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.
The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.
On August 1, 2018, the 10-year Japanese government bond yield, shot through the roof (albeit a very low one). Yields shifted from 0.05 per cent on July 31 to 0.129 on August 1, which was the largest one-day rise since July 29, 2016 (when the yield rose 0.101 per cent). The Financial Times article (August 1, 2018) – Japanese bond market jolted as traders test BoJ resolve – wrote that “traders wasted no time in testing the Bank of Japan’s resolve to loosen its target range for the debt benchmark”. So what was that all about? And what key point does it demonstrate that seems to be lost on mainstream economists who continually claim that government debt is, or can become a problem once bond markets demand higher yields? The Japanese bond market has shown once again that private bond traders cannot set yields on government bonds if the central bank intervenes. Next time you hear some mainstream economist claiming a currency issuing government is running deficits at the will of the investors (read bond markets) politely tell them they are clueless. Japan once again provides the real world Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) laboratory – every day it substantiates the underlying insights contained within MMT and refutes the core mainstream propositions. The bond market over the last month or so demonstrates that the Japanese government is increasingly net spending by using credits created by the Bank of Japan, whatever else the accounting structures might lead one to believe. With inflation low and stable, these dynamics surely put paid to the various myths that a currency-issuing government can run out of money and that central bank credits to facilitate government spending lead to hyperinflation.
The Project Syndicate is held out as an independent, quality source of Op Ed discussion. When you scan through the economists that contribute you see quite a pattern and it is the anathema of ‘independent’. There is really no commentary that is independent, if you consider the term relates to schools of thought that an economist might work within. We are all bound by the ideologies and language of those millieu. So I assess the input from an institution (like Project Syndicate) in terms of the heterodoxy of its offerings. A stream of economic contributions that are effectively drawn from the same side of macroeconomics is not what I call ‘independent’. And you see that in the recurring arguments that get published. In this blog post, I discuss Jeffrey Frankel’s latest UK Guardian article (August 29, 2018) – US will lack fiscal space to respond when next recession comes – which was syndicated from Project Syndicate. Frankel thinks that the US is about to experience a major recession and that its government has run out of fiscal space because it is not running surpluses. We could summarise my conclusion in one word – nonsense. But a more civilised response follows.
I am surprised at the hostility that Part 1 in this series created. I have received a lot of E-mails about it, many of which contained just a few words, the most recurring being Turkey! One character obviously needed to improve his/her spelling given that they thought it was appropriate to write along the lines that I should just ‘F*ck off to Terkey’. Apparently Turkey has become the new poster child to ‘prove’ Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) wrong. Good try! I also note the Twitterverse has been alight with attention seekers berating me for daring to comment on the sort of advice British Labour is receiving. Well here is Part 2. And because you all liked it so much, the series has been extended into a three-part series because there is a lot of detail to work through. Today, I revisit the fiscal rule issue, which is a necessary step in refuting the claim that MMT policy prescriptions (whatever they might be) will drive the British pound into worthless oblivion. And, you know what? If you don’t like what I write and make available publicly without charge, then you have an easy option – don’t read it. How easy is that? Today, I confirm that despite attempts by some to reconstruct Labour’s Fiscal Rule as being the exemplar of progressive policy making, its roots are core neoclassical economics (which in popular parlance makes it neoliberal) and it creates a dependence on an ever increasing accumulation of private debt to sustain growth. Far from solving a non-existent ‘deficit-bias’ it creates a private debt bias. Not something a Labour government or any progressive government should aspire to.
You know, an Italian won the British Open golf championship yesterday (the first Italian to ever win a golf major) because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit negotiations. The causality is impeccable. I am sure about that, although it might take me a while to work it out. But if a British golfer cannot win their Open Championship (Rose tied for second, two shots back) then it must be because of Brexit. Everything else that goes wrong is, so why not the golf? It is the same when three former US policy makers, central bankers, Wall Street-types, claim that the US no longer “have to tools to counter the next financial crisis”. They know full well that that statement is a blatant lie. But they say it. To remain relevant as their stars dim? To do service to their conservative mates? All of the above and more. But the media grab the headline and the American public and the public in general is dealt another piece of neoliberal misinformation that helps entrench the hold on power by the elites. But things are changing, and these entrenched elites and the vested interests they serve don’t like it a bit.
On June 24, 2018, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) released their – Annual Economic Report 2018 – which contains their latest analysis of the global economy including the risks they think the current growth process faces. It is full of myth and like previous statements from the BIS it only serves to perpetuate the policy mentalities that caused the global financial crisis. These multilateral organisations (including the BIS, IMF, World Bank, OECD etc) have become the harbingers of the neoliberal ideology. In doing so, they have breached their original charter. They should be dissolved and replaced with new institutions within a revised international framework. We sketched that framework in our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017).
Those who follow European politics will be familiar now with the recent events in Italy. I wrote about them in this blog post – The assault on democracy in Italy. The facts are obvious. The democratic process for all its warts rejected the mainstream political parties in the recent national election and minority parties Lega Nord and M5S formed a governing coalition. The trouble started when they nominated Paolo Savona as Finance Minister. He had occasionally made statements that paranoid European elitists would interpret as being anti-Europe and anti-German. The political solution was easy and Italian President Sergio Mattarella vetoed Savona’s nomination. The Coalition withdrew and a right-wing technocrat Carlo “Mr Scissors” Cottarelli was to be installed as Prime Minister. That arrangement didn’t last long and the Lega Nord/M5S coalition emerged in government with the unelected Guiseppe Conti the new Prime Minister. But the interesting story to emerge out of all that relates to overt political behaviour by the supposedly independent European Central Bank. It has been clear for some time that the ECB has used its currency-issuing capacity to ensure that ‘spreads’ on Member State government bonds (against the benchmark German bund) do not widen too much. But it is also clear that when the ‘market forces’ do increase the spreads, which foments a sense of financial crisis, the ECB doesn’t necessarily act immediately. A good dose of crisis talk is what the political process needs to keep the anti-European forces at bay. The ECBs behaviour in this context became very political in the recent weeks and the only explanation is that they wanted the sniff of crisis to pervade while all the negotiations were going on over who would emerge as the new government in Italy. Democracy suffers another blow in that neoliberal madhouse that is the European Union.
Although this blog post considers some very technical material its message is simple. Mainstream macroeconomic models that are used to determine policy choices by governments are deeply flawed and the evidence strongly supports a central thrust of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – that fiscal policy is powerful and that austerity will kill growth. In that sense, it helps us understand why various nations and blocs (such as the Eurozone) struggled after the onset of the GFC. It also explains why the deliberate attack on Greek prosperity by the Troika was so successful in demolishing any prospect of growth – an outcome that the official dogma resolutely denied as they constructed one vicious bailout after another. It also explains why New Keynesian approaches to macroeconomics are flawed and should be ignored. I was reminded this week by a research paper I had read last year (thanks Adam for the reminder) which presents a devastating critique (though muted in central bank speak) of the mainstream approach to macroeconomic modelling. A research paper from the ECB (May 2017, No 2058) – On the sources of business cycles: implications for DSGE models – provides a categorical critique of DSGE models and a range of other stunts that mainstream economists have tried to introduce to get away from the obvious – economic cycles are demand driven.