Australia’s central bank governor is now appearing in the world press as something of a hero for putting interest rates up recently in defiance of world trends. Today he is featured in many finance home pages for his statement that the RBA cannot afford to be timid in putting rates up in the current months. This has raised expectations that we are in a race to get the target rate up towards their so-called neutral rate sometime soon. So almost rock star status for our central bank governor. Pity, the whole paradigm he is representing is destructive and helped get us into this mess in the first place. This blog explains why inflation targeting per se is not the issue. The problem is that fiscal policy becomes subjugated to the monetary policy dominance. This passivity manifests as the obsessive pursuit of budget surpluses which allegedly support the inflation-first stance. But this policy strategy is extremely damaging in real terms and will provoke another debt-bust cycle sometime in the future.
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.
There were two related stories this week from either side of the Pacific Ocean. From the east coast came – Rollout of jobs scheme ‘a sham’ and from the west coast – Stimulus Is Bankrupt Antidote to Failed Stimulus. While the US-based article is a polemic from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and the second is a journalist’s reporting on Australian political trivia, they both raise interesting issues regarding the way fiscal policy is conducted. The issues raised provide further justification for employment guarantee schemes as a sophisticated addition to the automatic stabilisation capacity that is inherent in fiscal policy and makes it superior to monetary policy.
It’s been a big data week and after the US inflation data that I analysed on Monday, and the Australian wage data (analysed yesterday), we have the Australian labour force data release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia – for July 2023 today (August 17, 2023). The July result shows a weakening situation (although the rotation in the sample contributed to this somewhat). Employment fell (particularly full-time) and unemployment rose to 3.7 per cent (up 0.2 points). There are now 10.1 per cent of the available and willing working age population who are being wasted in one way or another – either unemployed or underemployed. That extent of idle labour means Australia is not really close to full employment despite the claims by the mainstream commentators. As I noted yesterday, wages growth is declining and modest. We will see next month whether this weakening is, in fact, a trend consistent with other indicators (retail sales, etc). Given inflation has been in decline since last September and there is no wages pressure, there is no reason for policy settings to be trying to push people into joblessness. That is just an act of bastardry and ideological zealotry.
As Mario Draghi’s tenure at the helm of the ECB draws to a close, he becomes (slightly) more pointed and looser with his public statements. On Friday (October 11, 2019), he gave a speech – Policymaking, responsibility and uncertainty – at the Università Cattolica in Milan on the occasion of receiving the Laurea Honoris Causa (honorary degree). He broadened the scope of his policy ambit by saying that “I will not focus strictly on monetary policy or the business of central banking, but I would like instead to share my thoughts on the nature of policy responsibility.” In the same week, the Eurogroup (the European Finance Ministers) of the European Commission released a press release – Remarks by Mário Centeno following the Eurogroup meeting of 9 October 2019 (October 10, 2019) – which announced that they had agreed to a “a budgetary instrument for the euro area – the so-called BICC”. Don’t get too excited. The BICC will only achieve the status of an “Inter-Governmental Agreement”, meaning it will not be embodied in the Treaties. Also, the Member States will have to contribute funds in advance and must “co-finance” withdrawals. And, as usual, there was no mention of the fund size, which will be miniscule if history tells us anything. But this is all context for Mario Draghi’s Speech.
I have been reading the latest report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) – World of Work Report 2012 – which documents the disastrous trends in employment that are expected as fiscal austerity grinds economies into the ground. The ILOs Social Unrest Index has risen in 57 out of 106 nations and negatively related to employment fortunes. The ILO also found that “deregulation policies … fail to boost growth and employment” and “there is no clear link between labour market reforms and employment levels”. They conclude that the “austerity trap” is destroying jobs and that concerted effort is needed to ensure that “wages grow in line with productivity” and that there should be a “coordinated increase in the minimum wage”. I will analyse this report in more detail another day because it is schizophrenic in approach reflecting the struggle within the ILO between the neo-liberal influences that have grown over the last few decades and the more balanced labour market understandings that come from a thorough understanding of the importance of labour market institutions and government oversight and a keen appreciation of the empirical dimensions. But today I am going to briefly reflect on an extraordinary interview – Former Reserve Bank Governor bemoans state of politics and inequity – on the ABC current affairs program – 7.30 – last night, where the former RBA governor let fly at budget surplus obsessions and demanded more expansionary fiscal and monetary policy interventions at a time when demand is faltering and growth falling. And some other snippets appear afterwards.
Today (February 15, 2024), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Labour Force, Australia – for January 2024, which confirms a weakening in the labour market. The signs of a slowdown were appearing in late 2023 and the January figures probably confirm that trend, although the changing holiday behaviour makes it difficult to be definitive. We will know more next month when the holiday period effects wash out. Employment growth was unable to even keep pace with the underlying population growth, which is why unemployment rose with participation constant. The best indicators that the labour market is weakening are the fall in the employment-to-population rate since November 2023 (down 0.5 points) and the sharp decline over the last few months in hours worked. It also appears that the slowdown is impacting teenagers disproportionately. There are now 10.7 per cent of the available and willing working age population who are being wasted in one way or another – either unemployed or underemployed and that proportion is increasing. Australia is not near full employment despite the claims by the mainstream commentators and it is hard to characterise this as a ‘tight’ labour market.
It’s Wednesday and I am bound for London later today. We will see how that turns out having not travelled there since the beginning of the pandemic. I will take plenty of precautions to avoid Covid. But it will be good to catch up with friends in between several engagements, including my teaching responsibilities at the University of Helsinki, which I have been acquiting for the last few years via Zoom. Today, I reflect on the latest public finance data released by the British Office of National Statistics which shows the fiscal deficit is smaller than expected. Even progressive journalists have written this up as providing more scope for pre-election largesse to be provided. The fact that the fiscal balance is lower provides no more or no less scope for the government to net spend. The relevant questions that should be answered before such an assessment can be made are ignored by the journalists, including the fact that the unemployment rate is rising and the supply-driven inflation is falling fast. After some announcements of events in London and Europe, we have some violin music to end today’s post. There will be no blog post tomorrow as I will be in transit.
Today (December 6, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product, September 2023 – which shows that the Australian economy grew by just 0.2 per cent in the September-quarter 2023 and by 2.1 per cent over the 12 months. If we extend the September result out over the year then GDP will grow by 0.8 per cent, well below the rate required to keep unemployment from rising. GDP per capita fell by 0.5 per cent and Real net national disposable income fell by 0.6 per cent – a measure of how far material living standards declined. Households cut back further on consumption expenditure growth while at the same time saving less relative to their disposable income in the face of rising interest rates and temporary inflationary pressures. Temporary fiscal policy measures (to ease cost-of-living pressures) were the difference between poor growth and no growth at all.
Today, I consider the latest development in the entrenchment of neoliberalism in the Australian policy sector, specifically, the latest decision by the Treasurer to excise his powers under Section 11 of the Reserve Bank Act 1959, which allowed the Treasurer to overrule RBA policy decisions if they considered them not to be in the national interest. This power was considered an essential aspect of a working democracy, where the elected member of parliament had responsibility for economic policy decisions that impacted on millions of people. The latest evolution will further see macroeconomic policy depoliticised and placed in the hands of a small cabal of mainstream economists who regularly advocate policies that serve special corporate interests and leave millions unemployed. I also provide a video from a TV show I appeared on in Tokyo the other day. Then some lovely guitar music. It’s Wednesday after all!
The resurgence of economic orthodoxy is a great example of how declining schools of thought can maintain dominance in the narrative for extended periods of time if the vested interests are powerful enough. In the case of the economics profession, mainstream New Keynesian theory persists because it serves the interests of capital. Recently, the IMF urged the Australian government to engage in ‘fiscal consolidation’ in order to support further interest rate hikes by the RBA aimed at reducing inflation quickly. In general, the IMF is urging nations to engage in fiscal austerity in order to bring their public debt ratios down. The problem is that even their own research shows that these fiscal adjustments on average do not succeed. And, usually, they leave a damaged society where the lower income and disadvantaged cohorts are forced to endure the bulk of the negative effects.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest US inflation data last week (August 10, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – which showed that overall monthly inflation to be 0.2 per cent and mostly driven by housing. And, once we understand how the housing component is calculated then there is every reason to believe that this major driver of the current inflation rate will weaken considerably in the coming months. The rent component in the CPI has been a strong influence on the overall inflation rate and that has been pushed up by the Federal Reserve rate hikes.
We really get to see how absurd humanity can be when put in a neoliberal ideological straitjacket when we see serious discussion by serious and educated people about the government paying itself back for losses it makes by loaning itself currency that it issues as a monopolist. They conduct these conversations through the lens of complicated accounting structures that try to obscure what is actually going on and then invite political commentary from others that have no real idea of what is going on yet feel empowered or arrogant enough to offer all sorts of catastrophic scenarios about the consequences of what is essentially nothing at all. Once one sees through the nonsense it becomes clear that these ruses are just smokescreens for conservatives trying to cut fiscal spending and damage the prospects for those most in need of government support.
I have been looking for signs that the concerted efforts by most central banks (bar the eminently more sensible Bank of Japan) to kill growth and force unemployment up have actually been effective. My prior, of course, is that the interest rates will not significantly reduce growth in the short run, but may if they go high enough start to impact on spending patterns of low income households. The next data that will help us associate the interest rate effects on spending by income quintile in the US comes out in September 2023, so I will watch out for that. The most recent national accounts data from the US, however, does not support the mainstream belief that monetary policy is the most effective tool for suppressing expenditure. Far from it.
Recently, I wrote about the conditions that dictate what impacts interest rate changes will have on aggregate spending and demand-driven inflation in direction, magnitude and temporality – see RBA governor’s ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ moments of disdain (June 8, 2023). It is highly likely in many cases, the decisions by central banks to increase interest rates, ostensibly to ‘fight inflation’ actually make inflation worse. More people are starting to understand that point even though central bankers appear to be still talking big about further interest rate rises. But the evidence is mounting against their position and ultimately that evidence is exposing the deep flaws in mainstream macroeconomics. I argue today that the problem is not only that the interest rate hikes can be inflationary but they are also facilitating a major reinforcement of the class divisions in our societies whereby the low income cohorts are transferring massive income benefits to the higher deciles. I also discuss cricket which recently has provided a demonstration of how the class divisions work. Then some music, given it is a Wednesday.
Last week – RBA wants to destroy the livelihoods of 140,000 Australian workers – a shocking indictment of a failed state (June 22, 2023) – I wrote about the sense of being in a parallel universe when one reads official statements from the Bank of Japan and juxtaposes them against the stream of statements coming out of other central banks. The day after I wrote that post (June 23 2026), the Japanese e-Stat service (the portal for Japanese government statistics) released the latest – Monthly CPI data – which showed that the annual inflation rate fell by 0.2 points to 3.2 per cent in May, on the back of significant easing in electricity and gas prices, in part the result of government policy aimed at reducing energy prices rises in the domestic economy. Here is some more about the parallel universe. I conclude that the experiment underway between central banks is indicating that Japan’s zero interest rate regime (with fiscal expansion) is not an inflationary factor. It has not driven dangerous shifts in inflationary expectations for businesses or households. Further, the decision by the Bank of Japan not to hike rates has reduced the cost-of-living squeeze on mortgaged households that is being imposed by the (transitory) inflationary pressures. By way of contrast, other central banks have imposed extra burdens on those with debt and are engineering a massive redistribution of income from poor to rich into the bargain. As they continue with their blindness, they are risking recession and a major rise in unemployment, which will add to the pain the citizens are enduring.
In Tuesday’s fiscal statement, the Australian government made a lot of noise about dealing with the climate emergency that the nation faces but in terms of hard fiscal outlays or initiatives it did very little, deferring action again, while ‘the place burns’. The Climate Council assessment was that the government “still seems to be on a warm-up lap when it comes to investing in climate action” (Source) and recommended the nation moves from a “slow job” to a “sprint”. I have previously written about the myopic nature of neoliberalism. There are countless examples of governments penny pinching and then having to outlay dollars to fix the problem they create by the austerity. The climate emergency is of another scale again though. And penny pinching now will cause immeasurable damage to humanity. Food security will be threatened. Urban environments will become unliveable. Pandemics will increase if we don’t stop clearing and if we release viruses stored in permafrost. And all the rest that awaits us. Now is the time to reset our understanding of fiscal capacity. It is already, probably, too late.
Last night (May 9, 2023), the Australian government delivered the latest fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’), and, in doing so guaranteed that unemployment would rise. A deliberate act of sabotage of living standards for disadvantaged Australians. All the hype was about the miniscule fiscal surplus that was announced as if it is some sort of badge of honour that politicians aim for. If they went to the homes of the poor; if they visited the public hospital system that is still straining under Covid etc and years of fiscal neglect; if they examined the state of climate science; and if they just opened their eyes generally, they would see that a fiscal surplus is an indication at this stage in our history of deliberate neglect of the main challenges of the day. Sure enough, the Government handed out some dollops of cost-of-living relief to low-income families – a few pennies in the scheme of things. But while recording a surplus they still refused to lift the unemployment benefit recipients above the poverty line and ensured their would be more of the same forced to live in poverty. The priorities are all wrong and this is another neoliberal-lite effort from the Labor Party.
We start to see the absurdity of the current reliance on monetary policy as a counter-stabilisation tool, when you read the calls from the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member talking about the risk of a ‘significant inflation undershoot’. In a detailed analysis of the current situation, the external MPC member noted that inflation was falling faster than expected because the supply constraints were reversing quickly. She also noted that the interest rate hikes had now reached a point where unemployment was certain to rise and lead to, in the face of the supply reversals, to deflation. And that would require faster and larger interest rate cuts. Here is an insider admitting that the Bank of England is more or less gone rogue and out-of-step with reality. Overshoot at the top of the hiking cycle, swinging to a massive undershoot at the bottom. Absurd.
In the latest IMF Finance and Development journal (March 2023), there is an interesting article by the former governor of the Bank of Japan, Masaaki Shirakawa – It’s time to rethink the foundation and framework of monetary policy. It goes to the heart of the complete confusion that is now being demonstrated by central bank policy makers. With their ‘one trick pony’ interest rate attacks on inflation, not only have they been inconsequential in dealing with that target (the so-called price stability responsibility), but, in failing there, they have undermined the achievement of the other central bank target (financial stability) and probably worsened the chances of sustaining the third target (full employment). Sounds like a mess – and it is. We are witnessing what happens when Groupthink finally takes over an academic discipline and the policy making space. Blind, unidirectional policies, based on a failed framework, steadily undermining all the major goals – that is where we are right now. And not unsurprisingly, those who have previously preached the doctrine are now crossing the line and joining with those who predicted this mess. And, as usual, the renegade position is somehow recast as we knew it all along’ when, of course, they didn’t. When you get to that stage, we need music – and given it is Wednesday, I oblige at the end of this post.