On April 20, 1018, the IMF presented its – Asia and Pacfic Department Press Briefing – in conjunction with the release of the April 2018 World Economic Outlook and the upcoming (May 9, 2018) release of its Asia and Pacific Regional Economy Outlook. The Deputy Director of the Asia and Pacific Department, one Odd Per Brekk, told the audience that Japan should continue its Quantitative Easing (QE) program and maintain transparency in its purchase volumes so as to ensure the strategy to accelerate the inflation rate up to the 2 per cent target is achieved. Part of this strategy involves shifting inflationary expectations from their recent low levels. Critics of the program shriek that the asset base of the Bank of Japan is now approaching the nominal GDP level and given that a high proportion of those assets are comprised of Japanese Government Bonds, that reversing the strategy eventually will be difficult and risks involving the Bank is huge losses, which might render it insolvent. Insolvency has no application in the case of a central bank which can never go broke. Further, the Bank never needs to reverse the QE purchases. There is no relevance in the rising assets to GDP ratio. The problem is that QE will not achieve the desired end. The Bank has expanded its QE program significantly yet the inflation rate and inflationary expectations remain well below the 2 per cent target. They will eventually work out that the mainstream theory that predicted otherwise is erroneous.
I have been (involuntarily) copied into a rather lengthy Twitter exchange in the last week or so where a person who says he is ‘all over MMT’ (meaning I presume, that he understands its basic principles and levels of abstraction and subtlety) has been arguing ad nauseum that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents are a laughing stock when they claim that taxes and debt-issuance do not fund the spending of a currency-issuing government. He points to the existing institutional structures in the US whereby tax receipts apparently go into a specific account at the central bank and governments are prevented from spending unless the account balance is positive. Also implicated, apparently, is the on-going sham about the ‘debt ceiling’, which according to the argument presented on Twitter is testament to the ‘fact’ that government deficits are funded by borrowings obtained from debt issuance. I received many E-mails about this issue in the last week from readers of my blog wondering what the veracity of these claims were – given they thought (in general) they sounded ‘convincing’. Were the original MMT proponents really overstating the matter and were these accounting arrangements evidence that in reality the government has to raise both tax revenue and funds from borrowing in order to deficit spend? Confusion reigns supreme it seems. Once one understands the underlying nature of the financial flows associated with government spending and taxation, it will become obvious that the argument presented above is superficial at best and fails to come to terms with the basic questions: where do the funds come from that we use to pay our taxes and buy government debt? Once we dig down to that level, the matter resolves quickly.
A few things came up late last week which demonstrate the neoliberal Groupthink is alive an well at the highest levels of policy in Australia (and elsewhere). First, there was a story that a report from an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) journalist on the Australian government’s corporate tax cuts was withdrawn after publication by the ABC after receiving several complaints from senior government ministers including the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. The story was not even radical. The journalist who I have had dealings with is a neoliberal herself when it comes to understanding macroeconomics. Second, one of the claims that the neoliberals make is that central banks are now firmly independent and not part of the political process. This is all part of the depoliticisation process whereby governments absolve themselves of political responsibility for policies that harm the citizens by appealing to ‘independent’ external authorities (such as the IMF, or central banks). Well we know that the claim about central bank independence is not true both in terms of the way the monetary system operates but also in the conduct of various central bankers over the last few decades. Last week, the Reserve Bank of Australia governor once again demonstrated how politically independent he is NOT by invoking key mainstream neoliberal myths about deficits and grandchildren. And then an old hack and largely failed British Labour politicians got in on the act. The Groupthink is powerful but becoming increasingly desperate under the increasing pressure from citizens for more accountability.
This is the second part of my response to an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers. Part 1 considered the thorny issue of the capacity of fiscal policy to be an effective counter-stabilising force over the economic cycle, in particular to be able to prevent an economy from ‘overheating’ (whatever that is in fact). Jared Berstein prescribes some sort of Monetarist solution where all the counter-stabilising functions are embedded in the central bank which he erroneously thinks can “take money out of the economy” at will. It cannot and its main policy tool – interest rate setting – is a very ineffective tool for influencing the state of nominal demand. In Part 2, I consider his other claims which draw on draw on the flawed analysis of Paul Krugman about bond issuance. An understanding of MMT shows that none of these claims carry weight. It is likely that continuous deficits will be required even at full employment given the leakages from the income-spending cycle in the non-government sector. Jared Bernstein represents a typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics but the gap between that (neoliberal oriented) view and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is wide. For space reasons, I have decided to make this a three-part response. I will post Part 3 tomorrow or Thursday. I hope this three-part series might help the (neoliberal) progressives to abandon some of these erroneous macroeconomic notions and move towards the MMT position, which will give them much more latitude to actually implement their progressive policy agenda.
The head of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), which was created in 1998 as part of the sham to separate regulation from policy and pretend the Reserve Bank of Australia was independent, gave a speech in Sydney yesterday (November 21, 2017) – Housing – The importance of solid foundations. The reason the speech is important is because it demonstrates the disconnect in policy making and the failure of key policy makers and regulators to connect macroeconomic dots. Australia – like the rest of the world – needs politicians and officials who understand how the macroeconomic aggregates are connected. One cannot have a conversation about household debt without recognising that it is, in part, directly related to the fiscal position of the government and the nation’s external position. While the APRA boss is correct to highlight the precarious nature of household balance sheets given the record and increasing debt levels being borne by households who are experiencing a wages squeeze and a government intent on austerity cuts, he should be educating the public on the broader context. Then there would be more acceptance of expanding discretionary fiscal deficits and a wages policy designed to bring real wages growth back into line with productivity growth. If that was the case, much of the idiotic conversations – some masquerading as ‘research’ results would disappear.
Central banks around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been building up their balance sheets (massively) by creating reserves in return for government and corporate paper in an attempt to push their inflation rates up. But the data suggests their efforts are in vain. Which should inform all those who think that if the government stopped issuing debt to match their deficits there would be horrible inflation to think again. Progressives should be calling for their governments to abandon the gold standard practice of issuing debt, which would change the political dialogue considerably. Australia is also struggling to push it inflation rate into the so-called policy range of 2 to 3 per cent. Last week’s Australian Bureau of Statistics inflation data release – Consumer Price Index, Australia – data for the September-quarter 2017 showed that the September-quarter inflation rate was 0.6 per cent with an annual inflation rate of 1.8 per cent (down from 1.9 per cent last quarter). The headline inflation rate has been below the Reserve Bank of Australia’s lower target bound of 2 per cent for nearly two years now. Clearly, within their own logic where an inflation rate within the 2 to 3 per cent band reflects successful monetary policy, the RBA is failing. The RBA’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are also now below the lower target bound and are not showing signs of moving up. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations has also fallen quite sharply. With the labour market data demonstrating weakness and the economy stuck in this low inflation malaise, it is clearly time for a change in policy direction.
One of the major claims the founders of the EMU made was that by creating an independent ECB – by which they meant ‘independent’ of the influence from the Member States or other EU bodies (such as the Eurogroup) – they were laying the foundations of financial stability and disciplining the fiscal policy of the Member States. This so-called independence was embodied in the – Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – where Article 123 prevents the ECB from giving “overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility” to the Member State governments (and other EU bodies); Article 124 prohibits any Member State government (and other EU bodies) from having “privileged access” to the financial institutions; and Article 125 prohibits the ECB from assuming any liabilities or “commitments” of the Member State governments (etc) – the famous ‘no bailout’ clause. But a recent report from the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) – Open doors for forces of finance – (published October 3, 2017) – suggests that the ECB feigns independence and is in fact captive of the largest profit-seeking financial institutions that sit on its advisory groups. In other words, the ECB has become a vehicle to advance private return and avoid regulative imposts when the TFEU outlines an entirely different role for the bank.
On May 6, 1997, just 4 days after coming to office in what was to become Tony Blair’s retrogressive regime, the then British Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that Labour would legislate the so-called independence of the Bank of England. The BBC claimed this was the “most radical shake-up in the bank’s 300-year history”, which gave “the bank freedom to control monetary policy”. Gordon Brown’s legacy to the British people, of course, is in his famous ‘light touch’ regulation, which he boasted about in the lead up to the GFC but went silent about soon after. But he has come out of the woodwork recently to reflect on his decision to set up the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) within the Bank of England and abandon the practice where the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank would meet on a monthly basis to determine interest rates. He claims that decision kept Britain out of the euro and was a great success. But then in the same speech he railed against the ‘political’ intrusion of the MPC into broader fiscal policy debates and its failure to conduct monetary policy correctly during the GFC. A very confused narrative. The point is that central banks can never be independent of treasury departments and the claims to the contrary were just part of the depoliticisation of policy that accompanied neoliberalism. Brown is also wrong that setting up a separate MPC kept the nation out of the euro. Britain realised the euro would be a disaster long before 1997.
I am writing this while waiting for a train at Victoria Station (London), which will take me to Brighton for tomorrow’s presentation at the British Labour Party Conference. The last several days I was in Kansas City for the inaugural International Modern Monetary Theory Conference, which attracted more than 200 participants and was going well when I left it on Saturday. A great step forward. I believe there will be video for all sessions available soon just in case you were unable to watch the live stream. Today’s blog completes my little history of the US Treasury Federal Reserve Accord, which really marked a turning point (for the worse) in the way macroeconomic policy was conducted in the US. In Part 1, I explained how from the inception (1913), the newly created Federal Reserve Bank, America’s central bank, was required by the US Treasury Department to purchase Treasury bonds in such volumes that would ensure the yields on long-term bonds were stable and low. There was growing unease with this arrangement among the conservative central bankers and, in 1935, the arrangement was altered somewhat to require the bank to only purchase debt in the secondary markets. But the change had little effective impact. The yields stayed low as was the intent. Further, all the prognistications that the conservatives raised about inflation and other maladies also did not emerge (which anyone who knew anything would have expected anyway). In Part 2, I traced the increased tensions between the central bank FOMC and the Treasury, which in part was exacerbated by the slight spike in inflation that accompanied the spending associated with the prosecution of the Korean War in the early 1950s. The tension manifested into open disagreement about the FOMC’s desire to raise interest rates and end the pegged yield arrangement with the Treasury. In Part 3, we discuss the culmination of that tension and disagreement and examine some of the less known and underlying forces that were fermenting the central bank desire for rebellion.
In Part 1 of this mini-series – When relations within government were sensible – the US-Fed Accord – Part 1 – I examined the pre-1951 agreement between the US Treasury department and the US Federal Reserve Bank, which saw the bank effectively fund the US Treasury. The nature of that relationship, which began when the central bank was formed in 1913, changed in 1935 when the legislators voluntarily chose to change the capacity of the currency issuer to buy unlimited amounts of US Treasury debt directly to one of only being able to purchase the debt in the secondary markets once issued. But the effect was the same. The central bank could control the yields at any segment of the bond maturity curve at its will. The shift in 1935 was the result of conservative forces that were intent on derailing the government’s capacity to use the consolidated central bank/treasury to efficiently advance well-being. They wanted political constraints placed on the Treasury, such that it would have to issue debt to the non-government sector before it could spend, which they knew was an arrangement (similar to formal debt ceilings) that could be used to pressure the government towards austerity. By the time the Korean War ensued, these conservative forces were winning the political debate and big changes were to come, which would limit the fiscal capacity of the US government to this very day. The result has been an inefficient fiscal process prone to capture by conservatives and certainly not one that a progressive would consider to be sensible. I analyse that shift post-1942 in this blog, which is Part 2 in the series. In Part 3, we pull the story together and reveal what was really going on.