This blog is really a two-part blog which is a follow up on previous blogs I have written about Overt Monetary Financing (OMF). The former head of the British Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner has just released a new paper – The Case for Monetary Finance – An Essentially Political Issue – which he presented at the 16th Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference, hosted by the IMF in Washington on November 5-6, 2015. The paper advocated OMF but in a form that I find unacceptable. I will write about that tomorrow (which will be Part 2, although the two parts are not necessarily linked). I note that the American journalist John Cassidy writes about Turner in his latest New Yorker article (November 23, 2015 issue) – Printing Money. Just the title tells you he doesn’t appreciate the nuances of central bank operations. He also invokes the Zimbabwe-Weimar Republic hoax, which tells you that he isn’t just ignorant of the details but also part of the neo-liberal scare squad that haven’t learnt that all spending carries an inflation risk – public or private – no matter what monetary operations migh be associated with it. I will talk about that tomorrow. Today, though, as background, I will report some research I have been doing on Japanese economic policy in the period before the Second World War. It is quite instructive and bears on how we think about OMF. That is the topic for today.
The economic news yesterday from Japan that the economy had contracted in the second-quarter 2015 by 0.4 per cent (Real GDP) on the back of a sharp drop in exports (-4.4 per cent) and private consumption (-0.8 per cent). The economy is 0.7 per cent larger in real terms than this time last year but that is somewhat misleading because of the 1.9 per cent decline in the June-quarter 2014 after the Government introduced its latest sale tax hike fiasco. The only positive contributors to growth in the June-quarter 2015 were inventories and the public sector (both consumption and investment). The continuing declines in real wages and pessimistic consumer expectations are undermining the capacity of the private domestic sector to sustain growth. Without the growth in public spending the quarterly decline in real GDP growth would have been much worse. It is likely that the slowdown in China is impacting negatively on Japanese exports. But with China trying to stabilise around a mean-shift downwards in its growth rate, the future for all export-led growth strategies (that have been relying on China to sustain much higher rates of growth) doesn’t look good. In the same way that China appears to be rebalancing its total output in favour of domestic spending, the same strategy should be adopted by Japan to wean itself of its reliance on continued strong growth in exports. One thing that Japan might re-assess is its – National Pension Scheme – which is not only fairly meagre in income payments but also forces workers to contribute during their working lives. Given Japan is a currency-issuing nation, it could easily increase the pension payment and reduce or eliminate the contribution, thus providing more certainty to workers in retirement.
The Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday (May 20, 2015) that – Japan’s First-Quarter GDP Growth Is Fastest in a Year. This follows the release of the latest national accounts data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance. The WSJ was like many media commentators – quick to put the best spin on the data that they could. They converted the 0.6 per cent quarterly growth figure for March 2015 into a 2.4 per cent annualised figure and pronounced a consumer led recovery. The facts tell us a different story. The biggest contributor to growth in the March-quarter was unsold inventories. Whether this is a sign of lagging sales and overly confident producers, who won’t remain in that state for long, or expectations of strengthening consumer demand, remains to be seen. On the face of it, with real wages continuing to fall and consumer expectations weak, things may not be as rosy as the “2.4 per cent annualised growth” result would suggest.
The financial press was ‘surprised’ that Japan had slipped back into recession, which just tells you that their sources don’t know much about how monetary economies operate. Clearly they have had their heads buried in IMF literature, which tells everyone that cutting net public spending will boost growth because the private sector is scared of deficits. This prediction has never worked out in the way the theory claims. It is pure free market ideology with no empirical basis. The other problem is that cutting net public spending when private spending is weak also pushed up the deficit. Back in the real world, Japan believes the IMF myths, hikes sales taxes to reduce its fiscal deficit, and goes back into recession – night follows day, sales tax hikes moderate spending, and spending cuts undermine economic growth. Kindergarten stuff really. Eventually this cult of neo-liberal economics will disappear but in the meantime while all and sundry are partaking in the kool aid, millions will be losing their jobs, poverty rates will rise and the top 10 per cent in the income and wealth distributions will continue to steal ever more real income from the workers.
Last week, Reuters put out a story (October 30, 2014) – Special Report: Tsunami evacuees caught in $30 billion Japan money trap (thanks Scott Mc for the link) – which provides an excellent demonstration of the true limits of government spending in a currency-issuing nation. The underlying principles should be understood by all as part of their personal mission to expel all neo-liberal myths from their thinking and to help them see the nature of issues more clearly. Unfortunately, the application we will talk about is sad and has tragic human and environmental consequences, but that doesn’t reduce the relevance of the example for conceptual thinking. In a nutshell, the central Japanese government has transferred some $US50 billion worth of yen to the local government to combat the destruction caused by the tsunami in March 2011. Thirty billion is unspent despite people still living in temporary housing and suffering dramatic psychological trauma as a result. Why is this happening? Doesn’t Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) tell us that a currency-issuing government can spend what it likes? Well, not exactly. What MMT tells us is that a currency-issuing government can purchase whatever is for sale in its own currency and that propensity is limited by the availability of real resources. Here is a classic demonstration of the limits of government nominal spending.
The IMF published its October – World Economic Outlook – yesterday (October 7, 2014) and the news isn’t good. And remember this is the IMF, which is prone to overestimating growth, especially in times of fiscal austerity. What we are now seeing in these publications is recognition that economies around the world have entered the next phase of the crisis, which undermines the capacity to grow as much as the actual current growth rate. The concept of ‘secular stagnation’ is now more frequently referred to in the context of the crisis. However, the neo-liberal bias towards the primacy of monetary policy over fiscal policy as the means to overcome massive spending shortages remains. Further, it is clear that nations are now reaping the longer-term damages of failing to restore high employment levels as the GFC ensued. The unwillingness to immediately redress the private spending collapse not only has caused massive income and job losses but is now working to ensure that the growth rates possible in the past are going to be more difficult to achieve in the future unless there is a major rethink of the way fiscal policy is used. The myopia of neo-liberalism is now being exposed for all its destructive qualities.
Up until a while ago, it was the government bond market that was going to crash in Japan if the government didn’t do something serious about implementing fiscal austerity. The bond market is still very healthy and yields are very low around the world and in Japan negative on some government bonds and bills. With that scare campaign defeated by reality, the doomsayers are now moving into making predictions about equity markets. The latest is that the Nikkei is about to crash unless the Japanese government significantly tightens fiscal policy some more. Remember this is in the context of a 3 percentage points rise in the sales tax in April which left consumers flat and real GDP growth collapsed in the second-quarter as a result.
The OECD yesterday released their interim Economic Outlook and claimed that real economic growth around the world was slowing because of a lack of spending. Correct. But then they determined that structural reforms and further fiscal contraction was required in many countries, including Japan. Incorrect. The fact that they have departed from the annual release of the Outlook (usually comes out in May each year) indicates the organisation is suffering a sort of attention deficit disorder – they just crave attention and their senior officials love pontificating in front of audiences with their charts and projections that attempt to portray gravitas. No one really questions them about how wrong their last projections were or that cutting spending is bad for an economy struggling to grow. All the participants just get sucked into their own sense of self-importance because the event generates headlines and the neo-liberal deception rolls on. The OECD needs a reality check on Japan, but it isn’t the only organisation that is pumping out nonsense this week.
A regular occurrence is the prediction of doom for Japan. Some minor upturn in Japanese government bond yields or a movement in some other irrelevant financial statistic relating to the Japanese public sector sends the financial press into apoplexy. But the Japanese economy continues to defy all these prophecies from the neo-liberal zealots and eventually they will be dismissed by the broader public as the education process continues. The latest dramas surround the massive purchases of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) by the Bank of Japan. The fact is that the Bank of Japan is currently exposing the myths of the mainstream position even if it would not see it that way. Our post child just keeps giving us real life examples to substantiate the views presented in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
A regular occurrence is the prediction of doom for Japan. Some minor upturn in Japanese government bond yields or a movement in some other irrelevant financial statistic relating to the Japanese public sector sends the financial press into apoplexy. The latest signal of impending bankruptcy being bandied about relates to the rising trend in foreign holdings of short- and longer-term Japanese government debt. This trend is explained by financial markets moving into less risky assets (in this case, Japanese government bonds) as uncertainty in other markets, for example the Eurozone, remains. However, the narrative then goes that eventually these purchasers will refrain from buying Japanese government debt and with the funding from the savings of the ageing domestic population drying up, the Japanese government will run out of money. Policy response? Cut fiscal deficits immediately through a combination of tax rises and spending cuts. All of which is nonsense and if the Japanese government follows the advice – there will be a 1997-style recession and public debt ratios will just rise faster than they are at present. It is better that we now all turn to the sport’s section of whatever news you read and relax.