Given my inflation report yesterday, I have shifted my usual Wednesday light blog post day and music feature to today. The economic debate has moved in recent years from ‘when is the government going broke’ to ‘hyperinflation is approaching’. It amazes me how puerile the economic commentary is as journalists and economists seeking headlines trot out headlines about how bad something (insert: insolvency, inflation, whatever is the latest craze) is going to be and what needs to be done about it. Nothing much happens in the real world and they keep their jobs and begin the next mania. Replay. And so it goes. It seems though that within this fictional world, that masquerades as informed economic commentary, subtle changes are underway. Governments worked out that during the GFC, the only weapon they had that would save the system was fiscal policy. They also worked out that large-scale bond buying by their central banks complemented the effective use of fiscal policy and didn’t deliver all the maelstrom that the mainstream New Keynesian textbooks predicted. The pandemic has accentuated that. And now there is this sort of stand-off between the ‘markets’ that were given too much latitude in the pre-GFC period and governments. The market players, who have become accustomed to manipulating government policy to ratify their speculative bets, which delivered massive profits to the hedge funds and the like, are now confronting central banks and treasuries that actually have power and cannot be bullied into delivering such policy ratification. That is progress and interesting to observe.
Apparently, inflation in Australia has come ‘roaring’ back, if you believe one financial commentator today. There has been a lot of talk about how inflation is spiralling upwards and it demonstrates the MMT ‘quackery’. If you examine today’s data release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Consumer Price Index, Australia (October 27, 2021) – which relates to to the September-quarter 2021, then it becomes clear that the slightly elevated CPI result is largely due to uncompetitive cartel behaviour and deliberate government petrol pricing policies that ensure that the cartel behaviour is ratified in the form of higher local petrol prices. Not much more to see than that really. Nothing much to do with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) at all. Sorry about that. The CPI rose by 0.8 per cent in the September-quarter 2021 and 3 per cent over the 12 months. The two main drivers were the rise in prices for New dwelling purchases by owner-occupiers (3.3 per cent) and Automotive fuel (7.7 per cent). Last quarter, the annual rate of CPI increase was 3.8 per cent, which makes statements like ‘roaring back’ seem ridiculous and designed to attract headlines.
The New York Times article (October 1, 2021, updated October 15, 2021) – Nobody Really Knows How the Economy Works. A Fed Paper Is the Latest Sign – reported on a paper by one Jeremy B. Rudd, who is a senior advisor in the Research and Statistics division at the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. The paper – Why Do We Think That Inflation Expectations Matter for Inflation? (And Should We?) – published as Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2021-062, by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, argues that a core aspect of New Keynesian macroeconomic orthodoxy “rests on extremely shaky foundations … and adhering to it uncritically could easily lead to serious policy errors.” The paper rejects the central notion in mainstream macro that the trajectory of inflation is driven by expectations. The idea that expectations are the key force has led central banks deliberately using the unemployed to fight an (imaginary) inflation threat. It has led fiscal authorities to pursue contractionary policies that have forced millions into unemployment. The Rudd paper is important because it shows the mainstream edifice is collapsing – it jettisons an other core concept. There is not much left in mainstream economics that hasn’t been rejected by evidence or exposed as being theoretically inconsistent.
It takes a while for the mainstream organisations in economics, banking and finance to start to realise that the framework they use cannot explain the actual events in the real world, without serious revision. The problem though, is that the overall framework is flawed and the typical ‘response to anomaly’ approach, which changes a few assumptions to get ‘novel results’ is inadequate because it leaves one blind to all the possible policy solutions. The latest example is the Bank of International Settlements paper – Indebted Demand (released October 19, 2021) – which was written by three economists from Princeton, Harvard and Chicago Booth, respectively. They now recognise that rising inequality and massive household debt is a major problem for economic growth and macroeconomic stability. But, in maintaining ‘conventional’ assumptions about the government sector, they miss the vital linkages in the story, that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been providing for the last 25 or so years. Whether these responses to anomaly represent progress or different variations in a flawed ‘chess’ strategy is a matter of opinion. My thought is they are a largely a waste of time, although marginally, they demonstrate that elements of mainstream macro theory that were considered core elements a decade ago are no longer sustainable.
Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.
Welcome to The Weekend Quiz. The quiz tests whether you have been paying attention or not to the blog posts that I post. See how you go with the following questions. Your results are only known to you and no records are retained.
Last week, I did a seminar with a Melbourne financial market group (Wattle Partners), who I regularly help in their education programs. It took the form of an informal (somewhat structured) conversation about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and more practical applications of the MMT understanding. There were several questions from the audience that we didn’t get time to answer in the allotted time so today I am honouring my agreement to provide answers, which might be of interest to the broader readership, if only to reinforce knowledge. The video of the interaction is also available now and you can watch it here.
It is Wednesday and so just a few points today. I obviously like data as it tells me a lot about the world and often forces me to alter my views on things. While I mostly analyse economic and financial data, which is my professional skill, I also like to investigate other data sets on things that interest me. Today, I am looking into the vaccine question, which has been playing on my mind lately as the Australian political class, under pressure from all sorts of business lobby groups who fund their election campaigns, have been ‘opening up’ the economy (states and territories) despite high case numbers in some jurisdictions and despite relatively low vaccination rates. They have come up with a ‘Roadmap’ to ‘living with Covid’ (which will see many people die from Covid) and defined key thresholds in terms of average vaccination rates. The problem is the these thresholds are not very scientific at all and their semblance of ‘safety’ points is an illusion. In effect, the political class has abandoned their pretence to following health advice and are just going for it. It is a difficult period in our history.
One of the recurring criticisms I face when presenting at events comes from those who say they are ‘socialists’ or ‘Marxists’. They accuse me in various ways of being an apologist for capitalism, for offering palliative solutions to workers, which will delay the break down of the system and the revolution to socialism and communism. These critics proudly announce they follow Marx’s solutions and that they reject Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) because it is just a stooge for capitalism. The problem is that Marx had no real vision of how we would transit to Communism. A recent book referred to Marx’s philosophical position on this as a ‘dream’ (more later). And MMT is not specific to any mode of production, by which I mean, who owns the material means of production. It is applicable to any monetary system, and I cannot imagine any modern, technologically-based society functioning outside of that reality – socialist, capitalist or otherwise. But, moreover, the critics seem to be displaying a lack of basic humanity where they exercise reasoning that Noam Chomsky regularly refers to as belonging in a philosophy seminar. Even progressives (and socialists) have to be aware of humanity – as they plot and scheme for the revolution.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics published the latest JOLTs data last week (October 12, 2021) – Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary – August 2021 – which has raised a possible shift in bargaining power in the US labour market towards workers. The most obvious sign of that is the rising quit rates, which are most prevalent in the low-wage sectors. While there is still some slack in the US labour market, the evidence suggests that workers are taking advantage of the improved job opportunities to pursue better wages and conditions. We will have to wait and see whether there are any significant wage outcomes arising from this behaviour or whether workers are just jumping from very bad to bad jobs. Time will tell.