I noted in Monday’s blog – Modern Monetary Theory – what is new about it? – that I am working on a paper (with my colleague Martin Watts) that will form the basis of a a keynote talk I will give at the – International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. That talk will now be held at 15:30 on Saturday, September. 17, 2016. I also listed four areas where we would discuss the novel contribution that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has made to macroeconomics, despite the claims of both mainstream economists and some Post Keynesians that there is nothing new in MMT. The first two blogs on this topic covered the juxtaposition of employment versus unemployment buffer stocks and the implications of that for how we view the Phillips curve, a central framework in macroeconomics linking inflation to developments in the real sector (unemployment etc). Today’s blog considers another section of the paper – the dynamics of fiscal deficits and public debt. We consider the difference between deficit doves, who consider fiscal deficits are appropriate under some conditions but should be balanced over some definable economic cycle, which we argue has been the standard Post Keynesian position, and the MMT approach to deficits, which considers the desirable deficit outcome at any point in time to be a function of the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. We argue that fiscal rules expressed in terms of some rigid balance to GDP target are not only meaningless but dangerous. Fiscal rules in MMT are only meaningful if related to the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. This body of MMT work is clearly novel and improves on the extant Post Keynesian literature in the subject which was either silent or lame on these topics.
There was an article (May 24, 2016) – Helicopter money: The illusion of a free lunch – written by three institutional bank economists (two from the BIS, the other from the central bank of Thailand), which concluded that Overt Monetary Financing (OMF), where the bank provides the monetary capacity to support much larger fiscal deficits with no further debt being issued to the non-government sector, was “too good to be true”, in the sense that it “comes with a heavy price” – summarised as “giving up on monetary policy forever“. The argument they make is very consistent with the work that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents have published for more 20 years now, which is now starting to penetrate the mainstream banking analysis. However, the conclusion they draw is not supported by the original MMT proponents who would characterise OMF as a highly desirable policy development, more closely representative of the intrinsic monetary capacity of the government. The article also raises questions of what we mean by a “free lunch”, a term which was popularised (but not invented) by Monetarist Milton Friedman. Its use in economics is always loaded towards the mainstream view that government interventions are costly. But if we really appraise what the term “no such thing as a free lunch” really means then, once again, we are more closely operating in the MMT realm which stresses real resource constraints and exposes the fallacies of financial constraints that are meant to apply to currency-issuing governments.
Last week, I reported on some claims by Australian private sector economists that the Australian government was deplete of policy tools (“run out of ammunition” was the cute term used among these self-serving characters) and would not be able to handle the Brexit fallout – see When journalists allow dangerous economic myths to pervade. It was obvious that the statements were nonsensical and only reflected the dangerous neo-liberal ideology that discretionary fiscal policy should be constrained to the point of being not used! In the last week, some major central bankers around the world have given speeches which suggest they also understand that fiscal policy has come to the fore and provide some certainty to the world economy. The latest estimates from the ECB of the Eurozone output gap certainly provide the evidence base to justify a major expansion of fiscal deficits across the Eurozone. The research is suggesting that there is a significant output gap which is evidence of insufficient aggregate spending rather than any structural shifts in potential GDP. I guess they are warming the Member States for more expansionary action although the message is very clear – the European Commission has to abandon its austerity mindset and provide some old-fashioned deficit stimulus – quick smart!
This morning I was reading the – The euro area bank lending survey – for the first quarter of 2016, published by the European Central Bank (ECB). This is a quarterly survey that the ECB conducts which was first published in 2003. It seeks to assess the extent to which banks are lending and the factors that are influencing that behaviour. The results published in the April 2016 edition relate to the first three months of 2016 and “expectations of changes in the second quarter of 2016”. Of particular interest was the inclusion of several ‘ad hoc’ questions (outside the normal survey design) that were designed to gauge “the impact of the ECB’s expanded asset purchase programme” and the “impact of the ECB’s negative deposit facility rate”. The results are fairly clear if you delve into the detail. From the April 2016 bank lending survey (BLS) we can conclude that the massive asset purchasing program and the negative interest rates have not significantly increased bank lending. We know why. It is a pity that the majority of commentators have not yet worked out the answer!
As the years have passed, I have become inured to the depths of absurdity that the European Commission and the political elites its nurtures go to justify their existence. The Maastricht exercise in the late 1980s and early 1990s was comical. The convergence process towards Phase III of the Economic and Monetary Union in the 1990s was established a new norm for craziness. Who would believe the stuff that went on. Then the Goldman Sachs fiddle to allow Greece to enter the Eurozone two years later than the rest. What! Then the Stability and Growth Pact fudges in 2003 when Germany (and France) were clearly in violation of the rules they had bullied the other Member States into accepting. Look the other way and whistle! Then the GFC and the on-going mess. By now the Commission and the Council were outdoing themselves in pursuing absurdity. It was a pity that millions of innocent citizens have had their lives wrecked through unemployment and poverty as a result. And, now, perhaps, this lot have exceeded their own capacity for nonsense. I refer to the latest Convergence Reports published by the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Hypocrisy has no limit it seems. The Eurozone and EU is now firmly entrenched in austerity and deflation and the policy makers think that is the desirable benchmark for others to aspire to. Who could have invented this stuff! And, in relation to the upcoming vote in Britain – how the hell would any reasonable citizen want to be part of this sham outfit (EU) if they had a choice.
On January 25, 2015, the press release heading read – ECB announces expanded asset purchase programme. The ECB had decided to ramp up its quantitative easing (QE) program by adding “the purchase of sovereign bonds to its existing private sector asset purchase programmes in order to address the risks of a too prolonged period of low inflation”. We now have sufficient data to assess what has been going on under this program, and specifically under the public sector purchase programme (PSPP) components (one of three parts to the overall policy initiative). The conclusion is that the scheme has had very little impact on growth and inflation – which is no surprise. However, the pattern of purchases makes it clear that the ECB and the relevant National Central Banks (NCBs) have been engaged in a fiscal operation which has provided extensive debt relief to all Member States other than Greece. This is a demonstration of the European institutions once again engaging in smoke and mirrors (pretending to be operating within the ambit of the Treaties but openly doing the opposite) and behaving belligerently towards one nation (Greece) to ensure it stays subjugated.
I am in Barcelona today until later then I am off to Valencia for two days. More on the Spanish tour later. The latest edition of the ECB’s Economic Bulletin released on May 5, 2016 carried and – Update on economic and monetary developments – provides more evidence, as if any was needed, that the current reliance on monetary policy – standard or otherwise – to reboot the stagnant economies of Europe has failed and will continue to fail. Why? It is the wrong policy tool. Journalists are increasingly writing that policy options are exhausted because central bankers ‘have fired all their shots’ and the “more shots they fire, the less effective they become”. The implication is that the world is locked into a future of secular stagnation with elevated levels of unemployment and low productivity growth. They seem to have forgotten that fiscal policy remains effective if it is used properly. There is no secular stagnation – just irresponsible fiscal policy use.
Several new articles have appeared in the last few weeks in the major media outlets expressing surprise that central banks have had little effect on economic growth despite the rather massive buildup of their ‘balance sheets’ via various types of quantitative easing programs. I have indicated before that I am coming to the view that most of the media, politicians, central bankers and other likely types (IMF and European Commission officials etc) seem to be in a constant state of ‘surprise’ as each day of reality fails to confirm what they said yesterday or last week (allowing for lags :-)). What a group of surprised people we have to effectively run our nations on behalf of capital. Poor souls, constantly be shocked out of their certainties. That is what Groupthink does – creates mobs that deny reality until it smacks them so hard in the face that they can only utter “that was surprising!” And in that context, the latest media trend appears to be something along the lines of ‘well let’s get the turbines moving’ or ‘those helicopters are about to launch’ and when we read that and what follows we learn that the media input into our lives only reinforces the smokescreen of ignorance that we conduct our daily lives within.
In 2014, it was apparent that the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) had made itself part of the ideological wall that was blocking any reasonable recovery from the GFC. I wrote about that in this blog – The BIS remain part of the problem. I was already concerned in 2013 (see this blog – Since when did the BIS become the Neo-liberal Ministry of Misinformation?). Things haven’t improved and the latest statements from the Bank in the BIS Quarterly Review (March 6, 2016) – Uneasy calm gives way to turbulence – demonstrates two things that are now obvious. First, that the neo-liberal Groupthink that created the crisis in the first place, and, which has prolonged the malaise continues to dominate the leading international financial institutions. Second, not only are these institutions (and I include the OECD, the IMF, to BIS, among this group) impeding return to prosperity as a result of their continued adherence to failed macroeconomics, but worse, their patterned behaviour actually introduces new instabilities that ferment further crises. Someone should be held accountable for the instability these organisations cause, which, ultimately leads to higher rates of unemployment and increased poverty rates.
In September 2010, The Project Syndicate, which markets itself as providing the “Smartest Op-Ed Articles from the World’s Thought Leaders” gave space to Martin Feldstein – Japan’s Savings Crisis. Like a cracked record, Feldstein rehearsed his usual idiotic claims that interest rates in Japan would rise because “of the continuing decline in Japan’s household saving rate” and that “the higher interest rate would eventually raise the government’s interest bill by about 4% of GDP. And that would push a 7%-of-GDP fiscal deficit to 11%”. Then, so the story goes, “This vicious spiral of rising deficits and debt would be likely to push interest rates even higher, causing the spiral to accelerate”. At which point, Japan sinks slowly into the sea never to be seen again. It turns out that the real world is a little different to what students read about in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks. At the risk of understatement I should have said very (completely) different. Better rephrase that to say – what appears in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks bears little or no relation to the reality we all live in. Anyway, events over the last week in Japan have once again meant that this has been just another week of humiliation for mainstream macroeconomics – one of many.