It’s Wednesday and my blog-lite day or so it seems. Today I briefly discuss the proposition that the British government can run short of sterling. It cannot unless it chooses to do so. And the basis for choosing to do so would be deeply irrational and irresponsible, when judged from the perspective of advancing the well-being of the citizens. I also reflect on the vested interests in the financial markets and the way they get platforms in the media and policy making circles to advance their sectional interests (profit). And mostly, we just have a 33 minute musical feast to reflect upon.
I learned long ago that when you consult a surgeon the recommendation will be surgery. After about 10 or more knee operations (both legs) as a result of sporting injuries, and, then some, to undo the damage done by previous surgery, I ran into a physiotherapist who had a different take on things. He showed me ways the body can respond to different treatments and retain the capacity for high-level training and performance even with existing damage. I still run a lot and his advice was worth a lot. The point is to watch out for one-trick ponies. The analogy is not quite correct because sometimes surgeons get it right. I don’t think the same can be said for a mainstream economist, who are also one-trick ponies. If you ask a mainstream economist what to do about macroeconomic policy they recommend hiking interest rates and cutting fiscal stimulus if the CPI starts to head north, irrespective of circumstances. But the message is getting blurred by realities, especially since the GFC. More pragmatic policy makers realise that just responding in the textbook manner hasn’t provided a sustainable basis for nations to follow. In the last week, we have seen the contradiction between the one-trick ponies, who are desperate to get back into their textbook comfort zone, and those who see the data more clearly. In Britain, one part of the Bank of England, the Financial Policy Committee has indicated the way forward is going to require careful policy support for businesses because many SMEs have loaded up on debt during the pandemic and face a precarious future. In the same week, a private sector bank economist, who is also an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, called for interest rate hikes and a deeper withdrawal of fiscal support (and central bank coordination of that support) to deal with, an as yet, unclear inflation threat.
These are rather extraordinary times indeed. I have been trawling through the Australian public debt data which is spread across the federal sphere and the various states and territories. The official data published by the ABS is always dated (lagging a year or so) and the state-level debt data is actually quite hard to put together – their various ‘debt management’ offices do not make it easy to put a time series together. My interest is in working out the impact of the rather radical shift in usual conservative Reserve Bank of Australia behaviour when the pandemic hit. They started buying government bonds (at all levels) and now own large swathes of public debt. They have also effectively been funding the rather large deficits that the governments in Australia have been running. And interest rates and bond yields remain low after nearly 18 months of this shift.
It’s Wednesday and I am besieged with writing commitments. Luckily, I have a video to present and some other things that might be of interest. And a short musical offering with a difference.
It is a public holiday today celebrating – Labour Day – which recognises the struggles to successfully gain an 8-hour working day for workers. The first of the many marches in this struggle occurred in my hometown of Melbourne on April 21, 1856, and history shows that this march was successful in achieving the first 8-hour day decision in the world, without loss of pay. So today we think of that. If workers unite they have the capacity to achieve great things. What follows is a brief report and footage from a debate I participated in on October 2, 2021, which was organised by some groups in Helsinki, Finland.
This is Part 2 of my analysis of the way that fundamental ideas in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) are totally consistent with a reasonable interpretation of Marx’s work. The motivation to clarify these issues came after I spoke at an event last weekend in the UK and shared a panel with a critic who claimed that Marx’s work established that MMT is wrong to assume that unemployment is a monetary phenomenon (insufficient spending) and that government spending can do anything about it. The claim was based on a view that Marx thought that capitalist firms have some unique logic that if they decide not to produce no amount of sales orders will induce them to expand production even if they have massive excess capacity (‘machines lying idle’) and a huge pool of idle labour to draw upon. No reasonable reading of Marx’s work would lead to that conclusion. In this part, we will consider what Marx thought about crisis and some later developments of his reproduction schemes, which make it clear that effective demand drives capitalist output, which conditions their employment decisions.
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.