Last week (January 20, 2022), Eurostat released the latest inflation data – Annual inflation up to 5.0% in the euro area – which followed the release from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics data (January 12, 2022) – Consumer Price Index Summary , the latter, which shocked people, given that it recorded an annual inflation rate of 7 per cent before seasonal adjustment. The Euro area inflation rate over the same period was published as 5 per cent. It is obviously hard to see clearly through the data trends given the amount of pandemic noise that is dominating. But I stand by my 2020 assessment (updated several times since) that we are still seeing ephemeral price pressures as a result of the massive disruption the pandemic has caused to production, distribution and transport systems. In a sense, I am surprised the inflationary pressures have not be greater.
I read an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) yesterday (January 16, 2022) – Ich hoffe auf Deutschland – which made me laugh really. Comedy in absurdity. It also told me that the forces in Europe are firmly against any major progressive change. I considered this issue last week in this blog post – German threats of exit rely on the ignorance of others reinforced by Europhile progressives (January 11, 2022). I know progressives thought that the invocation of the Stability and Growth Pact escape clause in 2020 as the pandemic took hold might have been a sign that things were changing in Europe after years of austerity bias. But as the days pass, more evidence mounts that there is a status quo that is being managed and it won’t be long before we see the familiar claims about excessive deficits and debt. The latest input comes from Austria’s new Finance Minister, Magnus Brunner who was reported in the FAZ article as saying that he rejects a debt union outright and hopes to win over the new German government to ensure they hold the fort. With the new German finance minister also of a similar if not more extreme persuasion about sound finance, I do not think he will have much trouble convincing the German. He also signalled that he wants to use a coalition – the “Staaten der Verantwortung“ (States of Responsibility) to maintain discipline in the Eurozone. The short period of fiscal flexibility is coming to an end. Meanwhile, with the French Presidential election approaching, the Left is fighting among itself for peanuts. The old guard is not about to fall yet.
When I am asked whether I still consider the recent bout of inflation to be transitory, I say that transitory means as long as the pandemic disrupts the balance between supply and demand. Note: demand. I have been getting lots of E-mails telling me that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a fraud because of the inflation spike and our denial of the demand (spending) involvement. Apparently, the data shows that large fiscal deficits and central bank bond-buying programs are always inflationary. Good try. I last provided data and analysis of this issue in this blog post – Central banks are resisting the inflation panic hype from the financial markets – and we are better off as a result (December 13, 2021) – where I made it clear that the spikes are a unique coincidence between abnormal, pandemic-related demand and supply patterns. That couldn’t be clearer. And when that sort of imbalance occurs, with the addition of cartel-type price gouging (which has nothing to do with fiscal or monetary policy settings) then MMT predicts a nation will encounter inflationary pressures. The idea that the economy is defined by periods below full capacity when there will be no inflation and beyond full capacity when there will be inflation is not part of the MMT body of knowledge. It is more complicated than that dichotomy which we address in our textbook – Macroeconomics. Supporting this view, is a recent ECB research paper, which uses fairly advanced econometric techniques to decompose one measure of inflationary expectations in a component that reflects short-term risk and another that reflects longer term inflationary expectations. They find the former is driving the current inflation trajectory while the latter is largely stable. That means, in English, that the current inflation is likely to be of an ephemeral nature driven by how long the pandemic interrupts supply chains.
I read a story in the German press – Der Euro auf dem Prüfstand (‘The euro on the test bench’, published January 7, 2022) – which reinforced my view that progressives who think the harsh austerity-bias of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) have vanished with the invocation of the ‘general escape clause’ within Article 126 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union when the pandemic arrived are off the mark. And when the same commentators/thinkers welcomed the end of the Merkel era and the dawning of the new German government, their assessment reflected that they are trapped within the TINA to the euro thought process. Well, economists with influence in Germany certainly don’t think that and one of the bosses of the Kiel Instituts für Weltwirtschaft (IfW) (Kiel Institute for the World Economy), which is a German research institute, has called for the topic of German exit from the EMU to be debated. He believes that this will put pressure on the other Member States (particularly the so-called “Achse Paris-Rom” (Paris-Rome axis) to abandon any thought of relaxing the economic and monetary rules and force the ECB to tighten monetary policy again. The iron gauntlet of ‘schwarze Null’ is still firmly gripping the European debate.
Regular readers will know that I have written a lot about the topic of European integration. My 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale (published May 2015) – was a detailed study of the evolution of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) from the origins of the ‘European Project’, as peace came in the late 1940s. I have argued that the creation of the EMU, after several failed attempts in the 1960s and 1970s, was only possible because of the emergence of Monetarism in the academy and its related socio-political manifestations which we call, generally, neoliberalism or market liberalism. If France had not succumbed to the neoliberal myths and believed it could dominate the currency union with a ‘franc fort’ then its traditional rivalry with Germany would have continued to prevent the adoption of the common currency. What I have been arguing since the ECB introduced the Securities Market Program (in May 2010) is that despite the success by the EMU architects (Delors and his gang) in embedding neoliberal principles into the legal structure of the European Union and its institutions the reality has overtaken them and a dysfunctional dystopia is only maintained by the ECB and other institutions defying the ‘rules’ established. We are now starting to see other researchers take up that angle, which is progress.
The Eurozone continues to stumble on, held together by the vast bond-buying program of the ECB, which has saved several Member States from insolvency over the last several years. While all the talk at present has been about what to do about the punitive and unworkable fiscal rules in a post-pandemic (when will that be?) period, when the emergency waivers of the Excessive Deficit Mechanism procedures are withdrawn, the reality is that under the current architecture, the only thing that keeps the currency union intact is the ECB acting outside of the legal structures set down by the treaties. Yes, I know full well that the elites have massaged the public into believing that there is no breach of the no bailout clauses, but the reality is different. The ECB is (indirectly) funding Member State fiscal deficits through its massive asset purchasing programs, the two relevant ones being the PSPP and the PEPP. And ever since they introduced the Securities Market Program (SMP) in May 2010 they have been providing funding to Member States to allow them to run fiscal deficits while maintaining low bond yields. With the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) scheduled to end in March 2022, the fears are growing that Italy will be the first Member State to succumb to the bond markets – the yields on debt will rise because the investors appreciate the credit risk and will know they cannot offload as much debt onto the ECB in the secondary markets. The fact that these fears are becoming more widespread should tell you that the role of the ECB is exactly what I say it is rather than the ‘maintaining order in investment markets’ spin that the ECB runs as the smokescreen.
It’s Wednesday so not much today. I offer some comments on the latest data release from Germany (not good) and the probability that the new German finance minister will be anything other than a dangerous dud. An announcement about the edX MMTed course (coming back). And then Blind Willie Johnson serving up Great Depression angst.
Given my inflation report yesterday, I have shifted my usual Wednesday light blog post day and music feature to today. The economic debate has moved in recent years from ‘when is the government going broke’ to ‘hyperinflation is approaching’. It amazes me how puerile the economic commentary is as journalists and economists seeking headlines trot out headlines about how bad something (insert: insolvency, inflation, whatever is the latest craze) is going to be and what needs to be done about it. Nothing much happens in the real world and they keep their jobs and begin the next mania. Replay. And so it goes. It seems though that within this fictional world, that masquerades as informed economic commentary, subtle changes are underway. Governments worked out that during the GFC, the only weapon they had that would save the system was fiscal policy. They also worked out that large-scale bond buying by their central banks complemented the effective use of fiscal policy and didn’t deliver all the maelstrom that the mainstream New Keynesian textbooks predicted. The pandemic has accentuated that. And now there is this sort of stand-off between the ‘markets’ that were given too much latitude in the pre-GFC period and governments. The market players, who have become accustomed to manipulating government policy to ratify their speculative bets, which delivered massive profits to the hedge funds and the like, are now confronting central banks and treasuries that actually have power and cannot be bullied into delivering such policy ratification. That is progress and interesting to observe.
It is a public holiday today celebrating – Labour Day – which recognises the struggles to successfully gain an 8-hour working day for workers. The first of the many marches in this struggle occurred in my hometown of Melbourne on April 21, 1856, and history shows that this march was successful in achieving the first 8-hour day decision in the world, without loss of pay. So today we think of that. If workers unite they have the capacity to achieve great things. What follows is a brief report and footage from a debate I participated in on October 2, 2021, which was organised by some groups in Helsinki, Finland.
Its seems the conservative economics press is going through a hard time as it tries to wrest itself from its past litany of errors of judgement, backing the wrong horse, whatever. The latest example is The Economist Magazine, which ran a Leader Article over the weekend (September 25, 2021) = The mess Merkel leaves behind. It eviscerates the Merkel period for leaving Germany with a legacy that will cause headaches for future leaders and for the German people. This runs counter to the usual stuff the Magazine has offered about the soundness of Germany over many years as a bastion of stability and good financial management. It also provides a dose of reality to the raft of ridiculous glowing assessments of the Merkel years. In my view, she has overseen a government that has undermined its own prosperity, deliberately disobeyed the very rules it enforces on other nations in the Eurozone, and bullied leaders of other nations to enact dreadful policy shifts that have impoverished defenceless citizens. It is a cause of celebration that she is going not because we laud her work, quite the opposite. One failure less in public office.