When I was in London recently, I was repeatedly assailed with the idea that the Liz Truss debacle proves that the financial markets in Britain are more powerful than the government and can force the latter to comply with lower spending and lower taxes. It seems the progressives have a new historical marker which they can use to walk the plank into conservative, sound finance mediocrity. For decades it was the alleged ‘IMF bailout of the Callaghan government in 1976’ when Chancellor Dennis Healey lied to the British people about running out of money and needing IMF loans to stay afloat. They, of course, never needed any loans but Healey and Callaghan knew the people wouldn’t know that and they used the fiction as a vehicle to keep the trade unions in a subjugated position. That lie has resonated for years and has been a principle vehicle for those advocating smaller government, more privatisation, and more handouts to the top-end-of-town while at the same time cutting welfare payments to the poor, killing the national health system, degrading public utilities, transport and education and all the rest of it. Well now that gang, which now rules the Labour Party in Britain has a new fiction – the ‘Truss surrender to the markets’. And the logic is spreading elsewhere with lurid claims emerging that the so-called bond vigilantes are saddling up to force the US government broke.
Today (February 28, 2024), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest – Monthly Consumer Price Index Indicator – for January 2024, which showed that the inflation rate steadied at 3.4 per cent but remains in a downward trajectory in Australia as it is elsewhere in the world. Today’s figures are the closest we have to what is actually going on at the moment and show that the inflation was 3.4 per cent in January 2024 but many of the key driving components are now firmly declining. The trajectory is firmly downwards. As I show below, the only components of the CPI that are rising are either due to external factors that the RBA has no control over and are ephemeral, or, are being caused by the RBA rate rises themselves. All the rate hikes have done is engineer a massive shift in income distribution towards the rich away from the poor. The slowdown the Australian economy is experiencing is largely due to fiscal drag not higher interest rates.
It’s Wednesday and I have comments on a few items today. I haven’t been able to write much today because the power has been down after the dramatic storms yesterday in Victoria damaged the network and caused absolute chaos (see below). Power is mostly back on now (which is why this post is later than usual). The US CPI data released yesterday showed that inflation continues to decline and the so-called ‘surprise’ that seems to have shocked the ‘markets’ are mostly down to the eccentric way the US Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates housing costs. The data provides no justification for further rate hikes in the US or anywhere else for that matter. I also report on an interesting survey from Japan regarding local attitudes to foreigners. I don’t think it reflects Japanese insularity although many will conclude otherwise. Then some Wayne Shorter.
Over the last few years, the RBA has been emphatically denying that price gouging from corporations with significant market power has been driving the movements in the inflation rate. They knew that if they conceded that reality then there would be no justification for the 11 interest rate hikes they have introduced since May 2022. It was obvious that firms were pushing up profit margins – that is, increasing prices beyond the increases in costs. Still, the RBA denied it and claimed that firms were facing wage pressures and excessive demand, which justified the interest rate rises, despite the evidence not being supportive. On Tuesday (February 6, 2024), a new study has found that there is massive price gouging across all sectors of Australian economy by corporations, many of them operating in sectors that were heavily privatised (for example, airlines, electricity, child care, banking). There is systematic profit margin push going on which has been a significant contributor to the persistent inflationary pressures. These findings strip the RBA of any justification for their unconscionable rate rises which have transferred billions to the financial elites at the expense of low income mortgage holders.
Yesterday (February 6, 2024), the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) released its so-called – Statement on Monetary Policy – February 2024 – which is a quarterly statement that “sets out the RBA’s assessment of current economic and financial conditions as well as the outlook that the Reserve Bank Board considers in making its interest rate decisions”. It accompanied the latest decision by the RBA, which held the policy target rate constant at 4.25. However, the Governor told the press that they had not ruled out further rate rises despite the inflation rate falling quickly and strong indications that the economy is slowing rapidly. Just yesterday, the ABS released the latest – Retail Trade, Australia – for December 2023, which showed that volume trade is down 1.4 per cent over the last year. In the September-quarter 2022, growth in volume was 9.8 per cent (a sort of pandemic overshoot after the restrictions were eased). By the December-quarter 2023, the volume growth was minus 1 per cent, the third consecutive quarter of negative volume growth. It would be totally outrageous for the RBA to consider further hikes. But it has become a rogue organisation and its statements reveal how deviant its reasoning has become.
The latest information from Japan suggests that in December 2023, its inflation fell sharply for the second consecutive month and that one might conclude the inflation episode is coming to an end. The Bank of Japan made the assumption that this supply-side inflation was temporary and would subside fairly quickly once those constraints eased. And they were right. All the other central banks somehow convinced themselves that the inflation was demand-driven and have been needlessly pushing up interest rates. The experiment is nearly over and I think it is clear that the Japanese path was the sound one. At that point, the New Keynesian academics and officials should resign. After that, as it is Wednesday, we have some music to soothe our souls.
This is an election year in the UK and unless something dramatically changes, the Labour Party will be in power for the next term of Parliament and will have to manage a poly crisis that they will inherit from 40 or more years of neoliberalism. Note, I don’t confine the antecedents to the Tory period of office since 2010 because the decline started with James Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1970s and then just got worse during successive periods of Labour and Tory rule. During that long period, there has been no shortage of economists and public officials predicting that the financial markets would soon reap chaos as a result of the public debt levels being ‘too high’ (whatever that means). The most significant chaos came in 1992 when Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate system, which it should never have joined in the first place. While all these economists are now pressuring the likely next British government to pull back on their promises to ‘assuage’ the financial markets, there is not even a scintilla of evidence to support their predictions of doom. And the Labour party leaders are too stupid to realise that.
Today’s post is a complement to my post on earlier this week – So-called ‘Team Transitory’ declared victors (January 8, 2024). Yesterday (January 10, 2024), the Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Monthly Consumer Price Index Indicator – for November 2023, which showed another sharp drop in inflation. The data are the closest we have to what is actually going on at the moment and it is clear that the falling inflation that began in September 2022 is continuing at a fairly brisk pace. The annual rate is now down to 4.3 per cent from 4.9 per cent in October 2023. The main driver of inflation over the last few years has been fuel prices and automotive fuel inflation has fallen from 19.7 per cent in September 2023 to 2.3 per cent in November 2023, due to global factors quite independent of domestic monetary policy. In fact, as the time passes we get a much clear reinforcement of the transitory narrative driven by supply factors rather than demand factors. This narrative has also been given weight by a recent research paper from the ECB – What drives core inflation? The role of supply shocks (published November 13, 2023). Overall, the data is now exposing the folly of the New Keynesian macroeconomic policy approach which prioritises monetary policy as the counter stabilising tool and has considered the inflationary episode to be due to excessive government spending.
On June 8, 2021, the UK Guardian published an Op Ed I wrote about inflation – Price rises should be short-lived – so let’s not resurrect inflation as a bogeyman. In that article, and in several other forums since – written, TV, radio, presentations at events – I articulated the narrative that the current inflationary pressures were transitory and would abate without the need for interest rate increases or cut backs in net government spending. In the subsequent months, I received a lot of flack from fellow economists and those out in the Twitter-verse etc who sent me quotes from the likes of Larry Summers and other prominent mainstreamers who claimed that interest rates would have to rise and government net spending cut to push up unemployment towards some conception they had of the NAIRU, where inflation would stabilise. I was also told that the emergence of the inflationary pressures signalled the death knell for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – the critics apparently had some idea that the pressures were caused by excessive government spending and slack monetary settings which demonstrated in their mind that this was proof that MMT policies were dangerous. Of course, they were just demonstrating their ignorance (deliberate or otherwise) of the fact that there are no MMT policies as such. MMT is an analytical framework not a policy regime. Anyway, in the last week, on mainstream economist seems to have recanted and has admitted that “Those who believed inflation would be transitory were proven right, and those who demanded the sacrifice of mass unemployment proven wrong”. For those E-mail warriors who think it is okay to send abusive messages to people you don’t know (or abusive messages in general) please do not send me apologies!
Today, I discuss a recent paper from the Bank of Japan’s Research and Studies series that focused on how much attention central banks around the world give to climate change and sustainability and how they interpret those challenges within their policy frameworks. The interesting result is that when there is an explicit mandate given to the central bank to consider these issues, the policy responses are framed quite differently and are oriented towards solutions, whereas otherwise, the narratives are about how climate change will impact on inflation. In the latter case, the central banks do not see their role as being part of the solution. Rather, they threaten harsher monetary policy action to deal with inflation. I also consider the most recent US inflation data. Finally, some live music from my time in Kyoto this year.