Victoria went the so-called ‘double doughnut’ again today with zero new infections and zero deaths – the fourth consecutive day. It now has the lowest number of people sick with the virus (known) since the start of the pandemic in Australia in February. Only 38 active cases remain in Victoria after its 12 week lockdown. There is no community transmission reported now in Victoria and the other day Australia recorded zero (community transmitted) cases overall. So things are less tense than they were. I still haven’t been able to travel to my office in Melbourne which I have been away from since the lockdowns started in June. But hope springs eternal that the NSW government will open the border and let us move freely between the States. At the same time, the NSW government is demonstrating its economic incompetence. The State Treasurer announced that in the midst of the worst crisis in 100 years, it is cutting the pay of its public servants when it brings down its fiscal statement. Clue: when in a deep recession with records levels of household debt dramatically constraining growth in household consumption expenditure, which in turn, is killing growth, then the sure fire way to make matters worse by cutting the very source of consumption expenditure – yes, you get it – workers’ wages.
Yesterday’s data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (October 28, 2020) – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the September-quarter 2020, illustrates what a lot of people do not fully grasp. Inflation can be driven by administrative decisions and can be curtailed or restrained by varying those decisions. No tax rises or cuts to government spending are needed. The data also reflect on the reasons that predictions from mainstream (New Keynesian) economic models fail dramatically. Mainstream economists claim that monetary policy (adjusting of interest rates) is an effective way to manage the economic cycle. They claim that central banks can effectively manipulate total spending by adjusting the cost of borrowing to increase output and push up the inflation rate. The empirical experience does not accord with those assertions. Central bankers around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been massively building up their balance sheets through QE to push their inflation rates up without much success. Further, it has been claimed that a sustained period of low interest rates would be inflationary. Well, again the empirical evidence doesn’t support that claim. The Reserve Bank of Australia has now purchased more than $50 billion worth of federal government bonds and a smaller amount of state and territory government debt. And yet inflation is well below the lower bound of the RBA’s inflation targetting range. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.
I gave some advice to a politician last week who had read some MMT literature that he said indicated that using the Job Guarantee reduces inflationary pressures in a recovery relative to a situation where a nation had an unemployment buffer stock. I was surprised by the question because the assertions didn’t appear congruent with the facts. It appeared to be rehearsing and endorsing the standard neoliberal supply-side agenda that defined the so-called ‘activation’ approach to unemployment, which militated against job creation programs in favour of training initiatives – the full employability rather than the full employment mindset. The fact is that long-term unemployment always lags behind the overall unemployment movements given it takes time for people to work their way through the duration categories until they get to 52 weeks, after which the national statistician terms a person long-term unemployed. The longer the recession the higher average duration of unemployment becomes and the larger the pool of long-term unemployed as people start to flow into that category. However, the way we think about solutions has been influenced by the myths about the way long-term unemployment behaves, which we summarise as the – ‘irreversibility hypothesis’. This idea has influenced governments to rely on training approaches rather than job creation as solutions to unemployment. And, it has led to the various pernicious unemployment management policies where the victims of the system’s failure to create enough jobs are considered culpable in their own misfortune and shunted through a series of compliance processes in order to receive income support, which do little to get them work.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the June-quarter – Private New Capital Expenditure and Expected Expenditure, Australia – data today as part of the sequence of data releases relating to next Wednesday’s release of the second quarter National Accounts. Remember that this data is ‘backward’ looking, in that it tells us what has gone in the three months from April to the end of June. But it does provide the first signal of the impact of the first-stage lockdowns in April have had on capital formation. Today’s release confirms the worst with Total new capital expenditure falling by 5.9 per cent in the quarter and 11.5 per cent over the last 12 months. Investment in Building and structures fell by 4.4 per cent over the quarter and 9.4 per cent over the 12 month period, while investment in Equipment, plant and machinery fell by 7.6 per cent for the quarter and 13.8 per cent over the year. Crucially expected investment for 2020-21 has nose-dived (down 12.6 per cent on previous plans). By allowing the economy to go into recession and sustain mass unemployment and falling sales, the Australian government has made matters worse. Within the safe health constraints, it could have easily added another $A100 billion to its stimulus and seen unemployment drop to relatively low levels, major construction work undertaken in social housing to address the chronic shortfall, and invest in forward-looking green infrastructure. Instead, it has chosen to penny pinch and today’s figures are just the start of the damage this policy void is causing. This is another case of neo-liberal austerity white-anting the capacity of the economy to deliver prosperity for all.
It’s Wednesday and my light blog day produces a video or two. The first is a presentation I recently made to the New Zealand Fabian Society and the second is some exquisite trumpet playing from Chet Baker.
This is a draft I am working on for a leading US publication. For many regular readers it will be nothing new. But while there are several things I am probing at the moment which I would normally use my blog space to tease out, time is short this week (really) and so I have to combine things. In other words, the blog space and time today is being used to fulfill commitments with very tight deadlines. But, putting the arguments together in this way might just provide some different angles for people who haven’t thought about things in this way before.
Governments save economies. Never let a mainstream economist tell you that government intervention is undesirable and that the ‘market’ will sort things out. Never let them tell you that large-scale government bond purchases by central banks lead to inflation. Never let them tell you that the government, when properly run, can run out of money. There is unlimited amounts of public purchasing capacity. The art is when to apply it and how much to release. That can only be determined by the behaviour of the non-government spending and saving and the state of idle capacity. It can never be determined by some arbitrary public debt threshold or deficit size. And the central bank can always buy however much debt they choose. At present the ECB is buying heaps and keeping the Member States solvent. That is not its state role but given there is no other institution in the Eurozone that can serve the fiscal function effectively and ‘safely’, it has to do that. Otherwise, the monetary union would quickly dissolve. I would take their bond buying programs further and write off all the debt they purchase. Immediately. Go on. Just type some zeros where they have recorded large positive Member State debt holdings. That would be something good to do in a terrible situation.
It is getting to the stage that one gets bored reading critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) by leading mainstream economists. As the critiques have escalated over the last few years, I can safely say that not one has really said anything: (a) that the core body of work we have developed hasn’t already considered and dealt with – about 20 years ago!; (b) which means, none of the long line of the would be demolition team has achieved their aim. And when they write Op Ed articles that basically just say – oh, MMT economists ignore “the demand for money” and “MMT falls flat on its face” when inflation emerges as part of the emergence out of this crisis, I get bored. Really, is that the best they can come up with. The latest entreaty in the boring stakes comes from Willem Buiter, who seems to have left the commercial banking sector and gone back into academic life. His latest Op Ed – The Problem With MMT (May 4, 2020) – is not his best work. Boring is the best descriptor. Why did he bother? Did he think he had to establish his relevance. He would have been better concentrating on the archaic mess that his mainstream framework is in. Anyway, sorry to end the week like this.
During my recent trip to Japan, where I made several presentations to various groups, including a large gathering in the Japanese Diet (Parliament), I received a lot of press interest, which is a good sign. I am slowly putting together the translated versions of some of the print media articles. Today, I provide a translation (with my annotations) of an interview I did with the centre-left newspaper – Asahi Shimbun – on November 6, 2019 in Tokyo. This is a daily newspaper and is one of the largest of five national newspapers in Japan. It has an interesting historical past but that is not the topic of the blog post today. The article opened with a statement introducing Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and then followed a Q&A format. I have expanded the answers reported in the paper to reflect the actual answers I gave to the two journalists during the interview and to a wider press gathering at an official press conference the day before in Tokyo.
Last Friday (October 4, 2019), a group of former central bank governors and/or officials in Europe, issued a statement damming the conduct of the European Central Bank. You can read the full text at Bloomberg – Memorandum on ECB Monetary Policy by Issing, Stark, Schlesinger. The timing of the intervention is interesting given the change of boss at the ECB is imminent. As I explain in what follows, the Memorandum should be disregarded. Its central contentions are mostly correct but the alternative world it would have Europe follow would be a disaster for many of the Member States and the people that live within them. It would almost certainly result in the collapse of the monetary union – which would be a good outcome – in the face of massive income and job losses and the social and political instability that would follow – which would be a bad outcome. What it tells me is that the monetary union is a massive failure. It would be far better to dissolve it in an orderly manner to avoid those massive income and job losses and to support the restoration of full currency sovereignty and national central banks. That would be the sensible thing to do.