Well things are going to get messier with the decision yesterday by the OPEC+ cartel to significantly reduce the oil supply and push up prices. On the one hand, when OPEC was first formed and pushed prices up, while there was significant disruption to oil-dependent nations, the substitution that followed (home oil heating abandoned, larger cars replaced by smaller cars, etc) was ultimately beneficial. So given that we need less cars on roads and less kms travelled by cars, one might consider the move to be fine. But given the way the central banks and treasury departments around the world are behaving at present, the short term impacts of the OPEC+ decision will be very damaging. How citizens endure whatever extra inflationary pressures that might emerge will depend on the fiscal and monetary policy responses. We have two diametrically opposed models: the one that most nations are following (hikes and austerity) versus the Japanese approach. I explain the difference below and predict that the latter will deliver much better outcomes for the people.
The Eurozone is currently in a period of ‘temporary’ hiatus – by which I mean that to deal with the obvious system-ending implications of the pandemic (increasing fiscal deficits etc) the European Commission invoked the special clauses to suspend the application of the fiscal rules outlined in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and related Excessive Deficit Mechanism procedures and the European Central Bank introduced an even larger bond-buying program to ensure the resulting deficits would be funded without bond yields rising. Result: fiscal deficits rose well beyond the SGP limit of 3 per cent in 2020 and have remained at elevated levels relative to the rules in 2021. The overall Eurozone deficit is 4.7 per cent of GDP and 11 of the 19 Member States remain in ‘violation’ of the Excessive Deficit Mechansim should that be reinvoked. It is clear that unless the ECB continues funding the deficits across the union (even though it claims otherwise), then the European Commission will tempt disaster if it tries to reassert the Excessive Deficit Mechansim. Already so-called ‘reform’ proposals are emerging and many more will come in the months ahead. The first major effort from the IMF is really just more of the same and fails to deal with the dysfunction at the design level of the monetary union. The proposals so far are just advocating putting band-aids over the mess – and they are weak bandages at best. But how this dilemma is resolved will be interesting for sure.
What a world we live in where we are snowed with propaganda from the elites about how the only way forward is that we accept “pain” or “sacrifice” to prevent some inflationary catastrophe from accelerating out of control and that if workers dare seek some cost-of-living redress as corporations go for broke in their margin push, then the pain the policy makers will inflict will be greater. The annual gathering of the elites at Jackson Hole in Wyoming over the last days has been one of those ‘can you believe this lot’ moments. First, we had the US Federal Reserve boss almost joyfully telling Americans that he will inflict pain on them because “these are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation”. At the same event, the ECB Board member Isabel Schnabel told the gathering that the central banks had to inflict higher unemployment rates to control inflation to stop wages getting driven by inflationary expectations. And then we look at wages growth in Europe and see that real wages are in free fall (dropping 5.9 per cent in the June-quarter 2022).
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.
Despite all the hysteria about the current inflationary pressures and the reversion of central bank policy committees to the New Keynesian norm – interest rates have to rise to kill off inflation otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling process where wage demands are made in ‘expectation’ of more inflation and firms (passively in their view) have to pass on the higher unit costs, I remain of the view that this period is transitory. That doesn’t win me any friends (other than my true friends). It also leads to another hysterical line of Twitter-type statements that the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) have gone silent because they were wrong about fiscal deficits not causing inflation and are too ashamed to admit it. I haven’t gone silent. I have been continuous in my advocacy both privately and publicly. The rise in fiscal deficits during the pandemic and the central bank bond purchases have had little to do with this inflationary episode. Covid, sickness of workers, War, natural disasters (floods, fires) and noncompetitive cartels and energy markets are the reason for the inflation (variously in different countries) and interest rate increases won’t do much at all to target changes in those driving factors. New ECB research (released August 3, 2022) in their Economic Bulletin (Issue 5, 2022) – Wage share dynamics and second-round effects on inflation after energy price surges in the 1970s and today – reinforces my assessment of the situation.
It’s Wednesday and I have a few items of interest (to me at least) to warm us up for the music feature, which is beautiful though sad. First up we learn how a senior Tory MP has made admissions to the media that completely contradict mainstream macroeconomics and validate what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) tells us. Second, we learn from the latest ECB data just how ‘flexible’ (read: anything goes) it can be in its government funding. Italy and Spain are being rescued at present. As I said anything goes. And third, the vandalism of the Reserve Bank of Australia continues. Then we can rest and listen to some glorious singing.
So last week, the Bank of Japan remained the last bank standing, the rest in the advanced world have largely lost the plot by thinking that raising interest rates significantly will reduce the global inflationary pressures that are being driven by on-going supply disruptions arising from the pandemic, the noncompetitive behaviour of the OPEC oil cartel and the Russian assault on Ukraine. The most recent central bank to buckle is the ECB, which last week raised interest rates by 50 basis point, apparently to fight inflation. But the ECB did it with a twist. On the one hand, the rate hike was very mainstream and based on the same defective reasoning that engulfs mainstream macroeconomics. But on the other hand, they introduced a new version of their government bond-buying programs, which the mainstream would call ‘money printing’ and inflationary. So, contradiction reigns supreme in the Eurozone and that is because of the dysfunctional monetary architecture that the neoliberals put in place in the 1990s. The only way the common currency can survive is if the ECB continues to fund Member State deficits, even if they play the charade that they are doing something different. Hilarious.
On August 27, 2020, the US Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell made a path breaking speech – New Economic Challenges and the Fed’s Monetary Policy Review. On the same day, the Federal Reserve Bank released a statement – Federal Open Market Committee announces approval of updates to its Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy. I analysed that shift in this blog post – US Federal Reserve statement signals a new phase in the paradigm shift in macroeconomics (August 31, 2020). It appeared at the time, that a major shift in the way central banking policy was to be conducted in the future was underway. A Reuters’ report (August 28, 2020) – With new monetary policy approach, Fed lays Phillips curve to rest – reported that “One of the fundamental theories of modern economics may have finally been put to rest”. At the time, I didn’t place enough emphasis on the ‘may’ and now realise that nothing really has changed after a few years of teetering on the precipice of change. The old guard is back and threatening the livelihoods of workers in their usual way.
The French National Assembly results from the weekend are a good outcome. Not the best, but good, although the continued presence of the Right is disturbing. At least Macron’s group of Europhiles has lost its absolute majority with the new Left alliance becoming a viable opposition. The polarisation – with a surge from the Right and the strong performance of the real Left rather than the lite Socialist Party version – is indicative of what Europe has become – a fractured, divided, divergent set of nations and regions. If the Left had have seen the value in this unity ticket during the Presidential election things might have been different. But better late than ever. France will now find it hard pushing further neoliberal policies and there will be pressures on the government to defy the fiscal rules and redress some of the shocking deficiencies that the neoliberal period has created. But, those pressures are coming squarely up against the impending crisis facin gthe monetary union. All the economics talk in Europe at the moment is indicative of the plight that monetary union faces after papering over the cracks during the first two-and-a-half years of the pandemic. After years of holding the bond spreads down, with their asset purchasing programs, things are changing as the ECB is pressured to follow suit and hike interest rates and abandon their bond buying. If they do both things, then there will be a crisis quick smart because nations like Italy will face increasing yields on their borrowing which will run out of control. So, the solution – another ad hoc response – an “anti-fragmentation” tool. If it sounds like a joke that keeps on rolling, you would not be wrong. More paper, same cracks.
It’s Wednesday and I just finished a ‘Conversation’ with the Economics Society of Australia, where I talked about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to current policy issues. Some of the questions were excellent and challenging to answer, which is the best way. You can view an edited version of the discussion below and then enjoy The Meters.