Greetings from Amsterdam where I am spending the next few days talking about what drives spatial changes in unemployment at a Tinbergen Institute regional science workshop. The spatial econometric work that I am outlining tomorrow provides the conceptual framework for the construction of the Employment Vulnerability Index, which received a lot of press earlier in the year. But while I was flying over here I thought about the concept of fiscal sustainability which is now getting a lot of press. So this is the first of a multi-part series on what constitutes a sustainable fiscal policy. Its that time again. Time to debrief!
The talk at present is that while we are hoping for a V we might have to accept a W. Its all about shape. The shape of the future. The shape of the recovery! In Post-Lehman World Will Mean W-Shaped Recoveries we read that Japan’s former economic and fiscal policy minister, Hiroko Ota said that “The worst is over but I can’t say the economy is heading for a recovery at all”, Japan’s recovery may be W-shaped instead of V-shaped. There are some very real reasons why W might rule over V. They all relate to the lack of understanding of the characteristics of a fiat monetary system and the opportunities that such a system presents the sovereign government. Unfortunately, the ignorance (or wilful neglect) among policy makers may force millions of people to endure unnecessary hardship.
The euphoria over a 0.4 quarterly growth figure which translate into annualised GDP growth being at least 2.5 per cent less than would be required to keep the unemployment rate from rising should be attenuated by the fact that National Accounts data is very slow to come out. The picture it paints which conditions our current expectations and debates is old – at least 3 months old by definition. And it is sobering when amidst all the self-congratulation and applause for our strong export performance that newer data has come out today which suggests that GDP growth is probably now negative although we won’t find that out for three more months. Meanwhile the debt and deficits argument continues in the public debate. Here is an update.
I was going to write about retail sales and company profits data today but the short story is that retail sales continue to defy the predictions (stimulus packages work). I ran a regression model today to generate a (reasonable) forecasting model of retail sales behaviour up to the point the stimulus packages were announced (November 2008) and then projected out to April 2009 and compared the dynamic trend with the actual data. Every data point since November 2008 is above the trend (which is why the ABS has abandoned its trend series for the time being). But it does tell you that the Australian economy is withstanding the world downturn. We will know more on Wednesday, when the national accounts (GDP) data comes out. Anyway, there has been more engagement with the “other side” or should I say “another side” today and I guess I should respond to that. And so the saga continues for another day.
It is interesting when a local journalist exploits the work of a foreign journalist to perpetuate neo-liberal myths about the way the modern monetary economy works without any critical scrutiny of the underlying ideas that he is mimicking. So we have one US journalist reiterating the views of a so-called “top US policy maker” without critical scrutiny then being copied a few days later by a senior Australian journalist who also doesn’t bother to question whether the underlying economics being fed to his readers makes any sense at all. Pretty poor really – the power of the conservative press!
In the Sydney Morning Herald print edition today (later found in the Tapei Times there was an interesting article – Japan pays a price for lifetime jobs about the way the Japanese are coping with the recession. The story documents the Japanese life-time employment approach which explains why that country can have lower unemployment rates even though its economy is contracting fast. However, once you think about his scheme you realise that it is not without problems. The sentiment and collective will is admirable. But there is a superior buffer stock approach available which also embraces these social values but delivers better outcomes overall – I call it the Job Guarantee.
I read the headline – Aussies don’t understand deficits: MP – in the Canberra Times with interest and after reading the article I returned to the on-going conversation I have with myself – why have we all been so stupid to have been so duped by the neo-liberal agenda? Almost all the public debate about the Federal Budget tomorrow is a total non sequitur. It bears no relation to the important questions that the Budget process has to deal with. Somehow, we are all sidelined by a rhetoric and a focus that conveniently diverts us away from these real issues and, instead, transfixes us on a piece of fiction. But a convenient fiction which maintains the relative power elites and perpetuates disadvantage. I understand all of that … but I still can’t get my head around why we have allowed ourselves to be so conned.
Today I have been working on a project for the Asian Development Bank concerning regional development and macroeconomic risk management in the Central Asian countries (all the “stans” plus a few others). I have also been reading a lot of the development economics literature lately, which is generally a place that the neo-liberal troglodytes really run amok. It certainly focuses one’s attention. In the advanced countries the media focuses on our own losses. In Australia, a lot is written about superannuation losses. And journalists, who largely ignored the fact that during the boom we still had around 10 per cent of our willing workers without enough work – wasted and excluded, are once again talking about unemployment. But overall, the public debate is not at all focused on how the current economic crisis is damaging the weakest of the weak in far off lands and killing people.
Everyday brings surprises as a social science researcher. Today I was gearing myself up for the lunchtime current affairs radio onslaught from the budget nazis – “see unemployment is still rising and stimulus doesn’t work” – that sort of thing. But then at 11.30 (or just after) I looked up today’s Labour Force data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and was … to say the least … surprised. Here is what I was expecting – the labour participation rate would fall a little and unemployment to continue rising. I expected full-time employment to fall and perhaps part-time employment to rise a little but for total employment overall to fall. However, given three other pieces of information, two of which were released yesterday, I was thinking that all these “bad movements” would be fairly moderate in size. So a surprise indeed but … we should be careful before we get too carried away.
The discussion about the relative merits of monetary policy and fiscal policy is on-going. A regular billy blog reader has asked me to give some thought to this discussion, specifically in terms of whether monetary policy is a useful counter-stabilisation option. My view is that if one takes a modern monetary perspective then it is clear that the current reliance on monetary policy (accompanied by the budget deficit phobia) will always fail to deliver full employment and relies on the impoverishment of the disadvantaged for its ability to achieve low inflation. Accordingly, it would be far better for the government to set the short-term interest rate at zero and achieve full employment through appropriate levels of net spending (fiscal deficits).
In today’s Melbourne Age we learn very clearly that the previous Federal Treasurer didn’t have much idea at all about how the economy actually works. While he continues to promote his years in office as the great period of fiscal rectitude, the reality is that after 11 years at the wheel he still failed to create full employment. His Treasury years, in fact, will be remembered for his Government’s wilful neglect of the disadvantaged and the on-going and incredible waste of human potential that this disregard created. Now, as he sits at the back of our Parliament smouldering about his lost chance to rule, he thinks he has something to say about the monetary systems. Its a shame he isn’t clever enough to know how little he knows.
On Friday, April 24, 2009 there was a story in the Australian entitled Deficit spike may lift rates as Government considers $300bn debt blowout which introduced the next step in the neo-liberal fight to retain control of the policy debate – the dreaded ratings agencies. Accordingly, the Government spending (wait for it) … “blows out the deficit” and this will “jeopardise Australia’s triple-A credit rating, leading to higher interest rates.” So if you cannot win the “crowding out” battle to justify an attack on deficit spending its time to wheel out those credit rating agencies to scare the children of our land. As you will read this sort of reasoning is nonsensical in the extreme.
Yesterday, after sort of saying it the day before and getting close to saying it late last week, and having to wait for the central bank governor to say it first, our Prime Minister, then in quick lock-step, our Treasurer both said the R-word. What gives with this political posturing. The Opposition is largely irrelevant at the moment anyway. The reluctance of the Government to admit the obvious is repugnant. It has been very obvious that the economy is in very bad shape and had been heading that way for some years despite the chimera of prosperity – as the snowball of future recession was growing in size with the private sector debt and the fiscal surplus. Right now, the Government needs to introduce policies that really arrest what we have known for months – that employment is going south and unemployment heading in the opposite direction. Perhaps today’s terrible projections from the International Monetary Fund will sharpen their focus on large-scale public sector job creation initiatives.
In the last few weeks gardening has entered the macroeconomic discourse again. All over the place – apparently – little green shoots are emerging which bode well for the future. But are there any actual signs? Recent data releases from the US and today’s Index of Economic Activity in Australia suggest that the green shoots are still somewhat subterrainean in inclination. The latest data confirms the message that last week’s Labour Force data sent very loudly – the product and labour markets are now starting to align in a very ugly way and much more fertiliser (organic) is needed in the form of government stimulus …. sorry to repeat it, but, preferably in the form of direct job creation.
Several readers have asked me to demystify the processes involved in issuing Australian government debt. They also sought an explanation for the sort of scare-mongering that various commentators have been engaging in about the increasing budget deficit causing higher future tax and interest rates because the “mountains of debt” will have to be paid back somehow. Well anyone who is worrying about saddling your kids (and their kids) with mountains of debt and punishing levels of taxation should “just take a Bex, have a good lie down” … and stay calm. All of these claims are of-course mythical and are designed to perpetuate the neo-liberal view that governments should refrain from interfering in the private market. So its time to arm yourselves with the weapons (arguments) that you can use when your mates start up with this nonsense. Yes, its time to debrief!
The only nautical analogy that I have carried through my days as a professional economist is the one that apparentely John F. Kennedy coined – A rising tide lifts all boats. It was used by famous American progressive economist Arthur Okun in the 1960s to motivate his research on upgrading benefits of what he called the high pressure economy. It was an aspirational term used to goad national governments into fiscal action to ensure that the economy was always as close to full employment (high pressure) as possible. Accordingly, when the economy is at high pressure, both the strong and the weak prosper. Labour participation is strong, unemployment is at the irreducible minimum, labour productivity is high, wages are high and a number of upgrading effects across social classes and generations occur. Children from disadvantaged families get a chance to transcend poverty and workers who are displaced by global economic changes are able to be re-absorbed into productive work. Direct public sector job creation is a significant part of the national government’s responsibilities in this regard. If the private sector is incapable of providing enough jobs then there is only one sector left, ladies and gentlemen. Today I read of a new nautical analogy and my how times have changed! Its time to debrief again!
Can a city or state become a sovereign nation? We know what a sovereign nation is – one that has the capacity to issue its own currency and oblige its residents to pay their taxes in that currency. We also know that a state or city is thus not a sovereign nation because it uses the currency of the sovereign nation it “lives within”. So a state or a city is financially constrained in much the same way as a household. In that context, spending has to be financed either from higher taxes or debt issues which clearly places some limits on what programs a city or state can pursue. Further, a city can go bankrupt (become insolvent) in the local currency whereas a sovereign government cannot. So how might cities solve their infrastructure and social needs when they are so constrained?
I rode my bike 80 kms early this morning (usual Sunday) in the beautiful Autumn weather that Newcastle (NSW) enjoys this time of year. The Pacific Ocean looks superb (although there is nothing surfable in sight – maybe tomorrow morning). The sun was out and we were heading for 26-27 degrees. Then it had to happen. When I returned home I opened this morning’s newspaper and came across an authoritative headline: US faces huge deficit blow-out, with the sub-line “Program cuts, tax hikes likely.” The journalist (added to my bogan list) probably got 0 out of 5 on last night’s quiz. Well the truth is that almost everything the journalist wrote is wrong if he is talking about the real world. Anyway, I thought so. Its that time again. Time to debrief.
Some readers have written to me asking to explain what quantitative easing is. Some of them had heard an ABC 7.30 Report segment the other night which interviewed the Bank of England Governor who outlined the BOE’s plan to “print billions of pounds” as its latest strategy to stimulate lending and hence economic activity in the very dismally performing UK economy. Once again we need to de-brief and learn what quantititative easing actually is. We need to understand that it is not a very good strategy for a sovereign government to follow in times of depressed demand and rising unemployment. We also need to get this “printing money” mantra out of our heads.
After yesterday’s shock admission that our Federal Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner was losing sleep because he was worried about the Federal debt buildup, there he was on the ABCs 7.30 Report last night giving us more cause for concern that his sleeplessness is having a negative effect on his ability to conduct reasonable dialogue on economic matters.