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.
After yesterday’s marathon blog, today will be easier going (and shorter). I was reading John Maynard Keynes recently – circa 1928 – that is, 8 years before the publication of the General Theory with his Treatise on Money intervening. He was railing against the principles and practice of ‘sound finance’, which he noted had deliberately caused billions of pounds in lost income for the British economy. He urged the Treasury and the Bank of England to abandon their conservative (austerity) approach to the economy and, instead, embark on wide-scale fiscal stimulus to create jobs and prosperity. He concluded that with thousands of workers idling away in mass unemployment that it was “utterly imbecile to say that we cannot afford” to stimulate employment via large-scale public works – building infrastructure etc. He considered the policy makers who opposed such options were caught up in “the delirium of mental confusion”. The stark reality is that 88 years later, he could have written exactly the same article and would have been ‘right on the money’. We are being led (euphemism) by imbeciles.
This week, I seem to have been focused on central banking this week, which is not my favourite topic, but is all the rage over the last several days given the decision of the Bank of Japan to use negative interest rates on any new bank reserves and then continue to pump reserves into the system via its so-called QQE policy (swapping public and corporate bonds for bank reserves), and then imposing a tax on the reserves so created. Crazy is just one euphemism which comes to mind. So still on that theme and remembering that the Bank of Japan explicitly stated that the combination of QQE and the tax on reserves (they call it a negative interest rate – same thing) was introduced to increase the inflation rate back up towards its target of 2 per cent per annum, I thought the following paper was interesting. The paper from the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis (published July 2015) – Current Federal Reserve Policy Under the Lens of Economic History: A Review Essay – considers the unconventional monetary monetary policy interventions taken by the US Federal Reserve Bank between 2007 and 2009 and comes to the conclusion that “there is no work, to my knowledge, that establishes a link from QE to the ultimate goals of the Fed inflation and real economic activity”. Maybe the Bank of Japan and the ECB bosses should sent this researcher an E-mail and request his evidence. They don’t seem to have been able to escape from the straitjacket of their neo-liberal Groupthink.
As the Bank of Japan began its hopeless quest to stimulate growth with negative interest rates (see my blog yesterday – The folly of negative interest rates on bank reserves), the latest data from the ECB came out on lending to households and non-financial institutions. It tells an interesting story. The story has to be framed within the knowledge that oil prices have now fallen by some 77 per cent. But the major factor that is not usually mentioned when commentators talk about ECB policy changes and the likely impacts is the on-going and manic fiscal austerity in the Eurozone, which puts the whole region in a recession-type straitjacket, where monetary policy changes, weak in impact at best, have little hope of achieving anything positive. The logic of the reliance on monetary policy for counter-stabilisation is also built on a failure to understand what drives the economic cycle. The belief that banks will suddenly lend just because the central bank imposes a tax on their reserve deposits (negative interest rates) or offers them cheap loans to on-lend to households and firms is misplaced. Banks do not loan out their reserves and firms will not borrow from banks no matter how cheap the money is if there are no profitable opportunities to pursue. It is time the authorities abandoned their neo-liberal myths and got real. The Eurozone needs a massive fiscal expansion and it needed it 7 or 8 years ago. The ECB is the only institution in the flawed system that can provide the financial resources to make that happen and it could, with Brussels approval, bypass the ‘no bailout’ clauses in the Treaty to make that happen. It won’t, and the Eurozone will muddle on with increased poverty rates and rising social instability. What folly!
On Friday (January 29, 2016), the Bank of Japan issued a seven-page document – Introduction of “Quantitative and Qualitative Monetary Easing with a Negative Interest Rate” – which left me confounded. Do they actually know what they are doing or not? For years, the liquidity management conducted by the operations desk at the Bank has been impeccable, in the sense that they have maintained near zero interest rates in the face of growing fiscal deficits. There was always some doubt when they were the early users of quantitative easing which many claimed was to provide the banks with more reserves so that they would increase their lending to the private domestic sector in order to stimulate growth, after many years of rather moderate real performance to say the least. Of course, banks are not reserve constrained in their lending so the the only way that this aspect of ‘non-conventional’ monetary policy would be stimulatory would be if investment and purchasers of consumer durable were motivated to borrow at the lower interest rates that the asset swap (bonds for reserves) generated. The evidence is that the stimulus impact has been low and that there are many other factors other than falling interest rates governing whether borrowers will approach their banks for loans. In their latest announcement, the logic appears to be that by reducing reserves they will induce banks to lend more. Go figure that one out!
In today’s blog, I continue the discussion that I started last Thursday, and, specifically, focus on the critique that commentators have made about the loss of state control of their economies as a result of globalisation. The thesis advanced by many analysts is that globalisation has reduced the capacity of the nation-state and forced governments to adopt free market policies at the microeconomic level and austerity at the macroeconomic level, for fear that capital flight will destroy their economies. It is a neatly packaged thesis that the political Left has imbibed, and, in doing so, has undermined the progressive basis of these institutions and left voters with little choice between right-wing parties and the social democratic parties who formally represented the interests of workers and acted as mediators in the class conflict between labour and capital. The major distinguishing feature these days between these two types of parties, who were previously poles apart in approach and mandate sought, is that the so-called progressive side of politics now claims it will implement austerity in a fairer way. These austerity-lite parties, buying into the myth that globalisation has undermined the capacity of the state to pursue full employment policies with equitable income distribution, do not challenge the basis of austerity, but just quibble over who should pay for it. The aim of this research which will appear in my next book (with co-author Thomas Fazi) is to outline a manifesto by which progressive activists and political movements can claim back the space the current generation of sham progressives have ceded to the neo-liberals.
My blog in the next week or so will be possibly rather holiday-like given the time of the year and the fact that I have rather a lot of travel and related commitments to fulfil over that period. So I will be pacing myself to fit it all in. Today, a brief comment on an article that appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Region, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis – Should We Worry About Excess Reserves (December 17, 2015). It is that one of those articles that suggests the author hasn’t really been able to see beyond his intermediate macroeconomics textbook and understand what is really been going on over the last several years.