Last Friday (April 7, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – March 2023 – which revealed continuing employment growth and rising participation with unemployment falling modestly. A good confluence of events. We have been looking for a turning point in the US labour market after several months of interest rate increases. But it hasn’t come yet. Indeed, it is going in the opposite direction to that envisaged by the Federal Reserve ‘model’, upon which they justify their interest rate decisions. Guess which is wrong? Most of the aggregates are steady and in terms of the pre-pandemic period, March’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 in the face of the Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.
It’s a holiday today in Australia and I am using the time to finish a major project so that I get started on the next (few)! I also published Episode 4 of my new podcast today. And I am listening to music so I can share that with you.
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.
It’s Wednesday and so I have a few items to discuss followed by some music. Many readers have E-mailed me asking about last week’s decision by the OPEC+ cartel to cut production of crude oil by 1.66 million barrels per day. Taken together with the previous cuts (2 millions barrels per day) in October, this pushed the price of oil up within a day or so back over $US80 per day. Many commentators immediately announced this would drive inflation back up and force central banks to go harder on interest rates. I disagree with those assessments. When analysing cartel behaviour (and OPEC+ is such an organisation), one has to distinguish between price stability and price gouging exercises. As I explain below, I believe OPEC+ to be engaged in a price stabilising activity in the face of anticipated reductions in global demand for crude oil. The risk is that demand will fall further than the producers expect and they will have to make further cuts. But even if the new price level holds, that won’t really trigger a new bout of accelerating inflation.
I was at the optometrist the other day getting my regular eye test and all the person doing the test wanted to talk about was whether we were heading into recession. I think he was toying with buying a new apartment to live in and was trying to assess risk with the rising interest rate regime and all the negative talk. I actually don’t like giving that sort of advice to people I am dealing with in that sort of relationship. But it is a good question – and there is evidence either way. First, it is clear that governments can always protect employment, incomes and business solvency with appropriate fiscal policy interventions. Second, it is less clear on what monetary policy does and that is the issue – eventually interest rate rises will cause certain sectors, such as construction, to encounter difficulties and start laying off workers and recording bankruptcies. But the problem is that monetary policy is such a crude instrument that the damage is done before we really can measure it.
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.