It is Wednesday and a quite blog writing day for me. I have to catch a flight a bit later and finish some other things before I do that. But I receive a lot of E-mails from readers puzzled by the fact that the low-interest rate environment (even negative) has not stimulated economic activity to the point of accelerating inflation. As part of the paradigm shift that is now, finally, occurring in macroeconomic policy-making, the RBA governor Phillip Lowe continued his theme that monetary policy has basically exhausted its counter-stabilisation potential, when he made his – Remarks at Jackson Hole Symposium (August 25, 2019). He talked about the “the elevated expectations that monetary policy can deliver economic prosperity” against the reality that central banks do not have “the best lever” to manage the economy. This theme has been expressed by many central bankers now. And there is emerging research to show that the low-interest rate environment is actually achieving the opposite – reducing the inflationary pressures. This is no surprise to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists. Our basic presumption is that monetary policy is an ineffective tool for modifying aggregate spending and that rising interest rates, which are designed to quell inflationary pressures, probably actually intensify those pressures through their impact on business costs. Today, I will briefly discuss a paper I read yesterday that adds to the growing research evidence on this theme.
This is Part 2 (and final part) of my series on printing money, debt and power. The two-part series is designed to draw a line through all the misconceptions and errors that abound on the Internet about the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) treats deficit spending and bond issuance. The social media debate about MMT is at time nonsensical, thriving on falsehoods and fantasy. I get many E-mails after some robust Twitter exchange between some self-proclaimed expert who has found the latest fatal flaw in our work. Often these characters have just stumbled across MMT for the first time and, full of dissonance, wade into the discussion without thinking for a moment that we have been working on this Project for 25 or more years and, just may have, come across these points before. In other cases, the critics just make stuff up to make themselves sound erudite. In the process, well motivated readers get confused. In the first part I dealt with the ‘money printing’ story about MMT. Today I want to discuss the issue of bond issuance and whether MMT economists are Wall Street stooges who want to perpetuate the interests of the financial sector over all else. Seriously!
There are continual Twitter type debates and Op Ed/Blog-type articles going on about whether MMT says this, or that, or something else. The critics are refining their attacks by hammering on about “printing money” and hyperinflation, and, more recently that MMT ignores ‘power’ (whatever that is). The latter leads them to conclude that MMT is thus a naive approach and is inapplicable to a political agenda aiming at changing things for the better. These debates (if you can call them that) are also a very American-centric sort of to and fro, which exemplifies the tendency of the US to think the world and all ideas stop at its borders. In this two-part series, I seek to clarify some of the points that are raised (not for the first time) (-:, which, in turn, demonstrates how poorly constructed these attacks. I know it is often said that attackers haven’t read the literature. But in these situations it is a fact. In part 2 tomorrow, I will also touch on why I think some MMTers are becoming defensive in the wake of these attacks. So, in Part 1 I consider the ‘money printing’ story. Specifically, is MMT just about ‘printing money’? The answer is obvious – profoundly no, but we need to understand where these types of allegations come from (which swamp!).
At different times, the manias spread through the world’s financial and economic commentariat. We have had regular predictions that Japan was about to collapse, with a mix of hyperinflation, government insolvency, Bank of Japan negative capital and more. During the GFC, the mainstream economists were out in force predicting accelerating inflation (because of QE and rising fiscal deficits), rising bond yields and government insolvency issues (because of rising deficits and debt ratios) and more. And policy makers have often acted on these manias and reneged on taking responsible fiscal decisions – for example, they have terminated stimulus initiatives too early because the financial markets screamed blue murder (after they had been adequately bailed out that is). In the last week, we have had the ‘inverted yield curve’ mania spreading and predictions of impending recession. This has allowed all sorts of special interest groups (the anti-Brexit crowd, the anti-fiscal policy crowd, the gold bug crowd, anti-trade sanctions crowd) to jump up and down with various versions of ‘I told you so’. The problem is that the ‘inverted yield curve’ is not signalling a future recession but a total failure of the dominant mainstream macroeconomics. The policy world has shifted, slowly but surely, away from a dependence on monetary policy towards a new era of fiscal dominance. We are on the cusp of that shift and bond yields are reflecting, in part, the sentiment that is driving that shift.
The dissonance in mainstream economics and the political debate about policy settings is getting deeper and more public. We now have examples of central bankers ‘throwing their hands up in the air’ and nearly begging governments to abandon their obsession with fiscal surpluses, and, instead, use fiscal policy to stimulate waning economic growth. What I think is happening is that we are entering a period of fiscal dominance, which will represent a categorical rejection of the mainstream macroeconomics consensus that has dominated policy making since the 1980s – the neoliberal era. In turn, this shift will ratify the main precepts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). We are observing paradigm shift occurring as the dominant neoliberal paradigm fails at every turn. There is a long way to go though before the practitioners acknowledge that such a shift has occurred. But there is progress.
This morning, a former deputy governor of Australia’s central bank (RBA) published a short Op Ed in the Australian Financial Review (July 16, 2019) – Why there are no free lunches from the RBA – which served as a veiled critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The problem is that the substantive analysis supported the core of the MMT literature that we have developed over 25 years, refuted the standard macroeconomics textbook treatment of the link between the government and non-government sectors, and, incorrectly depicted what MMT is about – all in one short article. Not a bad effort I thought. But disappointing that a person with such experience and knowledge resorts to perpetuating such crude representations of ‘cost’ and myths about government finances.
Australia’s economic performance is not exactly flash at present. GDP growth has slumped and is well below (less than half) the longer-term trend rate. Unemployment and underemployment remain at elevated levels. The federal government has been pursuing an austerity phase in the mistaken belief that achieving a fiscal surplus, no matter, what is a sound and responsible strategy. While the household sector maintained consumption expenditure growth the government’s folly did not manifest. However, that strategy was built on a plunge in the household saving ratio and an ever increasing household debt to income ratio. For years, the central bank (RBA) and the Treasury denied there was a problem – claiming that the rising debt levels were covered by rising wealth. There was never any recognition that the trends in household debt were intrinsically related to the fiscal position of the government. With the external deficit fairly stable at around 3.5 per cent of GDP, the fiscal drag imposed by the government surpluses was only possible because the household sector accumulated debt. Under current institutional arrangements (federal government unnecessarily matching its deficits with debt issuance) the declining public debt ratio was really just an approximate mirror of the rising private debt ratio. But times are changing. The RBA has now released research that refutes core aspects of mainstream macroeconomic theory and finally acknowledges what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been pointing out for more than two decades – that the accumulation of household debt ultimately becomes a brake on spending growth.
It is Wednesday and so a less intensive blog post. Note how I no longer claim it will be shorter. The less intensive claim refers to how much research I have to put in to write the post. Apart from some beautiful music, the topic for today is yesterday’s RBA decision to cut interest rates to record low levels. The decision won’t save the economy from recession and highlights the sort of desperation that central bankers now face as governments shunt the responsibility of counterstabilisation onto them while claiming that achieving fiscal surpluses is the brief of the treasuries. This self-defeating strategy – failing to use the most effective policy tool in favour of an ineffective tool is the neoliberal way. It is the recipe that New Keynesian macroeconomics offers. It is mindless, ideological nonsense and the problem is that it is not the top-end-of-town that suffers from the negative outcomes that follow. Quite the opposite in fact.
This is Part 2 (and final) in my discussion about what the financial markets might learn from gaining a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding. I noted in Part 1 – that the motivation in writing this series was the increased interest being shown by some of the large financial sector entities (investment banks, sovereign funds, etc) in MMT, which is manifesting in the growing speaking invitations I am receiving. This development tells me that our work is gaining traction despite the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon) who are trying to save their reputations as their message becomes increasingly vapid. While accepting these invitations raises issues about motivation – they want to make money, I want to educate – these groups are influential in a number of ways. They help to set the pattern of investment (both in real and financial terms), they hire graduates and can thus influence the type of standards deemed acceptable, and they influence government policy. Through education one hopes that these influences help turn the tide away from narrow ‘Gordon Gekko’ type behaviour towards advancing a dialogue and policy structure that improves general well-being. I also hope that it will further create dissonance in the academic sphere to highlight the poverty (fake knowledge) of the mainstream macroeconomic orthodoxy.
One of the shifts I have observed in the last year or so in the way that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is being discussed in the public domain and the type of speaking invitations I am receiving is a growing interest from large financial market entities, who have not bought into the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon). I spoke at a few workshops some years ago where economists from the large investment banks were the main audience and it was clear that they, in the main, appreciated what MMT was about. It is clear the characters that have to deal with putting funds at stake are keen to understand how the monetary system actually operates rather than how the mainstream macroeconomists pretend it operates – a pretense that advances particular ideological interests. What is also coming out more clearly is that the response from the mainstream is revealing a dissonance that they cannot seem to manage in any coherent way. We have seen statements from mainstream macroeconomists dismissing MMT as just ‘printing money’ and proposing Zimbabwe-like disasters. Others claim that they knew MMT all along and so there is nothing new. Others claim that all the insights that MMT holds out come down to whether one thinks monetary policy is less or more effective as a counter stabilisation told than fiscal policy. All statements attempt to simplify our work down to the level of irrelevance or downright crazy. Other interventions, such as the recent statements from the Bank of Japan Governor border on the surreal – ‘we are not doing MMT’ – well one doesn’t ‘do MMT’ anyway. But an MMT understanding provides a remarkably accurate depiction of what has been going down in Japan for nearly 3 decades – a depiction that the mainstream macroeconomists is incapable of providing. It seems that now, the financial markets are starting to get this point and seeking more engagement with MMT (if my invitations are anything to go by). This engagement is not without issues though. This is Part 1 in a two-part series discussing this topic. Part 2 will come tomorrow.