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.
Last week (December 16, 2015), the US Federal Reserve Bank raised its policy interest rate by 25 basis points (1/4 percentage point) for the first time since 2005. In its – Opening Statement – the Federal Reserve chairperson said that the decision reflected the Bank’s judgement that there had been “further improvement toward our objective of maximum employment” and that it “was recently confident that inflation would move back to its 2 per cent objective over the medium term”. They did, however, acknowledge that “some cyclical weakness likely remains” and referred to the significant drop in labour force participation, the rise in underemployment, and the almost non-existent wages growth. Taken together, it was a strange decision to take given that the labour market is still a long way from where it was pre-crisis (unemployment has been replaced by underemployment and non-participation) and that the price level inflation is well below their two per cent target (even taking into account the extraordinary drop in energy prices).
It’s my Friday Lay Day blog and my head is firmly in the 1960s and being helped along by music from the early 1970s. I’m currently trying to trace the evolution of intellectual ideas in the French Ministry of Finance as it gained ascendancy in the late 1960s over the Planning Ministry, which was Keynesian in outlook. It is no easy task. The current situation in Europe is approaching laughable in a sort of tragic sense, given the millions of people who are unnecessarily unemployed as a consequence of the incompetence and folly of the political class. The latest manifestation of this folly was the Monetary Policy decision released by the European Central Bank yesterday (December 3, 2015) which was met with derision from commentators and the financial markets responded by pushing the value of the euro up, which will further exacerbate the ECB’s claim that it wants to increase the inflation rate.
Adair Turner has just released a new paper – The Case for Monetary Finance – An Essentially Political Issue – which he presented at the 16th Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference, hosted by the IMF in Washington on November 5-6, 2015. The New Yorker columnist John Cassidy decided to weigh into this topic in his recent article (November 23, 2015) – Printing Money. The topic is, of course, what we now call Overt Monetary Financing (OMF), which simply means that all of the unnecessary hoopla of governments matching their deficit spending with bond-issuance to the private bond markets, as if the latter are funding the former, is dispensed with. That artefact from the fixed exchange rate Bretton Woods system is maintained as a voluntary procedure by fiat-currency issuing governments but only provides financial assets to the non-government sector in the form of ‘corporate welfare’. The debt issuance of debt has nothing to do with funding the spending and is used by all and sundry to attack such spending for creating so-called ‘debt mountains’. OMF brings together the central bank and the treasury functions of government into a coherent framework whereby the central bank merely credits private bank accounts on behalf of the government to indicate the spending initiatives implemented by the Treasury.
Its my Friday lay day blog and today a short topic on banking. The Fairfax economics editor Peter Martin had a good story yesterday (October 22, 2015) – Westpac, Commonwealth Bank protect mortgage profits no matter what – which bears on the lack of competition that exists within the Australian financial sector.
I read two articles (among others) on the flight over to Europe yesterday that are worth commenting on. The two articles discussed the role of monetary policy and, in particular, whether the policy changes to address the crisis had achieved their aims. I read these articles as I was doing some computations which would suggest that the main game in town remains fiscal policy. The first article was in the Wall Street Journal (October 4, 2015) – How the Fed Saved the Economy – written by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. He claims that the US is approaching full employment because of the ‘extraordinary’ policy innovations that the US Federal Reserve Bank introduced during his period as Chairman. The second article was in the New York Times and argued that monetary policy authorities do not have the necessary policy tools to combat the next crisis. The NYTs article captures the ideological bias that entered policy discussions since the emergence of Monetarism in the 1970s. It makes out that policy is powerless, which is largely only a statement about monetary policy. It is a reflection of how perceptions of what we think monetary policy can achieve are way out of line with reality. But that is core Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). But that doesn’t mean that policy overall is powerless. Governments can always prevent a financial crisis and a recession from occurring if they are willing to use their fiscal capacities. Of course, that capacity is the anathema to the neo-liberals which is really the problem. There is no policy powerlessness. Just an ideological bias against using the available tools properly and responsibly.
A few weeks ago I wrote – US Federal Reserve decision correct – there is no ‘normal’ – and suggested that the reason Wall Street and other well-to-dos were busily invading the media at every opportunity berating the US central bank for not increasing interest rates was because they had a vested interest in rates rising. They massage their call for higher interest rates in terms of global concerns for inflation (mostly) but just below the surface (they are mostly pretty crude in their advocacy) is the real reason – their own profit bottom line improves. On October 1, 2015, the Bank for International Settlements published its Working Paper no. 514 – The influence of monetary policy on bank profitability. The research demonstrates my very point. They find that when the short-term interest rate rise (that is, the policy rate set by the central bank) “bank profitability – return on assets” also rises. They also find that this “effect is stronger when the interest rate level is lower”. The overall conclusion is that “unusually low interest rates … erode bank profitability”. So forget all the spurious arguments about inflation risk etc that the financial media (who are really just ghost writers for the top-end-of-town) write ad nauseum. The real reason the Wall Street lobby keeps pushing for rate hikes is because they want more profit.
Last week (September 17, 2015), the US Federal Reserve Bank took the sensible decision to leave the US policy interest rate unchanged. Nine of the ten Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) voted accordingly. One dissenter wanted rates to rise by 25 basis points. The central bank made the correct decision, even if you might like to question their reasoning. The decision has not pleased the financial markets who have been baying under the moon for months if not years for interest rates to return to higher and more stable levels. There is no surprise in that. They make more profits under those conditions and when there are low rates and higher uncertainty about their direction (and adjustment speed), profits come less easily. Further, they long for what they call “normal levels” of interest rates despite the fact that reality changed with the GFC and we now know that monetary policy is relatively ineffective as a policy tool for controlling or influencing aggregate spending. And it is typical that they ignore the millions of people who remain idle in one way or another and are enduring flat real wages and rising poverty rates. There is no old “normal’ now. Things have changed.