I have not much time to write a blog today but the latest US labour market data provides fertile ground for some analysis. The latest Employment Situation Release from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (published June 1, 2012) covering May 2012 has been called a “bleak jobs report” ((Source) by commentators. I expect a few Op Ed columns from the likes of Robert Barro and John Taylor to name a few who will be saying “see, there have been no gains from fiscal policy stimulus” – ad nauseum. The reality is that the data tells us how effective fiscal policy was in staving of a depression and also that the US government has been pressured into a premature withdrawal of fiscal support and the government contribution to real GDP growth is now negative – hence a slowing economy and poor labour market outcome. While the neo-liberals are hanging onto the notion that governments can do little about the crisis but reduce their net spending the reality is completely the opposite – sovereign, currency-issuing governments such as the US government have total control over domestic policy and the only thing missing is the willingness to use that capacity.
I have been studying the Great Depression intensely lately to gauge the similarities in conservative narratives at that time in relation to what we have to put up with now. Several so-called conservative historians have in the recent crisis endeavoured to reinvent history. The problem for conservatives is that the lessons of history are firmly supportive of the view that when non-government spending growth lapses, growth can be engendered with an increased contribution from government net spending. It is a proposition that is glaringly obvious in concept and stands the test of time. The conservatives hate that reality. So instead, they have only one recourse to attempting to match the facts with their erroneous theories about fiscal policy. They have to reconstruct the facts – a process that includes leaving important facts out and focusing on irrelevant correlations; fabricating facts; using definitions that no-one else would consider reasonable and then blurring the definition – and more. It is really quite pitiful.
Last week (May 4, 2012), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released its latest – Employment Situation Summary – for April 2012. The data revealed that employment growth in the US is now slowing but remains positive (payroll data) although the household survey data (which uses a broader concept of employment) revealed a fall in total employment. More indicative of the state of the US labour market was the decline in the participation rate as workers once again gave up looking for jobs that were not there! While the official unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percentage points to 8.1 per cent in April, the reality is that the labour supply contraction disguises the true picture. If we added the workers who dropped out of the labour force back into the unemployment numbers then the unemployment rate would have risen to 8.4 per cent. The US economy is thus at another turning point. Private spending growth does not appear capable at present of filling the gap left by a declining public spending contribution. Unless the government provides a renewed stimulus it is likely the US economy will head backwards and unemployment will rise.
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis released the first-quarter 2012 National Accounts data for the US last week (April 27, 2012) – see the News Release which showed that the US economy has slowed in the last three months, largely due to a decline in the government contribution. Annualised Real GDP growth was 2.2 per cent down from 3 per cent in the December 2011 quarter. The economy is now growing under trend and the signs are not good. If the politicians actually get around to imposing austerity then the US economy will join the UK in its race to the bottom with the other competitor being the Eurozone. The latest news from the Eurozone is that Spain will become the epicentre of the crisis in the coming weeks/months. Greece is yesterday’s news and the continuing deterioration of the Spanish economy – one considerably larger in importance than Greece – is focusing minds. The problem is that the reaction of the Euro elites is to inflict more austerity onto Spain which will – as night follows day – cause the situation to worsen. But still we read from leading US government officials that budget deficits are like cancer and will destroy countries “from within”. The only thing I can say about that astounding demonstration of ignorance is that I cannot think of a situation where cancer is good. But generally, budget deficits generate benefits to the nation that is enjoying them.
Another relatively short blog coming up today – it is still holidays here and very sunny. There was an interesting Bloomberg article the other day (April 5, 2011) – Don’t Worry About Deficit That Will Heal Itself – which although containing some conceptual flaws arrives at the correct conclusion. That governments would be far better pursuing real goals – such as ensuring there is adequate infrastructure investment, putting into place appropriate climate change initiatives and maintaining high levels of bio-security – that becoming obsessed with fiscal horizons that they have very little control over. Further, in attempting to control these horizons, governments tend to err on too much austerity (for example, the UK and the Eurozone), which not only undermines growth but also thwarts their deficit reduction goals (via the automatic stabilisers). The lesson to be drawn from all of this is that – Governments should not worry about deficits.
I was examining the latest US Federal Reserve Flow of Funds data the other day. This data comes out on a quarterly basis with the latest publication being March 8, 2012. Other related data from the US Treasury (noted below) fills out the picture. The data reveals some interesting trends in terms of US federal government debt issuance over the last 12 months. It shows that the dominant majority of federal debt issued in 2011 was purchased by the US Federal Reserve. Some conservative commentators have expressed horror about this trend. As a proponent of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) I simply note that the trend demonstrates the nearly infinite capacity of the US government to spend.
I get a lot of queries about the difference between fixed and flexible exchange rates in terms of the options that each present a sovereign, currency-issuing government. I considered this question several times in the past. Many of those questions are pitched in terms of the basic macroeconomic framework for an open economy that appears in most mainstream macroeconomics textbooks, particularly those written in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I am referring here to the Mundell-Fleming model which has been the mainstream staple for many years. The modern textbooks still teach these models but the exposition has evolved although remains deeply flawed. It seems that this conceptual framework is still used to make public comments along the lines that the US government is facing insolvency and that the euro remains the best monetary organisation for Europe. Those conclusions are as flawed as the model that spawns them. Flawed macroeconomic models lead to erroneous conclusions.
Yesterday (March 18, 2012), the Cleveland branch of the US Federal Reserve Bank released their latest estimates of US inflationary expectations. This data estimates what the “public currently expects the inflation rate to be” over various time horizons up to 30 years. The data shows that the US public “currently expects the inflation rate to be less than 2 percent on average over the next decade”. The ten-year expectation is in fact 1.38 per cent per annum. In the light of the massive expansion of the US Federal Reserve’s balance sheet and all the mainstream macroeconomic theory is predicting that such an expansion would be highly inflationary, how can the public expect inflation to be so low over the next decade? Answer: the mainstream macroeconomic theory is deeply flawed and should be disregarded. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) correctly depicts the relationship between the monetary base and the broader measures of money and explains why movements in the former are no inflationary.
There was a Wall Street Journal article (March 5, 2012) – The High Cost of the Fed’s Cheap Money – which is full of statements like “could eventually lead to an economic calamity” etc. The WSJ article basically rehearses a confused form the old supply-side tradition of the pre-Great Depression era where the claim was that “supply creates its own demand” (so-called Say’s Law) which was shorthand for the proposition that flexible prices and interest rates would ensure that whatever was supplied would be purchased. The same sort of arguments were used in a recent lecture to Harvard EC10 students by the Director of the US Congressional Budget Office. It is extraordinary that these myths, which were part of the body of economic theory that led the world into the current crisis, still have currency. They should start by understanding what Keynes meant when he said “Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself”.
Today, I was reading the latest report from the US Congressional Budget Office – CBO’s Estimates of ARRA’s Economic Impact – which shows that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) has been successful in increasing real GDP growth in the US and reducing the rise in the unemployment rate. Some simple calculations reveal that in the absence of the ARRA US economy would still be in recession. That is, taking a European trajectory. There is also evidence that the Obama administration were presented with analysis that showed that a much larger stimulus than was chosen was necessary, yet this information was suppressed in final documents that were the basis of the fiscal intervention. It seems that the neo-liberal ideologues within the Obama camp deliberately undermined the fiscal intervention and so its impact, while positive, was far less than was required. I also read an interview with the ECB president, Mario Draghi today. The ECB is now pushing fiscal austerity as the only way out of the Euro crisis. In juxtaposition to the US experience, the Europeans remain fixed to the view that saving the flawed institutional structure (that is, the EMU) is a higher priority than insuring that people prosper. The lesson for the Europeans is that the US fiscal stimulus continues to work.