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.
I guess the venality of the new US Presidency isn’t creating enough news for the Australian press. On January 29, 2017, the Fairfax press wheeled out the veritable debt scaremongering in this article – Scott Morrison to lift credit limit as Australia’s debt hurtles towards $500 billion – reporting that the Australian government “will be forced to lift its own self-imposed credit limit in the coming months as debt hurtles towards half-a-trillion dollars”. Instead of writing about how stupid and unnecessary this ‘self-imposed limit’ is, the journalist wanted to talk about the disaster that awaits us as the debt of the currency issuing government “hurtles” like some asteroid to its death towards half-a-trillion dollars. As I said, must have been a day that imagination in the journalistic world was lacking. The worst part of the story is not the idiocy of its logic or the fact that it links to an inane Australian Debt Clock homepage, but, rather, the reported response from the Labor Party Shadow Treasurer. The Labor party is meant to represent the workers and claims to be the progressive force in Australian politics. That ladies and gentlemen is the sick joke of all time. This is a party that has abandoned its traditional remit (to defend the well-being of workers) and instead spouts neo-liberal gibberish without knowing it.
Happy New Year to all readers. I will not write much today (to reflect to on-going holiday spirit!). But, there was an article in Bloomberg media (December 30, 2016) – Beware the Foreign Exodus From Treasuries – stirring up fear about the recent sales of foreign-held US government debt. I guess it was a slow news day or something because there is very little in the story that is relevant to assessing whether the US government can run an appropriate fiscal policy stance. The fact is that the foreign sales of US government debt are largely irrelevant for the US government’s capacity to maintain its net spending program. The sales are in US dollars and only the US government itself issues those dollars. To think that a foreign purchaser of a US Treasury debt liability are ‘providing dollars’ to the US government is to completely misunderstand the nature of the transaction. This blog considers the current data and explains how to think correctly about these matters. The question that financial commentators really should be asking is why should the US government extend that corporate welfare (risk-free bonds with income flow) to domestic bond-buyers and foreign governments/private investors. There is no financial reason (in terms of facilitating fiscal policy) for the bond issuance. It is just a form of welfare spending which helps the top-end-of-town.
On December 14, 2016, the US Federal Reserve Bank pushed up its policy target interest rate from 0.5 per cent to 0.75 per cent. In its – Press Release – it said that the “labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace since mid-year”. It acknowledged that “business investment has remained soft”. But it believes that even though it has increased the rate by 25 basis points, there is still room for “some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation”. The logic is very confused in my view. First, the US labour market is weak (in inflation pressure terms) notwithstanding the reduced official unemployment rate. Real wages growth has been effectively zero and the broad measure of labour underutilisation (U6) remains at 9.3 per cent (as at November). Second, the emphasis on central bank policy shifts is based on a view that elements of total spending are sensitive to interest rate changes and by increasing rates, price pressures will attenuated. The only problem with that logic is that all the elements of spending in the US (private investment, household durable goods) are hardly setting the world on fire. Private investment, in particular, is in poor shape. So by the US Federal Reserve bank’s own logic (which I do not share) it should be expecting on-going further poor investment growth, which will further undermine potential productive capacity. Not a sound strategy at all.