This morning, a former deputy governor of Australia’s central bank (RBA) published a short Op Ed in the Australian Financial Review (July 16, 2019) – Why there are no free lunches from the RBA – which served as a veiled critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The problem is that the substantive analysis supported the core of the MMT literature that we have developed over 25 years, refuted the standard macroeconomics textbook treatment of the link between the government and non-government sectors, and, incorrectly depicted what MMT is about – all in one short article. Not a bad effort I thought. But disappointing that a person with such experience and knowledge resorts to perpetuating such crude representations of ‘cost’ and myths about government finances.
Australia’s economic performance is not exactly flash at present. GDP growth has slumped and is well below (less than half) the longer-term trend rate. Unemployment and underemployment remain at elevated levels. The federal government has been pursuing an austerity phase in the mistaken belief that achieving a fiscal surplus, no matter, what is a sound and responsible strategy. While the household sector maintained consumption expenditure growth the government’s folly did not manifest. However, that strategy was built on a plunge in the household saving ratio and an ever increasing household debt to income ratio. For years, the central bank (RBA) and the Treasury denied there was a problem – claiming that the rising debt levels were covered by rising wealth. There was never any recognition that the trends in household debt were intrinsically related to the fiscal position of the government. With the external deficit fairly stable at around 3.5 per cent of GDP, the fiscal drag imposed by the government surpluses was only possible because the household sector accumulated debt. Under current institutional arrangements (federal government unnecessarily matching its deficits with debt issuance) the declining public debt ratio was really just an approximate mirror of the rising private debt ratio. But times are changing. The RBA has now released research that refutes core aspects of mainstream macroeconomic theory and finally acknowledges what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been pointing out for more than two decades – that the accumulation of household debt ultimately becomes a brake on spending growth.
It is Wednesday and so a less intensive blog post. Note how I no longer claim it will be shorter. The less intensive claim refers to how much research I have to put in to write the post. Apart from some beautiful music, the topic for today is yesterday’s RBA decision to cut interest rates to record low levels. The decision won’t save the economy from recession and highlights the sort of desperation that central bankers now face as governments shunt the responsibility of counterstabilisation onto them while claiming that achieving fiscal surpluses is the brief of the treasuries. This self-defeating strategy – failing to use the most effective policy tool in favour of an ineffective tool is the neoliberal way. It is the recipe that New Keynesian macroeconomics offers. It is mindless, ideological nonsense and the problem is that it is not the top-end-of-town that suffers from the negative outcomes that follow. Quite the opposite in fact.
This is Part 2 (and final) in my discussion about what the financial markets might learn from gaining a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding. I noted in Part 1 – that the motivation in writing this series was the increased interest being shown by some of the large financial sector entities (investment banks, sovereign funds, etc) in MMT, which is manifesting in the growing speaking invitations I am receiving. This development tells me that our work is gaining traction despite the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon) who are trying to save their reputations as their message becomes increasingly vapid. While accepting these invitations raises issues about motivation – they want to make money, I want to educate – these groups are influential in a number of ways. They help to set the pattern of investment (both in real and financial terms), they hire graduates and can thus influence the type of standards deemed acceptable, and they influence government policy. Through education one hopes that these influences help turn the tide away from narrow ‘Gordon Gekko’ type behaviour towards advancing a dialogue and policy structure that improves general well-being. I also hope that it will further create dissonance in the academic sphere to highlight the poverty (fake knowledge) of the mainstream macroeconomic orthodoxy.
One of the shifts I have observed in the last year or so in the way that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is being discussed in the public domain and the type of speaking invitations I am receiving is a growing interest from large financial market entities, who have not bought into the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon). I spoke at a few workshops some years ago where economists from the large investment banks were the main audience and it was clear that they, in the main, appreciated what MMT was about. It is clear the characters that have to deal with putting funds at stake are keen to understand how the monetary system actually operates rather than how the mainstream macroeconomists pretend it operates – a pretense that advances particular ideological interests. What is also coming out more clearly is that the response from the mainstream is revealing a dissonance that they cannot seem to manage in any coherent way. We have seen statements from mainstream macroeconomists dismissing MMT as just ‘printing money’ and proposing Zimbabwe-like disasters. Others claim that they knew MMT all along and so there is nothing new. Others claim that all the insights that MMT holds out come down to whether one thinks monetary policy is less or more effective as a counter stabilisation told than fiscal policy. All statements attempt to simplify our work down to the level of irrelevance or downright crazy. Other interventions, such as the recent statements from the Bank of Japan Governor border on the surreal – ‘we are not doing MMT’ – well one doesn’t ‘do MMT’ anyway. But an MMT understanding provides a remarkably accurate depiction of what has been going down in Japan for nearly 3 decades – a depiction that the mainstream macroeconomists is incapable of providing. It seems that now, the financial markets are starting to get this point and seeking more engagement with MMT (if my invitations are anything to go by). This engagement is not without issues though. This is Part 1 in a two-part series discussing this topic. Part 2 will come tomorrow.
While the Europhile progressives are publishing papers and holding talkfests to discuss their latest EU reform proposals, the on-going reality of the European Union continues to reveal itself – the pretense that there is a rule of law operating – as laid out in the Treaties and the idea that all are equal under that law. When I was researching my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale – and over the long period I have studied the concept of European integration it was obvious to me that despite the chimera of a strict, rule-based system that is run by technocrats, the actual practice of the Union is vicariously ad hoc – rules applied in cases where doing otherwise would present ideological problems, abandonment of the rules and outright illegal behaviour when there the interests of the corporate elites are at stake or the existence of the Union is threatened. And while law breaking, relevant officials produce complicated justifications of their behaviour as if what they are doing is within the boundaries specified by the Treaties. The Europhile progressives, meanwhile, continue to hold this embarrassing monstrosity out as the exemplar of freedom, globalism, cosmopolitanism and sophistication. They have reached such a state of denial that what is obvious to those looking in from the outside escapes their attention, or, in the mould of the European technocrats they just ride along with the spurious justifications for the unjustifiable. Europe in 2019.
Various people are vying for the key positions in the European structures (EC President, ECB head, and a range of other positions) at the moment. The presence of French and German interests typically dominate these outcomes, although as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon changes, more weight was given to the jockeying of the various political coalitions that find their way into the European Parliament. But that process has new been compromised by the decline of the traditional parties as other political forces (Greens, En Marche, Liberal Democrats etc) have gained ground. So Europe is back to its Franco-German rivalry and emerging out of that process is the unthinkable – Bundesbank President, Jens Weidmann – becoming a front-runner to take over the ECB role. He is a man with a past and his current ‘political’ statements, as he lobbies for the position he clearly covets, appear to contradict that past. A leopard never changes its spots. Beware.
Last week, the EU finance ministers (the ‘Eurogroup’) met (June 13, 2019) in Luxembourg as part of their regular schedule. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the meeting whether Emmanual Macron’s push for a more coherent EU fiscal capacity to act as a counter-stabilisation capacity for the beleaguered Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As is normal, there was no progress made and the press reports said that the finance ministers “continued to clash over almost every feature of the new fiscal tool, including the source of funding” (Source). No surprises at all. So the ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’ agenda, that many Europhile Left commentators have been hoping for, was abandoned. The roof still has gaping holes and the EMU will once again fail badly when the next economic cyclical downturn comes through. And further, the lack of leadership in the fiscal area is creating a massive dilemma for the ECB and its conduct of monetary policy. In effect, the lacuna is demonstrating to all and sundry that monetary policy is incapable of achieving the aims despite the ECB deliberately breaching the legal framework established for it in the Treaties. The Eurozone dysfunction goes to a new level – and it is a time of growth.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
I am in London today (Monday) and have two events. First, I am doing a ‘Train the Trainers’ workshop for – The Gower Initiative for Modern Monetary Studies – where we will work through some techniques and concepts to help activists educate others about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Second, I am meeting with some Labour Party Members of Parliament who are keen to learn more about MMT and incorporate its insights into their political work. Get the drift? People wanting to learn and setting up pathways where that learning can occur. Which means they take advantage of access to one of the founders of MMT to find out what it is about, rather than adopt a superficial version of our work, which they might have heard about when Joe told Aalia, who had picked it up from Eddie, who had been having a conversation with Robyn about something that Abdul had told Amelia, who had read it in some Tweet that was reporting an article written by Kenneth ‘Mr False Spreadsheet’ Rogoff criticising MMT. That is the way to learn.