There is an interesting dilemma currently emerging in Australia, which provides an excellent case study on how governments can use fiscal policy effectively and the problems that are likely to arise in that application. At present, the Australian states are engaging in an infrastructure building boom with several large (mostly public sector) projects underway involving improvements to road, ports, water supply, railways, airports and more. I travel a lot and in each of the major cities you see major areas sectioned off as tunnels are being dug and buildings erected. Not all of the projects are desirable (for example, the West Connex freeway project in Sydney has trampled on peoples’ rights) and several prioritise the motor car over public transport. But many of the projects will deliver much better public transport options in the future. On a national accounts level, these projects have helped GDP growth continue as household consumption has moderated and private investment has been consistently weak to negative. But, and this is the point, there have been sporadic reports recounting how Australia is running out of cement, hard rock and concrete and other building materials, which is pushing up costs. This is the real resource constraint that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) emphasises as the limits to government spending, rather than any concocted financial constraints. If there are indeed shortages of real resources that are essential to infrastructure development then that places a limit on how fast governments can build these public goods. The other point is that as these shortages are emerging, there is still over 15 per cent of our available labour resources that are being unused in one way or another – 714,600 are unemployed, 1,123.9 thousand are underemployed, and participation rates are down so hidden unemployment has risen. So that indicates there is a need for higher deficits while the infrastructure bottlenecks suggest spending constraints are emerging. That is the challenge. Come in policies like the Job Guarantee.
This is Part 2 of my mini-series analysing some of the challenges that the newly elected majority government in Timor-Leste faces. Yesterday, I documented how the IMF and World Bank had infused its ideological stance into the currency arrangements that Timor-Leste set out with as a new nation. That infusion is still apparent in the major commentary on Timor-Leste’s future options – specifically that the dollarisation should continue and that fiscal austerity should be pursued (relative to the current fiscal stance) because the nation will run out of money. What they mean is that the Petroleum Fund will eventually run out of money. There is a major difference in those statements although under the current currency arrangements they are identical. The ‘run out of money’ story is only applicable as long as the new government resists adopting its own currency. I also showed how the development process has been stalled by the austerity bias. In Part 2, I explore the currency issue directly and make the case for currency sovereignty which would require Timor-Leste to scrap the US dollar, convert the Petroleum Fund into its stock of foreign exchange reserves, and to run an independent monetary policy with flexible exchange rates, mediated with the capacity to use capital controls where appropriate. In Part 3, which will come out next Monday, I will discuss specific policy options that are required to exploit what is known as the ‘demographic dividend’ where the age-structure of the nation generates a plunging dependency ratio. To exploit that dividend, which historically delivers massive development boosts to nations, the shifting demographics have to be accompanied by high levels of employment. That should be policy priority No.1. I will also complete some Petroleum Fund scenarios to complement the policy advice.
I was going to write about the situation in Timor-Leste after its national elections were held on Saturday. But I will hold that over for another day as I get some more information. So today, I think we can learn a lot from an issue raised in the Bloomberg article (May 14, 2018) – Kuroda’s Stimulus Saves Japan $45 Billion, Easing Debt Pressures – which discusses the QE program in Japan and introduces several of the basic errors that mainstream financial commentators make when discussing these issues. The article traverses all the usual suspects including the misconception that numbers in official accounts are ‘costs’ to government and that smaller numbers in official accounts mean the government can put larger numbers in other accounts than it might have been able to. These articles are as pervasive as they are erroneous. Hopefully, as the precepts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) spread and are understood more journalists will endure scrutiny of the rubbish they write and the public commentary and debate will progress towards a more reasonable – realistic – appraisal of what is going on in the world of finance and money. This article is one of the worst I have read this year so far. And there have been some real terrors!
The Australian Treasurer brought down the 2018-19 Fiscal Statement (aka Budget) on Tuesday evening with much fanfare. The one message that dominated the cant and hypocrisy was that there will probably be an early election, maybe later this year. The Government is scandal-ridden, is enduring destructive infighting over leadership and policy direction, and has made some monumentally disastrous decisions in the current term of office (for example, denying the need for a Royal Commission into the financial sector, which they were bulldozed into finally accepting, and, which is now revealing massive corruption in our banks and insurance companies). Being so far down in the opinion polls means one thing. They use the annual ‘fiscal’ show to make themselves look good and dollop out (albeit with a lag) some scraps (tax cuts) to the masses, while reserving the huge tax cuts for the top-end-of-town. And, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t even bother to listen to the Treasurer’s speech. In fact, I could write some text generating code which would generate a ‘Budget Speech’ that was remarkably similar to the Treasurer’s speech. So why waste 30 minutes in the evening listening to it. I would prefer to be sorting socks in my sock draw!
I was running late yesterday and the blog post was already rather long so I left some matters concerning central banks for today. The question we address briefly today is what is the role of central banks in all these trade transactions. Does an export surplus country face an ever increasing money supply as central banks provide the counterparty service to traders who sell in a foreign currency but want their own currency (such as a manufacturer who incurs costs in say Yen but sales revenue in $AUD – as per our example yesterday)? There appears to be confusion on that front as well. So while I am not typically going to write a detailed blog post on a Wednesday, in the interests of continuity, here is Part 2 of the series on trade and currencies.
I have received many E-mails and direct twitter messages overnight and today following the ‘debate’ on Real Progressives yesterday, where trade issues and related financial transactions were discussed. I saw that section of the debate (after the fact) and concluded that only one of the guests knew what happened when nations exported and imported. But it appears that readers of this blog who listened to the debate were confused by what they heard. So, today, by request, I aim to clarify a few of these issues. They are in fact fairly simple to understand once you trace through the transactions carefully, so it is a surprise that basic errors were expressed in the ‘debate’. So here is the way Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps you understand trade transactions.
I am using today to sketch out some ideas for my next book with Thomas Fazi as a follow up to Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017). I am also lying low from the Australian media given that it is less than a week to go before the Australian Treasurer delivers his annual fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’). The standard of commentary and hysteria about this event and what it means seems to be getting worse. So I have a radio blackout today and am listening to music as I work instead. But here is a snippet of what Australians are being fed – in this case from our national broadcaster who, with public money, sets out (probably in a state of ignorance) to deceive its listeners (and these days, its readers). It is shocking really to think that a public broadcaster in this day and age can render such a biased (and error-ridden) rendition of a subject matter that is so important.
Over the last few years, it is clear that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is achieving a higher profile and the attacks are starting to come thick and fast. I see these attacks as being a positive development because it demonstrates that recognition has been achieved and a threat to mainstream ideas is now perceived by those who desire to hang on to the status quo. Hostility and attack is a stage in the process of a new set of ideas becoming accepted, ultimately. Clearly, some new interventions never receive acceptance because they are proven to be flawed in one way or another. But I doubt the body of work that is now known as MMT will be discarded quite so easily given my assessment that is is coherent, logically consistent and grounded in a strong evidence base. As part of this evolution there are now lots of what I call ‘sort of’ contributions coming from mainstream commentators. One of the ways in which mainstreamers save face is to claim they ‘knew it all along’ and that the existing body of practice can easily accommodate what might be considered ‘nuances’ or ‘special cases’. We are seeing that more now, with the more progressive mainstream economists claiming there is nothing ‘new’ about MMT that it is just what they knew anyway. Even though that approach is disingenuous it is part of the evolution towards acceptance. People have positions to protect. These ‘sort of’ contributions demonstrate a sort of half-way mentality – a growing awareness of MMT but with a deep resistance to its implications. A good example is the UK Guardian’s editorial (April 15, 2018) – The Guardian view on QE: the economy needs more than a magic money tree.
People are allowed to change their opinions or assessments in the light of new evidence. Diametric changes of position are fine and one should not be pilloried for making such a shift in outlook. Quite the contrary. But when the passage of time reveals that a person just recites the same litany despite being continually at odds with the evidence, then that person’s view should be disregarded, notwithstanding the old saying that a defunct clock is correct twice in each 24 hours. The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its latest – The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2018 to 2028 (April 9, 2018) – and various commentators and media outlets have gone into conniptions over it. The economists that have responded – and they come with affiliations from both sides of US politics (although it is hard to differentiate separate ‘sides’ in the US anymore such is the demise of the Democrat Party) – have significantly embarrassed themselves. Their hysteria is not matched with the facts and they have been guilty of invoking these hysterical responses year-in, year-out for many years. A crack in a record, goes click, click, click, click and repeats ad infinitum. Sort of like the nonsensical arguments about US fiscal deficits that have appeared in the US press this last week.
On March 13, 2018, the OECD released its latest Economic Outlook with accompanying “Interim projections” as at March 2018) suggesting that the current growth phase will continue through to next year as consumer and business confidence improves and translates in higher investment rates. The OECD, however, forecasts that growth in the Eurozone will decline over the next two years. The major Eurozone nations (France, Germany and Italy) are not witnessing the growing investment expenditure. The Eurozone might be seeing a little sunshine creeping out from the very dark clouds. But it is far from recovered and the future is ominously black. Key cyclical indicators remain at depressed levels, which means that when the next cycle hits, the Eurozone will be in a much worse position than before. And the reason: the fundamentally flawed design of the monetary system with its accompanying austerity bias. The reform required is root-and-branch rather than a prune here and there.