The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has just hosted its annual Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming where central banks, treasury officials, financial market types and (mainstream) economists from the academy and business gather to discuss economic policy. As you might expect, the agenda is set by the mainstream view of the world and there is little diversity in the discussion. A Groupthink reinforcing session. One paper that was interesting was from two US Berkeley academics – Fiscal Stimulus and Fiscal Sustainability – which the news reports claimed suggested that governments should be increasing fiscal expansion even though they may be carrying high levels of public debt. The conclusion reached by the paper is correct but the methodology is mainstream and so progressives should not get carried away with the idea that there is signs that some give is emerging, which will lead to more progressive outcomes. A progressive solution will only come when the neo-liberal dominance of my profession is terminated and an entirely new macroeconomics paradigm based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is established. There is still a long way to go though.
There was an article in the Financial Times last week (August 16, 2017) – Central banks hold a fifth of their governments’ debt – which seemed to think there was a “challenge” facing policymakers in “unwinding assets after decade of stimulus”. The article shows how central banks around the world have been buying huge quantities of government (and private) bonds and holding them on their balance sheets. Apparently, these asset holdings are likely to cause the banks headaches. I don’t see it that way. The central banks, in question, could write the debt off any time they chose with no significant consequence. Why they don’t is the question rather than whether they will become insolvent if the values crash (they won’t) or whether the yields will skyrocket if they sell them back into the non-government sector (they won’t). Last week (August 15, 2017), the US Department of Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board put out their updated data on Foreign Holders of US Treasury Securities. Other relevant data was also published which helps us trace the US Federal Reserve holdings of US government debt. Overall, the US government holds about 40 per cent of its own total outstanding debt – split between the intergovernmental agencies (27.6 per cent) and the US Federal Reserve Bank (12.4 per cent). In some quarters, the US central bank has been known to purchase nearly all the change in total debt. That folks, is what we might call Overt Monetary Financing and the sky hasn’t fallen in yet as a consequence.
“If we want to ensure more people are well-employed, central banks alone will certainly not suffice” is a quote I am happy to republish because I consider it to be 100 per cent accurate. The only problem is that the way I think about that statement and construct its implications is totally at odds with the intent of its author, who claimed it was “an important lesson of Friedman’s speech”, which “remains valid”. The quote appeared in a recent Bloomberg article (July 17, 2017) – What Milton Friedman Got Right, and Wrong, 50 Years Ago – written by journalist Ferdinando Giugliano. It celebrates the Presidential Speech that Friedman gave to the American Economic Association on December 29, 1967 at their annual conference in Washington D.C. In terms of the contest of paradigms, the speech is considered to be the starting point proper of the Monetarist era, even though it took at least another 5 or 6 years (with the onset of the OPEC oil crises) for the gospel espoused by Friedman to really gain ground. The problem is that Friedman was selling snake oil that became the popular litany of the faithful because it suited those who wanted to degrade the role of government in maintaining full employment. It was in step with the push by capital to derail the Post War social democratic consensus that had seen real wages growing in proportion with productivity, reduced income inequality, jobs for all who wanted to work and a strong sense of collective solidarity emerge in most advanced nations. This consensus was the anathema of the elites who saw it as squeezing their share of national income and giving too much power to workers to negotiate better terms and conditions in their work places. Friedman provided the smokescreen for hacking into that consensus and so began the neo-liberal era. We are still enduring its destructive consequences.
The latest inflation data from the Eurozone tells us once again how wrong mainstream monetary theory is. Eurostat released its latest estimates (June 30, 2017) – Euro area annual inflation down to 1.3% – which has according to the press confounded the ECB, who has been trying to push the inflation rate up to around 2 per cent (a soft target). Like many economic things that confound the pundits, if you are familiar with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) you won’t be surprised at all. All the baying at the moon that the ECB has been doing (courtesy of mainstream monetary textbook) won’t shift the inflation rate. Expanding bank reserves won’t shift the inflation rate. The real cause of the declining inflation rate is a lack of spending relative to productive capacity. And it is clear that the ECB has limited capacity to influence that gap. That is a matter for fiscal policy, which remains in austerity mode in the Eurozone as the leaders continue to talk about nothing.
There is a lot of talk among the economics journalists about the impending collapse of China, apparently drowning in mountains of unsustainable debt. Don’t hold your breath. The Chinese government fully understands its capacity as the monopoly issuer of its currency and demonstrated during the GFC how to effectively deploy that capacity. That doesn’t mean that the Chinese economy might record slower growth in the period ahead – but as Japan demonstrated in the 1990s after it experienced a massive property bubble burst – slower growth is not collapse. Appropriate use of fiscal policy can always prevent collapse if there is a will to do so. Further, Australia’s net foreign debt has risen significantly over the last few decades and now exceeds $A1 trillion. Most of it is non-government and the private banks have been at the forefront of the increase as they have been racking up loans from foreign wholesale funding markets. With China slowing, there is a possibility that the conditions for servicing these private loans may deteriorate. A chief of a credit rating agency (S&P) has been getting airplay in Australia the last few days claiming that this increased vulnerability arising from the foreign debt exposure requires the federal government to get into surplus as quickly as possible to provide it with the capacity to “absorb shocks” arising from a correction in the banking sector. His insights are nonsensical. Exactly the opposite is the case.
On one side of the Atlantic, it seems that central bankers understand the way the monetary system operates, while on the other side, central bankers are either not cognisant of how the system really works or choose to publish fake knowledge as a means to leverage political and/or ideological advantage. Yesterday, the Deutsche Bundesbank released their Monthly Report April 2017, which carried an article – Die Rolle von Banken, Nichtbanken und Zentralbank im Geldschöpfungsprozess (The Role of Banks, Non-banks and the central bank in the money-creation process). The article is only in German and provides an excellent overview of the way the system operates. We can compare that to coverage of the same topic by American central bankers, which choose to perpetuate the myths that students are taught in mainstream macroeconomic and monetary textbooks. Today’s blog will also help people who are struggling with the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) claim that a sovereign government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency and the fact that private bank’s create money through loans. There is no contradiction. Remember that MMT prefers to concentrate on net financial assets in the currency of issue rather than ‘money’ because that focus allows the intrinsic nature of the currency monopoly to be understood.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.
Eurostat released the latest inflation data for the Eurozone last week (March 2, 2017) for February 2017 – Euro area annual inflation up to 2.0%. As the title reveals the Euro area inflation rate rose from 1.8 per cent in January 2017 to 2 per cent in February 2017. The mainstream narrative is already emerging – ‘see we told you that all that central bank bond purchasing would (eventually) be inflationary’ – type of stories. Bloomberg (March 5, 2017) waded in early with the headline – Draghi Seen Keeping Cool on Stimulus Drive Amid Inflation Surge. I expect a bevy of mainstream economists who haven’t worked out yet they have nothing sensible to add to the public debate will chime in like those wind-up toys that children play with and argue they ‘knew it all along’ – QE would be inflationary. Well I am sorry to say that the data tells us if a significant element of the cost structure rises so will inflation – simple as that. The slight uptick in inflation in the Euro area does not support the mainstream argument that building bank reserves will flood the economy with ‘money’, which then drives inflation.
One of the defining features of the neo-liberal era has been the buildup of private debt, particularly household debt. The banks and policy makers all assured us that this was fine because wealth was being built with the debt until, of course, it came tumbling down for many as a result of the GFC. Recent commentary on Australia’s record household debt problem and the increasing number of Australian households that are now on the brink of insolvency and cannot pay their bills seems to think this is a new outcome – the result of record low interest rates as thew central bank (RBA) tries to curb the descent into recession. The fact is that the problem emerged in the 1980s as neo-liberalism took hold of the policy process. We have to understand that period to fully appreciate the household debt problem now.
On November 29, 2016, Mario Draghi, the President of the ECB wrote to Mr Jonás Fernández, a Spanish European Parliament member in reply to a request for clarification from the Chairman of the EP’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON). The Letter discussed whether it would be legal under the Lisbon Treaty for the ECB to engage in direct monetary transfers to citizens bypassing the Member States and whether such a policy would be beneficial for economic growth. Several commentators have seized on the response from the ECB as saying that such a policy innovation would be both legal and beneficial. My view is that, in forming this conclusion, they have not fully understood the difference between a monetary and a fiscal operation. While I think the policy would produce positive results, in the sense that it would stimulate growth and employment and reduce unemployment, I also believe it would be illegal under the Treaty. Further, I don’t think it is a progressive position to argue that a group of unelected and unaccountable technocrats in the central bank should be in charge of economic policy. That should be the responsibility of the democratically-elected members of the government who are fully accountable every electoral cycle. The ECB should not become a fiscal agent. Rather, if the Eurozone elites cannot implement (which they cannot) a full federal treasury function then it should disband the monetary union in an orderly way.