I have sat through many economic seminars in my time where there is a sense of suspended reality necessary so the presenter can run through the exercise of bringing their latest research idea to the academic community. This suspended reality normally relates to the a priori assumptions made to condition the exercise and the framework within with the exercise is conducted. It typically involves ignoring the elephant in the room called reality and applicability. The ruse goes like this – assume a, b and c (where none of these assumptions capture the most important aspect of the object of study); then use these analytical tools (none of which reflect how the actual mechanisms being studied operate); and QED we show this. I no longer go to seminars like this – life is too short. An example of this sort of exercise appeared recently in summary form on VoxEu site (June 6, 2017) – Japanese frugality versus Italian profligacy? – written by an MIT academic. Perhaps the salient aspect is that the author was previously a Central Bank governor in Cyprus (2007-12) and a member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (2008-12). That experience may have led to his clouded judgement. But more so is the fact that he is a Friedmanite! One of them! That explains everything. The blindness. The failure to see the obvious. The neo-liberal ideology.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.
Regular readers will know that I have been investigating how close the US is to full employment, given that various commentators and conservative types have been trying to claim it is and that, as a result, the US government should hack into the fiscal deficit and the central bank should raise interest rates. Today, I consider some more evidence of a comparative nature to advance my understanding of the situation. The Bloomberg article (March 29, 2017) – The Jobs Statistics Trump Should Be Worried About – made some good points about the state of the US labour market. It focused on the significant decline in the US labour participation rate since 2000 and the cyclical component of that decline, which is a common trend in many advanced nations and one I have written a lot about in the past. The additional evidence presented in the Bloomberg articles demonstrates that the US economy is still nowhere near full employment. This blog adds some evidence from Australia and Japan by way of comparison.
The Japanese bond market has been very interesting in the last week proving yet again that private bond markets cannot set yields on government bonds if the government does want then too. 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. Japanese 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 financial media referred to the Bank of Japan as putting a whipsaw to the bond markets, which in context means that the BoJ is forcing the ‘markets’ into confusion (Source). The bond markets have misinterpreted recent Bank of Japan conduct in the JGB markets (less purchases than expected, and even missing a scheduled buy up) as a sign that the Bank was weakening on its QQE commitment from last September that it would hold the 10-year JGB yield to zero and thereby allow the longer investment rates to fall. Why they doubted that commitment is another matter but within a few days over the last week the Bank demonstrated that: (a) it remains committed to that target; and (b) it has all the financial clout it needs to enforce it; and (c) the bond market investors do not call the shots.
I read a report on the American news network CNBC the other day (November 15, 2016) – The bond vigilantes are back, and Trump better pay attention – which included some so-called experts in a video claiming to know something about bond markets. The report asserted that “bond vigilantes” might return to force the new US President to “tone down his spending” (as they allegedly did when Bill Clinton was in office). One expert said “we’ve got fiscal policy again and … the prospect of higher interest rates and inflation could even herald the return of the bond vigilantes”. Idiot is a polite term for him. The journalist and the commentators invoked should take time out and learn about what is happening in Japan, which remains the best Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) ‘laboratory’ there is. The Bank of Japan in now putting into operation the decision it took in September 2016 to buy unlimited amounts of Japanese government bonds at a fixed-yield. Which means? In short, it will control the yields across all bond maturities from 2-year out to 40-year and will set them at whatever level they choose. Oh, won’t the bond markets prevent that happening? How? For the bond markets it is a case of “like it or lump it”. Once again Japan demonstrates that mainstream macroeconomic theory is devoid of understanding.
In yesterday’s blog – Time for fiscal policy as we learn more about monetary policy ineffectiveness – I discussed, in part, the way that fiscal and monetary policy in Japan were working in a harmonious way, in contradistinction to the way these two major policy levers are working elsewhere (for example, Australia and the Eurozone). One of the results of that harmony is that the official unemployment rate in Japan has dropped to 3.1 per cent, the lowest since July 1995. I considered the willingness of the Japanese government to introduce and maintain large fiscal stimulus programs under its Prime Minister – Shinzō Abe – to be a major contributing factor in that reduction (down from 5.5 per cent in July 2009). However, a Bloomberg journalist asserts that – Japan’s Plunging Jobless Rate Is All About Aging, not Abenomics (published August 10, 2016). We can explore whether that assertion is true. It will certainly be partly true given the population ageing in Japan. That is what this blog is about today.
Several new articles have appeared in the last few weeks in the major media outlets expressing surprise that central banks have had little effect on economic growth despite the rather massive buildup of their ‘balance sheets’ via various types of quantitative easing programs. I have indicated before that I am coming to the view that most of the media, politicians, central bankers and other likely types (IMF and European Commission officials etc) seem to be in a constant state of ‘surprise’ as each day of reality fails to confirm what they said yesterday or last week (allowing for lags :-)). What a group of surprised people we have to effectively run our nations on behalf of capital. Poor souls, constantly be shocked out of their certainties. That is what Groupthink does – creates mobs that deny reality until it smacks them so hard in the face that they can only utter “that was surprising!” And in that context, the latest media trend appears to be something along the lines of ‘well let’s get the turbines moving’ or ‘those helicopters are about to launch’ and when we read that and what follows we learn that the media input into our lives only reinforces the smokescreen of ignorance that we conduct our daily lives within.
We once believed the Earth was flat. Then someone sailed out to the edge and came back the other way or something like that with apologies to Pythagoras and others in 5BC. At some other point in history, alchemists were convinced that they could take base metals (for example, lead) and turn them into ‘noble’ metals (like gold). More recently, the German Nazis convinced a nation that there was a Master Race (them) which had to purify civilisation by exterminating the parasitic (non-Aryan) races. The lowest races were considered to be Lebensunwertes Leben. Millions died unnecessary and cruel deaths as a result of that piece of national deception. Sometimes these demonstrations of national ignorance are relatively benign. Other times, as history shows the outcomes are devastating. The World is, once again, in the grip of another major deception, which is generating negative consequences at the worse end of the scale. As Australia approaches May, fiscal hysteria reaches its apex each year. Add the prospect of a general election (as early as July 2016) and the lying politicians and the media frenzy that support them extend themselves beyond the normal day to day idiocy and prevarication. On the world stage, the IMF prances around, wiping the blood of millions of citizens that it has impoverished over the years with its incompetence and bloody-mindedness, lecturing nations on what they should do next. Whenever, a nation follows their advice unemployment and poverty rises and the top-end-of-town walk off with even more loot. Loot is what pirates stole. These looters, however, do not even have the panache and elan that we associate with the romance of piracy. They are just sociopaths and cheats. Welcome to a new day in neo-liberal hell!
I read two articles/reports today about Japan. The first was a Fairfax article (March 21, 2016) from a journalist who invariably peddles the neoliberal economic myths. The second was from the IMF extolling the virtues of higher wages in Japan. What? Yes, you read the second point correctly. The IMF considers that an essential new policy element (a “fourth arrow”) is required in Japan in the form of real wages growth outstripping productivity growth by around 2 per cent. It wants the government to legislate to ensure that happens. In general, the IMF solution for Japan is in fact one of the key changes that nations have to do bring in to restore some sense of stability into the world economy. Governments around the world has to ensure that real wages growth, at least, keeps pace with productivity growth and that workers can fund their consumption expenditure from their earnings rather than relying on ever increasing levels of credit and indebtedness. This will of course require a fundamental change in our approach to the interaction between society and economy. It will require increased employment protection, larger public sector employment proportions, decreased casualisation, and legislative requirements imposed upon firms to pass on productivity gains. It’s no small order, but it is one of a number of essential changes that we will have to do introduce as part of the abandonment of neoliberalism.
In September 2010, The Project Syndicate, which markets itself as providing the “Smartest Op-Ed Articles from the World’s Thought Leaders” gave space to Martin Feldstein – Japan’s Savings Crisis. Like a cracked record, Feldstein rehearsed his usual idiotic claims that interest rates in Japan would rise because “of the continuing decline in Japan’s household saving rate” and that “the higher interest rate would eventually raise the government’s interest bill by about 4% of GDP. And that would push a 7%-of-GDP fiscal deficit to 11%”. Then, so the story goes, “This vicious spiral of rising deficits and debt would be likely to push interest rates even higher, causing the spiral to accelerate”. At which point, Japan sinks slowly into the sea never to be seen again. It turns out that the real world is a little different to what students read about in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks. At the risk of understatement I should have said very (completely) different. Better rephrase that to say – what appears in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks bears little or no relation to the reality we all live in. Anyway, events over the last week in Japan have once again meant that this has been just another week of humiliation for mainstream macroeconomics – one of many.