Yesterday (August 29, 2023), the incoming Reserve Bank of Australia governor was confronted with ‘activists’ as she prepared to present to an audience at the Australian National University in Canberra. They presented her with an application for unemployment benefits and had done her the favour of already filling it in with her name. It was in response to her dreadful speech in June where she said the RBA was intent on pushing the unemployment rate up to 4.5 per cent (from 3.5), which means that around 140,000 workers will be forced out of work. The problem is that even if we believed the logic underpinning such an aspiration, the actual empirical evidence doesn’t support the conclusion. Today August 30, 2023, we received more evidence of that as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest – Monthly Consumer Price Index Indicator – for July 2023, which showed a sharp drop in inflation. As well as considering that data, today I reflect on the latest JOLTS data that was released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday. The two considerations are complementary and demonstrate that central bankers in Australia and the US have lost the plot. To soothe our souls after all that we remember a great musician who died recently.
Yesterday, the – Flash Germany PMI – was released, which shows that “German business activity” has fallen “at fastest rate since May 2020”. Also released was the – Flash Eurozone PMI – which revealed that “Eurozone business activity contracted at an accelerating pace in August as the region’s downturn spread further from manufacturing to services”, Europe is heading to recession or should I rather say – stagflation – because the unemployment will rise sharply while inflation is still at elevated levels. All because the policy settings are wilfully and unnecessarily driving nations into recession. Over the Channel, Britain is going through a similar experience – inflation is falling rapidly and the economy is plunging towards recession. The common link is the policy folly. The European Central Bank and the Bank of England have been increasing interest rates as a ‘chasing shadows’ exercise – meaning that the drivers of the inflation they claim to be fighting are not sensitive to the interest rate changes. But the interest rate hikes are causing damage to the real economy by increasing borrowing costs. Meanwhile, fiscal policy is in retreat because the government thinks it has to set policy to complement the central bank hikes – meaning two sources of austerity. And for those commentators who pine for re-entry to the EU – they should look East and see what a mess the European economy is in!
I am in the final stages of moving office and it has been a time consuming process. And one of my regular research colleague, Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University, who occassionally provides blog posts here, sent me some research which he had written up in blog post form and with time short today, here is Scott’s latest guest spot. Today he is going to talk about a new analysis of financial insecurity that we are currently doing.
So in Scott’s words …
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest US inflation data last week (August 10, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – which showed that overall monthly inflation to be 0.2 per cent and mostly driven by housing. And, once we understand how the housing component is calculated then there is every reason to believe that this major driver of the current inflation rate will weaken considerably in the coming months. The rent component in the CPI has been a strong influence on the overall inflation rate and that has been pushed up by the Federal Reserve rate hikes.
The media and the phalanx of mainstream economists from banks etc, the latter of which have a vested interest in interest rates rising in Japan for various reasons, are constantly predicting that the Bank of Japan will relent to the ‘market pressure’ and reverse its current monetary policy stance and fall in line with the majority of central banks. While the concept of ‘market pressure’ is held out as some economic process – something inevitable to do with basic fundamentals governing resource supply and demand – it is really, in this context, just gambling positions that speculators have taken in the hope that the Bank will relent and reward their bets with stupendous profits. So last week, the Bank of Japan announced that it was changing its policy towards Yield Curve Control (YCC), which set the cat among the pigeons again. This is what it was all about.
We really get to see how absurd humanity can be when put in a neoliberal ideological straitjacket when we see serious discussion by serious and educated people about the government paying itself back for losses it makes by loaning itself currency that it issues as a monopolist. They conduct these conversations through the lens of complicated accounting structures that try to obscure what is actually going on and then invite political commentary from others that have no real idea of what is going on yet feel empowered or arrogant enough to offer all sorts of catastrophic scenarios about the consequences of what is essentially nothing at all. Once one sees through the nonsense it becomes clear that these ruses are just smokescreens for conservatives trying to cut fiscal spending and damage the prospects for those most in need of government support.
Today (July 26, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter 2023. It showed that the CPI rose 0.8 per cent in the quarter (down 0.6 points) and over the 12 months by 6.1 per cent (down 0.9 points). The annual inflation rate in Australia was significantly lower again in the June-quarter as the supply-side drivers abate. This was always going to be a transitory adjustment phase after the massive disruption from Covid and the exacerbating factors associated with the Ukraine situation and the OPEC price gouge. There was never any justification for the RBA pushing up interest rates. The correct policy response should have been to provide fiscal support for lower-income households to help them cope with the cost of living rises and wait for the adjustment after the disruption to come. The approach taken by the Bank of Japan and the Japanese government was the correct one and that is now clear even though the mainstream economists still cannot see past their textbooks.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a mainstream New Keynesian economist for a moment. We would never want to walk in them for long because our self esteem would plummet as we realised what frauds we were. But suspend judgement for a while because to understand what is wrong with the current domination of macroeconomic policy by interest rate adjustments one has to appreciate the underlying theory that is guiding the central bank policy shifts. The New Keynesian NAIRU concept, which stems from work published in 1975 by Franco Modigliani and Lucas Papademos is pretty straightforward. Accordingly, they define an unemployment rate, above which inflation falls and below which inflation rises. So that unique rate (or range of rates to cater for uncertainty of measurement) is the stable inflation rate – where inflation neither falls or rises. They called it the NIRU (“the noninflationary rate of unemployment”). So if the unemployment rate had been stable for some period, yet inflation was continuously declining, then they would conclude that the stable unemployment rate must be ABOVE the NIRU and vice versa. Apply that logic to Australia at present and you will see why the RBA’s claim that the NAIRU (the modern term for the NIRU) is around 4.5 per cent and this is why they are hiking rates in order to stabilise inflation at the higher unemployment rate. They are frauds.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have argued from the outset that using interest rate rises to subdue inflationary pressures may in fact add to those pressures through their impact on business costs. Businesses with outstanding trade credit or overdrafts will use their market power to pass the higher borrowing costs on to consumers. In more recent times, we have seen other mechanisms through which central bank rate hikes actually add to inflation. Regular readers will know that I have been discussing how landlords have been passing on higher mortgage costs in tight rental markets, which then creates a vicious cycle – interest rates up, rental costs up, CPI up because rents are a significant component, inflation rises, interest rates rise. Repeat. The tight rental markets are in part, a consequence of the neoliberal austerity bias, which has seen governments seriously underinvest in social (low income) housing. In recent days, we have witnessed another conflation of neoliberalism and destructive policy insanity. Earlier this month, Australians received messages from the companies that provide them with electricity announcing that the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) had approved price rises of between 19.6 per cent and 24.9 per cent in various East coast states. How did that happen, especially as world coal prices are dropping rapidly and are now below the pre-pandemic levels? And how does the bias towards monetary policy exacerbate this situation?
Yesterday’s US inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (July 12, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – June 2023 – shows a further significant drop in the inflation rate as some of the key supply-side drivers continue to abate. The annual inflation rate is now back to 3 per cent and dropping fast. The risk now is that the conduct of the Federal Reserve will drive the US into a deflationary period with rising unemployment. Given that inflation peaked in the third-quarter 2022, that wages growth has been relatively subdued, and inflationary expectations’ survey evidence suggests no-one really thinks the inflation was going to endure, means that the US Federal Reserve’s logic is deeply flawed and not fit for purpose. They have been chasing an obsession that exists in a parallel universe to the real world. The risk is that they will continue to chase that obsession and use the fact that unemployment has still not risen much to claim there has to be higher unemployment. However, hopefully, the 3 per cent inflation rate result yesterday will cut-off any wild claims that they have to get the inflation down more quickly or risk a wages or expectations explosion. All cant of course.