It’s Wednesday and only a collection of snippets today. Today we saw some self-aggrandising hypocrisy with a short memory come out of the sewers, and a statement by a government denying that they are a “successful case of MMT”, an advertisement (call for help) and some music linked to a recent, rather significant death, when considered in the history of contemporary music. Pretty full day really.
In the last two days, some major leading indicators have been released for the US and Europe, which have suggested the world is heading rather quickly for recession. It seems that the disruptions to global trade arising from the tariff war is impacting on US export orders rather significantly. The so-called ISM New Export Orders Index fell by 2.3 percentage points in September to a low of 41 per cent. The ISM reported that “The index had its lowest reading since March 2009 (39.4 percent)”. This is the third consecutive monthly fall (down from 50 per cent in June 2019). Across the Atlantic, the latest PMI for Germany reveals a deepening recession in its manufacturing sector, now recording index point outcomes as low as the readings during the GFC. Again, exports are being hit by China’s slowdown. However, while export sectors (for example, manufacturing) are in decline and will need the trade dispute settled quickly if they are to recover, the services sector in Japan, demonstrates the advantages of maintaining fiscal support for domestic demand. Japan’s service sector is growing despite its manufacturing sector declining in the face of the global downturn. The lesson is that policy makers have to abandon their reliance on monetary policy and, instead, embrace a new era of fiscal dominance. With revenue declining from exports, growth will rely more on domestic demand. If manufacturing is in decline and that downturn reverberates through the industry structure, then domestic demand will falter unless fiscal stimulus is introduced. It is not rocket science.
Japan is about to walk the plank again when it follows through on a previous government decision to increase the consumption tax by a further 2 per cent on October 1, 2019. That means it rises from 8 per cent to 10 per cent. The latest fiscal documents suggest the government is hyper-sensitive to the historical experience, which tells us that each time they have fallen prey to the deficit terrorists who have bullied them into believing that their fiscal position is about to collapse, consumption expenditure falls sharply and the government has to respond by increasing the deficit even further to compensate. But, notwithstanding their caution (as evidenced by some permanent and temporary spending measures to offset the significant loss of non-government purchasing power that will follow the consumption tax hike, the fact remains that the policy shift will be undermine non-government spending and growth and is totally unnecessary. Moreover, the main problem in Japan at present is the lack of spending overall – non-government consumption expenditure has not yet recovered from the last consumption tax hike in April 2014. So far from raising taxes, the data on the ground is telling us that they should be increasing the fiscal deficit. This is another example of a few conservative politicians, being told by unaccountable mainstream economists to introduce policies that will damage the material prosperity of the ordinary Japanese worker and their families. And when we consider that the time is approaching when the debt-servicing burden for the government is approaching negative territory, then the consumption tax hike looks even more ridiculous.
It is my Wednesday blog post and my relative ‘blog day off’. But there has been an issue I want to write briefly about that has come up recently and has become a recurring theme. I am writing today to put the matter on the public record so that spurious claims that arise elsewhere have no traction. As our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) work gains popularity, all manner of critics have started coming out of the woodwork. There is now, quite a diversity of these characters, reflecting both ends of the ideological spectrum and places in-between. The mainstream economists and those who profess to be ‘free marketeers’ bring out their big guns pretty quickly – inflation and socialism/Stalinism. Standard stuff that any progressive proposal to use government fiscal policy gets bombarded with since time immemorial. Easily dismissed. More recently, those who claim to be on the ‘progressive’ side of the debate have become more vociferous in their attacks, sensing, I suspect, that MMT have supplanted their relevance as the defenders of the anti-neoliberal wisdom. These characters resort to all sorts of snide-type attacks ranging from accusations of anti-Semitism (which I have covered previously), siding with Wall Street, ‘America-first corporatist sycophants’ (latest ridiculous book from G. Epstein as an example), giving succour to fascists and the Alt-Right, and that sort of stuff. Today, I want to address that last claim, which recently has been raised by a number of so-called progressive critics.
It is now clear that to most observers that the use of monetary policy to stimulate major changes in economic activity in either direction is fraught. Central bankers in many nations have been pulling all sorts of policy ‘rabbits’ out of the hat over the last decade or more and their targets have not moved as much or in many cases in the direction they had hoped. Not only has this shown up the lack of credibility of mainstream macroeconomics but it is now leading to a major shift in policy thinking, which will tear down the neoliberal shibboleths that the use of fiscal policy as a counter-stabilisation tool is undesirable and ineffective. In effect, there is a realignment going on between policy responsibility and democratic accountability, something that the neoliberal forces worked hard to breach by placing primary responsibility onto the decisions of unelected and unaccountable monetary policy committees. And this shift is bringing new players to the fore who are intent on denying that even fiscal policy can stave off major downturns in non-government spending. These sort of attacks from a mainstream are unsurprising given its credibility is in tatters. But they are also coming from the self-proclaimed Left, who seem opposed to a reliance on nation states, and in the British context, this debate is caught up in the Brexit matter, where the Europhile Left are pulling any argument they can write down quickly enough to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU, as it appears it now will (and that couldn’t come quickly enough).
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) 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.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
The debates about MMT are expanding. There are weird offerings springing up each day. I read something yesterday about how MMT is really just Marxism in disguise and therefore a plot to overthrow entrepreneurship. Well in a socialist society there will still be a monetary system! Most of the critiques just get to their point quickly – MMT is about wild printing presses undermining the value of the currency! That should summarise 25 years of our work nicely. But there are also other developments on a global scale. A few weeks ago there was a lengthy debate in the Japanese parliament during a House of Representatives Committee hearing considering whether the October sales tax hikes should continue. The Finance Minister, Taro Aso was confronted by Committee members who indicated that it was useless denying that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was some abstract theory that was wrong because the Japanese are already “doing it”. The Minister told the hearing that MMT was dangerous and would undermine financial markets if anyone said otherwise. An interesting discussion took place. It highlighted some key features of MMT. It also indicates that progress is being made in the process of education aimed at giving people a better understanding of how the monetary system that we live within operates.
Its Wednesday, so just a short blog post. I had a day of meetings and other commitments today. But we have some fun at the IMF to discuss (briefly). On April 11, 2019, IMF boss Madame Lagarde gave a press conference to open the 2019 Spring Meetings. The Transcript – includes the Madame waxing lyrical about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). And you might have confused the press conference for a stand-up comedy routine except you would have to be ‘in the know’ to laugh. But the significant aspect of the conference came when a question from Japan focused on MMT. In attempting to put down our work, Madame Lagarde actually admitted that a situation where the government runs big fiscal deficits, has a large-scale and on-going public debt-issuance program, where the central bank buys substantial proportions of that issuance, apparently ‘works’ under conditions that the currency-issuing government can always control. MMT 101. QED. Have a laugh.