Today (May 17, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2023, which shows that the aggregate wage index rose by 0.8 per cent over the quarter (steady) and 3.7 per cent over the 12 months. The media are touting how strong the wages growth is but they should be focusing on the fact that Australia’s nominal wage growth remains well below that necessary to restore the purchasing power losses arising from price level inflation. Even though the inflation rate is falling significantly and nominal wages growth has picked up a bit, the problem still remains – real wages have now fallen for 8 consecutive quarters (2 years). 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. Further, the conduct of the RBA in this environment is contributing to the damage that workers are enduring. They continue to claim there is a threat of a wages breakout and so interest rates have to keep rising to create the necessary unemployment increase to prevent that from happening. It is just a ruse. The rising unemployment will be for nothing other than to repress real wages furthers. And meanwhile, the RBA interest rate hikes are driving up prices (for example, via the rent squeeze).
The – Washington Consensus – has been out in full force this week with the US Federal Reserve and the RBA increasing interest rates further despite all the indications that inflation peaked months ago and its downward trajectory has had little if anything to do with the ridiculous interest rate rises since early 2022. Both banks, along with most other central banks, are just thumbing through the New Keynesian textbook to get their direction and pretending to be capable of assessing the situation correctly. Neither the textbooks nor the assessments are remotely accurate and unnecessary pain is just being inflicted on low income mortgage holders. But the public barely know that there is a grand global experiment being conducted by central banks which allow us to reflect on the veracity of competing economic theories and approaches. Most central banks are hiking rates at present as a reflection of the dominance of the New Keynesian prioritisation of monetary policy as a counter-stabilising, anti-inflationary policy tool over fiscal policy. One central bank is not following suit – the Bank of Japan. The BOJ has not shifted rates, is maintaining its yield curve control policy and the government is expanding fiscal policy. The diametric opposite to the New Keynesian approach. We now have enough data to assess the relative merits of the two approaches. Japan has lower inflation, no currency crisis and its citizens are better off as a result of the monetary-fiscal policy initiatives.
It’s Wednesday, and we have a few observations on recent events including a music feature. But the main issue in the last 24 hours is the decision by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to add an 11th interest rate increase at a time when inflation is falling significantly. As I noted last week, the narrative is now shifting among these characters – it is all about inflation not falling ‘fast enough’ and they still claim a wages explosion is likely unless they get inflation down more quickly. It now appears to me that the RBA has lost the plot completely. I have written regularly about this in the last 12 months, but today I have been exploring new data which shows that rising interest rates create a vicious circle of higher inflation which then precipitate further higher interest rates. My recommendation is that the Federal treasurer should use his powers under the RBA Act 1959 and overrule the RBA governor and his board and freeze interest rates. We have to stop this RBA madness somehow!
Today (April 26, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2023. It showed that the CPI rose 1.4 per cent in the quarter (down 0.4 points) and over the 12 months by 7 per cent (down 0.8 points). The monthly data, also released today (which I do not analyse here) shows inflation dropping from 7.4 per cent in January to 6.8 per cent in February to 6.3 per cent in March. Significant downward trend as the supply factors abate. Taken together we conclude that the peak has now passed, which is consistent with my assessment that this would be a transient, supply-driven event. There are no wage pressures and inflationary expectations are in decline or steady. The laughable thing is that as the rate falls, the mainstream narrative, which continues to push for higher interest rates, has shifted from a focus on the inflation rate itself to the claim that it is now not falling fast enough. The claimed fears are now that the longer it remains at elevated levels the more chance there will be of a wage-price spiral breaking out and/or accelerating (un-anchored) expectations. Neither are likely given the situation before us and that leads to the conclusion that these interest rate boosters are just exuding hot air as usual. The major sources of price increases are temporary and in the March-quarter are the direct result of discretionary government administrative arrangements (indexation arrangements etc), which could easily be waived this year. 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.
Remember all the hype from central bankers last year and earlier this year about how they had to get ‘ahead of the curve’ with their interest rate hikes just in case wage demands escalated and inflationary expectatinos became ‘unanchored’. Over the last 18 months, I consistently noted in various blog posts that this was all a ruse to create a smokescreen to justify the unjustifiable rate rises – given that the inflationary pressures were almost all coming from the supply side and those forces were temporary and abating. Well now, the mainstream, having pushed for the rate rises and got their way are now backtracking to maintain their credibility by claiming there are no wage-price dynamics in sight. It is a dystopia.
Last week (April 11, 2023), the IMF released their half-yearly update – World Economic Outlook: A Rocky Recovery, April 2023 – which excited the headlines in the media with predictions of gloom and calls for fiscal austerity and more interest rate hikes. The only good thing about these reports every six months is the accompanying datasets, which allows for fairly quick comparative analysis across nations. Other than that, the textual narratives are pure mainstream economics Groupthink and demonstrate how if one starts from a particular and flawed set of principles, everything else that follows undermines the stated goal. This is a recurring story – we have seen this with these multilateral agencies over and over again. The point to understand is not to try to interpret these IMF reports as being knowledge-based or compiled as if they are pursuing knowledge. They are parts of the ideological weaponry that seeks to sustain and advance neoliberalism and the power relations inherent in that ideology while purporting to be expert commentary.
We start to see the absurdity of the current reliance on monetary policy as a counter-stabilisation tool, when you read the calls from the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member talking about the risk of a ‘significant inflation undershoot’. In a detailed analysis of the current situation, the external MPC member noted that inflation was falling faster than expected because the supply constraints were reversing quickly. She also noted that the interest rate hikes had now reached a point where unemployment was certain to rise and lead to, in the face of the supply reversals, to deflation. And that would require faster and larger interest rate cuts. Here is an insider admitting that the Bank of England is more or less gone rogue and out-of-step with reality. Overshoot at the top of the hiking cycle, swinging to a massive undershoot at the bottom. Absurd.
I regularly encounter mainstream economists who are confounded by the dissonance that the body of theory they have been working in introduces and then seem to think they have come up with new ideas that restores their credibility. The more extreme version of this tendency is called plagiarism in academic circles. But the less extreme version is to produce some work in which you conveniently ignore the main contributors in history but hold out implicitly that the ideas are somehow your own. As mainstream economics fumbles through this period where the fictional world they operate in and push onto students is increasingly being revealed as a fraud, several economists are trying to distance themselves from the train wreck by resorting to restating ideas that in a period past they would have criticised a ‘pop science’. This syndrome is an accompaniment to the well established ‘we knew it all along’ or ‘there is nothing new here’ defenses that are often used when new ideas make the mainstream uncomfortable. I saw this again in a recent article from the British-based Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) which discusses the way modern banks work – How monetary policy affects bank lending and financial stability: A ‘credit creation theory of banking’ explanation (March 20, 2023). The problem is that heterodox economists knew this from years ago including with the seminal work in the early 1970s of Canadian economist – Basil Moore. The other problem is that the CEPR authors choose not to credit the seminal authors in the reference list, which I think is poor form.
Today (March 29, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest ‘monthly’ CPI data – Monthly Consumer Price Indicator – which covers the period to February 2023. On an annual basis, the monthly All Items CPI rate of increase was 6.8 per cent down from 7.4 per cent. While this signals a sharp decline in the annual rate of inflation, it should be noted that for the last month, the growth in the All Items CPI was zero, a point ignored by the media. So expect to see a fairly rapid decline. Yes, it is proving to be a transitory episode and the dynamics have not justified the rapid interest rate increases we have seen.
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.