The new governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (our central bank) gave a speech in Melbourne yesterday (November 15, 2016) – Buffers and Options to the annual dinner of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). CEDA is a seedy type of organisation that typically advances the neo-liberal agenda. Please read my blog – The CEDA Report – one of the worst ever – for more discussion on this point. But that is not the topic today. The new governor has already began his tenure in disappointing fashion. I discussed his first foray into public life in this role in the blog – First appearance by Australia’s new central bank governor disappointing. His latest public intervention suggests he is hardening this stance – perpetuating the myths that a currency-issuing government is dependent on bond markets for its spending capacity and that public borrowing puts a burden on future generations. While today’s blog is about Australia, the principles elucidated are universal.
There is now a so-called “New View of fiscal policy”, which, in fact, is not all that different to the “Old View” although the proponents are hell-bent on convincing us (and presumably themselves) otherwise. The iterative bumbling along of mainstream economists, dammed by reality but steeped in denial, continues. The latest iteration comes from the Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisors, one Jason Furman, who was supervised in his doctoral studies by Greg Mankiw at Harvard. He is also “closely linked to Robert Rubin” a classic “Wall Street insider” who was Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a gung-ho deregulator with a seedy past (in January 2009, he was named by Marketwatch as one of the “10 most unethical people in business”). Please see – Being shamed and disgraced is not enough – for more on Rubin. Furman’s lineage is thus not good. Furman supports free trade, social security private accounts and Wal-Mart’s labour practices which allows it to offer such low prices (for junk!) (Source). Furman is part of the core ‘Democrat neo-liberal establishment’, which received its comeuppance in last week’s Presidential election. His views on fiscal policy should come as no surprise then.
Prior to the ‘surprise’ victory of Donald Trump in last week’s US Presidential poll, there was an article (September 28, 2016) in the Financial Times – Trump is right to take aim at the ‘political’ Fed – arguing that Trump had “broken a cardinal rule in US presidential campaigning by openly questioning the effectiveness of the Federal Reserve”. In the Presidential debates, Trump had claimed that the US Federal Reserve banks had been “doing political things” as a result of their low interest rate policy and creating a “false economy”. The central bank governor responded by saying the bank did not take politics into account when changing monetary policy. Apparently, Trump was echoing conservative economists who think the low interest rates have pushed investors into riskier financial investments, which will crash if rates rise. It has to be said that history tells us that Republican party politicians regularly lambast the US central bank along conspiratorial lines (for example, 2011 Rick Perry’s “treasonous” allegations against Bernanke; George W Bush, Richard Nixon). What does it all mean? There was an interesting article in the Financial Times today (November 14, 2016) by Wolfgang Münchau – The end of the era of central bank independence – that claims the tide is shifting and more political interference in monetary policy is to be expected. My conclusion: if so, good. Democracy requires the elected polity takes responsibility for economic policy rather than an unelected, largely unaccountable, group of ‘economists’. But, I also add, the idea of central bank ‘independence’ is one of those neo-liberal myths that allow the elected polity to disassociate themselves from bad economic policy.
Eurostat released the latest national accounts data for the Eurozone yesterday (October 31, 2016) – Preliminary flash estimate for the third quarter of 2016 – which showed that real GDP grew by 0.3 per cent in the third-quarter 2016, unchanged from the second quarter and below the previous two quarters by 0.2 per cent. In this context, there was an interesting article in the latest ECB Research Bulletin (October 28, 2016) – The recovery of investment in the euro area in the aftermath of the great recession: how does it compare historically? – written by Philip Vermeulen, a senior economist at the central bank. I say interesting for two reasons: (a) the subject matter is inherently of interest; (b) the manner in which the article dodges around the obvious is a reflection of the institutional intellectual capture of the bank, even though the disclaimer is that the views expressed “do not necessarily represent the views of the European Central Bank and the Eurosystem”.
On June 26, 2016, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) published its – 86th Annual Report, 2015/16 – claimed that “there is an urgent need to rebalance policy in order to shift to a more robust and sustainable global expansion and address accumulated vulnerabilities”. Yesterday (October 5, 2106), the IMF issued its latest – Fiscal Monitor – Debt: Use it Wisely – which as the title might suggest focuses on what it sees as a dangerous exposure to global debt, which it currently estimates to be “at 225 percent of world GDP … currently at an all-time high.” Needless to say, this latest offering from the IMF has attracted news headlines with dire warnings about impending catastrophes. Some of this emphasis is justified but overall the IMF is erring, once again, in the opposite direction to its pre-GFC prediction errors. The context is obvious – mass unemployment continues as economic growth is stalling (or modest at best) because of a combination of non-government sector spending caution and the government obsession with fiscal austerity. The latter obsession has been stoked for years by the likes of the BIS and the IMF and while they do not explicitly recognise that in these latest documents, their stilted support for more fiscal action now, amounts to an admission of prior failures driven by the neo-liberal Groupthink that pervades these institutions.
On September 18, 2016, the Reserve Bank of Australia ushered in a new governor, in the form of Philip Lowe. It been the deputy governor for several years and has worked at the RBA all his professional life except for a short stint with the Bank of International Settlements. He speaks Central Bank-speak. On September 22, 2016, he appeared for the first time as governor before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics and delivered the RBA Annual Report 2015 to Parliament. His – Opening Statement – and the subsequent answers to questioning by the House Committee members were revealing because they indicated that the new governor clearly understood the vexed situation that the government had placed the central bank in over the last decade or so, but, at the same time, indicated he was also prepared to continue perpetuating neo-liberal myths that have created the vexed situation in the first place. Not a great start in my opinion. The full transcript of the hearing is available in the Parliamentary Transcript.
There was a Project Syndicate article (September 2, 2016) – The Unavoidable Costs of Helicopter Money – claiming that “In fact, there are major downsides to helicopter money”. Hmm. Should I read this article was my thought at the the time. Waste a few minutes of my life. I wondered if I could pen the article in advance and then check to see how close I was. The theme would be inflation. In that I was correct. But the author really innovated a bit and, in doing so, undermined his own argument. What we learn is fairly straightforward. If a government continues to increase nominal spending growth ahead of the growth in productive capacity then there will be inflation. The argument presented is, in fact, nothing to do with the monetary operations that accompany government spending – helicopter or otherwise. The inflation risk is in the spending. If private investment expenditure outstripped the capacity of the supply-side to produce the capital equipment demanded then the same outcome. Should we caution against such expenditure? Should be make it taboo? Obviously not.
In a paper – Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy and Central Bank Independence – delivered to the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, last week (August 25-27, 2016), Princeton University academic Christopher Sims suggested that monetary policy effectiveness cannot be judged independent of the fiscal position taken by the government. He argued that the current reality has demonstrated that when central banks shift to very loose monetary policy settings these policy changes will be ineffective if the fiscal authorities are simultaneously pursuing austerity. Even conservatives like Christopher Sims are starting to understand that the dominant mantra that places all policy responsibility on central banks and, meanwhile, pursues fiscal austerity, represents a failed and deeply flawed overall strategy. That is, the core neo-liberal macroeconomics strategy is now being shown by conservatives to be ridiculous. Modern Monetary Theory has long argued that monetary policy has to work hand-in-glove with fiscal policy and if the central bank is cutting interest rates then the fiscal authority has to be increasing its fiscal deficit to make the policy changes stick. Some of the more enlightened conservative economists are now seeing this reality.
On the Wikipedia page for economist Ricardo Reis we learn he was “Influenced by: Greg Mankiw”, which basically should tell you everything. Everything that is that would lead to the conclusion that his macroeconomics is plain wrong. Yet his connections in the profession are strong and has prestigious academic appointments, is ensconced in senior editorial positions on influential economics journals, advises central banks in the US and has regular Op Ed space in a leading Portuguese newspaper (his homenation). These facts tell you what is wrong with my profession. That someone can write articles that are just so off the mark yet have significant influence in the profession and be held out in the public debate as to be someone who is worth listening to and being reported on. I have received many E-mails in the last few days about the proposal offered by Reis at Jackson Hole last week. Many readers are still confused and actually thought the proposal had credibility. Let me be clear – bank lending is not influenced by the reserve positions of the banks. Without credit-worthy borrowers lining up to access loans, the banks could have all the reserves in the world and the central bank could invoke any number of nifty ‘indexing’ or other support payment schemes on those reserves, and the banks would still not lend. And with those credit-worthy borrowers lining up to access loans, the banks will always lend irrespective of their current reserve position or the nifty support schemes the central bank might dream up. Core Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) 101!
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.