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.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest September-quarter 2018 National Accounts data today (December 5, 2018) and the result show that in the past three months, the Australia economy has slowed considerably. The quarterly growth rate fell to just 0.3 per cent and 2.8 per cent (down from 3.4) over the 12 months to September 2018. However, the annual result is influenced by the outlier March-quarter. The annualised growth rate is really around 1.2 per cent, which is very poor. The economy remains reliant on household consumption expenditure, which, in turn, is being driven by credit and declining savings as household income growth moderates. Exports provided no growth filip. The large government infrastructure projects (State-level) are driving growth and without the government contribution in the September-quarter, the Australian economy would have recorded a zero growth rate. The contribution from private investment was negative and the outlook is not bright. That is an unsustainable mix. There is a high probability that household consumption expenditure will slow right down as debt levels become unmanageable. Whether that happens will depend on the wages growth trajectory in future quarters and the outlook on that front is mixed. All this means that the current overall growth trajectory is shaky.
On Thursday (November 8, 2018), the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the – GDP first quarterly estimate, UK: July to September 2018 – data, the first release under their new publication model, which is designed to improve “the accuracy and reliability” of the initial (formally denoted the “preliminary”) release. The next update will come in December and the expectation is that there will be less revisions, which is a good thing for those trying to assess where things are at. Remember, also that national accounts data is a rear-vision view of the economy – where its been rather than necessarily where it is at, although the two ‘views’ are obviously linked. The third-quarter national accounts data shows that Britain grew by 0.6 per cent, with “all four sectors” contributing to what is a strong result. But, under the headline, are mixed trends: household consumption spending continues to grow with rising debt, although wages growth appears to be moving finally; business investment was negative; and net exports “contributed 0.8 percentage points” with a strengthening of exports. What the data tells us at this stage is that Britain continues to defy the claims that a meltdown is imminent as a result of Brexit. There appears to be a resilience that is driving relatively strong growth. And, for all those who have been hammering the point that Britain is the worst-performed (in growth terms) of the EU Member States, they will have to revise their scripts. Britain is now growing much faster than many other European economies.
Last Friday (October 26, 2018), the US Bureau of Economic Analysis published their latest national accounts data – Gross Domestic Product, 3rd quarter 2018 (advance estimate) , which tells us that the annualised real GDP growth rate for the US remains strong at 3.5 per cent (down from 4.2 per cent in the June-quarter 2018). Note this is not the annual growth over the last four-quarters, which is a more modest 3 per cent (up from 2.9 per cent in the previous 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 28, 2018. The US result was driven by a growing household consumption contribution (2.7 points) with the personal saving rate falling by 0.4 points. Further, the government spending contribution was also strong (0.6 points up from 0.4) with all levels of government recording positive contributions. Real disposable personal income increased 2.5 percent, the same increase as in the second quarter. While private investment was strong it was mostly due to unsold goods (inventories). Notwithstanding the strong growth, the problems for the US growth prospects are two-fold: (a) How long can consumption expenditure keep growing 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) What will be the impacts of the current trade policy? It is a work in progress.
The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.
In yesterday’s blog post – Australian national accounts – growth continues but deep uncertainty looms (September 5, 2018), my theme was that the current period of economic growth in Australia was being built on what we might consider to be quicksand – increasing household debt and a run-down in household saving. Australia’s household saving ratio is now down to 1 per cent and falling, which is taking us back to the madness of pre-GFC. By any stretch this is an unsustainable growth path. Last Monday (September 3, 2018), the Australian Bureau of Statistics published their data series – Business Indicators, Australia, June 2018 and – Retail Trade, Australia, July 2018. The latter gives a more recent estimate of what the economy is doing, given the national accounts data that came out yesterday covers the period from April to June. Things are definitely not going in the right direction. The data shows that the benefits of growth are being disproportionately captured by profits and wages are lagging well behind. Overall, this is a recipe for disaster.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest June-quarter 2018 National Accounts data today (September 5, 2018). While the economy recorded a relatively robust 0.9 per cent growth for the quarter and 3.4 per cent over the 12 months to March 2018, the economy remains reliant on household consumption expenditure, which, in turn, is being driven by credit and declining savings as household income growth moderates. There is very little growth contribution coming from the external sector and the contribution from private investment was zero. That is an unsustainable mix. All this means that the current overall growth trajectory is fairly fragile. There is a high probability that household consumption expenditure will slow right down as debt levels become unmanageable. Whether that happens will depend on the wages growth trajectory in future quarters and the outlook on that front is mixed. Overall, this is not a balanced growth outcome.
One of the principle ways in which so-called progressive political parties (particularly those in the social democratic tradition) seek to differentiate themselves from conservatives is to advocate large-scale public infrastructure investment as a way of advancing public good. You can see evidence of that in most nations. Nation-building initiatives tend to be popular and also are less sensitive to the usual attacks that are made on public spending when income support and other welfare-type programs are debated. Capital worked out long ago that public spending on infrastructure provided untold benefits by way of profits and influence. In the neoliberal era, the bias towards ‘competitive tendering’ and public-private partnerships has meant that private profit tends to dictate where and what public infrastructure is built. The problem is that large-scale projects tend to become objects of capture for the top-end-of-town. Research shows that these ‘megaprojects’ typically deliver massive cost overruns and significantly lower benefits than are first estimated when decisions are being made about what large projects to fund. Further, evidence suggests that this is due to corrupt and incompetent behaviour by private project managers (representing their companies) and empire-building public officials. They lie about the costs and benefits so as to distort the decision-making processes in their favour. Any progressive government thus must be mindful of these tendencies and behaviours. A progressive policy agenda needs to be more than just outlining a whole lot of nice sounding public infrastructure projects that the government will pursue. The whole machinery of public procurement that has emerged in this neoliberal era needs to be abandoned and replaced with decision-making processes and rules that privilege the advancement of public well-being over profit.
A short blog post today as it is Wednesday. I have also been travelling a lot and have been reading a lot. And have been otherwise distracted. But I thought this information was worth writing a few paragraphs about for the record. Last week, I wrote a blog post – The fundamental realignment of British society via fiscal austerity (July 30, 2018) – about some of the more unsavoury impacts of the British government’s austerity push. I highlighted how the current growth strategy was precarious because it was reliant on the private domestic sector accumulating increasing debt to maintain consumption growth at a time when the external sector was draining growth, private investment was weak and the government was hell bent on cutting services and infrastructure investment. The ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. A recipe for disaster. A report published in Australia late last week – 14th Household Financial Comfort Report (August 2018) – provides “in-depth and critical insights into the financial situation of Australians based on a survey of 1,500 households”. It is not a pretty story and demonstrates the global uniformity of the neoliberal approach, which is characterised on ever increasing private debt and falling commitments to sustain public services. The GFC only temporarily interrupted this agenda that aims to reverse decades of gains for workers and their families under social democratic governments.