The latest information from Japan suggests that in December 2023, its inflation fell sharply for the second consecutive month and that one might conclude the inflation episode is coming to an end. The Bank of Japan made the assumption that this supply-side inflation was temporary and would subside fairly quickly once those constraints eased. And they were right. All the other central banks somehow convinced themselves that the inflation was demand-driven and have been needlessly pushing up interest rates. The experiment is nearly over and I think it is clear that the Japanese path was the sound one. At that point, the New Keynesian academics and officials should resign. After that, as it is Wednesday, we have some music to soothe our souls.
I read an interesting report this morning, which resonated with some other work I had been looking into earlier in the week. The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) released a report yesterday (September 27, 2023) – Inequality in Australia 2023: Overview – which shows that “The gap between those with the most and those with the least has blown out over the past two decades, with the average wealth of the highest 20% growing at four times the rate of the lowest”. It is one of the manifestations of the neoliberal era and is ultimately unsustainable. Earlier in the week, I spent some time analysing the latest data from the US Federal Reserve on the distribution of wealth among US households. The US data goes a long way to explaining why the recent interest rate hikes have been inflationary in themselves.
The – Washington Consensus – has been out in full force this week with the US Federal Reserve and the RBA increasing interest rates further despite all the indications that inflation peaked months ago and its downward trajectory has had little if anything to do with the ridiculous interest rate rises since early 2022. Both banks, along with most other central banks, are just thumbing through the New Keynesian textbook to get their direction and pretending to be capable of assessing the situation correctly. Neither the textbooks nor the assessments are remotely accurate and unnecessary pain is just being inflicted on low income mortgage holders. But the public barely know that there is a grand global experiment being conducted by central banks which allow us to reflect on the veracity of competing economic theories and approaches. Most central banks are hiking rates at present as a reflection of the dominance of the New Keynesian prioritisation of monetary policy as a counter-stabilising, anti-inflationary policy tool over fiscal policy. One central bank is not following suit – the Bank of Japan. The BOJ has not shifted rates, is maintaining its yield curve control policy and the government is expanding fiscal policy. The diametric opposite to the New Keynesian approach. We now have enough data to assess the relative merits of the two approaches. Japan has lower inflation, no currency crisis and its citizens are better off as a result of the monetary-fiscal policy initiatives.
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.
A close friend send me some pages from a book she is reading – Ministry for the Future – by author Kim Stanley Robinson, which was published in 2020. It is about an organisation that is chartered with defending the rights of future generations and they pursue various projects accordingly. Its major challenge is climate change, after a “deadly heat wave in India” and the narrative allows the author to entertain very interesting discussions about economics, ecology and society. It is classified as “hard science fiction” because while the work reflects the imagination of the author, he bases the narrative on “scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science” to bring home the challenges we face with climate etc. The pages I received came from Chapter 73 (pages 365-366), which has a two-page discussion about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The author writes in his future scenario that “Enough governments were convinced by MMT to try it. That it influenced so much policy through the late thirties was regarded as a sign either of progress or of desperate fantasy solutions.” While the discussion is interesting, I want to focus on one of the ideas the author presents because they illustrate an important distinction between ‘Keynesian’ and ‘Post Keynesian’ thought on fiscal policy and MMT analysis.
Yesterday, I commented on Tuesday’s RBA interest rate rise. I wasn’t complementary. In the last two days, more data has been released since the decision, which further suggests that the RBA erred. It also suggests that part of the housing problem everyone is focused on is not due to lax monetary policy, which is the mainstream mantra, but is, rather, due to flawed tax policy. So, we have seen housing loan demand in decline and building approvals plummetting in the last month, a sign that the housing market, especially for owner-occupiers is in decline. Further, the growth in retail sales was only 1.6 per cent, and while mainstream economists are pointing to the rapid growth over the 12-month period (9.4 per cent March to March), they ignore the fact that the the March 2022 observation shows a decline on the previous month. The RBA statement yesterday did not mention housing at all, even though its decision has already pushed up mortgage rates in an already declining market. All they seem to want to do is cause massive damage to low income workers through even lower real incomes and rising unemployment and underemployment. There are fiscal options that should be pursued right now but the policy makers appear blind to them.
The ECB published a Working Paper recently (September 2021) – Monetary and fiscal complementarity in the Covid-19 pandemic – which represents progress in the narrative. While the technical model that the ECB uses is just an ad hoc attempt to reverse engineer the reality so they can claim they can explain it, what is useful from the exercise is that the old mainstream narratives that fiscal policy is ineffective in providing permanent boosts to real output (or that austerity does not permanently damage the growth trajectory) can no longer be sustained. The taboo surrounding central bank purchases of government debt because they cause accelerating inflation can no longer be sustained. The claims that fiscal deficits drive up interest rates can no longer be sustained. Now the public debate just has to reflect that reality and we will have made progress. Of course, this is all core MMT – we knew it all along!
It’s Wednesday and I have now settled back into my office after being stuck away from home for 9 weeks as a result of border closures between Victoria and NSW. So I am reverting back to the usual Wednesday pattern of limited writing, although today, the topic is worthy of some extended narrative. Before we get to the swamp blues music segment, I am analysing a speech made by the RBA governor yesterday on the role of monetary policy during a pandemic, whether low interest rates are driving house prices too high, and, what should be done about that. The conclusion is that he supports better use of fiscal policy – sustaining supportive fiscal deficits and dealing with the distortions that are contributing to high housing prices, via amendments to taxation (eliminating incentives for high income earners to buy multiple properties) and public infrastructure policies (more social housing).
Last week, the EU finance ministers (the ‘Eurogroup’) met (June 13, 2019) in Luxembourg as part of their regular schedule. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the meeting whether Emmanual Macron’s push for a more coherent EU fiscal capacity to act as a counter-stabilisation capacity for the beleaguered Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As is normal, there was no progress made and the press reports said that the finance ministers “continued to clash over almost every feature of the new fiscal tool, including the source of funding” (Source). No surprises at all. So the ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’ agenda, that many Europhile Left commentators have been hoping for, was abandoned. The roof still has gaping holes and the EMU will once again fail badly when the next economic cyclical downturn comes through. And further, the lack of leadership in the fiscal area is creating a massive dilemma for the ECB and its conduct of monetary policy. In effect, the lacuna is demonstrating to all and sundry that monetary policy is incapable of achieving the aims despite the ECB deliberately breaching the legal framework established for it in the Treaties. The Eurozone dysfunction goes to a new level – and it is a time of growth.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
This is the final part of my three-part series on the why I have confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy and eschew any proposals, by other Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates or others, to replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. Such a proposal is not core MMT. It is an opinion that, in my view, is based on deeply flawed logic and would would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. In this final part, I extend the reasons that progressives should oppose such outsourced decision-making and, instead, advocate the introduction of processes that always make our elected politicians fully responsible for the decisions they take on our behalf. Our polity should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or fiscal authority).
This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the political issues that give me confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy. The series is designed to help readers see that the recent criticisms of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as being politically naive and unworkable in a real politic sense have all been addressed in the past. In Part 1, I gave examples of how ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ fiscal policy can be when an elected government has it in their mind to use their spending and taxation capacities to change the direction of the non-government economic cycle. It is simply untrue that fiscal policy is inflexible and cannot make effective, well-designed policy interventions. In this second part, I will address aspects of how such interventions might be organised. Specifically, some people have advocated that MMT might replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. The intentions might be sound but the idea is the anathema of what progressives, interested in maintaining democratic accountability would propose. I consider such an independent fiscal authority would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. They should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or an external fiscal authority).
I did an interview overnight with a WSJ journalist from London on the ‘political’ aspects of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This blog post covers some of that conversation, although I started writing this a few weeks ago. Regular readers will recall I was promising a post about the ‘nimbleness’ of fiscal policy. That promise instigated the request from the WSJ. When I write about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I try to be careful to distinguish between what we might consider the core MMT principles (theory, description, accounting) and the imposition of my own values (political and otherwise) that is informed by those core principles. That separation is important and should (but doesn’t) stop others misrepresenting the core principles by appealing to proposals that might flow from the value imposition. An example of this separation (and confusion), a topic which I receive many E-mails from people which seek clarification, is the concept of setting up an independent fiscal authority. The proposal to establish such an authority is not a core MMT principle. It might reflect an opinion that has been expressed by someone writing about MMT but that is as far as it goes. For the record, I am deeply opposed to establishing such an authority. It would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. Can we trust them? We have elections to deal with those issues. Should technocrats rule? Technocrats do not stand for election. They give advice but have no democratic responsibility. Is fiscal policy agile enough to be an effective source of counter-stabilisation against the non-government spending cycle? That is what this blog post is about. This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 will be published on Monday.
Remember back in early 2009, when the then head of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet (boasted that the “euro … is a success … it helps to secure prosperity in participating states”. He was still making these claims in October 2018. At an event in honour of he and former German finance minister Theodor Waigel, organised by the Banque de France, Trichet said that “the euro is a historic success … in terms of credibility, resilience, adaptability, popular support and real growth during its first 20 years is impressive”. He particularly singled out the “delivery of price stability”. Well the latest data confirms beyond doubt that the ECB has failed to deliver on its price stability charter. Further, the descent back into recession in Italy and probably Germany in the December-quarter 2018 tells us that this reliance on monetary policy to stimulate growth while maintaining ridiculous levels of fiscal rectitude has undermined growth and unnecessarily condemned millions to unemployment and rising poverty.
Its Wednesday, so just a few short snippets that came to my attention, some comedy and some great music that has kept me company today while I have been working today. The first snippet concerns my revelation that fiscal policy in Australia is undermining the future of our grandchildren. Yes, an out-of-control government is spending our way to a future oblivion. The second snippet is my analysis of the latest INSA/YouGov German poll which shows that the euphoria if you can call it that which followed the formation of the GroKo has now dissipated and the AfD have overtaken the SPD in popularity. Which tells you that the progressive movements in Germany are failing. Why? Because they decided not to be progressive and, instead, decided to ape the conservatives. Not a good idea. The polls are showing why.
There is an interesting dilemma currently emerging in Australia, which provides an excellent case study on how governments can use fiscal policy effectively and the problems that are likely to arise in that application. At present, the Australian states are engaging in an infrastructure building boom with several large (mostly public sector) projects underway involving improvements to road, ports, water supply, railways, airports and more. I travel a lot and in each of the major cities you see major areas sectioned off as tunnels are being dug and buildings erected. Not all of the projects are desirable (for example, the West Connex freeway project in Sydney has trampled on peoples’ rights) and several prioritise the motor car over public transport. But many of the projects will deliver much better public transport options in the future. On a national accounts level, these projects have helped GDP growth continue as household consumption has moderated and private investment has been consistently weak to negative. But, and this is the point, there have been sporadic reports recounting how Australia is running out of cement, hard rock and concrete and other building materials, which is pushing up costs. This is the real resource constraint that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) emphasises as the limits to government spending, rather than any concocted financial constraints. If there are indeed shortages of real resources that are essential to infrastructure development then that places a limit on how fast governments can build these public goods. The other point is that as these shortages are emerging, there is still over 15 per cent of our available labour resources that are being unused in one way or another – 714,600 are unemployed, 1,123.9 thousand are underemployed, and participation rates are down so hidden unemployment has risen. So that indicates there is a need for higher deficits while the infrastructure bottlenecks suggest spending constraints are emerging. That is the challenge. Come in policies like the Job Guarantee.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has just hosted its annual Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming where central banks, treasury officials, financial market types and (mainstream) economists from the academy and business gather to discuss economic policy. As you might expect, the agenda is set by the mainstream view of the world and there is little diversity in the discussion. A Groupthink reinforcing session. One paper that was interesting was from two US Berkeley academics – Fiscal Stimulus and Fiscal Sustainability – which the news reports claimed suggested that governments should be increasing fiscal expansion even though they may be carrying high levels of public debt. The conclusion reached by the paper is correct but the methodology is mainstream and so progressives should not get carried away with the idea that there is signs that some give is emerging, which will lead to more progressive outcomes. A progressive solution will only come when the neo-liberal dominance of my profession is terminated and an entirely new macroeconomics paradigm based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is established. There is still a long way to go though.
Japan is different, right? Japan has a different culture, right? Japan has sustained low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, high public deficits and high gross public debt for 25 years, but that is cultural, right? Even the mainstream media is starting to see through the Japan is different narrative as we will see. Yesterday (August 14, 2017), the Cabinet Office in Japan published the preliminary – Quarterly Estimates of GDP – which showed that the Japanese economy is growing strongly and has just posted the 9th quarter of positive annual real GDP growth. Private consumption and investment is strong, the public sector continues to underpin growth with fiscal deficits and real wages are growing. The Eurozone should send a delegation to Tokyo but then all they would learn is that a currency-issuing government that doesn’t fall into the austerity obsession promoted by many economists (including those in the European Commission) can oversee strong growth and low unemployment. Simple really. The Japan experience is interesting because it demonstrates how the reversal in fiscal policy can have significant negative and positive effects in a fairly short time span, whereas monetary policy is much less effective in influencing expenditure.
In a paper – Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy and Central Bank Independence – delivered to the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, last week (August 25-27, 2016), Princeton University academic Christopher Sims suggested that monetary policy effectiveness cannot be judged independent of the fiscal position taken by the government. He argued that the current reality has demonstrated that when central banks shift to very loose monetary policy settings these policy changes will be ineffective if the fiscal authorities are simultaneously pursuing austerity. Even conservatives like Christopher Sims are starting to understand that the dominant mantra that places all policy responsibility on central banks and, meanwhile, pursues fiscal austerity, represents a failed and deeply flawed overall strategy. That is, the core neo-liberal macroeconomics strategy is now being shown by conservatives to be ridiculous. Modern Monetary Theory has long argued that monetary policy has to work hand-in-glove with fiscal policy and if the central bank is cutting interest rates then the fiscal authority has to be increasing its fiscal deficit to make the policy changes stick. Some of the more enlightened conservative economists are now seeing this reality.
The week before last, the Bank of Japan didn’t set off any bazookas and basically held ground on monetary policy. In its – Summary of Opinions at the Monetary Policy Meeting on July 28 and 29, 2016 – (released August 8, 2016), we detect some tension among the Board members as to the effectiveness of monetary policy as a counter-stabilisation force (altering the economic cycle). The distinguishing feature about Japan is that monetary and fiscal policy are working in harmony in contradistinction to other nations (or currency blocs) where monetary easing is being accompanied by fiscal contraction. The latter ensures that growth will not occur, while the former provides a virtuous cycle. The recent retail sales data for Australia, released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics provides further evidence that monetary policy is not very effective in stimulating spending. The same data demonstrated categorically in 2009 how effective fiscal policy can be. It is time for the Australian government to shift policy positions and introduce another major fiscal stimulus and stop relying on the central bank to salvage what is becoming an ugly situation. The latter simply hasn’t got the policy tools available to fulfill the task it has been (implicitly) set by the Government’s irresponsible pursuit of fiscal surpluses.