I have two days of teaching left in Helsinki and my next stop on Friday is Dublin where I will be discussing unification and exit. Should be a fun topic. Its Wednesday back home already and today I consider a matter that came up in one of my classes that I am taking in macroeconomics at the moment at the University of Helsinki. Students really struggle when first introduced to the idea of a stock and a flow. They can easily be led into defining a flow as a stock. Getting this absolutely right is one of the key building blocks in understanding basic macroeconomics and the links between the expenditure system and financial accumulation. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) builds heavily on the difference between stocks and flows and is also what we call stock-flow consistent. So all flows that inform stocks are accounted for in a consistent way. So, for example, we know that when households save, which is the residual of disposable income that is not consumed and a flow, this accumulates into a stock of financial wealth. Today, I am seeking to clarify the issue in my class that we did not have sufficient time to deal with in detail last week. And after that, some music to restore sanity.
The latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – September-quarter 2019 National Accounts data (December 4, 2019) – confirms what we have been tracing for several quarters – the Australian economy is grinding to a halt, households are trying to increase saving, the Government’s tax cuts from July seem to have been largely saved to run down debt rather than spent, business investment is weak, and government spending and the terms of trade boost to exports are the only thing between now and a recession. And, the government is in denial, thinking its fiscal surplus obsession is more important than protecting incomes and growth. The problem is that if you don’t do the latter, you can kiss the former goodbye anyway. The data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.7 per cent is around 1/2 the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first six months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. But those terms of trade gains will prove to be ephemeral. Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.4 per cent. Net exports were strong (terms of trade effect) and government consumption expenditure was strong courtesy of some policy measures in disability, health and aged care coming on-line. Their boost will also dissipate fairly quickly. Longer-term worries include the weakening household consumption growth and the on-going negative business investment growth. The data now lets us appraise whether the small tax cut stimulus the government introduced from July have been very effective. In an environment where household debt is at record levels, the risks of unemployment are rising, and wages growth remains stagnant, it is no surprise that the households are using their tax savings to reduce their risk levels. This is borne out by the rising saving ratio. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present. A major shift in fiscal policy towards expansion is now definitely required.
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released the – Gross Domestic Product, Third Quarter 2019 (Advance Estimate) – data yesterday (October 30, 2019). It shows that the US economy “increased at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in the third quarter of 2019” which was slightly slow than the 2 per cent recorded in the June quarter. As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on November 27, 2019. Underlying the headline figure, however, are shifting expenditure patterns in the US. Household consumption growth is declining and the contribution to growth was down from 3.03 points in une 2019 to 1.93 points. The personal saving rate rose from 8 per cent of disposable income to 8.1 per cent as households tightened up in the face of record levels of debt and sluggish wages growth. Total investment continued to be a negative drain on growth (-0.27 points compared to -1.16 points. Net exports also subtracted from growth (0.08 points compared to 0.68 points in the June-quarter). The increase in disposable personal income was lower (4.5 per cent) than in the June-quarter (4.8 per cent), although in real terms, the growth was 2.9 per cent compared to 2.4 per cent. Overall, and notwithstanding the continued growth, the question for the US growth prospects centre on what will happen to consumption expenditure growth. How much more will it decline and the saving rate rise?
I have recently had discussions with a PhD student of mine who was interested in exploring the cyclical link between productivity growth and the economic cycle in the context of the intergenerational debate about ageing and the challenge to improve the former. The issue is that sound finance – the mainstream macroeconomics approach – constructs the rising dependency ratio as a problem of government financial resources (not being able to afford health care and pensions) and prescribes fiscal austerity on the pretext that the government needs to save money to pay for these future imposts. Meanwhile, the real challenge of the rising dependency is that the next generation will have to be more productive than the last to maintain real standards of living and if austerity undermines productivity growth then it just exacerbates the ageing problem. My contention has always been the latter. That governments should use their fiscal capacity now to make sure there is a first-class education and training system in a growth environment to prepare us for the future when more people will have passed the usual concept of working age. This question also is hot at the moment in the Brexit debate in Britain and in this blog post I offer some empirical analysis to clear away some of the myths that the Remainers have been spreading.
I am in Brisbane today as an expert witness in an industrial hearing where the public education workers are trying to secure a wage increase in the face of fierce opposition from the Labor State government who insist on maintaining a wage cap that is depressing income growth and helping to cause the economic slowdown. The Government’s defense is that a wage rise would damage their fiscal plans which are to record recurrent surpluses of such magnitude that they can fund all capital spending out of recurrent revenue. Yes, a modern Labor government at work. They seem unable to that their suppression of wages growth is undermining overall growth, which undermines their tax revenue and makes their ridiculous fiscal goal unattainable anyway. Walking around in increasingly smaller circles. Anyway, it was a good day to be discussing these matters as it coincided with the latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – June-quarter 2019 National Accounts data (September 4, 2019). That data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.4 per cent (down from 1.6 per cent) and now around 1/3 the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first six months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. But those terms of trade gains will prove to be ephemeral and a related to disturbances in world markets (Brazil, etc). Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.5 per cent. Net exports were strong (terms of trade effect) and government consumption expenditure was strong courtesy of some policy measures in disability, health and aged care coming on-line. Their boost will also dissipate fairly quickly. Longer-term worries include the weak household consumption growth and the on-going negative business investment growth. Further, the fall in the saving ratio once again illustrates the folly of suppressing wages growth through wage caps etc. It is also apparent that the positive spending effects of the large government infrastructure projects (State-level) are now working their way through the system and their impact is declining. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present. A major shift in fiscal policy towards expansion is definitely now required.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest March-quarter 2019 National Accounts data today (June 5, 2019) and the data shows that annual GDP growth of 1.8 per cent is around half the historical trend rate. This is a very poor on-going result. The weaker performance started in the last 6 months of 2018 and has continued into the first three months of 2019. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. Overall, the quarterly growth rate was just 0.4 per cent. The weakness is exemplified by slackness in private domestic demand – weakening household consumption growth and poor business investment growth. The rise in the saving ratio recorded in the December-quarter may signal that households are finally just accepting that their consumption growth will have to be more subdued as they struggle with poor income growth and record levels of debt. The large government infrastructure projects (State-level) and public consumption expenditure are driving growth. Net exports also contributed to growth on the back of the rising terms of trade. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present.
Last Friday (April 26, 2019), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data (advance estimate) – Gross Domestic Product, First Quarter 2019 (Advance Estimate) – which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate of 3.2 per cent surprised most commentators (for its strength). As this is only the “Advance estimate” (based on incomplete data) there is every likelihood that the figure will be revised when the “second estimate” is published on May 30, 2019. Underlying the strong headline figure, however, are shifting expenditure patterns in the US. Household consumption growth is declining and the contribution to growth was down from 1.7 points in December 2018 to 0.82 points. The personal saving rate rose from 6.8 per cent of disposable income to 7 per cent as households tightened up in the face of record levels of debt and sluggish wages growth. The investment rose and Gross private domestic investment also contributed 0.92 points to growth, up from 0.66 points. However, that contribution was driven mostly by a rise in inventories, which can signal two things – either unsold goods due to firms overestimating domestic demand or stock-building in expectation of stronger future spending. I suspect it is the first of these explanations. Further, net exports were a strong contributor (1.03 points) after undermining growth in the December-quarter 2018. Real disposable personal income increased 2.4 per cent (down from 4.3 per cent in December). Overall, and notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) What will be the contraction in consumption expenditure growth with slow wages growth and elevated personal debt levels? Most of the consumption growth is coming because more people are getting jobs even though wages growth is flat. (b) Can net exports growth defy Trump’s trade policy? We will wait and see.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest December-quarter 2018 National Accounts data today (March 6, 2019) and we learn that in the last 6 months of 2018, the Australian economy descended into a recession in GDP per capita terms. That is, for the last two quarters of 2018, growth in GDP per capita was negative. However, due to a fairly strong terms of trade, Real net national disposable income rose, which signifies rising material living standards. Overall, the Australia economy has slowed considerably. The quarterly growth rate fell to just 0.2 per cent and 2.3 per cent (down from 2.8 over the 12 months to December 2018). However, the annual result is influenced by the outlier March-quarter. The annualised growth rate is really around 0.8 per cent, which is very poor. The economy remains reliant on household consumption expenditure, which is now moderating. Both private sector investment and the external sector are detracting from growth. The stark result is that without the contribution of the government sector, the Australian economy would have been deemed to be in recession now. There is a high probability that household consumption expenditure will slow further. The overall picture is not good and the future is looking rather dim at present.
On December 19, 2018, the Federal Reserve Bank Open Market Committee (FOMC), which determines the monetary policy settings in the US, increased the policy interest rate by 25 basis points to 2.5 per cent, as part of its plan to ‘normalise’ monetary policy. Even within the parameters of their own logic, it is hard to see any inflation threat. Long-term inflationary expectations suggest that people expect an unchanged situation over the next decade. Which suggests that the current unemployment rate is not seen as a threat to the price level. Now, while the FOMC decision may or may not cause some slow down in real GDP growth, given the blunt and ambiguous nature of monetary policy adjustments, the really disturbing aspect of the policy change is the fact that the FOMC members were plotting to push up unemployment by more than 1.2 million people as a plan to lower the inflation rate by a few basis points. Not only is that an obscene revelation but the fact that the FOMC use economic models that cannot tell them that the economic costs of such a shift are massive compared to any benefits that might arise from a slightly lower inflation rate tells us that policy is being made using deeply flawed, useless economic theory and models. Moral bankruptcy and incompetence rules.
The current conflict in France, while multidimensional, is a reflection that the neoliberal austerity system is not working for ordinary people. All sorts of cross currents feed in to this discontent, some of which (for example, distaste for foreigners/migrants) are clearly not to be encouraged. Most of the claims of the Gilets Jaunes are about the alienation, exclusion and poverty that they feel living in the neoliberal, corporatist EU world. A lot of so-called progressives are out there claiming this is a right-wing ruse advancing climate denial and anti-migrant sentiment. But I consider that to be a typical elite response to any EU discontent to avoid discussion of exit and the paint the critics as being stupid and/or racist. A replay of the Brexit accusations from the Remainers. But the writing is on the wall for the Eurozone countries. People will only tolerate being put down and oppressed for so long. And all is not well elsewhere. Even when a nation has its own currency and has the capacity to avoid the sort of stagnation that many European nations are now wallowing in, the universality of the neoliberal austerity bias is making life hard for not only the low-income cohorts, but, increasingly for the lower tiers of the ‘middle class’ (defined in income terms). Australian workers are feeling that pinch in the land of plenty.