It’s Wednesday, and we have some analysis and news and then my music segment for the week. Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) stunned the nation by pushing up interest rates by 0.5 points, claiming it was the responsible thing to do given that inflation was higher than expected. They then outlined all the factors driving inflation – none of which are going to be responsive to interest rate rises. Further, when one dissects the way in which interest rate rises work through distributional effects and effects on business costs, it is not clear that increasing rates will not just add to the stimulation rather than reduce it as the RBA claims. Next, we Fact Check the Fact Checkers and after all of that we have some Tupelo Blues, to restore some sense of decorum.
Yesterday (May 11, 2022), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index Summary – April 2022 – which showed the monthly increase in the CPI to be 0.3 per cent, the lowest monthly increase since August 2021 and, as it happens, just about right on the average monthly growth rate from January 1947 and April 2022. The result suggests a tapering of price pressures. The Energy component fell by 2.7 per cent in April after spiking at 11 per cent in March. Further, the growth in food prices fell for the third consecutive month. All of this has nothing to do with the recent interest rises imposed on the economy by the US Federal Reserve. They were already in train and confirm the transitory nature of this period of price instability. The US Treasury Department also published its most recent fiscal statistics yesterday – Monthly Treasury Statement – for April 2022, which reports a staggering $US533,794 fiscal shift between April 2021 and April 2022 – the fiscal drag embodied in that shift is massive and calls into question the conduct of the US Federal Reserve – why did they think they needed to push the economy towards recession? Fiscal policy is already working in that direction!
Last night (March 30, 2022), the Federal Treasurer released the annual ‘fiscal statement’ (aka ‘The Budget’), which revealed to everyone how cynical these exercises have become. The statement is normally released in May but the Federal government has to go to the polls then and they are so far behind the Opposition Labor Party in the opinion polling that they decided to bring forward the fiscal statement as a last ditch attempt to bribe the voters with pennies. I hope it doesn’t work. This is one of the most dishonest and incompetent governments we have ever had to deal with – and that is saying something given our history. While everyone is talking about the cash splash – it is offset by a range of cuts and dissipates in a few months anyway – just after the election. And the Government is once again revealing it has not foresight – to deal with the major challenges – climate, aged care, health care, higher education, social housing, etc. I can barely even write about the statement it is so bad.
There are some Op Eds that are bad, and then others that transcend that standard to become terrible. Such was the case last week when I read this article in the Australian press (Sydney Morning Herald) (February 18, 2022) – It’s time to return to Costello economics, whoever wins the federal election – which was written by a former advisor to the last Labor Prime Minister in Australia. The article is dishonest in that it completely ignores the most significant aspects of the period he seeks to eulogise. It is also scary if it reflects current Labor Party thinking, given the author’s previous associations.
It is hard to imagine that so little progress has been made in dismantling the mainstream macroeconomics paradigm over the last decade within the institutions of government. We have had the GFC, and now, the pandemic to disclose what does and does not happen when governments engage in relatively large fiscal shifts, yet the fictional world that is taught in mainstream university programs and echoed in policy making circles keeps being rehearsed. While researching the literature on rates of return on public infrastructure spending for a project (book chapter) I am working on at present, I came across the starkness of the mainstream deception. They are still claiming that public spending damages private spending.
There was an informative article in the UK Guardian over the week (January 13, 2022) – Australia’s supply chain issues likely to continue despite drop in Covid cases – which documented the many ways in which the pandemic has led to difficulties in getting goods supplied to retail outlets or their destination (in the case of overseas mail deliveries). The majority of recent articles about the economy and policy options have erred on the side of the need for interest rate hikes and fiscal policy cutbacks, which assume the rising inflation rates around the world are the demand-side events. But it is obvious to anyone other than private bank economists who are lobbying for interest rate rises to increase the profits for their banks, or, mainstream economists, who oppose central bank bond-buying and fiscal deficits, that the cause of the problems at present is not being driven by an explosion of nominal spending – neither from the non-government sector or through fiscal policy. Here is some more evidence to support that conclusion.
Last year, the US Federal Reserve dropped a bombshell on mainstream macroeconomics by abandoning the consensus approach to monetary policy, which prioritised fighting inflation over maintaining low levels of unemployment, and, increasing interest rates well before any defined inflationary pressures were realised – the so-called forward guidance approach. It has also been buying massive quantities of US government debt and controlling bond yields in the markets as a result. Attention has been on the ECB to see where it would pivot too and whether it was going to abandon its own massive government bond buying program any time soon, which has been effectively funding the fiscal deficits of the 19 Member-States of the Eurozone. Recent statements have indicated the QE programs in Europe will not be ending any time soon. And an ECB Board member all but tied the scale of the purchasing programs to the size of the fiscal deficits as a guide to how long and how large the QE interventions would be.
I keep reading that the European Commission has abandoned the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and that the euro is no longer a problem. I beg to differ. On June 6, 2021, the European Commission released a – Report prepared in accordance with Article 126(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – which updated their latest views on the state of fiscal balances in the EU. The Report confirms the Commission’s intention to return to the Excessive Deficit Mechanism process in 2023. The problem is that the whole assessment process is biased towards fiscal austerity. I show why in this blog post.
I have been working on an article that will come out in the press soon on inflationary pressures. It is obvious that characters like Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard are trying to stay at the centre of the debate by issuing various lurid threats about the likelihood of an inflation outbreak in the US and elsewhere. Last week, the Financial Times published an article (June 3, 2021) by the former German Finance Minister and now President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schäuble – Europe’s social peace requires a return to fiscal discipline. I was initially confronted with the juxtaposition of this author, who bullied all and sundry during to the GFC to ensure an austerity mindset was maintained at great cost to the millions who were deliberately forced to endure unemployment, with the photo of John Maynard Keynes under the title of the article. The title didn’t seem to match the picture. My first impressions were correct. Lessons have not been learned.
My Wednesday blog post with a few snippets. Don’t forget to enrol in our MOOC which begins next week. Also, some news from Britain that shows once again the British Labour Party has the gun aimed straight at its foot. And some comments on yesterday’s Australian government decision to increase the unemployment benefit by $25 per week and claiming this was appropriate – when it still means the recipients are $163 per week below the accepted poverty line. Enforced poverty by a government that refuses to create enough jobs and then punishes the victims of the policy failure. This all amounts to War and we can sing along to that after getting angry about the rest.
As part of the paradigmic turmoil that is confronting mainstream economists, we are witnessing some very interesting strategies. Imagine you establish a set of principles that are seemingly inviolable. They are the bedrock of the belief system, even though it is not called that. These principles then offer all sorts of predictions about, yes, the real world. They are without nuance. The predictions are so worrying, that politicians, whether they are knowing or not, proceed with caution in some cases, and, in other cases, openly damage the well-being of citizens because they have been told that shock therapy is better than a long drawn out demise into ‘le marasme’. The authority for all the carnage that follows (unemployment, poverty, pension cuts, degraded public infrastructure and services, etc) is these ‘inviolable principles’. Economists swan around the world preaching them and bullying students and others into accepting them as gospel. The policy advice is hard and fast. Governments must stay credible. Except one day they completely change tack and all the policy advice that established certain actions to be totally taboo become the norm. We observe things are better as a result. Does this mean those ‘inviolable principles’ were bunk all along? Not according to the mainstream economists who are trying to position themselves on the right side of history. Apparently, their optimising New Keynesian models can totally justify fiscal dominance and central bank funding fiscal deficits when yesterday such actions were taboo. Which leg are they trying to pull?
Yesterday, I discussed the results of recent research that demonstrated the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis, which has been used to justify the sequence of tax cuts for high income recipients, was without any empirical foundation. While mainstream economists have been enchanted with that hypothesis, heterodox (including Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have never considered it had any validity – neither theoretical nor empirical. But it is good that mainstream researchers are now ratifying that long-held view. Today, I am discussing another case of the mainstream catching up. When I say catching up, the implications of these new empirical studies are devastating for key propositions that the mainstream macroeconomists maintain. The ECB Working Paper series published an interesting paper (No. 2509) yesterday (December 21, 2020) by an Italian economist from the Bank of Italy – Losers amongst the losers: the welfare effects of the Great Recession across cohorts. In brief, the research found that younger people bear disproportionate burdens during recession in the short-run, but also, face diminished prospects over the longer-term. The paper bears on some of the major fictions that have been propagated to disabuse governments of using fiscal deficits to smooth out the economic cycle – namely, the alleged burden that is created by the current generation’s excesses (the deficit) for their children and grandchildren (who according to the narrative have to pay back the debt incurred by the excesses). This is another case of evidence being produced that ratify the analysis that MMT economists have been advancing for the last 25 years.
Last month, I noted that with the virus infections in the US increasing rapidly and renewed lockdowns almost inevitable combined with the lack of fiscal support from government, labour market conditions would probably deteriorate in November. I thought the US faced an uncertain and pessimistic future. The latest data reveals that assessment was accurate. On December 4, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – November 2020 – which reveals a deteriorating situation. Employment growth has slowed dramatically and participation fell by 0.2 points, which is the only reason that the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 points. Once we take into account the decline in the labour force, we realise that the fall in unemployment is illusory – it just means that workers who would normally be considered unemployed are now being classified as outside the labour force (that is, as hidden unemployed). The impasse at Congress on the the size and design of the next tranche of fiscal support is not helping. And then the data shows the lax health policy is allowing the virus to run out of control and how that plays out is anyone’s guess. I suspect a nation has to get the health problem sorted before they can really sort out the economic problem. The US appears to be going in the opposite direction to that. I doubt it will turn out well.
Last week we saw further evidence of the way in which class divisions create havoc for society although the way these events have been constructed in the media and popular perception are the antithesis of what was really going on. After having no coronavirus cases since April 16, 2020, suddenly we were informed on Sunday, November 15, 2020, that a dangerous virus cluster had emerged in South Australia (in particular the capital Adelaide) as a result of a breach in quarantine. The memories of Victoria’s second wave, which had started as a result of a similar breach came flooding back and the South Australian state government almost immediately imposed a very harsh 6-day lockdown (the most restrictive imaginable). The following day, amidst all the furore about the severity of the restrictions, the Government announced they were rescinding the orders (mostly). Why? Because some foreign worker had contracted the virus had lied to investigators about his status and was, in fact, working at both the quarantine hotel where the breach occurred and a pizza shop were additional cases had been detected. Apparently this ‘lie’ led to the severe lockdown because it created some uncertainty in transmission links. I doubt that was the case and I think the Government just overreacted and lacked confidence in their own systems. But now it is the ‘lie’ that everyone is focusing on and the Premier is threatening to ‘throw the book’ at the individual. Not many questions are being asked in the media about the poor systems that led to the breach in the first place nor the overreaction of the government. All attention is being focused on a casualised, precarious worker who was forced to work (at least) two jobs to survive. There lies the issue.
Victoria went the so-called ‘double doughnut’ again today with zero new infections and zero deaths – the fourth consecutive day. It now has the lowest number of people sick with the virus (known) since the start of the pandemic in Australia in February. Only 38 active cases remain in Victoria after its 12 week lockdown. There is no community transmission reported now in Victoria and the other day Australia recorded zero (community transmitted) cases overall. So things are less tense than they were. I still haven’t been able to travel to my office in Melbourne which I have been away from since the lockdowns started in June. But hope springs eternal that the NSW government will open the border and let us move freely between the States. At the same time, the NSW government is demonstrating its economic incompetence. The State Treasurer announced that in the midst of the worst crisis in 100 years, it is cutting the pay of its public servants when it brings down its fiscal statement. Clue: when in a deep recession with records levels of household debt dramatically constraining growth in household consumption expenditure, which in turn, is killing growth, then the sure fire way to make matters worse by cutting the very source of consumption expenditure – yes, you get it – workers’ wages.
The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, October 2020 – released today (October 15, 2020) shows that the recovery has stalled on the back of the Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria as that state dealt with the second virus wave. However, Tasmania and the Northern Territory also experienced employment losses in September 2020 and that is in part due to the locked internal borders that remain throughout Australia. Employment growth declined by 29.5 thousand but the rise in unemployment was only 11.3 thousand because the participation rate fell by 0.1 points. So, hidden unemployment rose (the slack sitting outside the official labour force). If we take a broader view of the labour underutilisation rate, underemployment rose by 0.1 points to 11.3 per cent and combined with the uneployment rate, the broad labour underutilisation rate rose by 0.2 points to 18.3 per cent. If we add in the rise in hidden unemployment then that figure rises to 20.3 per cent. Any government that oversees that sort of disaster has failed in their basic responsibilities to society. It must increase its fiscal stimulus and target it towards large-scale job creation.
In my monthly labour market updates for Australia, I always examine the teenage labour market. Not much media coverage is given to that cohort in this context. But as our societies age and require our younger workers to be more productive than their parents to maintain material living standards (even though we should be reappraising what is an environmentally feasible benchmark to maintain), how we deal with school-to-work transitions, vocational training, university education is a major issue. The fact that governments all around the world have been prepared to impose massive costs on the younger generation as they obsessively pursue fiscal surpluses is one of the scandals of the period and will have long-term consequences for society. Recent Australian research evidence, which is consistent with outcomes from similar international studies, provides strong evidence to support the case that governments should always ensure there are enough jobs for our young population and that fiscal austerity undermines that requirement. Running fiscal deficits doesn’t undermine our children’s futures. Starving them of job opportunities at crucial transition points in their lives definitely undermines their future. We should understand that and stop listening to economists who say otherwise.
Here is some analysis of Tuesday’s Fiscal Statement from the Australian Treasurer. It was touted as the most important fiscal statement in 100 years (or something like that). What we got was a supply-side statement about markets creating jobs, massive tax cuts for high income earners and virtually nothing for the lowest paid. There was very little about the climate crisis. There was a lot of talk about jobs, jobs, jobs but no direct job creation. And the Government’s own estimates suggest that unemployment will remain at elevated levels through 2023 which means that the scale of the fiscal intervention is grossly inadequate. I see very little good in this fiscal strategy and a lot of bad. There are many commentaries available in the mainstream media which cover specifics and so I am just concentrating on things that I find important.
The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, August 2020 – released today (September 17, 2020) shows that employment rose by 0.9 per cent as the economy struggled to shift back into growth mode. In part, the moderate result was due to the impact of the Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria as that state dealt with the second virus wave. Victoria was the only state or territory to endure negative employment growth in August. As the virus situation is coming under control and the lockdowns are easing, Victoria will rebound fairly quickly – how far depends on the damage done during the closures. The lack of external migration is also seeing the labour force growth moderate significantly, which allowed unemployment to decline by 86.5 thousand on the back of the modest employment boost. Participation also rose. The reality is that if we take a broader view of the labour underutilisation rate (adding in the hidden unemployment who have left the labour force since March) to the official unemployed and underemployed, we find around 19.5 per cent of the available labour supply is not working in one way or another. Any government that oversees that sort of disaster has failed in their basic responsibilities to society. It must increase its fiscal stimulus and target it towards large-scale job creation. My overall assessment is: (a) The current situation can best still be described as near catastrophic; (b) The Australian labour market needs massive fiscal policy intervention targetted at direct job creation; (c) The pre-pandemic need for a fiscal stimulus of around 2 per cent has changed to a fiscal stimulus requirement of several times that; (d) The Federal government’s attempts to date have been seriously under-whelming and we will soon see the results of their withdrawal of the unemployment benefit supplement (a ridiculous decision); and (e) Any government that oversees that sort of disaster has failed in their basic responsibilities to society.
Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest data – Retail Trade, Australia, Preliminary , July 2020 – which showed that retail turnover in July 2020 had risen by 3.3 per cent, the second month of improvement since it fell off a cliff in the two months from March. The exception was for Victoria, which is now in Stage 4 lockdown, which caused retail sales to fall by 2 per cent. Today, the ABS released the latest data for – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 8 August 2020 – which gives us the most up-to-date picture of how the labour market is coping with the on-going restrictions and the reimposed of harsh Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria. Unsurprisingly, payroll employment fell in the fortnight ending August 8, 2020 in Victoria by 1.6 per cent. But what was also surprising was that employment fell in every other state or territory bar Tasmania and ACT. The Victorian case is about lockdown. The other declines are about failed macroeconomic policy, which goes to the performance of the federal government. Regular readers will know that I have routinely analysed this dataset ever since it first became available in March this year. It uniqueness is that it provides the most recent data upon which an assessment of where the labour market is heading. The data shows that after a partial recovery from the downturn, payroll employment is declining again. The fact that the first recovery period failed to regain the jobs lost was an indicator that the policy intervention was insufficient. The second-wave job losses tell us clearly that that more needs to be done by the Federal government. I am not holding my breath.