There was another article in the financial media this weekend running the hypothesis that the stagnant economic conditions that Australia has found itself in is a “new normal”. This is now a repeating theme. I disagree with it. It ignores some basic realities and is ideologically loaded towards an austerity interpretation of the world. The article in the Fairfax press (May 21, 2016) – Low pay growth, price rises and the new normal – claims that the “central question in macro-economics today” is whether we are “waiting … for the economy to get back to normal, or has the economy shifted to a “new normal?”. I would pose the question differently. Waiting implies that we think it is just a matter of time before the ‘market’ does its work and restores normality. Moreover, Australia like most of the rest of the world remains locked in the aftermath of what we call a ‘balance sheet’ recession. As I explained to various audiences in Spain during my recent visit, this type of event is unusual (atypical or abnormal) and requires a quite different policy response to a normal V-shaped recession where private investment spending falls, governments stimulate, confidence returns and growth gets back fairly quickly on its trend path. The losses might be large but the recession and aftermath are short. A balance sheet recession requires elevated levels of fiscal deficits being maintained for many years to support growth as non-government sector spending remains below the norm while it reduces its debt levels (via increased saving). The problem in Australia, like elsewhere, is that governments have been hectored by neo-liberal ideologues to prematurely withdraw or reduce the fiscal support and growth has stalled. A range of problems then follow.
The smug Australian government – conservative to the core, dishonest on a daily basis, running a daily scare campaign that all that matters is the fiscal deficit and how our AAA rating from the (corrupt) rating agencies will be lost if we don’t record a fiscal surplus as soon as possible. It fails to mention that we have around 15 per cent (at least) of our willing labour resources not being utilised at present. It fails to mention that inequality and poverty is on the rise. And now, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has told us that this is a government that has finally plunged the nation into a deflationary spiral. We are now so obsessed with fiscal balances that do not matter that we ignore the things that actually impact on the well-being of the citizens. And now deflation has arrived. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia – data for the March-quarter 2016 yesterday. The March-quarter inflation rate was negative (-0.2 per cent), which means Australia has now entered a deflationary period – a reflection of our poorly performing economy. The annual inflation rate is 1.3 per cent, which is well below the Reserve Bank of Australia’s lower target bound of 2 per cent. The RBA’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are also now below the lower target bound and are trending sharply down. Various measures of inflationary expectations are also falling, quite sharply, including the longer-term, market-based forecasts. It is time for a change in policy direction although next week’s fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’) will likely just reinforce the current malaise. A sorry state.
One of the first things that conservatives (and most economists which is typically a highly overlapping set) raise when Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents suggest that increased deficits are essential to reduce mass unemployment is the so-called balance of payments constraint. Accordingly, we are told that the capacity of a nation to increase domestic employment is limited by the external sector. And these constraints have become more severe in this age of multinational firms with their global supply chains and the increased volume of global capital flows. I will address the specific issue of a balance of payments constraint on real GDP growth (that is, the limits of fiscal stimulus) in a future blog. But today I want to consider the so-called Exchange Rate Pass-Through (ERPT) effects of that are part of the balance of payments constraint story. The mainstream narrative goes like this. Higher wage demands associated with full employment and/or stronger imports associated with higher fiscal deficits lead to external imbalances due to rising imports and loss of competitiveness in international markets (eroding export potential). In a system of flexible exchange rates, the currency begins to lose value relative to all other currencies and the rising import prices (in terms of the local currency) are passed-through to the domestic price level – with accelerating inflation being the result. If governments persist in pursuing domestic full employment policies the domestic inflation worsens and the hyperinflation is the result, with a chronically depreciated currency. Real standards of living fall and a general malaise overwhelms the nation and its citizens. I am sure you have heard that narrative before – it is almost a constant noise coming from the deficit phobes. Like most of the conservative economic claims and I include the austerity-lite Leftist parties in this group, it turns out that reality is a bit different. Here is some discussion on that issue.
Adair Turner has just released a new paper – The Case for Monetary Finance – An Essentially Political Issue – which he presented at the 16th Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference, hosted by the IMF in Washington on November 5-6, 2015. The New Yorker columnist John Cassidy decided to weigh into this topic in his recent article (November 23, 2015) – Printing Money. The topic is, of course, what we now call Overt Monetary Financing (OMF), which simply means that all of the unnecessary hoopla of governments matching their deficit spending with bond-issuance to the private bond markets, as if the latter are funding the former, is dispensed with. That artefact from the fixed exchange rate Bretton Woods system is maintained as a voluntary procedure by fiat-currency issuing governments but only provides financial assets to the non-government sector in the form of ‘corporate welfare’. The debt issuance of debt has nothing to do with funding the spending and is used by all and sundry to attack such spending for creating so-called ‘debt mountains’. OMF brings together the central bank and the treasury functions of government into a coherent framework whereby the central bank merely credits private bank accounts on behalf of the government to indicate the spending initiatives implemented by the Treasury.
There was a time, in better days, that the evening news had news, sport and weather. Then, at some point, around the 1980s the national news started to host a Finance segment. Sometimes these segments are meagre reporting of what happened in the share markets. Even that benign news is symptomatic of the way neo-liberalism has infested our daily thinking and made the common folk feel part of the game that they are really can never be part of – wealth creation. At other times, the finance segments introduce economic theory and analysis as if it is news. Then the insidious nature of the neo-liberal propaganda machine becomes stark. But the starkness is lost on most because they think it is news and we have been led to believe that what gets pumped out at 19:00 on the national broadcaster (and other times by other broadcasters) are facts. Facts don’t lie do they? Well, when it comes to finance segments they are mostly lies.
A few weeks ago (April 8, 2015), I wrote a blog – Monetary policy is largely ineffective – which detailed why fiscal policy is a superior set of spending and taxation tools through which a national government can influence variations in activity in the real economy. In today’s blog I will consider two recent bits of evidence that reinforce that viewpoint. Today’s inflation data issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics clearly indicates that there is plenty of scope for further interest rate cuts within the logic of the central bank’s inflation targetting strategy. But monetary policy is trapped in Australia at present between the need to expand the economy (for which it is largely ineffective) and the worry that further interest rates cuts will push housing prices up further. Second, economic activity is faltering and unemployment has risen because the Government refuses to take discretionary action to increase the fiscal deficit to support higher spending levels. They are firmly caught up in the neo-liberal obsession about the need for surpluses and where they are likely to make concessions is in tax cuts for high income earners – based on the so-called trickle down hypothesis. Some recent research from the US, however, demonstrates fairly categorically that tax changes at the top end of the income distribution have negligible effects on economic activity. This is in contradistinction to changes in disposable income at the bottom end. They are very powerful in terms of stimulating or undermining employment and output.
Despite missing out on the recession associated with the GFC, Australia is now following the rest of the world down the decelerating inflation route. Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia – data for the December-quarter 2014 yesterday. The December-quarter inflation rate was 0.2 per cent which translated into an annual inflation rate of 1.7 per cent. Recall that the September-quarter inflation rate was 0.5 per cent and the annual rate was 2.3 per cent. The Reserve Bank of Australia’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are now at the bottom end of their inflation targetting range (2 to 3 per cent) and are trending down. Various measures of inflationary expectations are also flat or falling, including the longer-term, market-based forecasts. This suggests that the RBA may consider that the major problem in the economy is declining growth and rising unemployment, especially in the context of China’s deliberate slowdown. The benign inflation outlook provides plenty of room for further fiscal stimulus.
Last week, Reuters put out a story (October 30, 2014) – Special Report: Tsunami evacuees caught in $30 billion Japan money trap (thanks Scott Mc for the link) – which provides an excellent demonstration of the true limits of government spending in a currency-issuing nation. The underlying principles should be understood by all as part of their personal mission to expel all neo-liberal myths from their thinking and to help them see the nature of issues more clearly. Unfortunately, the application we will talk about is sad and has tragic human and environmental consequences, but that doesn’t reduce the relevance of the example for conceptual thinking. In a nutshell, the central Japanese government has transferred some $US50 billion worth of yen to the local government to combat the destruction caused by the tsunami in March 2011. Thirty billion is unspent despite people still living in temporary housing and suffering dramatic psychological trauma as a result. Why is this happening? Doesn’t Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) tell us that a currency-issuing government can spend what it likes? Well, not exactly. What MMT tells us is that a currency-issuing government can purchase whatever is for sale in its own currency and that propensity is limited by the availability of real resources. Here is a classic demonstration of the limits of government nominal spending.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia data for the September-quarter 2014 today. The quarterly inflation rate was 0.5 per cent (down from 0.6 per cent last quarter) and this translated into an annual rate of 2.3 per cent, down on the 3.0 per cent in the June-quarter 2014. The Reserve Bank of Australia’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are still well within the inflation targetting range and are not trending up. Various measures of inflationary expectations are also flat, including the longer-term, market-based forecasts. This suggests that the RBA may consider that the major problem in the economy is declining growth and rising unemployment, especially in the context of China’s surprise slowdown announced yesterday, and may even cut rates before the year’s end. The evidence is suggesting that the economy is still very sluggish. The benign inflation outlook provides plenty of room for further fiscal stimulus.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia data for the June-2014 quarter today. The quarterly inflation rate was 0.6 per cent and this translated into an annual rate of 3 per cent, up on 2.9 per cent in the March-quarter 2014. The Reserve Bank of Australia’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are still well within the inflation targetting range and are not trending up. Various measures of inflationary expectations is also flat, including the longer-term, market-based forecasts. This suggests that the RBA will probably consider the inflation outlook to be benign and they will probably hold interest rates at their current low level. The evidence is suggesting that the economy is still very sluggish. The benign inflation outlook provides plenty of room for further fiscal stimulus.