Remember back in early 2009, when the then head of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet (boasted that the “euro … is a success … it helps to secure prosperity in participating states”. He was still making these claims in October 2018. At an event in honour of he and former German finance minister Theodor Waigel, organised by the Banque de France, Trichet said that “the euro is a historic success … in terms of credibility, resilience, adaptability, popular support and real growth during its first 20 years is impressive”. He particularly singled out the “delivery of price stability”. Well the latest data confirms beyond doubt that the ECB has failed to deliver on its price stability charter. Further, the descent back into recession in Italy and probably Germany in the December-quarter 2018 tells us that this reliance on monetary policy to stimulate growth while maintaining ridiculous levels of fiscal rectitude has undermined growth and unnecessarily condemned millions to unemployment and rising poverty.
This is the second and final part of this cameo set, which aims to clear up a few major blind spots in peoples’ embrace with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This is all repetition. I don’t apologise for that and it does not reflect a slack or bad editorial approach from yours truly as some critics have claimed. Repetition is how we learn. Reinforcing things in different ways (aka repetition) helps people come to terms with concepts and ideas that give them dissonance. MMT is certainly about dissonance as the current level of hostility towards our work is demonstrating. It is also challenging existing ‘fiefdoms’ in the academy and beyond, which also creates aggression and retaliation. The problem is that most of the current criticism merely rehearses the same tired lines of inquiry. A stack of mainstream (New Keynesian) economists now regularly claim they ‘knew it all along’. The short and truthful response is – ‘no they didn’t. The standard mainstream macroeconomic theory cannot accommodate MMT principles unless it jettisons its core propositions and becomes something else. At any rate, as noted in – Operationalising core MMT principles – Part 1 – I am happy to help clarify quandaries that newcomers have with MMT if they are genuinely trying to work out what it is all about. I have no desire to interact with ‘critics’ who are just defending mainstream macroeconomics in its death throes and have no genuine interest in really understanding MMT beyond the superficial and no penchant for reading the now lengthy body of work we have generated in the academic literature. Yesterday, I considered a typical inquiry about an important operational detail of implementing a Job Guarantee. Today, I consider a related topic. If a government is facing a situation where it needs to shift workers to the Job Guarantee pool to stabilise inflation, how does it do that? The ‘critics’ often claim we only advocate tax increases to fight inflation and because they are politically tricky to engineer MMT essentially fails to have an effective price anchor. Today, I bring together many past blog posts to summarise the MMT position on counter-stabilising fiscal policy for those that might be struggling to put it all together.
In yesterday’s short blog post – Some Brexit dynamics while across the Channel Europe is in denial (January 2, 2019), I noted that various European Commission officials were boasting about how great the monetary union had been over the last 20 years. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had the audacity (and delusion) to claim it had “delivered prosperity and protection to our citizens. it has become a symbol of unity, sovereignty and stability”. I think he was either drunk or in a parallel universe or both. I provided two graph (GDP growth and employment) to show how poorly performed the monetary union has been since its inception. Today, I want to bring to your attention a Bank of International Settlements (BIS) research report which categorically finds that the European banks during the pre-crisis period not only fuelled the massive boom in sub-prime loans and doomed-to-fail assets that were floating around at the time, but also “enabled the housing booms in Ireland and Spain”. Rather than the US banking system being primarily responsible for the pre-crash buildup of private debt, the European banks were also helping the “leveraging-up of US households”. The “European banks produced, not just invested in, US mortgage-backed securities”. This role is not well understood or recognised. And it was because the Single Market mentality of the neoliberal European Union which abandoned proper prudential oversight and regulation allowed it to happen. So much for “prosperity”, “protection” and “stability”.
On December 19, 2018, the Federal Reserve Bank Open Market Committee (FOMC), which determines the monetary policy settings in the US, increased the policy interest rate by 25 basis points to 2.5 per cent, as part of its plan to ‘normalise’ monetary policy. Even within the parameters of their own logic, it is hard to see any inflation threat. Long-term inflationary expectations suggest that people expect an unchanged situation over the next decade. Which suggests that the current unemployment rate is not seen as a threat to the price level. Now, while the FOMC decision may or may not cause some slow down in real GDP growth, given the blunt and ambiguous nature of monetary policy adjustments, the really disturbing aspect of the policy change is the fact that the FOMC members were plotting to push up unemployment by more than 1.2 million people as a plan to lower the inflation rate by a few basis points. Not only is that an obscene revelation but the fact that the FOMC use economic models that cannot tell them that the economic costs of such a shift are massive compared to any benefits that might arise from a slightly lower inflation rate tells us that policy is being made using deeply flawed, useless economic theory and models. Moral bankruptcy and incompetence rules.
This is the second and final part in my discussion about the latest attempts by the IMF and notable New Keynesian macroeconomists to keep the ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie alive. The crisis in Italy is once again giving these characters a ‘playing field’ to rehearse their destructive ideas that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. In their article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics continue to argue the case for austerity in Italy as the only way to engender growth. In this second part of my analysis of their argument I show that there is little evidential basis for concluding that Italy is a special case. I argue that imposing fiscal austerity on Italy will turn out badly. The broader conclusion is that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises.
President Trump banned a CNN reporter only to find his position overturned by the judicial system. Well CNN is guilty of at least one thing – publishing misleading and alarmist economic reports about Japan. In a CNN Business article last week (November 13, 2018) – Japan’s economy has a $5 trillion problem – readers were told that the Bank of Japan has no “dwindling options to juice growth if a new crisis hits” because “it’s now sitting on assets worth more than the country’s entire economy”. The real story should have been that the Bank of Japan continues to demonstrate the categorical failure of mainstream macroeconomics and, conversely, ratify the core principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). That is what the Japanese experience since the early 1990s tells us. And all the stories about special cases; cultural peculiarities, closed markets, etc that the mainstream economists wheel out when another one of their predictions about how Japan is about to sink into the sea as a result of its public debt levels, or that interest rates are about to go through the roof because of the on-going and substantial fiscal deficits; or that inflation is about to accelerate because of the massive monetary injections; and more, are just smokescreens to divert our attention from the poverty of their analytical framework. The Japanese 10-year bond trade is called the ‘widow maker’ because hedge funds who try to short it lose big. The Japanese monetary system is my real-time, non-linear economic laboratory which allows all the key macroeconomic propositions to play out live. And MMT is never very far off the mark. Try juxtaposing New Keynesian theory against Japan – total dissonance.
It is Wednesday and I am doing the final corrections to our Macroeconomics textbook manuscript before it goes off to the ‘printers’ for publication in March 2019. It has been a long haul and I can say that writing a textbook is much harder than writing a monograph not only because the latter are more exciting in the drafting phase. The attention to detail in a textbook that runs over 600 pages is quite taxing. Anyway, that is taking my attention today. I also plan to write some more about Brexit in the coming weeks and Japan (tomorrow). But today, I have updated some ECB data on household and corporate borrowing and the cost of borrowing to see what sort of recovery is going on. With nations such as Germany now recording negative growth in the third-quarter, it is clear that the Eurozone is stalling again. The explanation doesn’t require any rocket science. It is all there in the behaviour of the non-government sector (saving more overall) and fiscal rules that are too tight to offset that saving desire. The reliance on monetary policy is an ineffective tool to provide the offset in non-government saving overall. Fiscal policy has to be reinstated to the primary position and that means nations such as Italy must consider exiting the dysfunctional monetary union that biases nations to recession and stagnation.
The widely read German news site, Spiegel Online, published an amazing article last week (November 1, 2018) – Italy Doubles Down on Threat to Euro Stability – which confirms to me that very little progress has been within the Eurozone by way of cultural understandings since the GFC. That, in turn, tells me that the monetary union will not be able to get out of austerity gear and is now more exposed than ever to breakup when the next crisis comes. The current Italian situation is the European Commission’s worst nightmare. It could combine with the ECB and the IMF to bully Greece partly because of the size of the Greek economy but also because they had the measure of Tsipras and Syriza. They knew the polity would buckle and become agents for their neoliberal plans. But the politicians in Italy may turn out to be a different proposition – one hopes so. And Italy is a large economy and one of the original accessions to the Community. So the stakes are higher. But what the Commission is demanding of Italy in the present situation of zero economic growth and massive primary fiscal surpluses is totally irresponsible. It will not even achieve the stated Commission aims of reducing the public debt ratio. The likelihood is that the Commission’s strategy, if they succeed in bullying the Italian government into submission, will push the ratio up further. And meanwhile, Italy wallows in a sort of neoliberal dystopia. Italy should lead the other Member States out of this neoliberal disaster.
One of the on-going myths that mainstream (New Keynesian) economists propagate is that monetary policy (adjusting of interest rates) is an effective way to manage the economic cycle. They claim that central banks can effectively manipulate total spending by adjusting the cost of borrowing to increase output and push up the inflation rate. The empirical experience does not accord with those assertions. Central bankers around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been massively building up their balance sheets through QE to push their inflation rates up without much success. Further, it has been claimed that a sustained period of low interest rates would be inflationary. Well, again the empirical evidence doesn’t support that claim. The evidence supports the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) preference for fiscal policy over monetary policy. Even though the Reserve Bank of Australia has not pursued a QE program (fiscal policy saved our economy from recession during the GFC), it has persisted with very low historic interest rates. And as yesterday’s latest inflation data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Consumer Price Index, Australia – shows, the RBA is struggling to push it inflation rate into the so-called target policy range of 2 to 3 per cent. The data shows that the All Groups CPI grew by 1.9 per cent in the 12 months to September 2018 and the so-called core analytical series – Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – used by the RBA to assess whether interest rates should shift or not grew by less than that. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.
I have very little free time today. I am now in Dublin and am travelling to Galway soon for tonight’s event (see below). Last evening I met with some Irish politicians at the Irish Parliament and had some interesting conversations. I will reflect on the interactions I have had so far in Ireland in a later blog post. But today (and next time I post) I plan to reflect briefly on my thoughts about the Second International Modern Monetary Theory which was held last weekend in New York City. Around 400 participants were in attendance, which by any mark represents tremendous progress. The feeling of the gathering was one of optimism, enthusiasm and, one might say without to much license, boundless energy. So a big stride given where we have come from. Having said that, I had mixed reactions to the different sessions and the informal conversations I had over the three-day period, which might serve as a cautionary warning not to get to far ahead of ourselves. This blog post is Part 1 of my collection of some of those thoughts. They reflect, to some extent, the closing comments I made on the last panel last Sunday.