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.
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.
The hysteria surrounding the decision by the Bank of Japan (released December 19, 2022) to make a minor adjustment to its yield curve control ceiling on Japanese government 10-year bonds has been predictable but uninformed and full of vested interest agendas. You know the type of agenda that investment bankers engage in where they consistently pump out their media statements, which are soaked up by the financial media as if they are knowledge that needs repeating, that claim interest rates have to rise to deal with some inflation emergency or something. The media doesn’t tell the public who absorb this stuff that the actual agenda is that bankers want higher interest rates because they make more profit and that the reason the media statements give is largely fiction. So we are seeing more of that in the last few days. My understanding of the decision is that it does not signal a fundamental change in monetary policy in Japan. It is a minor shift to tweak the interface between the government bond market and the corporate bond market in order to maintain financial stability – the most important role of a central bank. All those characters that are claiming the hedge funds have won and the Bank of Japan is now conceding power to them with interest rate hikes to come are not reading the room. They are just pushing their self-interest in vain. No interest rates went up and my reading of the statement and what I know informally via contacts is that the Bank is committed to its current policy position because it considers, as I do, the inflationary pressures to be transitory and doesn’t want to respond to an ephemeral problem by creating a more entrenched problem of real economy recession and rising unemployment.
It’s Wednesday, and I have two things to write about briefly before exposing readers to some more music. First, the evidential base for my ‘this inflationary period is transitory’ narrative gains more weight. The latest CPI data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that inflation has peaked in the US and falling rapidly in the goods sector, which started this episode off. The second topic relates to measuring progress in the development and spread of new ideas. It is often difficult to know how far a new framework has penetrated the broader debate. But sometimes things happen that remind me of how far we have to go in changing the framing and language surrounding fiscal capacity and the related topics, that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has brought to the fore. We finish with some calming guitar playing.
I don’t really want to write this post today given the hysteria that has appeared in the media over the last week. But it is an important event so I better. Working in Kyoto for the last month has given me a sort of sense of dislocation from the day to day macroeconomic debate in Australia. I still read all the information and study the data but being somewhat distant from it – and not watching any current affairs or listening to the radio – provides for calm. Anyway, last night (October 25, 2022), the new Federal Treasurer released the annual ‘fiscal statement’ (aka ‘The Budget’), after telling the nation since he was elected that the sky was about to fall in because the previous government had left a ‘trillion dollars worth of debt’. The new Labor government is so intent on looking ‘responsible’ and the exemplars of ‘sound finance’ that the population has been subjected to a daily briefing from the Treasurer and the Finance Minister that amounts to little more than nauseating lies. And last night’s fiscal statement? A joke really. It neither does what the Treasurer claims nor does it deal with the numerous policy challenges that face the nation in any significant way. The fiscal statement essentially fails to meet the challenges that are before us and will worsen over the next few years. A gutless document really.
The British government has descended into high farce. It is rather embarassing to watch adults behave in the way they have conducted themselves in the last longtime. I also note that the usual suspects are out in force claiming (spuriously) that the economic turmoil that has beset Britain demonstrates categorically that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is deeply flawed and the real world is now teaching us that we should be discarded into the dustbin of history – or rather disgrace. These characters, which include so-called progressives think that hard core fiscal rules, like the British Labour Party took into the last election would have saved the day for Britain. I guess they are now mates with the IMF, who in their latest fiscal monitor – Fiscal Monitor – overnight (published October 12, 2022) – called for fiscal restraint. Also, central bankers who met in Washington over the last few days decided they had become the elected and accountable government making gratuitous threats that if fiscal policy wasn’t turned to austerity, they would punish citizens with further interest rate hikes. It is actually hard to find anything of sense in the current economic debate. It is despairing really.
The latest news I read from Germany was that the Rhine is now so low on water that its importance as a commercial waterway for transporting raw materials and finished products is being significantly compromised. The water level in places is now well below that required for navigation by the barges. It is the second time in the space of a few years that inland shipping in Europe has been thwarted by this sort of problem. The War in Ukraine is also causing bottlenecks in the inland transport routes as grain transports are being diverted as a consequence of the Black Sea blockades. Sure enough there are rail transports still capable of shifting the cargo but this problem is one of many now hitting Germany, which is finding out that its economic growth strategy is deeply flawed. It was only a matter of time before the ‘chickens came home to roost’. It was obvious for years that the Post-unification strategy the German government took as it entered the common currency could not deliver sustainable and stable growth. The reliance on suppressing domestic expenditure and wages growth in order to game its Eurozone partners so they recorded large external deficits in order to buy German exports was problematic given that the German insistence on austerity across the Eurozone resulted in stagnation and weaker export markets. Further, Germany relied heavily on diesel engines to underpin the strength of their dominant motor vehicle industry and not only did they lie about the quality of the products, but they failed to foresee the shifting sentiment away from polluting diesel. And, of course, they relied on imported energy from Russia to feed this industrial strength and supply their consumer markets, which assumed that Russia would remain reliable. At present they are also being impacted by the supply disruptions in China, given they have shifted their external sector towards an increased reliance on China. Some of these problems will ease but the reality is that the German model that they took into the Eurozone is now unsustainable. They must abandon their export led growth obsession, increase their reliance on domestic demand and improve the circumstances for their workers while dealing with the increasingly evident climate emergency.
It’s Wednesday and I have some comments to make about yesterday’s RBA decision (July 5, 2022) to continue increasing its interest rate – this time by 50 points – the third increase in as many months. If the rhetoric is accurate it will not the last rise by any means. In its – Statement by Philip Lowe, Governor: Monetary Policy Decision – the RBA noted that global factors were driving “much of the increase in inflation in Australia” but there were some domestic influences – like “strong demand, a tight labour market and capacity constraints” and “floods are also affecting some prices”. It is hard to make sense of their reasoning as I have explained in the past. Most of the factors ‘driving inflation’ will not be sensitive to increase borrowing costs. The banks are laughing because while they have increased borrowing rates immediately, deposit rates remain low – result: massive gains in profits to an already profit-bloated sector. But the curious part of the RBA’s stance is that they are defending themselves from the obvious criticism that they are going to drive the economy into the ground and cause a rise in unemployment by claiming that “many households have built up large financial buffers and are benefiting from stronger income growth” – so the increased mortgage and other credit costs will be absorbed by those savings (wealth destruction) allowing households to continue spending. You should be able to see the logic gap – if “strong demand” is driving inflation and that needs to come off for inflation to fall but the buildup of savings will protect demand – go figure. Monetary policy is in total chaos and being driven by ideology. And to calm down after that we have some great music as is the norm on a Wednesday.
There was an unedifying and fairly undignified war on Twitter recently about whether Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economics advocate using taxes to deal with inflation. Like all these Twitter ‘debates’, the opening proposition was a ‘gotcha’ attempt that was correct from one angle but then missed the point when it was applied to whether MMT is a valid framework or not. The responses from the MMT ‘activists’ were also overly defensive and reflected the fact that they had fallen for the framing trap presented by the antagonist. In this blog post, I want to clarify the MMT position on the use of taxes and inflation policy. What you will learn is that both positions presented in that Twitter war were largely erroneous, and, conflated concepts, either knowingly (probably not) or unknowingly, to leave a muddy mess. As the cloud became thicker, the ‘debate’ descended, as all these Twitter exchanges seem to, into unhelpful accusations of racial insult, claims of ignorance and stupidity, and worse. Not very helpful.