Everybody is concerned with ‘herd immunity’ at present as the pandemic continues on ravaging our social and economic lives. But I have been studying the concept of ‘herd mentality’ for some years, aka – Groupthink. Mainstream macroeconomics is sustained, not by any internal logical consistency (on which it fails), by close congruency with the empirical data (on which it fails), which are the usual qualities of a dominant system of ideas, but, rather, by (using modern terminology) its long-standing and on-going cancel culture. So it is rather amusing to read one of the leading voices in that paradigm, Kenneth ‘Spreadsheet’ Rogoff, whinging on the Internet that ‘cancel culture’ is being used to undermine the reputations of one of his mates (Larry Summers). Both continue to get platforms in the world media without trouble to push their vapid ideas into the narrative. The antithesis of cancel culture it would seem. What is going on is that more people are realising that the prognostications of mainstream macroeconomics are deeply flawed, and, while many may not know the technicalities and the theoretical complexities, they can see the empirical dissonance, and that means they know a – lemon – when they see one. And social media has given more people a voice and they are using that to call these characters out for what they are. And the sense of invulnerability that pervades all disciplines riddled with Groupthink is being questioned.
The other day I gave a talk to the ‘investment’ community in Melbourne and they wanted to talk a lot about inflation, which seems to be their foremost concern at the moment. Tomorrow, I am giving a similar presentation in Sydney and I expect a similar line of questioning. Think about it. Wages growth is projected to be so low over the next several years that real wages will decline for at least 3 to 4 years. The Output gaps are still significant and were significant even before the pandemic. Households were already cutting back consumption spending growth, given record levels of indebtedness and no prospect of wages growth. Where pray tell are the inflationary pressures going to come from? I also keep reading of similar fears from economists and central bankers. The latest I saw came from Britain, where the outgoing chief economist from the Bank of England started beating on the inflation drum. There are some areas of our economies that will experience price pressures in the coming period given the disruptions in supply and various administrative pricing decisions by governments (reversing pandemic assistance in areas like rents, energy, child care etc). But these pressures in some segments of the economy are unlikely to instigate a major shift to high generalised inflation rates because the capacity of workers to defend their real wages is diminished now. Fiscal policy has a long way to go yet in reducing unemployment and underemployment from their elevated levels before that capacity becomes functional again.
I have been seeing a lot of crazy predictions that inflation is about to accelerate because of the elevated levels of government spending, record low interest rates and substantial government bond purchases by the Reserve Bank of Australia. It is almost as if the conservative, deficit-haters want that to happen so they can say “We told you so” as they cling on to their flawed macroeconomic theories. Well sorry to disappoint. Today (April 27, 2021), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Consumer Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2021, which hoses down the inflation fears. The Consumer Price Index rose by just 0.6 per cent in the quarter (mostly petrol prices) and over the 12-months to March 2021 it rose 1.1 per cent. The less volatile series, Trimmed Mean rose just 0.3 per cent and the Weighted Median rose 0.4 per cent. So nothing to see here. The RBA keeps buying government debt and effectively funding substantial proportions of the fiscal interventions since the pandemic, interest rates remain low and yet inflation is still 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.
It’s Wednesday and a blog-light day as usual combined with some great jazz. But it is worth commenting briefly on yesterday’s monetary policy decision, which saw the Reserve Bank of Australia hold its policy rate at the record low of 0.1 per cent. That was no surprise. Mildly surprising given all the hype about the size of the public debt at present was the RBA’s decision to expand its asset purchasing program by an addition $A100 billion. In effect, the RBA is doing what many central banks are now doing – buying up the debt that has been issued to match (not fund) the expansion of fiscal deficits by governments as they try to deal with the negative consequences of the pandemic. While all this has helped the Australian economy record the disastrous economic impacts of the virus the state of affairs is still very poor. And the RBA knows that and is urging extending fiscal and monetary policy support until “at least” 2024. Yet, the Federal government is starting to talk about cutting fiscal support next month. This tension in aggregate policy was evident before the crisis. And it has been a global tension. The neoliberals haven’t disappeared. Austerity is in the wind. More struggle is necessary.
It’s Wednesday and I have been tied up most of the day on things that keep me from writing. But I offer some comments on today’s inflation data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which will help you understand that we have to be very careful in analysing that data because quite often CPI increases are driven by government policy which allows administered prices to rise. Short conclusion: a rising inflation rate does not signal a growing economy necessarily. I also provide details about my current lecture series at the University of Helsinko, which the broader public are invited to participate in. And then some fusion.
It’s Wednesday and I usually try to write less blog material. But given the holiday on Monday and a couple of interesting developments, I thought I would write a bit more today. And after that, you still get some great piano playing to make wading through central bank discussions worth while. The Financial Times article (January 4, 2021) – Investors believe BoE’s QE programme is designed to finance UK deficit – is interesting because it provides one more piece of evidence that exposes the claims of mainstream macroeconomists operating in the dominant New Keynesian tradition. The facts that emerge are that the major bond market players do not believe the Bank of England statements about its bond-buying program which have tried to deny the reality that the central bank is essentially buying up all the debt issued by the Treasury as it expands its fiscal deficits. This disbelief undermines many key propositions that students get rammed down their throats in macroeconomics courses. It also provides further credence to the approach taken by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
The answer to the question posed in the title is No! Lawrence Summers’ macroeconomic assessment does not stack up. In – Is the $US900 billion stimulus in the US likely to overheat the economy – Part 1? (December 30, 2020) – I developed the framework for considering whether it was sensible for the US government to provide a $US2,000 once-off, means-tested payment as part of its latest fiscal stimulus. Summers was opposed to it claiming that it would push the economy into an inflationary spiral because it would more than close the current output gap. Today, I do the numbers. The conclusion is that there is more than enough scope for the Government to make the transfers without running out of fiscal space.
It’s Wednesday and my blog-light day. Today, I provide the English-text for an article that came out in the leading Japanese business daily, The Nikkei yesterday on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to the pandemic. Relevant links are provided in the body of the post. The interesting point I think is that ‘The Nikkei’ is the “the world’s largest business daily in terms of circulation” and has clear centre-right leanings. The fact that they are interested in disseminating ideas that run counter to the mainstream narrative that the centre-right politicians have relied on indicates both a curiosity that is missing in the conservative media elsewhere, and, the extent to which MMT ideas is becoming more open to serious thinkers. I have respect for media outlets that come to the source when they want to motivate a discussion on MMT rather than hire some hack to write a critique, which really gets no further than accusing MMT of being just about money printing.
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.