debt as a liquidity management operation.

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.

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 blogs for more information:

Question 3:

If the central bank required that banks have to hold reserves equivalent to their outstanding loans this would restrict lending.

The answer is False.

In a “fractional reserve” banking system of the type the US runs (which is really one of the relics that remains from the gold standard/convertible currency era that ended in 1971), the banks have to retain a certain percentage (10 per cent currently in the US) of deposits as reserves with the central bank. You can read about the fractional reserve system from the Federal Point page maintained by the FRNY.

Where confusion as to the role of reserve requirements begins is when you open a mainstream economics textbooks and “learn” that the fractional reserve requirements provide the capacity through which the private banks can create money. The whole myth about the money multiplier is embedded in this erroneous conceptualisation of banking operations.

The FRNY educational material also perpetuates this myth. They say:

If the reserve requirement is 10%, for example, a bank that receives a $100 deposit may lend out $90 of that deposit. If the borrower then writes a check to someone who deposits the $90, the bank receiving that deposit can lend out $81. As the process continues, the banking system can expand the initial deposit of $100 into a maximum of $1,000 of money ($100+$90+81+$72.90+…=$1,000). In contrast, with a 20% reserve requirement, the banking system would be able to expand the initial $100 deposit into a maximum of $500 ($100+$80+$64+$51.20+…=$500). Thus, higher reserve requirements should result in reduced money creation and, in turn, in reduced economic activity.

This is not an accurate description of the way the banking system actually operates and the FRNY (for example) clearly knows their representation is stylised and inaccurate. Later in the same document they they qualify their depiction to the point of rendering the last paragraph irrelevant. After some minor technical points about which deposits count to the requirements, they say this:

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve operates in a way that permits banks to acquire the reserves they need to meet their requirements from the money market, so long as they are willing to pay the prevailing price (the federal funds rate) for borrowed reserves. Consequently, reserve requirements currently play a relatively limited role in money creation in the United States.

In other words, the required reserves play no role in the credit creation process.

The actual operations of the monetary system are described in this way. Banks seek to attract credit-worthy customers to which they can loan funds to and thereby make profit. What constitutes credit-worthiness varies over the business cycle and so lending standards become more lax at boom times as banks chase market share (this is one of Minsky’s drivers).

These loans are made independent of the banks’ reserve positions. Depending on the way the central bank accounts for commercial bank reserves, the latter will then seek funds to ensure they have the required reserves in the relevant accounting period. They can borrow from each other in the interbank market but if the system overall is short of reserves these “horizontal” transactions will not add the required reserves. In these cases, the bank will sell bonds back to the central bank or borrow outright through the device called the “discount window”.

At the individual bank level, certainly the “price of reserves” will play some role in the credit department’s decision to loan funds. But the reserve position per se will not matter. So as long as the margin between the return on the loan and the rate they would have to borrow from the central bank through the discount window is sufficient, the bank will lend.

So the idea that reserve balances are required initially to “finance” bank balance sheet expansion via rising excess reserves is inapplicable. A bank’s ability to expand its balance sheet is not constrained by the quantity of reserves it holds or any fractional reserve requirements.

The bank expands its balance sheet by lending. Loans create deposits which are then backed by reserves after the fact.

The process of extending loans (credit) which creates new bank liabilities is unrelated to the reserve position of the bank.

The major insight is that any balance sheet expansion which leaves a bank short of the required reserves may affect the return it can expect on the loan as a consequence of the “penalty” rate the central bank might exact through the discount window. But it will never impede the bank’s capacity to effect the loan in the first place.

The money multiplier myth leads students to think that as the central bank can control the monetary base then it can control the money supply. Further, given that inflation is allegedly the result of the money supply growing too fast then the blame is sheeted home to the “government” (the central bank in this case).

The reality is that the reserve requirements that might be in place at any point in time do not provide the central bank with a capacity to control the money supply.

So would it matter if reserve requirements were 100 per cent? In this blog – 100-percent reserve banking and state banks – I discuss the concept of a 100 per cent reserve system which is favoured by many conservatives who believe that the fractional reserve credit creation process is inevitably inflationary.

There are clearly an array of configurations of a 100 per cent reserve system in terms of what might count as reserves. For example, the system might require the reserves to be kept as gold. In the old “Giro” or “100 percent reserve” banking system which operated by people depositing “specie” (gold or silver) which then gave them access to bank notes issued up to the value of the assets deposited. Bank notes were then issued in a fixed rate against the specie and so the money supply could not increase without new specie being discovered.

Another option might be that all reserves should be in the form of government bonds, which would be virtually identical (in the sense of “fiat creations”) to the present system of central bank reserves.

While all these issues are interesting to explore in their own right, the question does not relate to these system requirements of this type. It was obvious that the question maintained a role for central bank (which would be unnecessary in a 100-per cent reserve system based on gold, for example.

It is also assumed that the reserves are of the form of current current central bank reserves with the only change being they should equal 100 per cent of deposits.

We also avoid complications like what deposits have to be backed by reserves and assume all deposits have to so backed.

In the current system, the the central bank ensures there are enough reserves to meet the needs generated by commercial bank deposit growth (that is, lending). As noted above, the required reserve ratio has no direct influence on credit growth. So it wouldn’t matter if the required reserves were 10 per cent, 0 per cent or 100 per cent.

In a fiat currency system, commercial banks require no reserves to expand credit. Even if the required reserves were 100 per cent, then with no other change in institutional structure or regulations, the central bank would still have to supply the reserves in line with deposit growth.

Now I noted that the central bank might be able to influence the behaviour of banks by imposing a penalty on the provision of reserves. It certainly can do that. As a monopolist, the central bank can set the price and supply whatever volume is required to the commercial banks.

But the price it sets will have implications for its ability to maintain the current policy interest rate which we consider in Question 3.

The central bank maintains its policy rate via open market operations. What really happens when an open market purchase (for example) is made is that the central bank adds reserves to the banking system. This will drive the interest rate down if the new reserve position is above the minimum desired by the banks. If the central bank wants to maintain control of the interest rate then it has to eliminate any efforts by the commercial banks in the overnight interbank market to eliminate excess reserves.

One way it can do this is by selling bonds back to the banks. The same would work in reverse if it was to try to contract the money supply (a la money multiplier logic) by selling government bonds.

The point is that the central bank cannot control the money supply in this way (or any other way) except to price the reserves at a level that might temper bank lending.

So if it set a price of reserves above the current policy rate (as a penalty) then the policy rate would lose traction.

The fact is that it is endogenous changes in the money supply (driven by bank credit creation) that lead to changes in the monetary base (as the central bank adds or subtracts reserves to ensure the “price” of reserves is maintained at its policy-desired level). Exactly the opposite to that depicted in the mainstream money multiplier model.

The other fact is that the money supply is endogenously generated by the horizontal credit (leveraging) activities conducted by banks, firms, investors etc – the central bank is not involved at this level of activity.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Question 2 and the answer completely answers my question from last week’s quiz. “It is totally fallacious to think that private placement of debt reduces the inflation risk. It does not.”
    Thank you.

  2. I scored 1. Don’t know. 2. Correct and 3. Correct. I was indeed lured by the red herring. Grrr.

  3. Bill said:

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

    A government deficit increases the net worth of and the deposits held by the non-bank private sector (NBPS). The issue of debt does not change the net worth of the NBPS but it does change the nature of the assets held by the NBPS. Deposits held by the NBPS have been replaced by debt securities. Deposits can be more readily “converted” to consumption than a bond/treasury. A bond/treasury could be used as collateral for a loan which could then be “converted” to consumption. The interest received for the bond/treasury would be offset by the interest paid on the loan (probably more so), so does not increase the ability to consume (in fact it might be marginally reduced). A lender may not also lend all of the collateral amount, reducing potential consumption.

    Is this correct?

  4. Henry, our little discussion began with this statement- “Except that that I don’t think MMT considers that debt issuance as practiced, by say, the US government, actually reduces demand in any real sense. And therefore it does not ‘create economic space’. ” The answer to question 2 pretty much settles that as to what MMT says. And when I said if the bond pays interest it might increase the buyer’s spending ability, I meant that as usually the bonds are purchased as a way of getting an income from them as opposed to savings held in cash which pay nothing. Usually increased income equals increased spending ability.
    And if I purchased a US Treasury, sure I might have to wait a small amount of time for the market to reopen before I could sell it to someone else, so in that sense it is slightly less liquid than my checking account is. But hey, if I paid for something with a check, the recipient would need to wait for my bank to open and the check to clear also. So I don’t think it “actually reduces demand in any real sense.”

  5. Jerry,

    Why would you buy a bond/treasury and then sell it? Seems perverse. Of course, circumstances can change.

    Anyway, if you sell the security, your deposits increase while the purchaser loses deposits.

    Back to square one.

    In the situation I described, deposits generated by a deficit have been replaced by a security. I can’t see how this does not reduce demand that might have been.

  6. Henry, if a commercial bank loans me $100,000 to start a business it is creating that $100,000. It is not taking someone else’s deposits and lending them to me, It is not reducing anyone else’s ability to spend. It is not even reducing the banks ability to spend or make further loans. If the bank finds that its reserves position at the Fed are short it will find the reserves in the inter-bank market, or it will borrow them from the Fed.
    When the US Treasury holds a bond auction there are a group of ‘primary dealers’ (mostly large banks) that are making bids on the issue and in fact they are required to make bids on the issue. The Federal Reserve always insures that any reserves required are available for this also. You can see that, at least at this stage, the bonds do not reduce potential demand in any sense, right?
    And why would these primary dealers buy a bond/treasury and then sell it? Seems perverse?- not to me it doesn’t. They know they are going to be making a premium on resale or they might even just hold the bond to maturity and reap the interest as income if the interest is higher than the rate the Fed is paying on excess reserves. Either way potential demand is not reduced and I think it is very similar to when a bank makes a loan to a customer.

  7. And Henry, suppose I already have a credit card issued from my bank with a $30,000 limit. That is pretty much an unsecured loan as it requires no collateral. Now suppose I approached the bank with a $100,000 ten year US Treasury bond and offered it for them to hold as collateral if they would up my credit card limit to $130,000. Is there any reason you can see for them not to accept that offer? They have turned a potential $30,000 unsecured loan at exorbitant interest rates into a potential $130,000 loan at exorbitant interest rates, but now it is secured to the face value of a $100,000 no risk bond. I think they take that deal. And once again, my potential demand is unaffected by the purchase of the bond.

  8. Jerry,

    I can’t see the relevance of your point about banks and bonds above. We’re talking about a government deficit increasing NBPS deposits then those deposits being replaced by securities.

    OK about the dealers – but this is a red herring – they eventually deal out of their position.

    Your credit card example makes sense but is hardly common way of doing business for the average man in the street. But then I will concede that the average man in the street probably doesn’t buy treasuries either. Those buying treasuries are probably investment funds and the like and the wealthy whose consumption will probably not be affected by the holding of securities. So on that basis you might have a point.

    So the argument will hinge on exactly who subscribes to the securities offered by the government.

  9. I enjoy your tests Bill but often feel that getting the answer right is dependent on assuming some latent premise that isn’t clear in the question. This means people walk away with a superficial understanding of the issues at hand. I accept that perhaps I am mistaken and this misunderstanding derives from the fact I understand the content less than yourself.

    Firstly you argue that “if banks were required to hold reserves equal to their outstanding lending” – and then go on to speak about banks holding reserves equal to deposits as if lending=deposits but as you know lending=/= deposits. Lending creates deposits but they are obviously not the same thing.

    In Q3 you argue that the reserve requirement has no influence on credit creation. Now this is obviously true if we assume that the central bank passively accommodates the demand for reserves in order to meet its target rate; but this is a latent assumption you only make clear in your explanation. The implications are quite different if we assume otherwise.

    For example, assume there is an increase (tightening) in the required reserve ratio and the central bank decides not to passively accommodate money demand, then the banking sector either has to shed assets as a whole or shrink lending in order to preserve the ratio of bank lending to reserves at the “desired” level. It seems to me, following the economic logic, that this would cause a rise in the inter-bank rate (as banks hoard reserves and supply evaporates) and wider market rates as a result.

    I think there is an obvious trade off between lending and reserves in other scenarios too:

    – 100% reserve requirements mean that bank lending is not elastic in the sense it would be in a fractional reserve system. Banks simply would not be able to extend as many loans.
    – Higher reserve requirements are a tax on credit intermediation. A bank which has to hold more of its assets as 0% yielding cash has a lower return. In all probability we would have fewer banks and a less credit intensive economy.

    Please correct me if I am mistaken.

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