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No justification for public sector wage freezes during the pandemic

I provide a lot of research support for trade unions in wage determination cases in Australia, where wage agreements are uniquely decided in judicial processes. The cases are onerous and highly contested and as an expert witness I am often grilled for lengthy periods by the employers’ barristers in the evidential phase. One of the things that has been relevant in the last year or so has been the wage caps and freezes that government employers are placing on their workforce as a way of ‘saving money’. Prior to the pandemic they were forcing real wage cuts or zero real wages growth on workers under their wage cap strategies as part of their pursuit of fiscal surpluses. Now they are imposing freezes to reduce the size of their deficits. And, the same is happening in other jurisdictions such as the UK. Not only were the wage caps in the public sector damaging the well-being of public workers, in some cases, the lowest paid (cleaners etc), but they were also providing ‘wage guidance’ to the private sector, at a time when household debt is at record levels and consumption growth wage faltering. At a time when consumers are already wary and saving higher proportions of their disposable income, freezing wages is not a responsible thing to do in a pandemic. The UK government, for example, does not need to ‘save money’. But as part of the recovery from the pandemic, the government will benefit from households having been able to pay down debt while saving more and from the maintenance of their real purchasing power. There are no grounds for freezing wages – public or private.

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Censorship, the central bank independence ruse and Groupthink

A few things came up late last week which demonstrate the neoliberal Groupthink is alive an well at the highest levels of policy in Australia (and elsewhere). First, there was a story that a report from an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) journalist on the Australian government’s corporate tax cuts was withdrawn after publication by the ABC after receiving several complaints from senior government ministers including the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. The story was not even radical. The journalist who I have had dealings with is a neoliberal herself when it comes to understanding macroeconomics. Second, one of the claims that the neoliberals make is that central banks are now firmly independent and not part of the political process. This is all part of the depoliticisation process whereby governments absolve themselves of political responsibility for policies that harm the citizens by appealing to ‘independent’ external authorities (such as the IMF, or central banks). Well we know that the claim about central bank independence is not true both in terms of the way the monetary system operates but also in the conduct of various central bankers over the last few decades. Last week, the Reserve Bank of Australia governor once again demonstrated how politically independent he is NOT by invoking key mainstream neoliberal myths about deficits and grandchildren. And then an old hack and largely failed British Labour politicians got in on the act. The Groupthink is powerful but becoming increasingly desperate under the increasing pressure from citizens for more accountability.

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Employers lying about the flat wages growth in Australia

Last Friday (February 8, 2018), the Reserve Bank of Australia issued its latest – Statement on Monetary Policy – February 2018 – which in its own words “sets out the Bank’s assessment of current economic conditions, both domestic and international, along with the outlook for Australian inflation and output growth.” Of interest to me (apart from all of it) was the discussion of domestic economic conditions, in particular the discussion concerning wages growth. Workers around the world are struggling to gain any semblance of decent (if any) wages growth, are facing real wage cuts, and seeing national income redistributed to profits (even as investment ratios fall). They are observing increasing gaps between real wages growth and productivity growth, which means the workers’ share of output gains is falling. With sluggish investment ratios, it isn’t rocket science to realise that the redistributed national income is being pumped into the financial markets casino, which delivers little or no productive benefit to society and provide for continued economic instability. It is clear that major shifts have to occur in wage setting mechanisms to redress these imbalances. That should be a major focus of progressive activists. It is a global problem.

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Monetary policy is largely ineffective

Australia is demonstrating at the moment the monumental bind that neo-liberal (Monetarist) thinking has reached with respect to macroeconomic policy. By extolling the virtues of monetary policy as the only viable counter-stabilisation tool and eschewing the use of fiscal policy (biasing it towards austerity and the falsely virtued goal of fiscal surpluses), the policy making environment has created an economy that is susceptible to asset price inflation (particularly housing) and stagnant growth with rising unemployment. This experience is common across other economies and to break out of the destructive malaise, there will have to be a major shift in policy awareness – away from the exclusive use of monetary policy to work against the private spending cycle and towards fiscal policy as the only effective counter-stabilisation tool the government has available. The global financial crisis was caused by the elevation of monetary policy and the stagnation that has followed continues the problem.

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RBA decisions bring out the economic bogans

The Reserve Bank of Australia cut interest rates yesterday – to the lowest level since the 1950s – as an emergency measure to combat a failing economy, which is being pushed over the cliff by the excessively tight fiscal policy. This is only the second time that the RBA has altered interest rates during an official election campaign. Last time, they hiked them to the disadvantage of the then conservative government who had claimed interest rates would always be lower under them than under the Labor government. This time they cut them to the advantage of the Labor government (which is also pretty conservative). It gave the news outlets and current affairs programs something to do lat night. The problem is that what they did with the stories illustrated how poor the state of economic debate is in this country. It is always an unfortunate side effect of the RBA decisions that they bring out the economic bogans, even if they dress up a bit to disguise their anti-intellectuality.

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It is always better to tell the truth

The Austrians are lying about my country. They generally lie about everything but when it comes to my own nation of which I know the data very well then something has to be done. Today I examine the claim by some Austrians out there that the Reserve Bank of Australia cannot unilaterally create $A dollar credits in the banking system (for example, add to bank reserves) without first holding American dollars (or for that matter any currency). The claim is totally nonsensical but you need to first understand how central banks operate and then form an accurate view of the historical record to understand why. But when it comes to using publicly available data that other “experts” know very well – it is always better to tell the truth. I am on a bit of a truth theme over the last week.

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RBA makes the wrong decision

Last month, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) held its policy rate unchanged at 4.5 per cent contrary to what the bank economists expected. I said at the time in this blog – RBA confounds the market economists – but that’s easy – that RBA made the correct decision. It reflected the fact that the world economy is still in trouble as the fiscal austerity in various places starts to bite. It also reflected the fact that the trends in the local economy are far from clear and solid evidence is available to suggest that despite the boom in primary commodity prices (from Asia) our economy is still fragile. The labour market has considerable slack (12.5 per cent underutilisation rates) and housing and sales are flat or in decline. Most importantly (for the RBA) inflation is moderating in Australia. Nothing much has changed in the meantime and I was expecting (along with all my bank economist friends) for the RBA to hold its line again. Yesterday, the RBA confounded us all and pushed rates up by 25 basis points. But even more stark was the decision by the formerly public bank (privatised by the neo-liberals) – the CBA – to push its standard mortgage rate up by 45 basis points after announcing a huge and increasing profit earlier in the week. The RBA made the wrong decision yesterday.

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RBA confounds the market economists – but that’s easy

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) announced today that its policy rate would stay unchanged at 4.5 per cent. It means that the policy rates have been on hold since May after the tightening cycle began in October 2009 and led to 6 rises. The RBA has clearly been looking out the window. It is seeing the Eurozone deteriorating further as the fiscal austerity bites. The UK is now slowing and likely to head back into recession courtesy of the vandalism of its government which thinks it has run out of money. And the US economy is slowing again as its dysfunctional political system is demonstrating it is incapable of maintaining spending growth at levels sufficient to reduce its obscenely high unemployment. Deflation is the threat now. In terms of the local economy there are conflicting tendencies. Private spending remains flat and the fiscal stimulus is waning. Parts of the economy are buoyant as a result of the boom in primary commodity demand (from Asia). The labour market is also still fairly fragile with 13 per cent of our labour resources idle (unemployed or underemployed). Further, inflation is stable in Australia. So it is hardly time to be increasing interest rates. But try telling that to the bank economists who mostly predicted a rise today. They were wrong. They often are. That is no surprise given the narrow way they think about the economy. The RBA made the correct decision today.

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RBA finally decides to stop sabotaging growth

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) announced today that its policy rate would stay unchanged at 4.5 per cent. This brings to an end (for now) the tightening cycle which began in October 2009 and has seen 6 rises since that time. The scene is clear. The Eurozone is deteriorating further into another crisis with social unrest coming to the fore. In terms of the local economy all the talk of an impending boom is waning. The proximate indicators suggest that economic growth in Australia is very weak (across many indicators) and it is hardly the time to be further increasing interest rates. Today’s decision also put into stark relief the calls from the OECD last week to impose a very significant monetary tightening to accompanying fiscal austerity measures. The RBA is clearly not following that nonsensical logic.

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