Saturday Quiz – April 10, 2010 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for yesterday’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 statement that lending is capital-constrained rather than reserve constrained would not apply if the banks had to maintain a reserve ratio of 100 per cent.

The answer is False.

This answer should also be read as being complementary to the answer in Question 3 below.

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 for reasons explained in the answer to Question 3.

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:

Question 2:

Any person on income support benefits provided by the national government are living off the hard work of those who pay taxes. We consider this is part of being a civilised society.

The answer is True.

This question explores the true relevance of the dependency ratio, which will rise as demographic changes age our populations. It also aims to disabuse the reader of the notion that the income support benefits are paid for by taxes that those in employment (and other income generating activities) might pay.

Initially, we have to be very clear as to what “living off the hard work of those who pay taxes” means. In this sense, it is not a focus on the “income” that the non-workers receive but the command over real good and services that that income provides them with. We will come back to the “funds” issue soon.

So the focus has to be on the real side of the economy because that is, ultimately, the only way our material living standards can be expressed. Nominal aggregates mean very little by themselves.

Income support recipients (who do not work – for whatever reason) clearly command real resources that they have not themselves produced. These real goods and services are produced by those who do work (and the presumption is that most workers pay taxes of some sort or another).

The use of the emotive term “living off the hard work” was deliberate and designed, as a foil, to invoke the idea that governments have created welfare states which provide unsustainable benefits to the poor and marginalised at the expense of those who are materially successful – the classic conservative argument against government welfare provision.

But it doesn’t alter the truth of the statement.

A slight complicating factor is that the income support recipients also pay taxes if there are indirect tax systems in place but that doesn’t alter the story about the provision of real goods and services.

Now the second part of the answer relates to the question of funding. In terms of where the funds come from to provide the income support for those who do not work the answer is simple: no-where.

While taxation raises revenue for national governments it doesn’t “fund” its spending. Currency-issuing governments can spend without revenue should they wish to.

Abba Lerner’s 1951 book The Economics of Employment was really a rewritten version of the 1941 article The Economic Steering Wheel where he elaborated his version of Keynesian thinking. He conceptualised macroeconomic policy as being about “steering” the fluctuations in the economy. Fiscal policy was the steering wheel and should be applied for functional purposes. Laissez-faire (free market) was akin to letting the car zigzag all over the road and if you wanted the economy to develop in a stable way you had to control its movement.

This led to the concept of functional finance and the differentiation from what he called sound finance (that proposed by the free market lobby). Sound finance was all about fiscal rules – the type you read about every day in the mainstream financial press. Sound finance is about balancing the budget over the course of the business cycle and only increasing the money supply in line with the real rate of output growth; etc – noting the approach erroneously assumes the central bank can control the money supply.

Lerner thought that these rules were based more in conservative morality than being well founded ways to achieve the goals of economic behaviour – full employment and price stability.

He said that once you understood the monetary system you would always employ functional finance – that is, fiscal and monetary policy decisions should be functional – advance public purpose and eschew the moralising concepts that public deficits were profligate and dangerous.

Lerner thought that the government should always use its capacity to achieve full employment and price stability. In Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) we express this responsibility as “advancing public purpose”. In his 1943 book (page 354) we read:

The central idea is that government fiscal policy, its spending and taxing, its borrowing and repayment of loans, its issue of new money and its withdrawal of money, shall all be undertaken with an eye only to the results of these actions on the economy and not to any established traditional doctrine about what is sound and what is unsound. This principle of judging only by effects has been applied in many other fields of human activity, where it is known as the method of science opposed to scholasticism. The principle of judging fiscal measures by the way they work or function in the economy we may call Functional Finance …

Government should adjust its rates of expenditure and taxation such that total spending in the economy is neither more nor less than that which is sufficient to purchase the full employment level of output at current prices. If this means there is a deficit, greater borrowing, “printing money,” etc., then these things in themselves are neither good nor bad, they are simply the means to the desired ends of full employment and price stability …

Mainstream advocacy of fiscal rules that are divorced from a functional context clearly do not make much sense even though their use dominates public policy these days. It may be that a budget surplus is necessary at some point in time – for example, if net exports are very strong and fiscal policy has to contract spending to take the inflationary pressures out of the economy. This will be a rare situation but in those cases I would as a proponent of MMT advocate fiscal surpluses.

Lerner outlined three fundamental rules of functional finance in his 1941 (and later 1951) works.

  • The government shall maintain a reasonable level of demand at all times. If there is too little spending and, thus, excessive unemployment, the government shall reduce taxes or increase its own spending. If there is too much spending, the government shall prevent inflation by reducing its own expenditures or by increasing taxes.
  • By borrowing money when it wishes to raise the rate of interest, and by lending money or repaying debt when it wishes to lower the rate of interest, the government shall maintain that rate of interest that induces the optimum amount of investment.
  • If either of the first two rules conflicts with the principles of ‘sound finance’, balancing the budget, or limiting the national debt, so much the worse for these principles. The government press shall print any money that may be needed to carry out rules 1 and 2.

So in an operational sense, taxation serves to reduce the spending capacity of the non-government sector to ensure that there is non-inflationary space for government to deliver public services. It doesn’t fund anything.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

Question 3:

A central bank can influence bank lending by charging an increasing price for providing its reserves to the commercial banks while maintaining its target monetary policy rate.

The answer is False.

This question is related to Question 1 and the answers are complementary.

The facts are as follows. First, central banks will always provided enough reserve balances to the commercial banks at a price it sets using a combination of overdraft/discounting facilities and open market operations.

Second, if the central bank didn’t provide the reserves necessary to match the growth in deposits in the commercial banking system then the payments system would grind to a halt and there would be significant hikes in the interbank rate of interest and a wedge between it and the policy (target) rate – meaning the central bank’s policy stance becomes compromised.

Third, Any reserve requirements within this context while legally enforceable (via fines etc) do not constrain the commercial bank credit creation capacity. Central bank reserves (the accounts the commercial banks keep with the central bank) are not used to make loans. They only function to facilitate the payments system (apart from satisfying any reserve requirements).

Fourth, banks make loans to credit-worthy borrowers and these loans create deposits. If the commercial bank in question is unable to get the reserves necessary to meet the requirements from other sources (other banks) then the central bank has to provide them. But the process of gaining the necessary reserves is a separate and subsequent bank operation to the deposit creation (via the loan).

Fifth, if there were too many reserves in the system (relative to the banks’ desired levels to facilitate the payments system and the required reserves then competition in the interbank (overnight) market would drive the interest rate down. This competition would be driven by banks holding surplus reserves (to their requirements) trying to lend them overnight. The opposite would happen if there were too few reserves supplied by the central bank. Then the chase for overnight funds would drive rates up.

In both cases the central bank would lose control of its current policy rate as the divergence between it and the interbank rate widened. This divergence can snake between the rate that the central bank pays on excess reserves (this rate varies between countries and overtime but before the crisis was zero in Japan and the US) and the penalty rate that the central bank seeks for providing the commercial banks access to the overdraft/discount facility.

So the aim of the central bank is to issue just as many reserves that are required for the law and the banks’ own desires.

Now the question seeks to link the penalty rate that the central bank charges for providing reserves to the banks and the central bank’s target rate. The wider the spread between these rates the more difficult does it become for the central bank to ensure the quantity of reserves is appropriate for maintaining its target (policy) rate.

Where this spread is narrow, central banks “hit” their target rate each day more precisely than when the spread is wider.

So if the central bank really wanted to put the screws on commercial bank lending via increasing the penalty rate, it would have to be prepared to lift its target rate in close correspondence. In other words, its monetary policy stance becomes beholden to the discount window settings.

The best answer was false because the central bank cannot operate with wide divergences between the penalty rate and the target rate and it is likely that the former would have to rise significantly to choke private bank credit creation.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

Question 4:

If unfilled vacancies fall faster than overall employment growth, then the overall labour demand will be:

The question was withdrawn because it was excessively Australian-centric and didn’t add much to anything.

This question was not a test of your understanding of MMT. Rather it was meant to be a test of the way unfilled vacancies (which is the term used by the Australian statistician to describe posted vacancies by employers) and employment interact to create labour demand in a labour market and the scales at which component of labour demand operate.

Overall, it wasn’t a very good question and to avoid wasting peoples’ time I withdrew it.

Question 5:

While a national government that issues its own currency is not revenue-constrained it is possible that the demands on the budget posed by the need to provide pensions and health care to an increasing proportion of the population will be impossible due to inflation.

The answer is True.

The question explores the real constraints on the provision of pensions and health care rather than the false financial constraints that the mainstream choose to make as the centrepiece of the intergenerational debate. So there is resonance in this question with Question 2 and the answers complement each other.

Governments in most advanced nations are facing a major medium- to longer-term challenge with respect the demographic change. A rising proportion of their populations will require retirement pension assistance of some kind and it is likely (but not inevitable) that health care outlays will also rise in line with the ageing population.

There is no doubt that dependency ratios are rising. The usual construction of the dependency ratio is as 100*(population 0-15 years) + (population over 65 years) all divided by the (population between 15-64 years). This clearly rises when the birth rate falls and the population remains alive for longer. In the blog – Another intergenerational report – another waste of time – I consider why this definition is inadequate.

The key point is that we are really wanting to focus on the changes in active workers relative to inactive persons (measured by not producing national income) over time, which the definition above clearly fails to do. So the effective dependency ratio recognises that not everyone of working age (15-64 or whatever) are actually producing. There are many people in this age group who are also “dependent”. For example, full-time students, house parents, sick or disabled, the hidden unemployed, and early retirees fit this description.

This depiction, is in itself, biased because it only focuses on activity in relation to being engaged in paid work. For example, major productive activity like housework and child-rearing is ignored by a focus on paid work only.

We should also count the unemployed and the underemployed within the “dependent” category although statisticians count them as being economically active. While dependency ratios will rise (however defined) if the population ages, governments have deliberately maintained perstistly high pools of underutilised labour resources and have therefore heightened any challenges that will emerge from the rising dependency ratios.

So the only relevant question about the ageing population and the challenges for governments relates to whether the rising dependency ratio will reduce the growth of production of real goods and services in the future and therefore reduce material standards of living.

The mainstream debate chooses to focus on the “financial” aspects of these projected changes arguing that they will imply rising budget deficits which they define as being unsustainable. Of-course, their use of the term unsustainable is circular – true by definition and without any application to a modern monetary system where the sovereign government issues its own currency.

Please read the following blogs – Fiscal sustainability 101 – Part 1Fiscal sustainability 101 – Part 2Fiscal sustainability 101 – Part 3 – to see what fiscal sustainability means.

The mainstream emphasis on “costs” of retirement pension and health care systems and how these “costs” will “blow the budget deficits out” demonstrate how far of the mark they are in providing relevant commentary.

The “budget costs or outlays” are financial not real constructs. Once a person enters the intergenerational debate in this way – financial rather than real – you know they do not understand the true nature of the issue they are discussing.

The relevant issue relates to real resource availability in the future.

There will be no financial constraints on any sovereign government running deficits in perpetuity should that be the appropriate macroeconomic policy setting (in relation to the behaviour driving the other sectoral balances). Ultimately, these deficits are endogenous which means they are driven by the non-government sector spending. If the latter wants to net save as an overall sector then the government sector has to run deficits for growth to be stable.

An ageing population will require choices to be made in relation to real resource trade-offs. Will there be enough real resources available? This is not a financial matter – it is a matter of whether there will be real goods and services produced in sufficient volumes for us and the government to buy in the future. If there are real goods and services produced in sufficient quantity to allow for adequate health care and pension entitlements (the former using resources, the latter commanding them) then the sovereign governments will always be able to afford to purchase them and provide them to our advantage.

How these real resources are distributed in the future becomes a political issue. The outcomes in the future will be resolved by political means in similar ways to now. But financial constraints will never be binding on a government with a political mandate to pursue high quality health care etc.

Clearly, if there are finite real resources then choices have to be made about what gets produced and provided. The question focuses on this issue.

If total spending in the economy including the rising pension and health care spending exceeds the real capacity of the economy to meet this demand with output then inflation becomes the issue.

To reduce the danger of this occurring in the face of rising dependency ratios, productivity growth is essential. This is why the neo-liberal approach to the problem which pressures governments to run budget surpluses now (erroneously characterising this as “saving for the future”) is so dangerous.

Resource availability in the future will be enhanced by the research and development that is done now. Mainstream remedies to perceived budget blow-outs typically manifest as cuts to education, for example. Nothing could be more stupid.

Further, maximising employment and output in each period is a necessary condition for long-term growth. The emphasis in mainstream intergeneration debate that we have to lift labour force participation by older workers is sound but contrary to current government policies which reduces job opportunities for older male workers by refusing to deal with the rising unemployment.

Anything that has a positive impact on the dependency ratio is desirable and the best thing for that is ensuring that there is a job available for all those who desire to work.

Further encouraging increased casualisation and allowing underemployment to rise is not a sensible strategy for the future. The incentive to invest in one’s human capital is reduced if people expect to have part-time work opportunities increasingly made available to them.

You might like to read these blogs for further information:

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Re: Q. 2.

    “Any person on income support benefits provided by the national government are living off the hard work of those who pay taxes.”

    You say that that statement is true. The problem that I have, as with many of your questions, is one of quantification or degree. That statement seems partially true to me, yet to answer the question I must choose between true or false.

    How much support is provided? If I get a college scholarship, that is certainly income support, but I may also make enough to live on with part-time and summer jobs. Whose hard work am I living off of?

    How much of the benefits is paid for by taxes? Zero, according to MMT, because taxes do not fund anything. Therefore none of the benefits comes from the hard work of those who pay taxes.

    Now, in real terms, the benefits are provided by somebody’s hard work. But they may or may not pay taxes. In general, some of them do. So the statement is, in those terms, partially true. The person who receives income support, on average lives to some degree off of the hard work of some taxpayers. Does that make the unqualified statement true? Aristotle would say no.

    Had you not mentioned taxes at all, things would have been clearer. I suspect that you mentioned them as a diversion, to attract wrong answers. But you also changed the meaning of the statement. To know what answer is in your mind, we have to read it. 😉

  2. Thank you for withdrawing question 4, since I thought the answer was opposite to what you gave. If employment growth were zero, and the population were likewise static, then a decrease in vacancies would imply lower demand for labor, i.e. falling labor demand. As you say, it is not terribly germane to MMT; vacancies is something of a shadow statistic, perhaps.

  3. Bill,

    something complete Off Topic: Met a friend on the weekend and he recommended Parentonomics from Joshua Gans. Should be fun? I just ordered the book and realized the guy is also Australian. So what’s your take upon him as a colleague academic economist and compatriot? Do I run any danger in heating his advice as father 😉 Many thanks and all the best. Stephan

  4. Dear Stephan,

    go to the above address to listen to an interview



    Parentonomics: Joshua Gans

    download audio

    Can economic principles be applied to parenting?

    One of Australia\’s leading economists and father-of-three, Joshua Gans, has given it a try.

    In his terms, rewards are called \’incentives\’ and punishments are called \’price\’ and he finds both can be very effective.


    Joshua Gans

    Title: Parentonomics – an economist Dad\’s parenting experiences
    Author: Joshua Gans
    Publisher: New South 2008

  5. Hi,

    All semantics, but…

    I also got #2 wrong because many paying taxes are not doing ‘the hard work’ of provisioning the rest of us.
    Particularly those of us in the financial sector who pay some taxes, and rentiers paying taxes.

    I also got #5 wrong because inflation rates per se don’t limit the ability to provision retirees, only limited real resources as you so well discussed.

    World’s finest blog, by the way!


  6. Shouldn’t rentiers and the non-working rich be included in the dependency ratio?

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