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The Weekend Quiz – December 21-22, 2019 – 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:

Start from a situation where the external surplus is the equivalent of 2 per cent of GDP and the fiscal surplus is 2 per cent. If the fiscal balance was to stay constant and the external surplus rises to the equivalent of 4 per cent of GDP then:

(a) GDP rises and the private domestic surplus moves from 4 per cent of GDP to 6 per cent of GDP.

(b) GDP falls and the private domestic surplus moves from 4 per cent of GDP to 6 per cent of GDP.

(c) GDP rises and the private domestic surplus moves from 0 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent of GDP.

(d) GDP remains unchanged and the private domestic surplus moves from 0 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent of GDP

(e) GDP falls and the private domestic surplus moves from 0 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent of GDP.

The answer is Option (c) National income rises and the private surplus moves from 0 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent of GDP.

This question requires an understanding of the sectoral balances that can be derived from the National Accounts. But it also requires some understanding of the behavioural relationships within and between these sectors which generate the outcomes that are captured in the National Accounts and summarised by the sectoral balances.

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 (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.

Consider the following Table which depicts two periods outlined in the question.

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

In Period 1, with an external surplus of 2 per cent of GDP and a fiscal surplus of 2 per cent of GDP the private domestic balance is zero. The demand injection from the external sector is exactly offset by the demand drain (the fiscal drag) coming from the fiscal balance and so the private sector can neither net save or spend more than they earn.

In Period 2, with the external sector adding more to demand now – surplus equal to 4 per cent of GDP and the fiscal balance unchanged (this is stylised – in the real world the fiscal balance will certainly change), there is a stimulus to spending and national income would rise.

The rising national income also provides the capacity for the private sector to save overall and so they can now save 2 per cent of GDP.

The fiscal drag is overwhelmed by the rising net exports.

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 (from the public sector) is more than offset by an external demand injection, then GDP rises and the private sector overall saving increases.

If the drain on spending from the fiscal balance outweighs the external injections into the spending stream then GDP falls (or growth is reduced) and the overall private balance would fall into deficit.

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

Question 2:

While tax liabilities are crucial to legimitise government spending, the resulting tax revenue does not fund the spending. However, it does cause unemployment.

The answer is True.

First, to clear the ground we state clearly that a sovereign government is the monopoly issuer of the currency and is never revenue-constrained.

So the question is not about the tax revenue per se but rather the role taxes play in the monetary system.

First, the imposition of tax liabilities in the currency the government issues creates a demand for that currency. Without those liabilities, there would be no particular reason why a government currency would become dominant.

Second, that is a different matter to the actual tax revenue that the government receives.

A sovereign government never has to ‘obey’ the constraints that the private sector always has to obey.

The foundation of many mainstream macroeconomic arguments is the fallacious analogy they draw between the budget of a household/corporation and the government fiscal balance. However, there is no parallel between the household (for example) which is clearly revenue-constrained because it uses the currency in issue and the national government, which is the issuer of that same currency.

The choice (and constraint) sets facing a household and a sovereign government are not alike in any way, except that both can only buy what is available for sale. After that point, there is no similarity or analogy that can be exploited.

Of-course, the evolution in the 1960s of the literature on the so-called ‘government budget constraint’ (GBC), was part of a deliberate strategy to argue that the microeconomic constraint facing the individual applied to a national government as well

Accordingly, they claimed that just as the individual had to “finance” its spending and choose between competing spending opportunities, the same constraints applied to the national government.

This provided the conservatives who hated public activity and were advocating small government, with the ammunition it needed.

So the government can always spend if there are goods and services available for purchase, which may include idle labour resources. This is not the same thing as saying the government can always spend without concern for other dimensions in the aggregate economy.

For example, if the economy was at full capacity and the government tried to undertake a major nation building exercise then it might hit inflationary problems – it would have to compete at market prices for resources and bid them away from their existing uses.

In those circumstances, the government may – if it thought it was politically reasonable to build the infrastructure – quell demand for those resources elsewhere – that is, create some unemployment. How? By increasing taxes among a range of other policy tools that are available.

So to answer the question correctly, you need to understand the role that taxes play in a fiat currency system.

In a fiat monetary system the currency has no intrinsic worth. Further the government has no intrinsic financial constraint. Once we realise that government spending is not revenue-constrained then we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light.

The starting point of this new understanding is that taxation functions to promote offers from private individuals to government of goods and services in return for the necessary funds to extinguish the tax liabilities.

In this way, it is clear that the imposition of taxes creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector and allows a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector, which in turn, facilitates the government’s economic and social program.

The crucial point is that the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are, ultimately provided to the non-government sector by government spending and/or via central bank provision of bank reserves.

Accordingly, government spending provides the paid work which eliminates the unemployment created by the taxes.

So it is now possible to see why mass unemployment arises. It is the introduction of State Money (government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economics that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment. As a matter of accounting, for aggregate output to be sold, total spending must equal total income (whether actual income generated in production is fully spent or not each period). Involuntary unemployment is idle labour offered for sale with no buyers at current prices (wages).

Unemployment occurs when the private sector, in aggregate, desires to earn the monetary unit of account, but doesn’t desire to spend all it earns, other things equal. As a result, involuntary inventory accumulation among sellers of goods and services translates into decreased output and employment. In this situation, nominal (or real) wage cuts per se do not clear the labour market, unless those cuts somehow eliminate the private sector desire to net save, and thereby increase spending.

The purpose of State Money is for the government to move real resources from private to public domain. It does so by first levying a tax, which creates a notional demand for its currency of issue. To obtain funds needed to pay taxes and net save, non-government agents offer real goods and services for sale in exchange for the needed units of the currency. This includes, of-course, the offer of labour by the unemployed. The obvious conclusion is that unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low to accommodate the need to pay taxes and the desire to net save.

This analysis also sets the limits on government spending. It is clear that government spending has to be sufficient to allow taxes to be paid. In addition, net government spending is required to meet the private desire to save (accumulate net financial assets). From the previous paragraph it is also clear that if the Government doesn’t spend enough to cover taxes and desire to save the manifestation of this deficiency will be unemployment.

Keynesians have used the term demand-deficient unemployment. In our conception, the basis of this deficiency is at all times inadequate net government spending, given the private spending decisions in force at any particular time.

So the answer should now be obvious. If the economy is to fulfill its political mandate it must be able to transfer real productive resources from the private sector to the public sector. Taxation is the vehicle that a sovereign government uses to “free up resources” so that it can use them itself. But taxation has nothing to do with “funding” of the government spending.

To understand how taxes are used to attenuate demand please read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory.

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

Question 3:

Some progressives call for bank lending to be more closely regulated to ensure that all bank loans were backed by reserves held at the central bank to stop another credit binge. However, financial market interests argue that this would unnecessarily reduce the capacity of the banks to lend and damage the economy. Both are wrong.

The answer is True.

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 hometo 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 but that is another matter.

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 blog posts for further information:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. It is not necessary to eliminate the possibility of bank lending in order to damage the economy. Making it more expensive or difficult to do might do that all by itself . One half of Question 3 says “However, financial market interests argue that this would unnecessarily reduce the capacity of the banks to lend and damage the economy.” That half doesn’t seem false to me- even I would recognize that making borrowing more expensive could reduce demand and damage the economy. And MMT argues that the capacity of banks to extend loans is mostly limited by the demand for loans by creditable customers. So reducing that demand by increasing costs actually does reduce that capacity to make loans.

  2. Question : when you say taxes create unemployment, do you mean this is the sole cause of unemployment or can there be other causes? For example: we can imagine a world where increases productivity through machines & automation would mean we could have income equaling spending but still have a portion of the population unemployed because all productive functions would be fulfilled but requiring less humans. Or am I missing something here?

  3. @Jerry Brown – my understanding of what it is saying is that reducing the actual capacity of banks to lend and reducing the ability/incentive of borrowers to borrow are two different things, irrespective of the outward effects.

    My take was that it is a nuance highlighting the actual core functional mechanics of the system itself versus versus various attempts that might be made to place constraints on that system – without changing how that system is actually functioning at it’s very core. That such a constraint is a result of policy-makers decisions and is not an intrinsic part of the system itself.

    It does seem like an important distinction to make so that it can be clearly understood what it is and is not that we are actually dealing with here – otherwise it might be argued that our banking system is indeed a fractional reserve system or something such, when in reality no such system exists.

    That was my take at least.

  4. Thanks Lefty. What you say makes sense. But Bill has often said that bank lending is constrained by the demand for loans by credit worthy borrowers. And that the economy is also usually (almost always) constrained on the demand side as it is rarely in full employment situations. So, in that context, regulations that would make consumer loans more expensive probably are going to reduce that part of aggregate demand and usually could damage the economy.

    Bottom line is if the MMT argument, in general, is right, and I think it is, then I am right also. If I am wrong then well, that wouldn’t be all that unusual. But I think I’m right (which is also not unusual).


  5. Dekin, I can imagine a world where almost all the private sector work that is currently profitable was carried out by machines. And therefore, there might be very few employment opportunities in the private sector. But profitable is not the same thing as productive. Many, many productive activities (activities that could be called work) are not profitable yet are still worthy of being done. But generally, the private sector businesses won’t do them since they are not able to make money doing them. No matter how advanced machines become in the future, there will always be productive activities that people can engage in- they just might not be profit making in the way we currently try to account for that. You just need to expand your definition of what work or a job is.

  6. Three out of three again this week but question one is doing my head in.
    I get it that the fiscal surplus stays a constant proportion of GDP so any increase in the external surplus as a proportion of GDP must induce and increase in the private sector surplus as a proportion of GDP.
    It’s what happens the GDP that has me befuddled.
    1. If you are at full employment you can’t produce more stuff for export or import substitution to sustain a rising external surplus, so doesn’t the increase in GDP end up as a purely inflationary phenomenon under these circumstances? That is real GDP must remain constant whilst nominal GDP rises.
    2. The private sector surplus is a net expenditure leakage from the economy (Keynes’ infamous paradox of thrift comes to mind). If the private sector surplus matches the increase in the external surplus, the why doesn’t GDP remain constant?

  7. Jerry,
    Tx for your reply. I of course agree with your point of view. But that is an MMT policy argument, not a general macro law. Bill seems to link (as a universal rule) unemployment simply to a demand deficiency. But it seems to me you could get unemployment without demand deficiency, simply because less human work is required. You could then, as you propose, adopt a policy solution consisting in the government paying people to do “non traditionally productive” activities, like surf or play guitar, or do nothing (as pushed by proponents of UBI), but these are policy solutions. The basic issue seems to remain that unemployment can arise from other causes than a lack of fiscal spending (government buying more boats or building more roads would not necessarily employ more people if the work was done by robots).

  8. Dekin, this is just my personal understanding of what MMT says about unemployment and taxes. As in it might be wrong and is probably not how Bill would describe it.

    MMT puts the problem of unemployment squarely on government policy choices. By choosing to implement a tax payable only in the government’s currency, the government creates the demand for that currency in the first place. Without the tax obligations nobody would want or need that particular currency. ‘Unemployment’ is defined as the inability to satisfy an individual’s demand for that particular currency through work despite that individual’s willingness to provide it. So while people may also be seeking things like food, or shelter, or any of the other things we work for to obtain through markets, the reason we work (or are seeking work in the case of unemployment) for that particular currency is those tax obligations that are imposed on at least part of the population in that particular currency.

    So MMT says if you are seeking the currency but not able to get it through offering your labor then the government is either not making enough of the currency available through spending, or it is demanding too much of it back in the form of taxes.

    So in this kind of framework and definition of ‘unemployment’ it would be possible that someone who is willing to exchange their labor for, say, a loaf of bread, but unable to do so, would actually not be considered ‘unemployed’ even though they might be starving , but the person who is only willing to exchange their labor for 1 million Dollars but wasn’t able to might be considered unemployed. Which is kind of whacky, but nonetheless, that is my understanding of the idea.

    Actually, after reading what I wrote here- I am absolutely positive that Bill would not explain it this way.

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