The ECB published a Working Paper recently (September 2021) – Monetary and fiscal complementarity in the Covid-19 pandemic – which represents progress in the narrative. While the technical model that the ECB uses is just an ad hoc attempt to reverse engineer the reality so they can claim they can explain it, what is useful from the exercise is that the old mainstream narratives that fiscal policy is ineffective in providing permanent boosts to real output (or that austerity does not permanently damage the growth trajectory) can no longer be sustained. The taboo surrounding central bank purchases of government debt because they cause accelerating inflation can no longer be sustained. The claims that fiscal deficits drive up interest rates can no longer be sustained. Now the public debate just has to reflect that reality and we will have made progress. Of course, this is all core MMT – we knew it all along!
During the GFC, a new phenomenon emerged – the ‘We knew it all along’ syndrome, which was characterised my several mainstream New Keynesian macroeconomists coming out and claiming that some of the insights provided by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists were banal and that their own theoretical framework already accommodates them. The pandemic has brought a further rush of the ‘We knew it all along’ syndrome. Apparently, mainstream macroeconomics is perfectly capable of explaining the fiscal reality the world has found itself in and there is no need to MMT, which, by assertion, is saying nothing new. These sorts of statements are not coming from Facebook or Twitter heroes who might have done a few units in economics or even acquired a degree in the discipline. They are coming from senior professors in the academy. The curious thing, which really lifts their cover, is that if you examine the academic literature you won’t find much reference to these sorts of ‘insights’ at all. What you find, and what students are taught, are a completely different set of propositions with respect to fiscal policy. So if they ‘knew it all along’ why didn’t they ever write about it? Why is their published academic work replete with conclusions that run contrary to the conclusions MMT economists make? You know the answer. These ‘knew it all along’ characters have just been caught out by the poor empirical performance of their paradigm and now they are trying to salvage their reputations and position by trying to blur history. They really should be sacked.
It’s Wednesday and I have now settled back into my office after being stuck away from home for 9 weeks as a result of border closures between Victoria and NSW. So I am reverting back to the usual Wednesday pattern of limited writing, although today, the topic is worthy of some extended narrative. Before we get to the swamp blues music segment, I am analysing a speech made by the RBA governor yesterday on the role of monetary policy during a pandemic, whether low interest rates are driving house prices too high, and, what should be done about that. The conclusion is that he supports better use of fiscal policy – sustaining supportive fiscal deficits and dealing with the distortions that are contributing to high housing prices, via amendments to taxation (eliminating incentives for high income earners to buy multiple properties) and public infrastructure policies (more social housing).
On September 2, 2021, the Head of the BIS Monetary and Economic Department, Claudio Borio gave an address – Back to the future: intellectual challenges for monetary policy = at the University of Melbourne. The Bank of International Settlements is owned by 63 central banks and provides various functions “to support central banks’ pursuit of monetary and financial stability through international cooperation”. His speech covers a range of topics in relation to the conduct of monetary policy but its importance is that it marks a clear line between the way the mainstream conceive of the role and effectiveness of the central bank and the view taken by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists. I discuss those issues in this blog post.
As I provided a detailed analysis of the National Accounts release yesterday, today, I am writing less via the blog and am shifting the Wednesday music feature to Thursday. That makes sense. Today, I am bemoaning the creation of the Bank of Goldman Sachs, formerly known as the Bank of England. Groupthink seems to plague this institution. And then, to restore equanimity, we have a music tribute to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who died in Jamaica this week.
Lawrence Summers is a New Keynesian economist. That means something. While there are nuances that exist between members of that school of thought, mostly to do with policy sensitivities and speeds of adjustment, the New Keynesian paradigm has demonstrated clearly that it is incapable of capturing the macroeconomic dynamics in any consistent manner, despite it being the dominant approach in the profession. So, it is no wonder when Summers provides opinions the underlying logic he demonstrates is similarly flawed. Unfortunately, he keeps getting important platforms to express these opinions, which continues to blight the public policy debate. He was at it again when he started lecturing the US Federal Reserve Bank on the conduct of its asset-purchasing program.
Last year, the US Federal Reserve dropped a bombshell on mainstream macroeconomics by abandoning the consensus approach to monetary policy, which prioritised fighting inflation over maintaining low levels of unemployment, and, increasing interest rates well before any defined inflationary pressures were realised – the so-called forward guidance approach. It has also been buying massive quantities of US government debt and controlling bond yields in the markets as a result. Attention has been on the ECB to see where it would pivot too and whether it was going to abandon its own massive government bond buying program any time soon, which has been effectively funding the fiscal deficits of the 19 Member-States of the Eurozone. Recent statements have indicated the QE programs in Europe will not be ending any time soon. And an ECB Board member all but tied the scale of the purchasing programs to the size of the fiscal deficits as a guide to how long and how large the QE interventions would be.
There are calls for the Reserve Bank of Australia to be forced to undergo a major review of its operations, given that it has failed to achieve its own stated inflation targets for many years now. The RBA is resisting that call. The Australian Labor Party, which is in opposition at present, is trying to politicise the issue by claiming it will review the RBA once it becomes government. The problem is that the call to review the RBA is being made by those who would make the worst aspects of the central bank worse. Further, the legislative structure that defines the RBA and its charter already allows the RBA to pursue employment as a goal with equal priority to inflation. The fact that it hasn’t done that is because it adopted the NAIRU myth and used the unemployed as a tool to discipline inflation rather than a policy target to be maximised. That occurred in the 1980s and beyond as neoliberalism became dominant. The problem is not the legislative structure that the RBA operates within. The problem is that it is part of a broader ideology that has demonised discretionary use of fiscal policy and prioritised interest rate changes, which has reduced our growth rates, undermined employment, suppressed wages and more. The Labor Party has echoed that same ideology and is just being hypocritical now. That ideology is what needs a ‘review’. And urgently.
One could make a pastime observing the way that so-called ‘expert’ commentators change their commentary as the data unfolds. As one rather lurid prediction fails, their narrative shifts to the next. We have seen this tendency for decades when we consider the way mainstream economists have dealt with Japan. The words shift from those implying immediacy (for example, of insolvency), to those such as ‘could’, ‘might’, ‘perhaps’, ‘under certain conditions’ and more. The topics shift. The commentariat were obsessed with ‘this time is different’ during the GFC and the ‘debt insolvency threshold’ rubbish that the likes of Reinhardt and Rogoff propagated. That is, until they were sprung for spreadsheet incompetence. More recently, we have apparently forgotten how many governments were about to go broke and the mania has shifted to inflation. The data shows some price spikes earlier in the year which set of the dogs. Now, things might be shifting again. It is a pastime following all this. Short memories, no shame is the only requirement that is required to be a mainstream economics commentator. Prescient knowledge is not included in that skill set.
The BBC in Britain carried a story yesterday (July 25, 2021) – UK will be paying for Covid for decades, say MPs – that began with the assertion that “Taxpayers will bear the costs of Covid ‘for decades'”. I guess there is some truth in that statement – families will remember their loved ones that died from the virus and those who are stricken with Long COVID will probably endure the negative effects for the rest of their lives. In that sense, if they are also ‘taxpayers’ they will be ‘paying’ the ‘costs’ of the pandemic. But, of course, that is not what the BBC article was wanting its readers to absorb. The intent was to lie to British citizens that somehow their tax burdens would have to rise to offset the deficits that the British government has run dealing with the collapsing economy. I know the BBC was just reporting on a document released by the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts – COVID 19: Cost Tracker Update (released July 25, 2021). But the role of the public broadcaster is not to act as a press releasing agency for such politicised organisations, which, given the absence of any alternative voice in the article, is exactly what it did. The demise of critical scrutiny in economics commentary by national broadcasters everywhere is a major problem and makes them indistinguishable from scandalous media organisations run by private sector owners.