Many readers have E-mailed me asking me to explain yields on bonds and sovereign credit ratings. There has been press coverage in recent days that following the downgrading of Greece, sovereign debt in the UK, France, and Spain will be downgraded unless severe “fiscal consolidation” is begun. All these places are suffering very depressed domestic conditions with high unemployment, falling per capita incomes and civil unrest looming. The last thing these nations need is for their national governments to be raising taxes and cutting spending. But the financial press are using the threats from these nefarious and undemocratic credit rating agencies to berate governments to do just that. Undermine the welfare of their citizens. Further, judging from the E-mails I have received on this issue there appears to be a lot of uncertainty in the minds of interested people about what all this means. Here is a little introduction which I hope helps.
Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the September quarter National Accounts data which gives us the rear-vision mirror view of how the economy has been travelling while we have all been speculating. The good news is that real GDP continued to grow. The bad news is that the Australian economy is creeping along the bottom. It just managed to keep its head above zero line in the September quarter courtesy of the strong public investment associated with the now, daily-maligned, fiscal expansion. The labour market was clearly spared the worst by declining productivity. As productivity returns to more reasonable rates of growth, unemployment will rise unless GDP growth turns significantly upwards … quickly. Having said all that – there is nothing in today’s data to warm the frozen hearts of the conservative deficit-haters. They should just find a ship to get on and boost our exports.
In Sunday’s New York Times, the Room for Debate series focused on one of my favourite topics – Should Public-Sector Jobs Come First?. The debate turns out to be very disappointing because even the so-called progressive offerings fall short of advocating an effective solution to the jobs crisis. Only one implies an understanding that the policy design proposed should not be compromised by an errant understanding of the way the fiat monetary system operates. Proposals that assume there is a financial constraint on government will almost certainly be second-rate. The debate could have been energised had the NYT sought expert opinion from those that are developing and implementing large public sector employment programs.
The government of the largest economy in the World has run short of money. At least that is what the US President was trying to tell his Jobs and Economic Growth Forum yesterday. Fancy that. This is a national government which issues its own sovereign currency trying to tell the world it is broke. This is a sovereign government that is responsible for capacity utilisation rates at 70 per cent and 15.7 million unemployed saying that is is running out of capacity to deal with the problem. My conclusion is that the only capacity they lack is sound economic advice. They should sack their existing advisors and hire some people who actually understand how the monetary system operates.
Over the course of this economic crisis, I have seen a lot of erroneous analysis based on the conflation of things that are not commensurate. It is getting worse as the debt hysteria mounts. These conflations are examples of category errors, which are common in monetary and macroeconomic analysis. Most of the theoretical development in macroeconomics text books used by universities fall foul of this type of error. The one thing that follows is that when you detect this type of error you should be deeply suspicious of the arguments being presented.
The Australian financial press today pushed the message “Dubai shook investor confidence across the Persian Gulf after its proposal to delay debt payments risked triggering the biggest sovereign default since Argentina in 2001”. Last time I knew, Dubai was an emirate and Argentina a sovereign nation. While the current crisis in Dubai is clearly an issue it is not an instance of sovereign default. Some research is required.
Today in NSW it reached 41 degrees Celsius again. The bushfire season has started early and of-course we all conclude it is related to climate change. But I was thinking about other things – to wit – the difficulty new ideas that have relatively complex underpinnings face in gaining traction in the public debate which is saturated by single line mantras that the media loves to repeat over and over again. This thinking was, in part, motivated by two opinion polls I examined from the US. The second one indicated that a growing (and already dominant) proportion of US citizens want the US government to run balanced budgets. How I thought would they think that would work?
Two related articles in The Economist last week (November 7, 2009) caught my attention. The first article – Battling joblessness – Has Europe got the answer – was about how the Continent may be a guide to all of us in tackling unemployment. The second article – Faring well – was extolling the virtues of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). They provide a further basis for discussing employment guarantees.
Just when you thought that the Australian Government’s response to climate change – the proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) which promises to generously exempt or compensate the heavy polluters – was bad enough, it was announced today that it will also now indefinitely exclude agriculture from the ETS. The decision is purely political as was the earlier decision to exempt agriculture until 2015. All the Government is doing is appeasing the Opposition so that it can get the legislation through the Senate. The Opposition recently revealed that the majority of their parliamentarians deny there is a climate change problem. Why would you want to trade concessions with them? But the fundamental problem lies in the fact that the neo-liberal market-based paradigm is a totally unsuitable framework for dealing with climate change.
Here is today’s mystery question: when is it imperative that interest rates should rise? Answer according to most business economists in Australia: when official unemployment creeps up, underemployment rises; participation remains subdued, 88 per cent of the modest employment rise measured in persons is part-time, total employment in hours falls, and you have 26.4 per cent of your 15-24 year olds idle. The real answer: none of these commentators have the slightest sense of national priorities in terms of advancing public purpose and providing an adequate future for our youth. Talk about intergenerational burdens. All the focus is on the so-called debt overhang we are leaving our children. The biggest overhang we are leaving is our support for a government that refuses to provide enough jobs for them.
A story in today’s media reminded me that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The story – Change or lose drought assistance, farmers told (and the related Editorial) – appeared in The Australian newspaper. They indicated that on-going drought assistance to farmers would have be accompanied by significant changes in farming practices. This is a major shift in our policy thinking but still begs the question of why we have such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions.
I was going to write about manufacturing today in the light the Campaign for America’s Future staging of Building the New Economy conference in Washington DC today. I started investigating what it was about. It raises a lot of issues what a progressive position should constitute. However, I got way laid by other things which were also interesting and will leave my blog about the demise of manufacturing for another day. But what this conference demonstrates to me is that we have a long way to go before we get a united progressive understanding of the way the modern monetary system works. And until we have that understanding, no real progress will be made reforming the economy. We will always be trading off tax cuts for spending increases and all that sort of mainstream mumbleconomics and feeling defensive any time a deficit arises. And then today, I started reading the latest report from the IMF …
The previous conservative Australian government ran budget surpluses for 10 out 11 years between 1997 and 2007 and lauded them as the exemplar of fiscal prudence. Of-course, from a modern monetary theory (MMT) perspective it was clear that the fiscal drag embodied in this strategy undermined the capacity of the domestic private sector to save (given the current account deficits) and forced growth to be dependent on the increased indebtedness of the household sector. It was an unsustainable strategy. It also coincided with the government destroying significant components of private wealth as they paid out government bonds and slowed the issue of new debt to a trickle. The previous treasurer talked relentlessly about getting the public debt monkey of our backs. Well apart from it never being on our backs in the first place, we are now seeing some hidden manifestations of this squeeze on private wealth.
Today’s blog is short. I returned home today to a mountain of things to do and missing luggage. In this day of computer networks and claimed security I fail to see how airlines cannot match every person who has a seat with a bag in the hold. They claim they take bags off when there is a no show so why do they lose bags? Anyway, all my papers from last week’s meetings are in the bag and my favourite coat so I am hoping it turns up. On the blog front, several readers have written to me in the last few days asking me about the rising risk of sovereign defaults that financial markets are apparently “pricing in”. In particular, so-called influential traders are now claiming that the US and Japan are approaching situations reminiscent of “countries on the verge of a sovereign debt default”. Sounds dire. We better investigate – but only for a short bit because I am tired from my journeys.
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?
Its Sunday morning in Kazakhstan and cold. My meetings in Almaty are over and I am heading home today via Dubai (backwards to go forwards). It has been a long week and it hasn’t been helped by the fact I have come down with a heavy cold. But overall a lot was accomplished, not the least being the startng dialogues with the Central Asian government officials. I have also been thinking about the book on economic development that we have started working on (with a colleague at the Asian Development Bank). In this context, today’s blog is about development, trade and modern monetary theory (MMT). Many readers have asked me to comment on recent articles in the Australian press about our current account situation. So-called experts (not) are claiming the budget balance has to be cut back quickly to avoid an external crisis. The reality is that they fail to understand what the current account balance is about.
Today, we step down from the heights of the modern money-debt deflation debate and consider macroeconomic developments which demonstrate the deficit-debt hysteria is ramping up here. I may come back to the debate in later blogs but I think the issues have been well considered. While the debate has uncovered some useful issues that I often get asked about (particularly in relation to the accounting and definitional matters) it also demonstrated that very simple and unthreatening concepts get conflated into horror stories if we let the dominant neo-liberal ideology control the way we think and the language we use. Also, I know I promised a G-20-IMF blog and that will emerge but some things emerged today that need commentary.
With unemployment rising in Australia as the downturn continues and no sign that strong employment growth is about to absorb the new entrants plus those currently without jobs, I was reflecting today on just how mean we are to those who are bearing the brunt of the downturn. In part, this thinking was also conditioned by my field trip out to North-West NSW on Monday and Tuesday (I will report separately). Unemployment out there is rife and the jobless have little hope. So I started to look into our unemployment benefit regime today. In the May 2009 Federal budget, while other pensioners enjoyed a generous increase in payments, the unemployed missed out on any increase. So why does so-called Labor Government have neither the creativity to generate jobs nor the generosity to help those that suffer the consequences of their failed macroeconomic policies?
Today I have been examining bankruptcy data. The popular notion is that bankruptcy rises during a recession. Many are arguing that this recession will drive higher rates than ever because of the extent of household debt. These are all conjectures that form part of the popular folklore but rarely formally investigated. So this blog summarises some introductory work I have been doing to investigate this notion more fully. It will at least settle some issues.
The public debate is constantly distorted by claims that cannot be substantiated. One such claim is that the current period of budget deficits is building a stock of future claims on the well-being of the future generation – our kids. Accordingly, the neo-liberal deficit terrorists claim that the best thing we can do for the future generation is to avoid running deficits. My view is that we have been imposing a huge future burden on our children but this would be larger if we tried to run surpluses now. In fact, the years of surpluses exacted a huge toll on our children’s prospects that they will have to endure for years to come.