I am currently quite interested in the formation of consumer expectations after being asked by a major financial institution to consider constructing a new series for them. So in developing the project I have been enmeshed in technical detail the last week or so. I am also interested in the way different polls are interpreted. In the last few days two major polls in the US have been released. They are broadly in agreement but there are some interesting differences. The other interesting aspect of the polls is that they provide further evidence against the way the mainstream of my profession thinks about the economy. They reveal that individuals are not likely to behave as Ricardian agents. The mainstream theorist claim that individuals will spend once governments cut deficits and politicians have used this assertion to justify imposing (or suggesting) harsh fiscal austerity. The reality is very different as these polls suggest.
Economists have a strange way of writing up briefing documents. There is an advanced capacity to dehumanise economic advice and ignore the most important economic and social problems (unemployment and poverty) in favour of promoting non-issues (like public debt ratios). It reminds me sometimes of how the Nazis who were brutal in the extreme in the execution of their ideology sat around getting portraits of themselves taken with their loving families etc. The training of economists creates an advanced state of separation from human issues and an absence of empathy. Such is the case in a October 21, 2011 document – Greece: Debt Sustainability Analysis – which is labelled STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL by its authors and was intended as input to the upcoming meeting of the Eurozone leaders – which is in fact the EU/ECB/IMF – aka and hereafter referred to as the “Troika”. As I read the document – in all its luridly obscene detail – I wondered what if economists were personally liable for their advice? The jails would be full of bankrupted economists. I am sure that the Troika economists would plead “only following orders” but then we have heard that before too.
Last weekend, on the eve of the G-20 meeting in Paris over the weekend, the Australian Treasurer was talking tough and giving ultimatums to our Northern friends – telling them that the “time for half measures is over. The time for action is here. So people will be looking for a comprehensive plan on October 23”. Of-course, in the Communiqué of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors of the G20 from the Paris meeting you don’t get any sense of urgency. Not once do they mention the word “unemployment”. The problem is that the world leaders remain in denial and still want us to believe that you can have “growth-friendly” cuts in spending. To increase spending you do not cut it.
Imagine that the state I live in NSW was for want of a better association Ireland. Imagine Victoria was Greece (a good association because Melbourne is the second largest Greek-speaking city in the world). Imagine Queensland was Spain (both enjoy considerable sun). Imagine South Australia was Portugal (both regions have world-renowned wine making industries). Imagine Tasmania is Italy (both are southern regions in the respective hemispheres). Western Australia can stay as WA although it will not be long before we can add another association (Belgium, France, Estonia?). Anyway, let’s imagine that NSW was Ireland for a moment.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows and is spreading to other cities in the US and other cities around the World, my profession is “feverishly” trying to discover the “financial sector” to plug into their New Keynesian models. The global financial crisis caught them out badly. Now they are fixing that “deficiency” up and we will all be better informed again once the boffins do their work. That is what the Bank of International Settlements is trying to tell us anyway. As usual, the BIS is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution. The OWS movement is a recognition of that and anything the mainstream macroeconomists dish up will only inflame the resistance further. It is becoming clear that more people daily are saying “we will not pay for your crisis”.
Sometimes good things come out of bad – not often but sometimes.Yesterday was an example. I merrily set off for my bit over an hour flight from Newcastle to Melbourne with meetings organised in the late afternoon. Weather fine and warm. Upon approaching Melbourne airport we were informed that there were severe storms and after circling for an hour were diverted to Canberra – half-way back to Newcastle to refuel. After an hour doing we renewed our attempt to land in Melbourne and about 45 minutes later we succeeded. Phone calls made meetings rescheduled no problems. Except the airport was in chaos and we were stranded for 3 hours on the tarmac waiting for a gate. So 8 hours after leaving Newcastle – about 21:30 we leave the plane very frustrated and tired. See ABC News report. During the extended “flight” I read a detective novel. So what is good about that? Answer: being stuck in the plane I didn’t have the opportunity to read the WSJ, the FT, IMF papers, World Bank reports – in fact, I managed to avoid reading any financial or economic material. I ate dinner at around midnight – relaxed! But I lie. I did actually read the French financial paper La Tribune which carried the story – Les détails du plan secret allemand pour sauver la Grèce – which translates to “the details of a secret German plan to save Greece”. The headline grabbed me before sleep. As the zzzz’s started to overtake me I concluded that the Eurozone will be one less nation soon – there was once a country named Greece.
I am back in the land of semi-austerity and the sun is shining warmly. That is one of the advantages of living in Australia. We have mindless politicians like everywhere else but at least one can luxuriate near the beach in the sun. Let me just say at the outset that I am not against forecasting. I do it myself almost everyday and acknowledge that it is an art rather than a science – in other words forecast errors are par for the course. But a problem arises when ideology drives the forecasting process and that the forecasts are then used to perpetuate that ideology via policy development. If the underlying model of the economy that is reflective of that ideology is indelibly wrong then the policies advocated may damage the economy rather than improve it. The forecast errors will also be a sign that the underlying theory is deficient. That is exactly what occurs when the IMF produces its World Economic Outlook. If you trace the WEO forecasts for the last several years you will see how inaccurate they have been. But that hasn’t stopped the IMF from demanding fiscal austerity which has worsened the crisis. They continue to strut the world stage – bullying and claiming authority. The participating governments should terminate the IMFs tenure immediately by writing to the IMF saying that the first act of fiscal consolidation is to terminate their funding. The organisation serves no useful purpose.
Over the last week or so I have been in Europe and talking to all sorts of people. In the streets the decay is clear and I am in a relatively rich part of Europe (Maastricht). Unsold properties are multiplying and the there are lots of shopping space vacant in the main centres. It is very apparent to me but when I ask people about this some express surprise – not having noticed it themselves. I concede that when you come here once a year you note the changes but the reality is fairly stark. If we put this anecdotal evidence together with the way in which the Euro bosses are behaving and the overall quality of the policy debate in Europe at present it is clear to me that there is a great sense of denial in Europe. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany. Their growth model has failed and must change. But it will be very difficult to achieve the sort of national awareness that will render that change possible. The Eurozone was always going to fall apart as a result of its basic design flaws from its inception. But the German strategy – which they consider to be a source of national pride – actually ensured that once the basic design flaws were exposed by the collapse of aggregate demand, things would be much worse than otherwise.
Regular readers will note that I have consistently advocated the abandonment of the Euro and especially the immediate exit of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy to push things along. The basic design flaws in the ideologically-constructed monetary union were always going to bring it down. It wasn’t a matter of if but when. The when was always going to be the first major negative aggregate demand shock that the union experienced. Come 2008 we saw very starkly how quickly the region unravelled and now the situation is getting worse not better. Not many commentators agreed with me and most argued that with some tinkering and some harsh austerity the zone could rescue itself. The problem is basic though and has little to do with behaviour of the member states, although I will write tomorrow how the conduct of the Germans has exacerbated the crisis. It is clear that governments like Spain were more frugal than Germany’s government prior to the crisis and they now have 20 per cent unemployment and worse. As the crisis deepens though more commentators are now arguing for a Greek default and/or both default and exit. The sooner the southern states get out of the bind they are and free of the pernicious ideology of the EU/IMF/ECB troika the better. Tomorrow is not a day too soon.
Its hard to know where to start today. I opened my hard copy version of the Financial Times this morning and every page was “Greek yields off the scale”; “Greece default talk”; “Number of Americans in poverty at highest in 50 years”; “Rome set to identify next asset sales”; Fears of Greek collapse prey on French banking”; “Brics to debate possible eurozone aid”; and so it went. You couldn’t make this stuff up. To avoid sinking into an inconsolable depression, I closed the orange pages and, maybe foolishly, turned my attention to the Wall Street Journal. That came up with gems such as “Limiting the Damage of a Greek Default”; “Exit Strategy Goes Right Out the Door for Euro-Zone States”; “Yields in Italian Bond Auction Highlight Financing Challenge”; “China Not Seen as Knight Riding to Rescue of Italy”; at which point I wondered – given my current geographic location – what happens if I get stuck here? And then, to ease the day’s burden I wondered why the WSJ spells the Eurozone with a hyphen. That seemed to calm things down. Researching the use and mis-use of hyphens splitting words in two. But the thought kept lingering – this is so bizarre that you couldn’t make all this stuff up.