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The inflationary episode is being driven by profit gouging and interest rate hikes won’t help much

I have read an interesting reports in the last months that demonstrate there is a shift in thinking about inflation – away from the tired narratives that attempt to implicate excessive government spending, poorly contrived monetary policies (particularly quantitative easing) or drag in the usual suspect – excessive wage demands from workers. All of the usual narratives are very convenient frames in which those with economic power can extract more real income at the expense of the rest of us, who have little economic power. At least, we have been indocrinated to think we have no power. But, of course, if we could overthrow the whole system of capital domination if we were organised enough but that is another story again. Back to the inflation framing. While it was possible to argue that distributional struggle between workers (organised into powerful unions) and corporations (with obvious price setting power in less than competitive industries) was instrumental in propagating the original OPEC oil shock in 1973 into a drawn out inflationary episode, such a narrative falls short in 2022-23. The workers are largely disorganised and compliant now. The new thinking is starting to focus on the role of corporations – one term that is now being used is ‘greedflation’ – to describe this new era of profit gouging and its impact on the inflation trajectory. That shift in focus is warranted and welcome because it highlights the imbalances in the capitalist system and just another way in which it is prone to crises.

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Former Bank of Japan governor challenges the current monetary policy consensus

In the latest IMF Finance and Development journal (March 2023), there is an interesting article by the former governor of the Bank of Japan, Masaaki Shirakawa – It’s time to rethink the foundation and framework of monetary policy. It goes to the heart of the complete confusion that is now being demonstrated by central bank policy makers. With their ‘one trick pony’ interest rate attacks on inflation, not only have they been inconsequential in dealing with that target (the so-called price stability responsibility), but, in failing there, they have undermined the achievement of the other central bank target (financial stability) and probably worsened the chances of sustaining the third target (full employment). Sounds like a mess – and it is. We are witnessing what happens when Groupthink finally takes over an academic discipline and the policy making space. Blind, unidirectional policies, based on a failed framework, steadily undermining all the major goals – that is where we are right now. And not unsurprisingly, those who have previously preached the doctrine are now crossing the line and joining with those who predicted this mess. And, as usual, the renegade position is somehow recast as we knew it all along’ when, of course, they didn’t. When you get to that stage, we need music – and given it is Wednesday, I oblige at the end of this post.

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US inflation falling fast as Europe prepares to go back into a deliberate austerity-led crises

The transitory view of the current inflation episode is getting more support from the evidence. Yesterday’s US inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (March 14, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – February 2023 – shows a further significant drop in the inflation rate as some of the key supply-side drivers abate. All the data is pointing to the fact that the US Federal Reserve’s logic is deeply flawed and not fit for purpose. Today, I also discuss the stupidity that is about to begin in Europe again, as the European Commission starts to flex its muscles after it announced to the Member States that it is back to austerity by the end of this year. And finally, some beauty from Europe in the music segment.

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The current inflationary period is not remotely like the 1970s

In the light of recent debates about whether we are back in the 1970s, where the only ostensible similarity is that inflation has accelerated over the last year or so, I dug into my data archives to remind myself of a few things. One of the problems with dealing with official data is that it gets revised from time to time and time series become discontinuous. So the labour market data for Australia tends to start in February 1978 when the Australian Bureau of Statistics moved to a monthly labour force survey. Researchers who desire to study historical data have to have been around a while and have saved their earlier data collections (such as me). But it is often impossible to match them with the newer publicly available data. You will see in what follows how that plays out. But, I was also interested to return to the past today after the ABS released their latest – Industrial Disputes, Australia – data (released March 9, 2023), which shows that disputes remain at record lows. So in what follows I show you how far removed the current situation is from what happened in the 1970s and this renders the narratives from our central bankers a pack of lies.

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RBA is engineering one of the largest cuts to real disposable income per capita in our history

Yesterday (March 7, 2023) two big things happened. The first is that I got a lovely bunch of sunflower blooms for my birthday present. Which was ace. The second, the RBA Board wheeled out the governor to announce the 10th consecutive interest rate rise even though inflation has been falling for several months. The RBA has now become preposterous and the Government should definitely terminate the tenure of the Governor in September when his term is up for renewal. In the meantime, it should clean the RBA Board out, or introduce legislation that says each member including the governor gets the real disposable loss that they are imposing on the worker deducted in percentage terms from their own salaries. A further deduction would be made (quantum to be determined) for each percentage point the unemployment rate rises. That might give them pause for thought. The music segment will definitely lift your spirits after reading through the following gloom.

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Real wages in Australia continue to plunge but the RBA still falsely claims that wage pressure justifies interest rate hikes

The RBA governor has consistently sought refuge in claims that wage pressures in Australia are building and justify the central bank rate hikes – 9 consecutive increases since May 2022. The RBA has chosen to seriously mislead the Australian public on this issue and when confronted with publicly-available data that justifies that conclusion they claim they have unpublished data that shows a wages problem that is pushing inflation. They won’t publish that data, just as they won’t tell us what their secret meetings with bank traders a few weeks were about, except we saw profit taking from the banks increase immediately after the meetings. Today (February 22, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the December-quarter, which shows that the aggregate wage index rose by 0.8 per cent over the quarter and 3.3 per cent over the 12 months. Last week, we learned that employment growth had declined for the second consecutive month, while real wages continue to contract. Says a lot about mainstream employment theory that predicts real wage cuts will increase employment. This is the seventh consecutive quarter that real wages have fallen. There can be no sustained acceleration in the inflation rate arising from wages growth under these circumstances. Further with the gap between productivity growth and the declining real wages increasing, the massive redistribution of national income away from wages to profits continues. The business sector, as a whole, thinks it is clever to always oppose wages growth and the banks love that because they can foist more debt onto households to maintain their consumption expenditure. None of this offers workers a better future. Further, the conduct of the RBA in this environment is contributing to the damage that workers are enduring. While corporations continue to gouge profits, the RBA, like the schoolyard bully, has singled out some of the most disadvantaged workers in our society (low income earners paying of housing loans) and using them in their relentless push of mainstream ideology. This is a huge problem.

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RBA governor thinks massive bank profits are good while he wants unemployment to rise

It’s Wednesday and a lot is going on. The RBA governor appeared before the Commonwealth Senate Estimates Committee today and demonstrated what a troglodyte he is, defending massive bank profits and deliberately trying to cause unemployment. Meanwhile, US data shows that inflation has peaked and is now falling. The pace of the deceleration is picking up. Meanwhile – MMTed – is active and our 4-week course began today (see details below) and we are helping a new radio show to launch next week – Radio MMT. And we cannot go a Wednesday without some great music. All in a day.

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Inflation has peaked, the supply side is recovering, and the interest rate rises were for what?

So the IMF has come late to the transitory inflation party. What was obvious months ago is now at the forefront of IMF forecasts. Better late than never I suppose. It is becoming clear that most indicators are still not predicting a major demand-side collapse in most nations. Growth has moderated slightly and the forward indicators are looking up. At the same time, the inflation data around the world is suggesting the price pressures have peaked and lower inflation rates are expected. Real wages continue to fall, which means that the inflationary pressures were not being driven by wages. So no wage-price spiral mechanism at play. And PMI data and related indicators (such as shipping costs, etc) suggest the supply constraints which drove the inflationary pressures are easing. So has all this been the work of the interest rate rises imposed on nations by central bankers (bar Japan)? Not likely. The rising interest rates and falling inflation are coincidental rather than causal. Which means the damage to low income debt holders and the bank profits boom from the higher rates was for what?

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Bank of Japan continues to show who has the power

Its been around 9 months since the central banks of the world (bar Japan) started to push up interest rates. This reflected a return to the dominant mainstream view that fiscal policy should aim to support monetary policy in its fight against inflation and thus be biased towards surpluses, while central banks manipulated interest rates to deal with any inflationary pressures. The central banks would somehow form a ‘future-looking’ view that inflation was about to spring up and they would push rates up to curb the pressures. The corollary was that full employment would be achieved through price stability because the market would bring the unemployment rate to a level consistent with stable inflation. So full employment became defined in terms of inflation rather than sufficient jobs to meet the desires of the workforce. This is the so-called NAIRU consensus that has dominated the academy and policy makers since the 1970s. During the pandemic, it was abandoned and there was hope, particularly after statements made by the US Federal Reserve that this approach had unnecessarily resulted in elevated levels of unemployment for decades, that central bankers would target low unemployment as well as price stability. Progressive economists, of course, rejected the whole deal, noting that monetary policy shifts created uncertain distributional outcomes (creditors gain, debtors lose when rates rise) and also rising interest rates add to business costs which provoke further price rises. Anyway, after a short respite from this pernicious NAIRU logic, we are back to square one with central banks pushing up rates. The Bank of Japan is now standing, again, in the wilderness, resisting this logic and demonstrating how government should deal with the sort of pressures being felt around the globe. And who isn’t happy? The grandstanding financial markets who thought they could make a quick buck but have come up against an ideology that rejects their claim to dominance. That is a happy story.

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Australia – quarterly inflation rate declining

Today (January 25, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the December-quarter 2022. It showed that the CPI rose 1.8 per cent in the quarter (down 0.1 point) and over the 12 months by 7.8 per cent (up 0.5 points). So, the annual inflation rate in Australia was higher in the December-quarter, but, the quarterly rate was lower, suggesting that the current episode is losing steam. The major sources of price increases are temporary – overshoots on pre-pandemic travel and holidays, anti-competitive cartel behaviour and the War in Ukraine. These influences are supplemented by shortages of building materials due to bushfires and food price inflation due to the major floods. The correct policy response should be to provide fiscal support for lower-income households to help them cope with the cost of living rises at present. Increasing interest rates again will not solve the problem that is already abating.

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