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.
I had a sense of déjà vu this week when I read the latest release from Australia’s Productivity Commission – Advancing Prosperity – which was released on March 17, 2023 and is a five-yearly exercise conducted by the Commission on behalf of the Australian government. Frankly, if the government was looking to cut spending while advancing material well-being in the community, they could simply tell the Commission to cease doing this work and instruct the staff involved to get real jobs and do something that matters. We just get a regurgitation of GIGO, that well-practiced art of pretending to have something authoritative to say while one is grabbing money out of the till at a rate of knots to advance self-interest! The problem is that the ordinary citizen is ill-equipped to understand any of the technical hoopla that attempts to shroud these types of Report in ‘credibility’, and so is at a disadvantage when trying to determine whether they should support it through the ballot box. Neoliberalism relies on and exploits our ignorance.
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.
Today, I am over committed and have to travel some, and, luckily, we have a guest blogger in the guise of Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time. He indicated that he would like to contribute occasionally and that provides some diversity of voice although the focus remains on advancing our understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its applications. Today he is going to talk about the current concerns about the provision of regional banking services.
Anyway, over to Scott.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released of the latest labour force data today (March 16, 2023) – Labour Force, Australia – for February 2023. My overall assessment is that after two months of decline (some of which was related to abnormalities during the holiday period), the February result is much stronger. All the things one looks for improved – employment rose by 64,600 (0.5 per cent) with a bias towards full-time work; unemployment fell 16,500 to 507,500 persons and the official unemployment rate fell by 0.3 points to 3.5 per cent; and the participation rate rose 0.1 point Some caution needs to be observed though – the underlying (‘What-if’) unemployment rate is closer to 5.1 per cent rather than the official rate of 3.5 per cent, which indicates the labour market still has slack. There are still 1,343.2 thousand Australian workers without work in one way or another (officially unemployed or underemployed). The problem is that the RBA, which is intent on increasing unemployment in the misguided belief that the inflationary pressures are coming from the labour market, will hike further and eventually kill off employment growth.
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.
Last Friday (March 10, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – February 2023 – which revealed a slight dip in the number of net payroll jobs created and a slight increase in the unemployment rate. It is too early to say whether this marks a turning point in the US labour market after several months of interest rate increases. We will know more about that next month. January’s result was very strong, so a slight dip on that is no cause for concern. Most of the aggregates are steady and in terms of the pre-pandemic period, February’s net employment change was still relatively strong.
Real wages continued to decline in the face of a decelerating inflation rate. Overall, the US labour market is steady and doesn’t appear to be contracting fast in the face of the Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.
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.