One question that continually comes up when I do interviews is this: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Usually, the question is expressed in an incredulous tone, meaning that the person asking the question considers this to be the gotcha moment, when they pierce the impeccable logic of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and show it for what it is – a sham. One problem is that there is a tendency to confuse motivation with function and many people sympathetic to MMT reduce it to simple statements that belie the reality. One such statement, relevant to this topic, is that government’s issue debt to allow the central bank to maintain a specific short-term interest rate target. Central banks have traditionally used government debt as an interest-rate maintenance tool. But that is a function of the debt rather than being the motivation for issuing the debt in the first place. So we explore those differences today as a means of clarifying the questions and confusions around this issue. This is Part 1 of a two-part series, which I will finish tomorrow.
I haven’t had time yet to fully work through the decision by the European Commission yesterday to provide grants and loans to struggling Eurozone countries. I will comment on that when I have had time to understand the implications and be in a position to provide fair comment. It seems to be a vastly inadequately response in quantum, on top of an existing lack of fiscal support. But more on that another day. Today, I am investigating the latest data from the ECB. On May 26, 2020, the ECB released its bi-annual – Financial Stability Review, May 2020 – which seemed to excite some journalists to advance narratives that ‘sovereign debt’ investors (although none of the Eurozone nations are sovereign) will soon become spooked by the sharp rise in public debt levels in Europe, which will “threaten to undermine private-sector spending” and stall any growth prospects. The quote is from a Financial Times article (May 26, 2020) – ECB warns of challenge for eurozone from soaring public debt – which followed the release of the ECB’s Review. The elephant is, of course, the ECB assets and its ability to control all yields on public debt at will.
In the wake of the $A60 billion bungle, the Australian government has turned its attention to creating smokescreens. Yesterday (May 25, 2020), the Treasurer released a statement - Temporary changes to continuous disclosure provisions for companies and officers - which…
On Friday, we had the extraordinary admission from our Federal government that they had overestimated the injection required to fund their wage subsidy JobKeeper program by some $A60 billion. When the overall program was announced the Treasury allocated $A133 billion to it. So now they are admitting to a 45 per cent forecasting error, which sort of dwarfs the worst errors that the IMF makes, and they sure make some bad mistakes in their projections. Whatever the reason for the mistake, the way the Treasurer has defended it is quite repugnant – claiming virtue out of the incompetence. And while all the Labor Party economists are talking about seeing the error from space, none of them picked it up or had the nous to realise that the figures didn’t add up when the Government originally released them. I am the only economist who wrote that the figures published by the Government didn’t make sense. I did that on April 29, 2020. I also wrote to the Treasury and the Treasurer requesting answers to questions that reflected my concern. They didn’t bother replying. Now everyone is wise after the fact. Anyway, the $A60 billion is a nice round figure. And I outline a plan in this blog post on exactly how the Treasurer can spend it and improve the well-being of more than a million Australians with a stroke of the pen.
Remember back just a few months ago. We are in Britain. All the Remainers are jumping up and down about Brexit. We hardly see anything about it now as the UK moves towards a no deal with the EU. Times have overtaken all that non-event stuff. Now the developments are confounding the mainstream economists – again. There will be all sorts of reinventing history and ad hoc reasoning going on, but the latest data demonstrates quite clearly that what students are taught in mainstream macroeconomics provides no basis for an understanding of how the monetary system operates. All the predictions that a mainstream program would generate about the likely effects of current treasury and central bank behaviour would be wrong. Only MMT provides the body of knowledge that is requisite for understanding these trends.
It is getting to the stage that one gets bored reading critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) by leading mainstream economists. As the critiques have escalated over the last few years, I can safely say that not one has really said anything: (a) that the core body of work we have developed hasn’t already considered and dealt with – about 20 years ago!; (b) which means, none of the long line of the would be demolition team has achieved their aim. And when they write Op Ed articles that basically just say – oh, MMT economists ignore “the demand for money” and “MMT falls flat on its face” when inflation emerges as part of the emergence out of this crisis, I get bored. Really, is that the best they can come up with. The latest entreaty in the boring stakes comes from Willem Buiter, who seems to have left the commercial banking sector and gone back into academic life. His latest Op Ed – The Problem With MMT (May 4, 2020) – is not his best work. Boring is the best descriptor. Why did he bother? Did he think he had to establish his relevance. He would have been better concentrating on the archaic mess that his mainstream framework is in. Anyway, sorry to end the week like this.
It is Wednesday and I have a lot of commitments and deadlines hanging over me today. But I thought I would briefly comment on the yesterday’s – Decision – by the Bundesverfassungsgericht (German Federal Constitutional Court) (May 5, 2020) on the legality of the ECB’s Public Sector Purchase Programme. The BVerfG concluded that the ECB has been operating ultra vires and made orders as appropriate, which bind the German government and the Bundesbank and demonstrate once again the myth of central bank independence. There is all sorts of angst being expressed out there about this decision and progressive Europhiles are almost apoplectic. But it won’t surprise you to know that I think the Court made the correct judgement by exposing the complete sham that the European Union and the Eurozone, in particular, has become – an illegal, look-the-other-way, neoliberal cabal that the Union has become.
It is quite amusing really watching the way orthodox economists who know the game is up work like gymnasts to avoid actually spelling out directly what the facts are but spill the beans anyway. Last week (April 23, 2020), an ‘external member’ of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, one – Gertjan Vlieghe – gave a speech – Monetary policy and the Bank of England’s balance sheet. If the message was taken seriously, then the way monetary economics and macroeconomics is taught in our universities should change dramatically. At present, there is only one textbook that seriously caters for the message that is inherent in the speech – Macroeconomics (Mitchell, Wray and Watts). The speech leaves out important insights but essentially allows the reader to appreciate what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been on about, in part, for 25 years.
We all know what the – Bandwagon effect – is. There is a lot of research literature in social psychology trying to understand why people who believe one thing one minute, suddenly ditch that belief system and appear to be proponents of a new belief system, often, in total contradiction to their previous views. The effect is related but distinct from the Groupthink phenomenon which I have written about extensively in relation to the way mainstream economics has maintained a hold on the public debate despite being unable to explain anything useful. Whatever the underlying explanations – social norms, conformity pressures, information cascades and the rest of it – the ‘Bandwagon effect’ is rampant at the moment among economists. It appears that everyone has become an expert on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and want to drop the term into their Op Eds, media articles etc despite, in many cases, writing in the not to distant past, ridiculous mainstream articles that are the anathema of MMT. I give those who are jumping on the bandwagon no credit at all. The reason is that these sort of shifts are dangerous. They typically misrepresent our work and attempt to interpret it within the old paradigm, which just leads to the general public, especially where the commentator has a high public profile, being mislead … as usual. Everyone, apparently is an MMTer now. But from what they say we know that is not the case. And just as this cohort swing to save face in what is a glaringly obvious empirical rejection of all the mainstream predictions and theoretical constructs, they will swing again and start talking about ‘budget repair’ and ‘inflation’ and ‘debt burdens on our grandchildren’ when the dust settles and the elites push to regain their dominant position. We should not be lulled into creating liaisons that are not sustainable or based on a true shift in view.
It is Wednesday and just a collection of snippets today. I am trying to finish a major piece of work and so that is what I am mostly doing today. And learning to program Geojson formats in R, so I can overcome the decision by Google to abandon their fusion table facility, which my research centre has relied on for some years to display map layers. And I have some press interviews to deal with. But today we consider the claim by the Financial Times editorial the other day that “Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all”. It was an extraordinary statement from an institution like the FT to make for a start. But it reflects the desperation that is abroad right now – across all our nations – as the virus/lockdown story continues to worsen and the uncertainty grows. But I also think we should be careful not to adopt the view that everything is going to change as a result of this crisis. The elites are a plucky bunch, not the least because they have money and can buy military capacity. Changing the essential nature of neoliberalism, even if what has been displayed by all the state intervention in the last few months exposes all the myths that have been used to hide that essential nature, is harder than we might imagine. I think hard-edged class struggle is needed rather than middle-class talkfests that outline the latest gee-whiz reform proposals. The latter has been the story of the Europhile progressives for two decades or so as the Eurozone mess has unfolded. It hasn’t got them very far.