At present I am in transit in Dubai waiting to fly home to Sydney after a week or more away in Central Asia. I am definitely being careful to avoid any public swearing, which means I am not reading any economics or business reports in public spaces. With the worry that I might swear out aloud and get stuck here, I judiciously completed all my reading in the privacy (assumed) of my hotel room at the airport. Lucky. Imagine what would have happened if I had been reading this article – David Cameron’s tonic to snap us out of recession – out on the concourse?
Today’s meeting in Almaty will be discussing how the CAREC countries, that I are working with at present via the Asian Development Bank, can best achieve regional cooperation and integration. The region is very interesting and I will report more fully when things are more clear. But the challenges these countries face are exacerbated by the grip that market liberalism has on them. This is especially to be understood in the context of the Soviet heritage of most of these countries. There is a curious mix of past and present which makes market liberalism even more dangerous. So what? Well, I have been asked by many readers about Latvia, another former Soviet satelite. The deep crisis that economy is enduring is a good example of how market liberalism has failed. Yet, depressingly, the solutions proposed involve more of the same. Modern monetary theory (MMT) clearly offers an alternative and much more productive alternative recovery path.
I am feeling a little uncomfortable at present – landlocked. I am working in Almaty, Kazakstan, which is part of Central Asia and one of only 44 countries that do not have a sea edge. But it would be worse if we were in Uzbekistan which is one of only two countries that is doubly-landlocked. That means it is a landlocked country surrounded by other landlocked countries so I would have to cross two national borders to get to the surf! I will report on what I am up to over here in more detail at a future date. But even though this is a remote region, the Australian national broadcaster the ABC has tracked me down. They rang early this morning and want to talk about the Australian Treasury’s claim that unemployment fears are easing and skills shortages are now the threat to our economy – what? 14 percent of our labour underutilised and we are now back to the skills shortage debate. Anyway, the ABC has been on my mind overnight …
Earlier this week my professional association (which I decline to join) – the Economics Society (ACT Branch) awarded its inaugural Enemy of the State/Friend of the People award to a microeconomist for advocacy in defence of economics and its application to public policy. The stunt reflects the major historical revisionism that is now a daily occurrence and appears worse than anything that occurred in the communist states. Those who think they have an entitlement to make huge profits (helped by government guarantees) yet return to behaviour that brought the world economy unstuck are now in attack mode. There is denial, outright deception, constant hectoring. To redress this issue, I am now calling for nominations for the Modern Monetary Theory’s (MMT) Friend of the state, Friend of the people award. It will be awarded to all persons (we believe in collectives) who understand how our monetary system operates and how it can be managed via fiscal policy to serve public purpose and advance the welfare of the most disadvantaged.
I have been looking into underemployment data for Europe today as part of a larger project which I will report on in due course. But whenever I am studying European data I think how stupid the European Monetary Union (EMU) is from a modern monetary theory (MMT) perspective. Then I read the Financial Times this afternoon and saw that Diverging deficits could fracture the eurozone and I thought there is some hope after all although that is not what the journalist was trying to convey. This is an opportune time to answer a lot of questions I get asked about the EMU. Does MMT principles apply there? Why not? Is this a better way of organising a monetary system? So if you are interested in those issues, please read on.
I am researching a new book project at present. I plan with a (development economist) colleague to outline a new development agenda for low income countries. The imposition of neo-liberal policy agenda has artificially and immorally constrained development in the poorest nations. This paradigm is in denial of the opportunities forthcoming to a sovereign government to expand employment and national well-being. We intend to outline a modern monetary approach to economic development as a rival development paradigm. As part of this project, I was reading a research report released last week by the Centre of Economic Policy Research (Washington). The report shows that around 75 per cent of IMF agreements in the current downturn are pro-cyclical. That is we learn what we have always known – the IMF should not be allowed out without supervision.
Today I read an interview with Richard Koo from the Nomura Research Institute in Japan who is the touring the world promoting his views of why the fiscal stimulus packages are so important. His views are drawn from his extensive experience of the Japanese malaise that began in the 1990s. The interview was published in the September 11 edition of welling@weeden which is a private bi-weekly emanating from the US. I cannot link to it because you have to pay to read. Anyway, much of what he says reinforces the fundamental principles of modern monetary (MMT) and is quite antagonistic to mainstream economic thinking. It is the latter which is now mounting political pressure to cut the stimulus packages. Koo thinks this would be madness, a view I concur with.
With the debate now over (more or less) I caught up on my backlog of reading today. I store articles from all over in a database and then access them when I have time. So on this very wet Sunday, I was working on two papers for an upcoming field trip to Kazakhstan on an Asian Development Bank contract, and, in-between, I read some (so-called) analysis. The basic conclusion is that none of these economics journalists portray the slightest understanding that we are no longer living in a convertible currency system (ended in 1971) and that most national governments issue their own currencies within a flexible exchange rate environment. If a car mechanic tried to apply the art that was practised before electronic ignitions and computerisation to our cars they would go out of business very quickly.
This is the first of a few blogs that I will write about asset bubbles and modern monetary theory (MMT). The point came up this week in a comment posted by Sean Carmody in response to my blog – Operational design arising from modern monetary theory. It was also raised in the current debate about MMT and debt-deflation, which I will return to on Sunday. The proposition is that if the the central bank maintains a zero target interest rate then lending rates will be so low that there will uncontrollable asset bubbles. As long as fiscal policy is used sensibly I disagree that a zero interest rate policy is destabilising.
Today, I offer Part 2 of my responses to the comments raised in the debate so far. I am still about 40 comments shy of the total. In general, I thank Scott, JKH, Ramanan, Sean and others who have provided excellent interventions into this debate based on their knowledge of how the monetary system actually works rather than a stylised representation of it which leaves out the government sector and is liberal with the accounting conventions applied to account for asset and liability flows and flow to stock relations. But there still appears to be major confusions which I will try to address here.
It continues to amaze me how humans lock themselves into constrained debating positions on almost every topic imaginable. In doing so we stand in denial of our history and therefore operate in a sort of “current ignorance”. But also we deny ourselves the adventure of thinking laterally about how new ways of proceeding might help us solve our problems. So we are neither backward or forward looking but churn our debates around and around within a tight set of ideas which we presumably think is safe. In macroeconomics, the problem is that most of these “safe” ideas are based on false premises and actually expose us to on-going danger of the type we are witnessing in this current global recession. I was reminded of this again today when I was reading the latest New York Times debate about Saving the World, Without U.S. Consumers.
The OECD, the organisation that has spearheaded the abandonment of full employment in all its member countries since releasing the supply-side blueprint in 1994 – The Jobs Study, has now finally realised that things are very bleak in labour markets across the World and is saying more action is desperately needed. All their rhetoric in the last decade about making labour markets resilient and flexible through active labour market programs has not apparently stopped the major economies from going belly up.
Today we go into the kitchen cupboard for a lesson in macroeconomics. That is according to the main economics writer of the Sydney Morning Herald, which is published in a city of over 4 million people. The reality is that while we are encouraged to get our heads into the cupboard, all we succeed in doing is further obscuring any understanding at all of how budgets work and the opportunities and capacities of a sovereign government operating within a fiat monetary system. We were really scraping the barrel today!
This week’s Economist Magazine (print edition) is running a story Making fiscal policy credible – Bind games, continues the mounting conservative push for governments to return fiscal conduct back to the days before the crisis. The conservatives (except the really loopy ones) are begrudgingly being forced to recognise that the fiscal stimulus packages have saved the World economy from a total disaster. But after taking a deep breath they get back on track with the “debt is bad” “surplus is good” mantra that got us into this mess in the first place.
Today the retail sales data came out in Australia and showed a 1.0 per cent fall in the month of July and the beginnings of a declining trend (2 negative months in a row). Many economists are seeing this as a sign that the impacts of the fiscal stimulus packages have come to a screaming halt and all we have left for our troubles is a public debt burden that will kill our kids and pets. While the fall-off in retail activity is a problem I don’t think we are about to follow the US path into temporary oblivion. Further, debates about retail sales allow me to extend my Austrian theme. Attack dogs on the ready!
Many readers keep calling for my views on Austrian economics. Apparently when pushing what we might call the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) view they get hit with a barrage of Austrian school criticism along the lines that statism is dread and that by privatising everything you will improve the human condition. My first thought when I get E-mails like this is to wonder where my readers hang out in their spare time! I wasn’t aware that the Austrian school was anything more than a cobbled together bunch about as large as the modern monetary school (laughing). Anyway, I am taking the request seriously and as a start I present some background – some modern monetary armaments. We are going to war.
On July 8, 2009 a world first occurred in Sweden when the Swedish Riksbank (its central bank) made announced that its deposit interest rate would be set at minus 0.25. While this has set the cat among the pidgeons around the financial markets, it is a classic example of “central banking gone crazy” or more politely “quantitative easing on steroids”. The only problem is that performance enhancing drugs seem to make athletes ride or run faster. This move will do very little to make the Swedish economy increase output or employ more people. For a background to my analysis on this event in central banking history you might like to read my blog – Quantitative Easing 101.
I saw the latest Government Finance Statistics released by the ABS today just after I read the Financial Times where there was an article by former Cambridge Professor of Modern History, Peter Clarke entitled This is no time to throw away the crutches. There was a symbiosis in time. Then I read all the geeing up that is going on about rising manufacturing output in China and Japan and the News Limited themes that we have to get interest rates up sooner rather than later or the inflation genie will escape and I remembered the real world.
The media is increasingly reporting that the RBA will hike interest rates by the end of 2009. I consider this to be a nonsensical suggestion given that unemployment and underemployment will still be rising and it is unclear whether employment growth will be anything than near zero at that time. From a theoretical perspective, at the root of all the conjecture, whether the journalists actually realise it or not, is a concept called the “neutral rate of interest”, which is just another neo-liberal smokescreen. That is what this blog is about.
Strange events come together sometimes. One was the continuing railing against the ABC, our national broadcaster by the failed former federal treasurer. He somehow thinks the national broadcaster continues to display left-wing bias. The other event was an astonishing interview on a popular national ABC program where the content was about as far away from the sort of thing the failed former treasurer was railing against. The ABC program interview will have New Yorkers marching in the streets to defend the buildings of their famous newspaper. Here is how the events unfolded.