It is Wednesday and I have only a short blog post today as I have had a lot of commitments that stop me from writing. But I did read a recent Australian Treasury paper – Wage Growth in Australia: Lessons from Longitudinal Microdata (July 2019) – which purports to model the reasons why there is wage stagnation in Australia. The results were presented at the Australian Economists Conference earlier this week and set off a storm because it appeared, at first blush, to blame workers lassitude and excessive risk averse attitudes for the lack of wages growth. I read it slightly differently. It tells me that, first, the Treasury is reluctant to acknowledge the legislative attacks on unions’ capacities to gain wage increases that have been characteristic of the neoliberal era; and, second, that the unions might take the message as a call to arms – take the employers on more often through costly industrial action within the tight legal environment that is left to them.
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.
When the governments in the advanced nations abandoned full employment as an overarching macroeconomic objective, and instead, starting pursuing what I have called full employability, they stopped seeing unemployment as a policy target (to be minimised) and began using it as a policy tool to suppress inflation. As mass unemployment rose, the politics were massaged by the mainstream of my profession who claimed that the level of unemployment that constituted full employment had risen (this was the NAIRU era) and so there was really no problem. Governments adopted the neoliberal line that they ‘didn’t create jobs’ and had to target fiscal surpluses to ensure their position was ‘sustainable’. The costs in lost income and human suffering have been enormous – most people would not have any idea of the massive scale of these losses that accumulate day after day. Now, it seems, the ‘sound finance’ school is going a step further. We are probably facing an environmental emergency in the coming period (years, decades) but the question commentators keep asking is not what we can do about it but ‘how can we pay for it’? So ‘sound finance’ has already destroyed the lives of millions of people around the world as a result of mass unemployment and poverty, now it is turning its focus on the rest of us. Madness. Paradigm change has to come sooner rather than later.
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.
Last week (June 20, 2019), the British Chancellor (for now) gave his – Mansion House dinner speech 2019 – Philip Hammond – at the Lord Mayor’s residence just across the road from the Bank of England in London, which should have conditioned the content of his speech. The guests at Hammond’s evening were mostly male bankers with the usual cohort of politicians. This event is the UK equivalent of the US President’s State of the Union speech except at the British event, both senior economic officials, the Chancellor and the governor of the Bank of England address the audience. The Chancellor’s speech, aimed mostly at the potential PM candidates tried to claim that the if Britain was to exit the EU without a ‘deal’ then the Government would run out of money. He didn’t use those words but shrouded the message in buzz-terms such as “fiscal space” and “fiscal headroom”, which are among those mainstream macroeconomic terms that mean nothing when coming from a guy like Hammond. Worse, was the response over the weekend by the Shadow Chancellor.
It is Wednesday and only a relatively short blog post. Yes, some more on that Fiscal Rule that seems to be causing people to lose sleep (not me). First, we had the Duck Test debate about the British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule. Those promoting the Rule have been at lengths to deny its neoliberal framing, language and concepts. Not an easy task when the Rule talks about a currency-issuing government wanting to avoid “putting the rent on the credit card month after month”. Sounds like a duck to me. Then there was the ‘all critics (me) are stupid’ approach because they (I) apparently didn’t understand the Rule, simple as it is in construction. That didn’t end well either. Now, rather innovatively, we have the introduction of the Secret British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule – which tells us that the actual British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule, you know, the one published by the “General Secretary of the Labour Party on behalf of the Labour Party” is not the real rule. There is another one that us silly billy types have failed to detect and only those who have close personal contact with the members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England could possibly know about. So in our ignorance we have no right to criticise the Rule or to impute nasty motivations from the MPC (not that we did impute anything anyway). And, to put the icing on the cake, we now are told that the Chancellor can abandon this ‘Secret’ Rule whenever he/she likes and does not require the imprimatur of the MPC anyway – so butt out all of you. Of course, only those who are part of our insiders’ club can know anything about this. Summary: Losers getting more lost each time they try to come up with a justification for the duck!
Last week, the EU finance ministers (the ‘Eurogroup’) met (June 13, 2019) in Luxembourg as part of their regular schedule. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the meeting whether Emmanual Macron’s push for a more coherent EU fiscal capacity to act as a counter-stabilisation capacity for the beleaguered Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As is normal, there was no progress made and the press reports said that the finance ministers “continued to clash over almost every feature of the new fiscal tool, including the source of funding” (Source). No surprises at all. So the ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’ agenda, that many Europhile Left commentators have been hoping for, was abandoned. The roof still has gaping holes and the EMU will once again fail badly when the next economic cyclical downturn comes through. And further, the lack of leadership in the fiscal area is creating a massive dilemma for the ECB and its conduct of monetary policy. In effect, the lacuna is demonstrating to all and sundry that monetary policy is incapable of achieving the aims despite the ECB deliberately breaching the legal framework established for it in the Treaties. The Eurozone dysfunction goes to a new level – and it is a time of growth.