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Inflation is coming, well, it could be, or, it might happen, gosh …

One could make a pastime observing the way that so-called ‘expert’ commentators change their commentary as the data unfolds. As one rather lurid prediction fails, their narrative shifts to the next. We have seen this tendency for decades when we consider the way mainstream economists have dealt with Japan. The words shift from those implying immediacy (for example, of insolvency), to those such as ‘could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps’, ‘under certain conditions’ and more. The topics shift. The commentariat were obsessed with ‘this time is different’ during the GFC and the ‘debt insolvency threshold’ rubbish that the likes of Reinhardt and Rogoff propagated. That is, until they were sprung for spreadsheet incompetence. More recently, we have apparently forgotten how many governments were about to go broke and the mania has shifted to inflation. The data shows some price spikes earlier in the year which set of the dogs. Now, things might be shifting again. It is a pastime following all this. Short memories, no shame is the only requirement that is required to be a mainstream economics commentator. Prescient knowledge is not included in that skill set.

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Inflation rises in Australia – but transitory factors and natural disasters are the reason

Today, my on-going inflation watch turns to Australia, given the release today (July 28, 2021) of the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter 2021. The data is consistent with what we are seeing across many nations as supply chains are disrupted by the pandemic. Energy prices are adjusting back upwards and because the base from which we are judging these quarterly rises was lower as a result of price suppression during the downturn, the recovery in the pre-pandemic price levels deliver larger than usual price increases (when the base is higher). In Australia’s case, a major recent flood and a long drought before that have also complicated matters by driving up food prices. All these impacts are transitory. The CPI rose by 0.8 per cent in the June-quarter 2021 and over the 12-months to June 2021 it rose 3.8 per cent. But the key to understanding the trends in the data is to appreciate that the less volatile series were still rising at rates below the RBAs inflation targetting range – the Trimmed Mean rose just 0.5 per cent and the Weighted Median rose 0.5 per cent. So nothing to see here. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.

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The central banks don’t seem to be worrying about inflation

It’s Wednesday and I have been tied up most of the day with commitments. So we will have to be content today with a couple of snippets. The first about the on-going inflation mania and the way in which the ECB seems oblivious to it. The second about the gross incompetence of the Australia government, who has put the health of the nation at risk and forced state governments to invoke rolling lockdowns as only a small number of us are vaccinated and cases keep seeping out of a flawed quarantine system (the latter being the federal responsibility). And once the anger subsides from that little discussion, we have the usual Wednesday music offering to restore peace.

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New Australian inflation measures help us dig deeper into distributional consequences

On November 11, 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published a very interesting new experimental dataset – Non-Discretionary and Discretionary Inflation – which was derived from the standard Consumer Price Index data. It provided us with new insights and a richer knowledge of the impacts of inflation, particularly in distributional terms. Last month (May 25, 2021), the ABS published a followup article – Measuring Non-discretionary and Discretionary Inflation – which summarised some of the key findings. After receiving feedback, the ABS has refined the data series and will publish them on an on-going basis from the September-quarter 2021 as part of the “regular quarterly CPI release”. This new approach to measuring inflation will help us considerably assess the implication of wage movements on the real living standards of Australian workers.

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Rising prices equal an inflation outbreak (apparently) but then the prices start falling again

In my daily data life, I check out movements in commodity prices just to see what is going on. As I wrote recently in my UK Guardian article (June 7, 2021) – Price rises should be short-lived – so let’s not resurrect inflation as a bogeyman – the inflation hysteria has really set in. I provided more detail in this blog post – Price rises should be short-lived – so let’s not resurrect inflation as a bogeyman (June 9, 2021). Yes, I stole the title of my article for the blog post if you are confused. The inflation hysteria really reflects the fact that mainstream economists are ‘lost at sea’ at present given the dissonance between the real world data and the errant predictions from their economic framework. They cannot really understand what is happening so when they see a graph rising it must be inflation and that soothes them because rising deficits and central bank bond purchases have to be inflationary according to their perverted theoretical logic. The financial market press then just repeats the nonsense with very little scrutiny. But given many graphs are falling again, this Pavlovian-type response behaviour must be really doing their heads in. I have no sympathy.

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Price rises should be short-lived – so let’s not resurrect inflation as a bogeyman

It’s Wednesday and I am somewhat besieged. So just a few reflections today before we delve into our latest music offering. I had an Op Ed published in the UK Guardian today (my time) which analysed the latest inflation scares that have been dominating the popular media. More and more mainstream macroeconomists are coming out and asserting that economies will overheat. The usual gold bugs have been delighted by this shift in the narrative back to the obsessions and manias that keep them occupied on a daily basis. What was interesting to me was the responses of the commentators to the Guardian Op Ed. If the sentiments expressed represent the state of macroeconomic knowledge (presumably mostly in the UK) then we have a long way to go before Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the sensible policies that it might inform gain any serious traction. Given the GFC, the stagnation in the aftermath, 30 years of Japanese history, the pandemic, which have all combined to demonstrate why the mainstream approach is dysfunctional and provides no guidance to what might happen in the real world, the commentators continued to rehearse these failed ideas about inflation, interest rates, bond markets etc. Quite dispiriting.

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Criticism of failed economists is not cancel culture

Everybody is concerned with ‘herd immunity’ at present as the pandemic continues on ravaging our social and economic lives. But I have been studying the concept of ‘herd mentality’ for some years, aka – Groupthink. Mainstream macroeconomics is sustained, not by any internal logical consistency (on which it fails), by close congruency with the empirical data (on which it fails), which are the usual qualities of a dominant system of ideas, but, rather, by (using modern terminology) its long-standing and on-going cancel culture. So it is rather amusing to read one of the leading voices in that paradigm, Kenneth ‘Spreadsheet’ Rogoff, whinging on the Internet that ‘cancel culture’ is being used to undermine the reputations of one of his mates (Larry Summers). Both continue to get platforms in the world media without trouble to push their vapid ideas into the narrative. The antithesis of cancel culture it would seem. What is going on is that more people are realising that the prognostications of mainstream macroeconomics are deeply flawed, and, while many may not know the technicalities and the theoretical complexities, they can see the empirical dissonance, and that means they know a – lemon – when they see one. And social media has given more people a voice and they are using that to call these characters out for what they are. And the sense of invulnerability that pervades all disciplines riddled with Groupthink is being questioned.

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The inflation mania is growing – but manias are manias

The other day I gave a talk to the ‘investment’ community in Melbourne and they wanted to talk a lot about inflation, which seems to be their foremost concern at the moment. Tomorrow, I am giving a similar presentation in Sydney and I expect a similar line of questioning. Think about it. Wages growth is projected to be so low over the next several years that real wages will decline for at least 3 to 4 years. The Output gaps are still significant and were significant even before the pandemic. Households were already cutting back consumption spending growth, given record levels of indebtedness and no prospect of wages growth. Where pray tell are the inflationary pressures going to come from? I also keep reading of similar fears from economists and central bankers. The latest I saw came from Britain, where the outgoing chief economist from the Bank of England started beating on the inflation drum. There are some areas of our economies that will experience price pressures in the coming period given the disruptions in supply and various administrative pricing decisions by governments (reversing pandemic assistance in areas like rents, energy, child care etc). But these pressures in some segments of the economy are unlikely to instigate a major shift to high generalised inflation rates because the capacity of workers to defend their real wages is diminished now. Fiscal policy has a long way to go yet in reducing unemployment and underemployment from their elevated levels before that capacity becomes functional again.

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No inflationary trends evident in Australia – latest data

I have been seeing a lot of crazy predictions that inflation is about to accelerate because of the elevated levels of government spending, record low interest rates and substantial government bond purchases by the Reserve Bank of Australia. It is almost as if the conservative, deficit-haters want that to happen so they can say “We told you so” as they cling on to their flawed macroeconomic theories. Well sorry to disappoint. Today (April 27, 2021), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2021, which hoses down the inflation fears. The Consumer Price Index rose by just 0.6 per cent in the quarter (mostly petrol prices) and over the 12-months to March 2021 it rose 1.1 per cent. The less volatile series, Trimmed Mean rose just 0.3 per cent and the Weighted Median rose 0.4 per cent. So nothing to see here. The RBA keeps buying government debt and effectively funding substantial proportions of the fiscal interventions since the pandemic, interest rates remain low and yet inflation is still well below the lower bound of the RBA’s inflation targetting range. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.

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Central bank at odds with Australian treasury – again

It’s Wednesday and a blog-light day as usual combined with some great jazz. But it is worth commenting briefly on yesterday’s monetary policy decision, which saw the Reserve Bank of Australia hold its policy rate at the record low of 0.1 per cent. That was no surprise. Mildly surprising given all the hype about the size of the public debt at present was the RBA’s decision to expand its asset purchasing program by an addition $A100 billion. In effect, the RBA is doing what many central banks are now doing – buying up the debt that has been issued to match (not fund) the expansion of fiscal deficits by governments as they try to deal with the negative consequences of the pandemic. While all this has helped the Australian economy record the disastrous economic impacts of the virus the state of affairs is still very poor. And the RBA knows that and is urging extending fiscal and monetary policy support until “at least” 2024. Yet, the Federal government is starting to talk about cutting fiscal support next month. This tension in aggregate policy was evident before the crisis. And it has been a global tension. The neoliberals haven’t disappeared. Austerity is in the wind. More struggle is necessary.

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