Yesterday (October 21, 2020), the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the latest – Public sector finances, UK: September 2020 – which, predictably tells us that government borrowing was “£28.4 billion more than in September 2019 and the third-highest borrowing in any month since records began in 1993” and that the public debt ratio has risen to “103.5% of … GDP … this was the highest debt to GDP ratio since … 1960.” Shock horror. While I yawn. The financial media went to town on the data. The Financial Times article (October 22, 2020) – UK government borrowing reaches record in first half of fiscal year – claimed the second wave that is now sweeping the northern hemisphere “have dampened hopes” that the stimulus “could be quickly scaled back” which has “fuelled concerns over the US’s mounting public debt”. It didn’t clarify as to who was concerned or why. The old canards seem to die slowly. Meanwhile, the IMF has changed tack somewhat after its tawdry display during the GFC. Overall, we should be relaxed about the records being set (deficits, public debt) and focus on what the net spending is doing to advance our interests. Focusing on the financial parameters will just divert our attention away from what is important.
When a nation or region is experiencing the worst crisis the IMF always comes to the party and makes it worse. The latest evidence from those who study the detail of IMF interventions across the globe have found that the IMF has imposed harsh conditionalities (healthcare spending cuts, cuts to jobless assistance, cuts to public service wages and employment) in 76 out of the 91 loans it has extended to nations in peril as a result of the pandemic. On the other hand, data show that the wealth of billionaires has scaled new heights between April 2020 to July 2020 – a 42.4 per cent increase in their total wealth. If all that doesn’t tell us that the neoliberal system has overextended it indecency and rebellion is required then what else would? The point is that when disaster strikes the poorest nations, the IMF guarantees to make it worse. It should be dissolved immediately through defunding from national states and a new progressive, multilateral institution created that helps people not punishes them.
I have been commissioned to write the Introduction (Preface) to the upcoming book – The Last Colonial Currency: A History of the CFA Franc – by Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla, which is an English version of the original 2018 book, L’arme invisible de la Françafrique. It will soon be published by Pluto Press (UK) – as soon as I finish this introduction. The book is incredibly important because it shows the role that currency arrangements play in perpetuating colonial oppression and supporting the extractive mechanisms that the wealthy have used for centuries to further their ambitions. It also resonates with more recent neoliberal trends where these extractive mechanisms, formerly between the colonialist (metropolis) and the occupied peripheral or satellite nation, have morphed into intra-national urban-regional divides. I am very appreciative for the chance to write this introduction for these great authors. This is Part 1. Part 2 follows tomorrow. And then you can all rush out and purchase the book.
There was an IMF paper released in April 2018 – The Aggregate and Distributional Effects of Financial Globalization: Evidence from Macro and Sectoral Data – that had a long title but a fairly succinct message. It indicates that the IMF is still in a sort of schizoid process where the evidential base has built up so against the political voice and practice that the IMF has indulged itself as a front-line neoliberal attack dog that elements in its research division are breaking ranks and revealing interesting information. In part, the Brexit debate in Britain has been characterised by economists supporting the Remain argument claiming that free capital flows within Europe (and Britain) are the vehicle for strong output growth and better living standards. They claim that when Britain leaves the EU global capital flows will be more restricted in and out of Britain and that will be damaging. It is really just a rehearsal of the standard mainstream economic claims found in monetary, trade and macroeconomics textbooks. What the IMF paper does is provide what they call a “fresh look at the at the aggregate and distributional effects of policies to liberalize international capital flows” and the researchers find that, “financial globalization … have led on average to limited output gains while contributing to significant increases in inequality”. That is, the pie hasn’t really grown much as a result of all these free trade moves but a growing share is being taken by an increasingly wealthier few. And workers are the losers.
Yesterday (November 26, 2019), the news came out from the Hellenic Minister of Finance that Greece had completed its latest repayment of 2.7 billion euros to the IMF early (Source). They owed around 9 billion euros to the IMF. Greece had to go ‘cap-in-hand’ to its “European creditors” to gain permission to make the payment early, which they claim saves them crippling interest rate payments. The loans were locked in at 4.9 per cent per annum – usury rates by any definition. Celebration seems to be the message from the neoliberals. But, from my reckoning, the disaster for Greece continues. On September 30, 2019, the IMF European Director Poul Thomsem gave an extraordinary (for its shameless arrogance) speech on Greece at the London School of Economics. Entitled – The IMF and the Greek Crisis: Myths and Realities – Thomson admitted that the IMF had revised its date at which they think Greece will finally get back (in GDP per capita terms) to the pre-crisis level. When they devised these usury loan packages, they claimed that “it would take Greece 8 years to return to pre-crisis level”. Now, they have revised that projection to 2034 – yes, you read that correctly – a generation of waste and foregone opportunities. When you look at their own scenarios for a unilateral exit in 2012, it becomes obvious (and I have said this all along) that exit could not have been worse than what the Greek people are enduring and will endure for an entire generation.
It is now clear that to most observers that the use of monetary policy to stimulate major changes in economic activity in either direction is fraught. Central bankers in many nations have been pulling all sorts of policy ‘rabbits’ out of the hat over the last decade or more and their targets have not moved as much or in many cases in the direction they had hoped. Not only has this shown up the lack of credibility of mainstream macroeconomics but it is now leading to a major shift in policy thinking, which will tear down the neoliberal shibboleths that the use of fiscal policy as a counter-stabilisation tool is undesirable and ineffective. In effect, there is a realignment going on between policy responsibility and democratic accountability, something that the neoliberal forces worked hard to breach by placing primary responsibility onto the decisions of unelected and unaccountable monetary policy committees. And this shift is bringing new players to the fore who are intent on denying that even fiscal policy can stave off major downturns in non-government spending. These sort of attacks from a mainstream are unsurprising given its credibility is in tatters. But they are also coming from the self-proclaimed Left, who seem opposed to a reliance on nation states, and in the British context, this debate is caught up in the Brexit matter, where the Europhile Left are pulling any argument they can write down quickly enough to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU, as it appears it now will (and that couldn’t come quickly enough).
Its Wednesday, so just a short blog post. I had a day of meetings and other commitments today. But we have some fun at the IMF to discuss (briefly). On April 11, 2019, IMF boss Madame Lagarde gave a press conference to open the 2019 Spring Meetings. The Transcript – includes the Madame waxing lyrical about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). And you might have confused the press conference for a stand-up comedy routine except you would have to be ‘in the know’ to laugh. But the significant aspect of the conference came when a question from Japan focused on MMT. In attempting to put down our work, Madame Lagarde actually admitted that a situation where the government runs big fiscal deficits, has a large-scale and on-going public debt-issuance program, where the central bank buys substantial proportions of that issuance, apparently ‘works’ under conditions that the currency-issuing government can always control. MMT 101. QED. Have a laugh.
In Part 1, I introduced the discussion about the use of industry policies in the Keynesian period after World War 2. Most nations adopted a mixed planning-market based system for allocating productive resources and the state was always central in setting out planning parameters, direct ownership and employment, and regulation. It was a system that researchers described as being “highly successful”. Two approaches to industrialisation were taken: (a) export-oriented (for example, South Korea); and (b) import-substitution (for example, India), although in most cases, nations used both strategies. As neoliberalism emerged and the fixed exchange rate system broke down in the early 1970s, the IMF, whose purpose was intrinsically tied to providing foreign reserves to nations under the fixed exchange rate system, no longer had a purpose. They reinvented themselves as the neoliberal attack dog for corporations and global capital. They also provided cover for governments who were embracing the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and intent on imposing fiscal austerity. These governments had become captured by corporate interests and by appealing to external demands from bodies such as the IMF, these governments could depoliticise harsh policy shifts away from Keynesian full employment. I used Britain as an example. Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry in 1975. It was rejected at the time by Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who were intent on imposing fiscal austerity and deregulating. They used the scare that the IMF would have to bailout Britain as a ruse to force their Monetarist ideology onto the British Labour Party. It was no surprise that in an era where governments started abandoning fiscal support to maintain full employment, deregulated labour and financial markets, and abandoned domestic protections for their industries, many industries would go to the wall. The IMF claimed that this shows industry policy focused on import-substitution can never work. But the culprit was not flawed industry policy. Rather, it was the withdrawal of all the accompanying support structures that made it work, but which ran counter to the neoliberal ideology of ‘free markets’. Now the IMF is having a rethink based on the devastation that neoliberalism has caused. On March 26, 2019, the IMF published a new working paper (19/74) – The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy. Now, we are reading that the IMF has conceded that industry policy interventions that were the basis of economic planning in the Keynesian era were highly successful and only stopped being so, in some cases, when fiscal austerity was imposed and trade controls were abandoned in the 1970s. This is Part 2 of the two-part series on this topic.
In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
I was going to write about Jamaica today but this topic emerged that I thought I should deal with before I write about the home of reggae. In fact, some of the material is input into a reasoned discussion about Jamaica so it logically precedes it. With the increasing profile of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), social media activists are wont to talk about MMT in various ways that, in many cases, do not bear resemblance to our work. But that doesn’t stop them claiming things about what we have written or said and then proceeding to say how this is a ‘big problem’ with MMT that they cannot accept. Then their own local commentators chime in reinforcing the point. It is obvious that the original writer hasn’t read our work or if they have they haven’t grasped it (including the nuance and subtlety) but still feels privileged to hold themselves out as experts to wax lyrical about the technical flaws in the said work. This gets amplified by the responses from the readership who have probably read even less – to the point that we end up with MMT being constructed as something ridiculous and foreign to its original. Sort of like start by saying you are discussing 2, call it 3 and say it equals 4. It is a problem because it confounds people and also gives those who oppose our work ways to further misrepresent it in the public debate.