Japan’s growth slows under tax hikes but the OECD want more

The OECD yesterday released their interim Economic Outlook and claimed that real economic growth around the world was slowing because of a lack of spending. Correct. But then they determined that structural reforms and further fiscal contraction was required in many countries, including Japan. Incorrect. The fact that they have departed from the annual release of the Outlook (usually comes out in May each year) indicates the organisation is suffering a sort of attention deficit disorder – they just crave attention and their senior officials love pontificating in front of audiences with their charts and projections that attempt to portray gravitas. No one really questions them about how wrong their last projections were or that cutting spending is bad for an economy struggling to grow. All the participants just get sucked into their own sense of self-importance because the event generates headlines and the neo-liberal deception rolls on. The OECD needs a reality check on Japan, but it isn’t the only organisation that is pumping out nonsense this week.

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Japan will (yet) run out of money. Never!

A regular occurrence is the prediction of doom for Japan. Some minor upturn in Japanese government bond yields or a movement in some other irrelevant financial statistic relating to the Japanese public sector sends the financial press into apoplexy. The latest signal of impending bankruptcy being bandied about relates to the rising trend in foreign holdings of short- and longer-term Japanese government debt. This trend is explained by financial markets moving into less risky assets (in this case, Japanese government bonds) as uncertainty in other markets, for example the Eurozone, remains. However, the narrative then goes that eventually these purchasers will refrain from buying Japanese government debt and with the funding from the savings of the ageing domestic population drying up, the Japanese government will run out of money. Policy response? Cut fiscal deficits immediately through a combination of tax rises and spending cuts. All of which is nonsense and if the Japanese government follows the advice – there will be a 1997-style recession and public debt ratios will just rise faster than they are at present. It is better that we now all turn to the sport’s section of whatever news you read and relax.

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Japan thinks it is Greece but cannot remember 1997

Last week (August 10, 2012) the Japanese Parliament approved a bill to double the sales tax (from 5 per cent to 10 per cent) over the next three years. It is a case of déjà vu. We have been there before. The economy suffers a major negative private spending shock. The government’s budget deficit increases as tax revenue collapses. The outstanding government debt rises more quickly than in the recent past. The rising government deficit supports a recovery in real GDP growth. The conservatives start shouting that the government will run out of money, that interest rates will soar and inflation surge and life as we know will end. The government raises the sales tax and cuts back spending. Real GDP growth collapses, tax revenue falls and the deficit and debt ratio continue to rise. We are back in Japan in 1997 – but the only problem is that we are playing out the same story in 2012. The reason – Japan thinks it is Greece but has forgotten about 1997.

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Japan grows – expansionary fiscal policy works!

I have been noticing that a new narrative is coming out of the financial journalists acting as mouthpieces for various politicians and neo-liberal think-tanks around the place – along the lines that we have got it wrong – the debate now is not about austerity versus growth – but, rather, it is about structural reform and freeing up markets. The austerity is just a re-alignment of the public-private mix. I find that offensive but also odd – given that private businesses are being undermined at a rate of knots by the austerity and capital formation is stagnant (thereby undermining future prosperity). But amidst all this reinvention you still read the same scaremongering and mis-information along the traditional lines – austerity is good and the hope that increased spending can help is a pipe dream.

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Moodys and Japan – rating agency declares itself irrelevant – again

I have very (very) little time today and I am typing this in between meetings. There was a lot of non-news today – the news that pretends to be news and full of import but which in reality is largely irrelevant and just serves to flush out more nonsensical commentary from self-importance financial analysis (mostly located in private banks). Then the non-news commentary suffocates any sensible evaluation and in some cases governments are politically pressured to change policy in a destructive manner – fuelling the next wave of non-news. Today’s classic non-news was the downgrading of Japan by Moodys. Once again, a ratings agency declares itself irrelevant.

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Are they all lining up to be Japan?

Everyone is lining up to be the next Japan – the lost decade or two version that is. It has been taken for granted that Japan collapsed in the early 1990s after a spectacular property boom burst and has not really recovered since. The conservatives also claim that Japan shows that fiscal policy is ineffective because given its on-going budget deficits and record public debt to GDP ratios the place is still in shambles. I take a different view of things as you might expect and while Japan has problems it demonstrates that a fiat monetary system is stable and we should be careful comparing Ireland, the US or the UK to the experiences that unfolded in Japan in the 1990s and beyond.

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Household saving falls but private saving increases – Japan!

In recent weeks I have received many curious E-mails about Japan all asking the same question – if net exports are positive and households saving are in decline, how come the budget deficit is so big? It is a good question and the answer relates to developing a good understanding of the components of the National Accounts and the way they interact. As I explain here, the private domestic sector is increasing its saving in Japan but it is all down to the corporations sitting on huge piles of retained earnings and reducing their investment. What these trends tell anyone who appreciates the way in which the macro sectors interact is that sustained budget deficits are required in Japan and any move to austerity would be disastrous.

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Please note: there is no sovereign debt risk in Japan!

Sometimes you read an article that clearly has a pretext but then tries to cover that pretext in some (not) smart way to make the prejudice seem reasonable. That is the impression I had when I read this Bloomberg opinion piece by William Pesek (January 31, 2011) – Pinnacle Envy Signals New Bubble Is Inflating – which I was expecting to be about real estate bubbles but which, in fact, turned out to be an erroneous blather about Japanese debt risk. Please note: there is no sovereign debt risk in Japan!

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Japan … just wait … your days are numbered

I was reading this IMF working paper today – The Outlook for Financing Japan’s Public Debt – which was released in January and was on my pile of things to catch up on. The paper is now being used by journalists to predict doom in the coming years for the Land of the Rising Sun. As I note, the stark deviation of the Japanese experience with the predictions of the mainstream macroeconomics models has given the conservatives a headache. As an attempt to reassert their relevance to the debate, the mainstream commentators are inventing new ploys so that they can say – yes we agree that the facts in the short-run don’t accord with our models but brothers and sisters just wait for what is around the corner. My assessment is that they have been saying this for 20 years already. In 5 more years, they will still be disappointed and still prophesying doom. They are pathetic!

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Japan grows along with the hysteria

Today, the Cabinet Office in Tokyo issued the third-quarter Japanese national accounts data which showed that the economy has posted positive growth for the second consecutive quarter and is now motoring along at an annualised rate of 4.8 per cent (1.2 per cent in the September quarter). In the June quarter growth resumed at 0.7 per cent (2.8 per cent annualised) and so the recovery is getting stronger. Given they did not allow labour underutilisation of labour to rise very much (a large increase by Japanese standards but relatively small compared to countries such as the UK and the US, they should be able to absorb the jobless fairly quickly. But this will only strengthen the growing call for the government to cut back net spending. It is a case of denying what is staring you the face.

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Japan – up against the neo-liberal machine

I have been intrigued with Japan for many years. It probably started with the post-war hostility towards them by the soldiers who saw the worst of them. The Anzac tradition was very unkind to Japan and its modern generations. It always puzzled me how we could hate them so much yet rely on them for our Post-World War II boom. I also thought we owed them something for being part of the political axis that dropped the first and only nuclear weapon on defenceless citizens when the war was over anyway. Whatever, I have long studied the nation and its economy. So yesterday’s election outcome certainly exercises the mind. Will it be a paradigm shift or a frustrating period where an ostensibly social democratic government runs up against the neo-liberal machine? I put these thoughts together about while travelling to and from Sydney on the train today.

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ECB estimates suggest meeting current challenges will be impossible within fiscal rule space

In the recent issue of the ECB Economic Bulletin (issue 4/2024) there was an article – Longer-term challenges for fiscal policy in the euro area – which demonstrates why the common currency and its bevy of fiscal rules and restrictions is incapable of meeting the challenges that humanity and the natural world face in the coming years. The ECB article is very interesting because it pretty clearly articulates the important challenges facing the Member States and provides some rough estimates of what the fiscal implications will be if governments are to move quickly to deal with the threats posed. However, it is clear from the analysis and my own calculations that significant austerity will be required in areas of expenditure not related to these challenges. Given the current political environment in Europe, it is hard to see how such austerity can be imposed and maintained in areas that impact the daily lives of families. What is demonstrated is that the architecture of the EMU is ill-equipped to deal with the problems that Member States now face. The common currency and fiscal rules were never a good idea. But as the challenges mount it is obvious that Europe will have to change its monetary system approach in order to survive.

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I make a prediction about the relationship between US government debt and impending crisis

Over time we observe a pattern of idiocy in the financial press, where different fictions, dressed up as allegedly shattering propensities, are regularly cycled through in succession, each one getting headlines for a day or so, only to be replaced by the next sensationalised issue. So-called experts or corporate bosses are wheeled out and make horrendous predictions that one country or another is entering a catastrophe of its own making – too much government spending, too much debt, or some other policy position – is usually fingered as the culprit. None of the predictions ever come to pass and the media never follow up to reflect on why. They are too busy pushing out the next headline and the next issue, which, in turn, will be replaced by something else, and then something else, and so on, until the initial prophesy of dooms is recycled, despite failing dismally to engage with the real world when it was last aired. And this pattern has unfolded over decades. Who ever checks the veracity of the predictions? How does the reputation of these so-called experts survive continual failure? The problem is that most of us believe this fiction and elect politicians and accept poor economic policy based on the fictional world we live in. Anyway, I have a prediction … read on.

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The European Union has been designed and run to maintain the corporate interests of the elites – no surprises there

After the Far Right National Rally (RN) took the prizes in the recent European Parliament elections and seriously dented the electoral appeal of Emmanual Macron’s grouping, the French President decided to follow the British script and dissolved the French Parliament and called a snap election, the first round of which will take place on June 30, 2024 and the second round a week later. Far right parties also did well in Germany, Italy and Austria, but all the talk of a sharp swing to the right in Europe was overstated, given that in other nations, the Right vote was not as strong. The deals to give the European Commission presidency to VDL for another term were then in full sway. And within days we started to observe some strange behaviour in the bond markets with the 10-year bond spreads against the German bund rising sharply with accompanying warning bells from the mainstream politicians – some even venturing to claim in France’s case that it would experience a ‘Truss moment’ if Macron was not returned to office, despite his government floundering due to its poor policy making. None of this should come as a surprise. The European Union is the most advanced example of neoliberalism, given that the ideology is built into its legal structures and the institutions are required to enforce it. There are countless examples, of the main institutions – the Commission and the ECB – acting individually and together to drive political outcomes that they deem to be desirable from the perspective of maintaining the status quo. All the angst in the last few weeks about interference in the upcoming French election is really surprising given the track record of these bodies. The whole system has been designed and run to maintain the corporate interests of the elites. Pure and simple. The current situation is no exception.

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RBA denial about profiteering demonstrated they are just part of the ideological machinery supporting neoliberalism

In April 2023, the then governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia gave a speech to the National Press Club in Sydney – Monetary Policy, Demand and Supply = the day after the RBA decided to end (for a month) its rate hikes after hiking the previous 10 meetings of the RBA Board, the body that determines monetary policy settings. The inflation rate had been falling for some months by this time yet the RBA was still hanging on to its narratives that the rate hikes were necessary to “combat the highest rate of inflation experienced in Australia in more than 30 years”, despite, for example, the Bank of Japan holding rates constant and experiencing a more rapid decline in its inflation rate as the supply constraints abated. The RBA had vehemently claimed that wage pressures were mounting, which had to be curtailed and denied categorically that there was any profit gouging or margin push involved in the inflationary pressures. There was no evidence at the time to support their claims about wages and nominal wages growth has remained moderate since. However, there was ample evidence, both in Australia and across the globe that corporations were taking advantage of the supply constraints to push their profit margins out. A recent report released by Oxfam Australia report (June 19, 2024) – Cashing in on Crisis – demonstrates that profit and price gouging was instrumental in creating and sustaining the inflationary pressures. The RBA was in denial all along and demonstrated that they are essentially just part of the ideological machinery supporting neoliberalism and the extraction of greater profits at the expense of workers.

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Progressive journalists in Britain so easily become willing mouthpieces for mainstream economic lies

Imagine if you are a UK Guardian reader and wanting to assess the options for an almost certain victory by Labour in the upcoming general election. Your understanding of the challenges facing the next government will be conditioned by what you have been reading in that newspaper. Unfortunately, there have been a stream of articles purporting to provide informed analysis of the challenges ahead and the capacities of the new British government to meet them which make it very hard for any progressive reader to assess the situation sensibly. These articles promote the usual macroeconomic fictions about the need for tight fiscal rules that will help the government avoid running out of money as it tries to deal with the decades of degeneration created by the austerity mindset. It is stunning how so-called progressive media commentators have so easily become willing mouthpieces for the mainstream economic lies which have only served to work against everything they purport to stand for. Business as usual though. Sadly.

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IMF holds a religious gathering in Tokyo – to keep the troops in line

The IMF joint hosted a conference in Tokyo last week – Fiscal Policy and Sovereign Debt – and the continues its misinformation campaign on the ‘dangers’ of public debt. The conference claimed that it brought together ‘leading scholars and senior policymakers’ and upon examination of the agenda it was clear that there was very little diversity in the speakers. The organ started playing and all sessions sang from the same hymn sheet. That is how Groupthink works. Repeat and rinse, repeat and rinse, and, never confront views that are contrary to the message. Groupthink is about avoiding cognitive dissonance for fear that at least some of the ‘parishioners’ might lose the faith. The famous British economist, Joan Robinson likened mainstream economics to a branch of theology and these conferences that the IMF convene around the world are like evangelical crusades, to keep the troops in line so they can continue to keep all of us in line – for fear that we might all start seeing through the veil and discover the rotten core.

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Senior mainstream economist now admits central banks are not as independent as many believe

The UK Guardian published quite an odd article the other day (May 30, 2024) by Mr GFC Spreadsheet Fudge Man Kenneth Rogoff – Why policymakers are more likely to risk high inflation during periods of economic uncertainty – which essentially claims that economic policy has been conducted for several years by institutions that do not meet the essential requirements that are specified by the mainstream New Keynesian macroeconomic approach, upon which the institutions have claimed justification. If that makes sense. He now claims that the eulogised principle of ‘central bank independence’, which is a mainstay of the New Keynesian justification that macroeconomic counter stabilisation policy should be left to monetary authorities and that fiscal policy should play a supporting but passive role, no longer exists as policy makers have had to come to terms with multiple crises. Of course from an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective such independence never existed and was just a ploy to allow the governments to depoliticise economic policy making and thus distance themselves, politically, from the fall out of unpopular policy interventions. If it wasn’t the IMF to blame, then it was the ‘independent’ central bank for austerity and interest rate hikes and all the rest of it. Now we have a senior Harvard professor admitting it was a ruse and bemoaning the fact.

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The fiscal lunancy reaches peak levels this time of year

In the last week, as the Federal government comes towards next Tuesday’s annual fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’ although we don’t use that terminology around here, do we?) and the State Government’s are progressively delivering their own Budget Statements (they being financially constrained) we have witnessed the absurdity of the system of public finances that pretends the Federal government is a big household and that somehow monetary policy is the most effective way to deal with an inflation that is sourced in supply side constraints. Earlier this week, the Victorian government released a fairly shocking fiscal statement, which cut expenditure programs in many key areas such as health care (while the pandemic is still killing many people), public education, essential public infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, and more. Why? Because it built up a rather large stock of debt during the early years of the pandemic and is now in political jeopardy because the state debt is being weaponised by the conservatives who claim the government is going broke. Similar austerity agendas are being pursued by other state and territory governments although Victoria leads the way because it provided more pandemic support to offset the damage that the extensive restrictions caused. Meanwhile, the federal government is boasting that it is heading towards its second consecutive surplus, as unemployment rises, hours of work fall, and the planet requires massive investment to attenuate climate change. The madness compounds when we realise that around 85 per cent of all state and federal debt that was issued between March 2020 and July 2022 was purchased by the Reserve Bank of Australia – that is, effectively, by the federal government itself. If citizens really understood the implications of that they would never agree to the swingeing cutbacks in public expenditure and the user pays tax hikes etc, that have been justified by an appeal to the debt build up. Its just madness.

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COVID-19 myopia – it actually costs more to have no acute care protocols in place and more people die as a result

I regularly scan research output from disciplines other than economics that I think impacts on economic matters. On April 17, 2024, a new study from medical researchers at the Burnett Institute in Melbourne, working with staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, in Victoria published a pre-print in The Lancet – Admission Screening Testing of Patients and Staff N95 Masks are Cost-Effective in Reducing COVID-19 Hospital Acquired Infections – which continues to show that public health policy in Australia is failing and part of that failure is the myopia that ‘sound finance’ principles engenders. I have written before about this myopia where governments think they need to cut back on spending because they are ‘short’ of funding and end up having to spend more over time because the initial spending cuts cause massive (and predictable) problems. We have seen this phenomenon in many situations (several cases are cited below). This new research puts an end in my view to the debates about hospital and more general health practices in the Covid era and exposes how the lack of political leadership, a refusal to fund public education, and poor hospital practices – mostly due to alleged funding shortfalls – have turned Australian hospitals into death zones. And while the authorities are telling the public they are ‘saving taxpayers’ money’ the reality is that the pubic outlays to deal with the problems they are creating by this austerity will be multiples of what would be required to implement sound policy now and avoid those longer-term problems.

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