I have noticed a creeping trend in the European press over the last 18 months or so claiming that Finland’s economic malaise, which continues to deteriorate, is nothing to do with the euro. The latest effort in this campaign of denial suggests that the real problem is the “the Finnish welfare state and society”. My view is as follows and it couldn’t be any clearer – whatever structural problems there are in the Finnish economy (following the decline of Nokia and the impending decline of its paper industry due to changing patterns with respect to newspaper consumption), Finland’s decline into the status of a Eurozone basket case along with Greece is all down to the euro and the ridiculous fiscal rules that prevent its government from countering a sharp decline in both the export revenue and private capital formation. Without the limitations imposed by euro membership, Finland would be in a position to stimulate its own economy just as it did during the bleak years of its recession in the early 1990s. Certainly, it would not be a sufficient condition just to exit the euro zone. The neo-liberal infestation that interprets the fiscal rules in the harshest manner (that is, denying even the minimal flexibility that is possible within the Stability and Growth Pact) an additional layer of the problem. But if Finland was to restore its own currency then at the political level the neo-liberal politicians would not be able to shift blame onto the Eurozone rules when they deliberately pushed up unemployment through unnecessary fiscal cuts. Then it would be more obvious that the political leadership was responsible which would bring the destructive neo-liberal tendencies into relief.
Towards the end of last year, I wrote a blog – Finland should exit the euro. I had been undertaking some detailed research on the plight of this relatively small Eurozone nation for a number of reasons. First, it had recently undergone a major industrial decline as Nokia/Microsoft missed market trends and went from world leader to irrelevance. Second, Finland was a vocal proponent of the view that Greece should be pillaried into oblivion by the Troika – to ‘take their medicine’ (more crippling austerity). Third, the data trends were unambiguously pointing to Finland descending into the Eurozone ‘basket case’ category itself as its own conservative government imposed harsh fiscal austerity on the tiny, beleagured nation. Two things are clearer than ever about the Eurozone. First, it is a dysfunctional mess and efforts to reform it so far have only made matters worse. Second, any single nation (and all together) would be unambigously better off exiting the mess and restoring their own currency sovereignty and letting their exchange rate take up some of the adjustment. The following text covers an article that I have written for a Finnish Report coming out in May 2016 to be published by the Left Forum Finland, which is a coalition formed by the political party Left Alliance, the People’s Educational Association (KSL) and the Yrjö Sirola Foundation.
I think the progressive side of politics has a real problem when it is increasingly gazumped in policy insights by politicians and/or commentators from the populist, xenophobic, racist, homophobic, far right-wing. Whether Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini is all of those things or just nationalistic and far right (one of the members of his Finns party wants homosexuals and some foreigners rounded up and sent to some remote Baltic Sea island), he is certainly correct when he told the press yesterday that “Finland should never have signed up to the single currency union” and “could have resorted to devaluations had it not been for its Euro membership” (Source). Earlier this month (December 4, 2015), Statistics Finland published the latest National Accounts data for the third-quarter 2015, which showed that real GDP declined by 0.5 per cent in that quarter and by 0.2 per cent over the previous 12 months. In the past 12 months, both exports and imports declined by 3.4 per cent, the former signalling declining markets and the latter declining domestic income – both bad. Investment spending fell by 3.9 per cent in the year to September, which will further undermine the nation’s potential growth. It is now becoming the basket case of advanced Europe.
Its my Friday lay day but today is going to be anything but. I am in Helsinki at present and it has been a busy few days so far. The concept of Unit Labour Costs (ULCs) is being used by the right-wing government in Finland to bash the population into submission so they can impose the nonsensical austerity. The Finnish government is trying to get rid of some public holidays and reducing wages for sick leave, overtime and working on Sundays. This is the starting point for a broader austerity attack on the public sector and the prosperity of the people. They are calling for a decline in ULCs of at least 5 per cent. The rationale is that with growth flat to negative for five years or so and the massive export surplus they had disappeared the only way to stop unemployment going through the roof is to cut labour costs relative to productivity – that is, cut ULCs. They have been caught up in the ‘dangerous obsession’ that prosperity can only be gained through ‘export competitiveness’ (whatever that actually is) and the domestic economy has to be sacrificed at the net exports altar. International competitiveness is a slippery concept at best but so-called internal devaluation is rarely a successful strategy.
Finland has been one of the Eurozone nations taking a hardline on Greek austerity and have consistently refused to support on-going bailouts of Greece. At the weekend, Finland went to the polls and tossed out the incumbent government and put in its place a centrist party that stood on a platform of a wage freeze and further spending cuts, allegedly to restore Finland’s competitive position. If that prospect wasn’t bad enough, the Centre Party will have to enter a coalition with the party that came second in the polls – the Finns Party, which is a ragbag anti-immigration group that wants Greece kicked out of the Eurozone. It is possible that Finland’s Parliament will not support any further European Union bailouts for Greece. Apparently Finn’s are buying the line that further and intensified austerity is necessary because of rising labour costs have undermined Finland’s capacity to compete in international markets as the demise of Nokia, so the narrative goes, illustrates. The last thing that Finland needs right now is more austerity.
Last week, the results of a survey of Australian economists was released which showed that the majority supported freezing minimum wages, which normally are adjusted annually in June. The minimum wage case is currently being heard in the wage setting tribunal (Fair Work Commission) and a host of antagonists have assembled arguments to stop millions of the lowest paid workers getting a pay rise. In effect, they are advocating a real wage cut for these workers given inflation is running at around 1.8 per cent per annum at present. The Australian government is also claiming it will not extend the already inadequate fiscal support measures that have left more than a million low-paid, casual workers without any wage support since the lockdown began. And they have started winding back support in key sectors like child care which will impact disproportionately on low-paid women’s employment opportunities. But, some are still claiming that neoliberalism will not recover from this pandemic. That all the myths we have been fed about government fiscal policy capacity have been exposed for what they are and we will come out of this with a new economic paradigm. Not so fast. Not a lot will change yet. The struggle goes on.
I haven’t had time yet to fully work through the decision by the European Commission yesterday to provide grants and loans to struggling Eurozone countries. I will comment on that when I have had time to understand the implications and be in a position to provide fair comment. It seems to be a vastly inadequately response in quantum, on top of an existing lack of fiscal support. But more on that another day. Today, I am investigating the latest data from the ECB. On May 26, 2020, the ECB released its bi-annual – Financial Stability Review, May 2020 – which seemed to excite some journalists to advance narratives that ‘sovereign debt’ investors (although none of the Eurozone nations are sovereign) will soon become spooked by the sharp rise in public debt levels in Europe, which will “threaten to undermine private-sector spending” and stall any growth prospects. The quote is from a Financial Times article (May 26, 2020) – ECB warns of challenge for eurozone from soaring public debt – which followed the release of the ECB’s Review. The elephant is, of course, the ECB assets and its ability to control all yields on public debt at will.
I am doing the Thursday is Wednesday trick again today, given that I posted Part 2 of my detailed response to enquiries about MMT and what I term the MMT Project yesterday, and that I have promised myself to use Wednesday’s for other writing. I am also quite busy in Helsinki today with commitments so only a short post today. So just a brief comment on the latest fiasco from ‘Mr Spreadsheet’ Kenneth Rogoff as he stares into the abyss of irrelevance and is trying to hand on like grim death to any shred of credibility. He has none. If he ever did, the spreadsheet scandal finished it. But he never did anyway.
Today, I have several commitments in Tokyo and then a long flight so I decided not to try to finish Part 4 of my Q&A – Japan style series and will post the final part on Monday. For today, you will have to be content with some photos from the current trip to Japan and some comments. But who are those business-suited people in Tokyo wandering around in the mornings picking up garbage (see below)? Normal transmission resumes on Monday.
This is Part 2 of my two-part commentary and analysis of the – Monetary policy decisions – by the ECB (September 12, 2019). In Part 1, I discussed the shifts in the deposit rate and the changes to the Targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTROs). In Part 2, I am focusing on the decision to introduce a two-tiered deposit rate on excess reserves, which is designed to reduce the costs of the penalty arising from the negative deposit rate regime that the ECB has had in place since June 2014. But the most important aspect of the ECB decision was not the monetary policy changes, which will have relatively minor impacts on the real Eurozone economy. The telling part of the whole episode was Mario Draghi’s comments on fiscal dominance. We are entering a new era where the neoliberal obsession with so-called monetary policy reliance is becoming increasingly discredited and exposed by the evidence base. Fiscal dominance is approaching. And the only body of work that has consistently argued for this approach to macroeconomic policy making has been Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) despite what the mainstream economists who are now starting to realise their reputations are in tatters might say.
While the Europhile progressives are publishing papers and holding talkfests to discuss their latest EU reform proposals, the on-going reality of the European Union continues to reveal itself – the pretense that there is a rule of law operating – as laid out in the Treaties and the idea that all are equal under that law. When I was researching my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale – and over the long period I have studied the concept of European integration it was obvious to me that despite the chimera of a strict, rule-based system that is run by technocrats, the actual practice of the Union is vicariously ad hoc – rules applied in cases where doing otherwise would present ideological problems, abandonment of the rules and outright illegal behaviour when there the interests of the corporate elites are at stake or the existence of the Union is threatened. And while law breaking, relevant officials produce complicated justifications of their behaviour as if what they are doing is within the boundaries specified by the Treaties. The Europhile progressives, meanwhile, continue to hold this embarrassing monstrosity out as the exemplar of freedom, globalism, cosmopolitanism and sophistication. They have reached such a state of denial that what is obvious to those looking in from the outside escapes their attention, or, in the mould of the European technocrats they just ride along with the spurious justifications for the unjustifiable. Europe in 2019.
The US-based Eastern Economic Association, which aims to promote “educational and scholarly exchange on economic affairs”, held its annual conference in New York over the weekend just gone. One of the panels focused on “New Views of Money” and I am reliably told turned into a bash MMT session as yet another disaffected economist, feeling a little attention deficit, sought to demolish our work. The technique is becoming rather standardised: construct MMT as something that it is not; refer to hardly any primary sources and only those that can be twisted with word ploys to fit into the argument; use this false construction to accuse MMT authors that are not cited of a range of sins; conclude that MMT is useless – either because the things it has right were known anyway and the novelties are wrong, proceed as normal. In denial. Afraid to admit you are part of a degenerative paradigm that has lost credibility. Bluster your way forward muttering something about optimising transversality conditions that need to be met. Feel happy to be part of the conga line. Well that conga line is heading for oblivion I hope. Where it belongs. On the scrap heap of anti-knowledge.
Today I am in Finland after a long flight and have to catch up on things. My usual blog posting will resume tomorrow. Over the page, I have listed the speaking events that I will be involved in over the next two or so weeks. I hope to see some regulars at these events. And I will be back in early May for another solid speaking tour of Scotland and England with several opportunities to meet people and talk about MMT and the future. For now, it is cold, icy and there is a lot to organise.
On the back of a decelerating inflation rate, Italy in recession, Germany not far behind, terrible PMI in Europe, Eurostat released the latest retail sales data yesterday (February 5, 2019) – Volume of retail trade down by 1.6% in euro area. Not good news. Remember all those Europhile Left reformers telling us that now was the time to reform the EU while the ‘sun was shining’. Well, its black clouds again and they didn’t get to first base in the reform basis. Lots of hot air – none of it got near disturbing the neoliberal austerity bias. But this austerity bias is not just a feature of the currency union. Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released two data sets – Retail Trade and Balance of International Trade – and they both tell the same story. The interesting thing was that the trade data recorded a “record trade surplus” and I heard commentators actually claiming this was a great result. Wrong. Exports declined, but more slowly than imports. And imports declined because consumer spending and business investment was weak. Not a great result at all. At some point, the austerity bias around the world has to stop. But nations are heading south again in the meanwhile. With all that gloom, the best thing to do is enjoy my regular Wednesday music spot (if you like). And if you don’t like it, then maybe, appreciate the artistry of the musicians.
I suppose Brexit is to blame for the fact that Britain is now growing faster than the major European economies. The latest ‘monthly’ GDP figures show that the British economy grew by 0.3 per cent in the three months to November 2018 and will probably sustain that rate of growth for the entire final quarter of 2018. This is in contradistinction to major European economies such as Germany (which will probably record a technical recession – two consecutive quarters of negative growth) with France and Italy probably following in Germany’s wake. I have made the point before that the growth trajectory of the British economy (inasmuch as there is one) is very unbalanced and reliant on households and firms maintaining expenditure by running down savings and accessing credit – which means ever increasing private debt burdens. With private credit growth weakening as the debt levels become excessive and the rundown of saving balances being finite, Britain will face recession unless the fiscal austerity is reversed. Earlier in 2018, the Guardian Brexit Watch ‘experts’ were continually pointing out that Britain’s growth rate was at the bottom of the G7 as evidence that Brexit was causing so much damage. So now European G7 nations are starting to lag behind, these commentators will have to find another ruse to pin their anti-Brexit narrative on. We also consider in this blog post some more Brexit-related arguments – pro and con – which reinforce my conclusion that a No Deal Brexit will not cause the skies to fall in.
It is Wednesday and I am going to stick to my decision to ‘not publish a blog post’ on Wednesdays unless there is some new data (such as the quarterly release of the Australian National Accounts). I want to use this time to attend to other writing obligations. But a few snippets won’t hurt, will they? The first, looks at some extraordinary denial from the European Union bosses. The second, looks at evidence that the Brexit environment is already providing positive dynamics for British workers in low-wage areas of the labour market. And that is being presented by the Remainers as something negative! We move into 2019, just as we left 2018!
The latest ‘reform’ proposals from Europe might be taken as a sick joke if the players were not serious. On Sunday, November 18, 2018, the French President gave a speech at the traditional commemorative ceremony in the German Bundestag to mark the Volkstrauertag (National Day of Mourning), which has been part of German life since 1922 (originally to mark those who died during World War 1). His speech (Jacques Chirac was the last French president to address the Bundestag on June 27, 2000). His speech was two days after the respective finance ministers signed an ‘agreement’ to establish a “Eurozone budget”, which the French finance minister hailed as being a “major political breakthrough”. While that summation is questionable, it certainly is not a major economic breakthrough. It is a dud. As dud as all the reform proposals that have come before it. Just like the fake window dressing in Eniskillen in preparation for the G8 Summit in June 2013. Macron might have felt he was a big player on the world stage but the Germans have his measure as they have had of all French Presidents over the last several decades. The French really were the drivers of the Eurozone and they thought they were destined to restore their prominence in Europe. The Germans knew otherwise. And so it goes with the latest ‘agreement’. There is nothing in it that will save the Eurozone from crisis or restore sustained prosperity. Another European dead end.
This week’s theme seems to be the about how the so-called progressive side of the economic and political debate keeps kicking ‘own goals’ (given a lot of this is happening in Britain where they play soccer) or finding creative ways to ‘face plant’ (moving to Europe where there is more snow). Over the other side of the Atlantic, as America approaches its mid-term elections, so-called progressive forces who give solace to the New Democrats, aka Neoliberal Democrats are railing against fiscal deficits and demanding that the left-liberals in the Democratic Party be pushed out and that the voters be urged to elect candidates who will impose austerity by cutting welfare and health expenditure and more. And then we have progressive think tanks pumping out stuff about banking that you would only find in a mainstream macroeconomic textbook. This is the state of play on the progressive side of politics. The demise of social democratic political movements is continuing and it is because they have become corrupted from within by neoliberals. And then we had a little demonstration in London yesterday of the way in which the British Labour Fiscal Rule will bring the Party grief. The Tories are just warming up on that one.
Regular readers will know that I have become interested in the concept of messaging and language to help in the practical goal of widening the spread of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) knowledge and putting really powerful tools into the hands of activists who build social and political movements. There are some great efforts underway (for example, Real Progressives in the US). On October 5, 2018, I will be launching the Gower Initiative for Modern Monetary Studies and running some workshops for them in London. This is another excellent activist group setting out and prepared to climb the hill and all the mainstream economics obstacles that are in their way. The aim is to build a network of these groups around the Globe (Italy, where there is already a solid network; Spain, similar; Germany – I will be there October 13); Finland, already solid activity; Scotland, I will be there October 10; Ireland, I will be there October 3-4, and elsewhere). On this theme, some current research, which Dr Louisa Connors and myself will unveil at the The Second International Conference of Modern Monetary Theory (New York, September 28-30), is the role that social media (among other things) plays in spreading knowledge. Regular readers will know I occasionally point to what I see as the futility of twitter firestorms where some MMT activists interact with some neanderthal-economics type who can’t get Zimbabwe typed quick enough and a drawn out back-and-forth of tweets, which can sometimes go for days, with increasing numbers of twitter addresses copied into the thread. They usually end in grief. The question is whether these social media platforms are suitable given what we know about effective framing and the type of language and strategy that is necessary to make that framing persuasive.
At present, Europe is sweltering in both relative and absolute terms as the harsh summer ensues. In Australia, we are in drought after an unseasonably warm and dry Autumn. Drought is no stranger to Australia but the frequency and circumstances of the current period coupled with what is going on around Europe (including the cold spell I was caught up in Finland in February while the North Pole struggled with heat) tells us that weather patterns are changing. There is now credible research pointing in that direction. But the drought in Australia is demonstrating another thing – the hypocrisy of the way we deal with unemployment and the unemployed vis-a-vis other groups in society that we endow with higher privilege, especially in this neoliberal era. Australia is experiencing a serious drought and Federal and State governments are tripping over each other to offer very large support packages to farmers and their communities to tide them over while their income dries up (excuse the pun). There appears to be no limit to the support these governments are announcing. The Prime Minister is wandering around rural Australia promising this and that to help farmers make ends meet. Whenever I see these special assistance packages being handed out to the rural sector, which is politically well-organised, I reflect on the plight of the unemployed. With unemployment at elevated levels in Australia, the decision to hand out economic largesse to the farmers reeks of inconsistency. The unemployed have diminishing chances of getting a job at present and the income support provided by government is well below the poverty line. That poverty gap is increasing and the Government refuses to increase the benefit claiming fiscal incapacity. The comparison of the vastly different way the government treats farmers relative to unemployed highlights, once again, that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The neo-liberal era has intensified these inconsistencies which have undermined the capacity of public policy to achieve its purpose – to improve the welfare of all citizens. The research question is: Why do we tolerate such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions?