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Budget surpluses are not national saving – redux

I was reading several older papers from the 1990s today as part of a project I am working on where I track predictions that leading mainstream economists were making at the time about the evolution of national and global economies. It is a very interesting exercise to build the narratives that were popular at an earlier time and then consider how far the economists got things right. I have noted that there has been some debate out in blog-land about who predicted the failure of the Euro. I am less interested in documenting which person was the first or the second – there were many who saw the design flaws from the inception and could extrapolate what they would mean if a negative shock occurred. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists were among them. I am more interested in groupthink (at the paradigm level) and how the failed predictions can be used to demonstrate the inapplicability of a certain body of theory. That is, what can we learn from the failure of mainstream economists in general to see the crisis coming (and being in denial now of what the solution is). In this blog I consider a part of the thinking that explains why my profession proved to be unreliable in this regard. I renamed this blog – appending it with the term redux because on March 23rd, 2009 – I wrote a blog – Budget surpluses are not national saving.

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Australian growth rate halves as obsession with budget surplus continues

Today the ABS released the Australian National Accounts – for the December 2011 quarter which shows that the quarterly real GDP growth rate was 0.4 per cent, down from 0.8 per cent in the September quarter. For the year, the Australian economy grew by 2.3 per cent down which when compared to trend (around 3.25 per cent) reveals how sluggish our recovery after the crisis has been. The worrying sign is that private business investment contracted and offset the growth coming from household consumption, net exports and inventory building. Growth is also being held back by the Government’s obsessive pursuit of a budget surplus in the coming fiscal year. The fiscal drag is damaging output and employment prospects and dampening expectations in the private sector. The growth rate is not strong enough to make a dent in the unemployment and underemployment ranks. The case for continued government support for higher growth remains especially with inflation now falling.

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Another cost of the budget surpluses

The previous conservative Australian government ran budget surpluses for 10 out 11 years between 1997 and 2007 and lauded them as the exemplar of fiscal prudence. Of-course, from a modern monetary theory (MMT) perspective it was clear that the fiscal drag embodied in this strategy undermined the capacity of the domestic private sector to save (given the current account deficits) and forced growth to be dependent on the increased indebtedness of the household sector. It was an unsustainable strategy. It also coincided with the government destroying significant components of private wealth as they paid out government bonds and slowed the issue of new debt to a trickle. The previous treasurer talked relentlessly about getting the public debt monkey of our backs. Well apart from it never being on our backs in the first place, we are now seeing some hidden manifestations of this squeeze on private wealth.

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Budget surpluses are not national saving

This morning I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald and Economics writer Ross Gittins was talking about the fact that the ALP election victory in Queensland over the weekend violates the dogma that Treasury officials (federal and state) like to put around. Of-course, Gittins is in his own words “has great sympathy for treasuries” so I never expect him to tell his readers how the modern monetary system actually operates. But at one point, he advances without any critical scrutiny one of the greatest myths propogated by neo-liberals (including treasuries) about the way federal government budgets work. The myth: budget surpluses increase national saving. The truth is they do not. Its that time again. Time to debrief.

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The last thing we need is a return to fiscal surpluses and rising household debt

There are some Op Eds that are bad, and then others that transcend that standard to become terrible. Such was the case last week when I read this article in the Australian press (Sydney Morning Herald) (February 18, 2022) – It’s time to return to Costello economics, whoever wins the federal election – which was written by a former advisor to the last Labor Prime Minister in Australia. The article is dishonest in that it completely ignores the most significant aspects of the period he seeks to eulogise. It is also scary if it reflects current Labor Party thinking, given the author’s previous associations.

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Podcast – Unemployment, Surpluses and Investment

Its Wednesday so a shorter blog post today with an interview I recently did with financial market educational professionals, the i3 (Investment Innovation Institute) where I cover a range of topics of current interest from an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective. Then we get down with some very cool music. And that is it. And I turned off the debate today in the US after 5 or so minutes and wondered what the hell that nation has become. None of the contenders is electable would be my conclusion.

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The German government celebrates its record surplus while infrastructure collapses

Wednesday blog post – so only a few snippets including some discussion about Germany’s latest extreme outcome – a record fiscal surplus, which the Ministry of Finance is claiming is responsible. Judged by the fact that the economy has ground to a halt and there is a massive infrastructure deficit in the country as a result of a systematic starving of capital expenditure by the government, one has to ask: are they joking! The surplus was, in part, the result of the German government not spending allocated public investment funds because there are insufficient skilled public servants on tap to manage the projects. So the government has hacked into skilled employment first, then it finds that there are not enough qualified officials left to oversee essential projects. So capital formation contracts and the allocated funds go unspent. So, the Government records a surplus and cheers while bridges, roads, hospitals, IT infrastructure, transport infrastructure decays further. Modern day Germany – ridiculous.

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German trade surpluses demonstrate the failure of the Eurozone

The election of Donald Trump has stirred up the IMF and Germany, in particular. Trump’s trade advisor has claimed that Germany is manipulating the currency to maintain its competitiveness. A more general view is that the massive German external surplus is a reflection of a dysfunctional Eurozone, particularly the failed monetary policy stance of the ECB and the lack of a European-level (federal) fiscal policy capacity and willingness to expand domestic demand in the Member States. In fact, both views have credibility as I will explain. Last week (April 19, 2017), Eurostat released the latest trade data for the Eurozone – Euro area international trade in goods surplus €17.8 bn. It showed that Germany’s trade surplus continues to grow (it was 35.4 billion euros in January-February 2017, up 1.4 billion over the 12 months) in total. In 2016, Germany’s current account surplus was 8.6 per cent of GDP, which is obviously an outlier. What is required to redress this on-going dysfunction within the Eurozone would appear to be beyond the political mentality of the establishment polity in the Eurozone. And with Macron’s elevation to an almost certain Presidential victory in France, it is hard to see any dynamic for now emerging that will create change for the better. So as usual, the Eurozone muddles on – with a dysfunctional design architecture and an even more dysfunctional attitude to policy flexibility held by the powers to be. Germany is seriously responsible for a lot of this dysfunction.

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The European Commission turns a blind eye to record German external surpluses

Data released by Eurostat (October 20, 2016) – EU28 current account surplus €13.5 bn – shows that the EU28 ran a significant current account surplus in August 2016 following a surplus of €11.3 billion in July. The August result is up €5.3 billion on August 2015. Net trade in goods and in services is more or less equally balanced. The stunning result is that the German current account surplus in August 2016 was €17.87 billion up from €14.43 billion in August 2015., while the next largest Eurozone Member State surplus was Italy at €3.37 billion. Germany is also running a fiscal surplus of around 1.2 per cent of GDP at present, which means the private domestic sector is saving massive amounts, which, in turn, not only results in subdued demand within Germany (and low growth) but also reduces import spending. In turn, this reduces growth in other nations. The stunning fact is that the European Commission is doing nothing about this massive imbalance despite Germany being in serial contravention of the rules relating to macroeconomic imbalances. The Brussels jackboot is quick to kick Greece but stays well away from sanctioning Germany, even though the German behaviour is much more deleterious to the viability of the common currency.

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British Labour Party is mad to sign up to the ‘Charter of Budget Responsibility’

In the UK Guardian article (September 26, 2015) – John McDonnell: Labour will match Osborne and live within our means – analysis of the position being taken by the new Shadow Chancellor in Britain, John McDonnell was provided. I have to say it seems to have caused some serious conniptions among those disposed to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) if I am to judge by the E-mails I have received in the last 36 hours and the tweeting activity that followed the publication. But if we consider what he said carefully, it may not be as bad as the Guardian headlines suggest. However, his statement discloses a deep insecurity in the Corbyn camp that leaves them adopting fiscal rules that are the hallmark of the neo-liberals. It retains focus on the fiscal balance, however, decomposed into current and capital, whereas the focus should be on creating full employment and prosperity. The adoption of the Tory fiscal rule – the so-called – Charter of Budget Responsibility – still provides some flexibility for government to avoid harsh austerity. However, it can easily become a source of unnecessary rigidity, which prevents the government from fulfilling its responsibilities to advance welfare. Overall, the insecurity it betrays is the worrying part of this statement. This blog is in two parts – today is more conceptual (and longer). Tomorrow – will be more empirical (and much shorter). We will conclude that the British Labour Party is mad to sign up to the ‘Charter of Budget Responsibility’, which is a chimera – it is not a responsible framework at all.

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A “Budget Responsibility Lock” – a ridiculous proposal

The US Koch brothers provide substantial funds to the George Mason University to ensure it remains a bastion of so-called libertarian, free-market thinking. The brothers don’t really want a free market but it just serves their political and commercial aims to tell everyone that is what it is all about. The Economics Department at this university pumps out propaganda about the virtues of deregulation. One academic (Bryan Caplan) goes further and claims that democracy is a bad idea when compared to taking the advice of economists who advocate free markets. This idea that somehow policy choices conditioned by what would advance the best interests of the public are inferior to those advocated by economists who know what is best for all of us has permeated the debate over the last few decades and led to some very undesirable developments. This was on my mind when I was reading the Manifesto of the British Labour Party which proposes, wait for it – a “Budget Responsibility Lock” – as a framework for fulfilling its responsibilities to the British public. This is a ridiculous proposal.

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Fiscal surplus by 2017-18? A mindless goal guaranteed to cause havoc and fail

Its sad when politicians lie just to get political points as they face declining popularity. We saw last week that the Australian Prime Minister started attacking indigenous Australians for living in areas that they have occupied, one way or another, for somewhere up to 80,000 years. He claimed these settlements were “lifestyle” choices and people could no longer expect government support if they wanted to indulge in such choices. 80,000 years for a culture that has a deep connection with the ‘land’ is quite story compared to the Anglo settlement in Australia of 226 years for a culture that connects via iPhones! The PM was playing into the hands of the racist Australians who think the indigenous population here are skivers and drunks and should get no state support. They ignore that this cohort is one of the most disadvantaged peoples of the World. In the last few days, the PM has been lying about the state of government finances and pledging to that “the government will have the budget back in balance within five years”. There was no mention of what this might imply for the real economy. I am surprised that the conservatives haven’t learned from the previous Labor Government who made continual promises of surpluses but failed each time – largely because they didn’t understand that they cannot control the fiscal outcomes no matter how hard they try. And when they do try and run against the spending desires of the non-government sector, they just cause havoc and damage and fail to achieve their goals anyway. Stupid is not the word for these sorts of promises.

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The Balanced Budget silly season is upon us again

Wasn’t Chuck Norris the muscle-bound guy with big guns and stuff who blasted the hell out of people and causes a lot of havoc? Well, apparently, he thinks he knows something about macroeconomics. In an article in the right-wing conservative media outlet WorldNetDaily (February 22, 2015) – Ready for a new U.S. Constitutional Convention? – Norris reveals what a knucklehead he really is. The article seems like an exercise in how many scary words, phrases and metaphors about government fiscal policy a writer can get into each sentence. Once you get over that there is nothing of substance left. Mr Action Man clearly needs to do some weights and leave the economics commentary to those who know even more than the slightest thing about it. American politics is once again come around to the more or less regular Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) cycle. This is a regular comedy event that occupies Congress and all the commentators for a while as they reveal how little they know about the consequences of their grand plans for American prosperity. If they ever took it seriously it would be a disaster for the US economy and the people that depend on it.

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Twin Deficits and Sustainability Of Budget Deficits – Part 2

I am now using Friday’s blog space to provide draft versions of the Modern Monetary Theory textbook that I am writing with my colleague and friend Randy Wray. We expect to publish the text sometime early in 2014. Comments are always welcome. Remember this is a textbook aimed at undergraduate students and so the writing will be different from my usual blog free-for-all. Note also that the text I post is just the work I am doing by way of the first draft so the material posted will not represent the complete text. Further it will change once the two of us have edited it.

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Twin Deficits and Sustainability Of Budget Deficits – Part 1

I am now using Friday’s blog space to provide draft versions of the Modern Monetary Theory textbook that I am writing with my colleague and friend Randy Wray. We expect to publish the text sometime early in 2014. Comments are always welcome. Remember this is a textbook aimed at undergraduate students and so the writing will be different from my usual blog free-for-all. Note also that the text I post is just the work I am doing by way of the first draft so the material posted will not represent the complete text. Further it will change once the two of us have edited it.

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Continuous and larger budget deficits are required

There is a popular segment (that is, I assume it to be popular) on the national ABC television news in Australia each night. the Finance Report presents one or more graphs which motivate the presenters so-called insights into what is going on in the Australian economy. I rarely see it and when I do I tend to ignore it because the presenter is infuriating to say the least. But last night, he presented to charts which were of interest although the conclusions he drew left the “elephant” that was standing in the room unnoticed. The conclusions he drew were facile and he ignored the most obvious conclusion – that the Australian economy could only maintain growth into the future if the budget deficit was larger and on-going. That would have been a bridge too far for him to cross but that is what his data and all the other related data that he didn’t present tells us. Us – in this context – being those who understand how the macroeconomy works. So today’s blog is a reprise of the graphs (or my versions of them) with the essential commentary that might have been presented last evening and would have helped the viewers appreciate the current economic situation more fully and understand why deficits are essential in these situations.

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Balanced budgets are rarely appropriate

The Fairfax press published the latest opinion piece from one of its economics editors (Ross Gittins) over the weekend (July 20, 2013) – The budget facts that Canberra isn’t telling you. If the stated facts are what Mr Gittins thinks apply to a sovereign economy such as Australia, then it is fortunate that Canberra is staying quiet. He claims that the fiscally prudent position is for governments to run a balanced budget on average every decade. He also says that the government doesn’t really have to do anything other than let the automatic stabilisers achieve that outcome once the structural settings are in place. The problem is that these sort of mindless fiscal rules are rarely going to achieve appropriate outcomes, when the latter is expressed in terms of full employment objectives and other real outcomes. In the current context, where there are major private sector balance sheet risks and an ongoing external deficit of around 3.5 per cent, the pursuit of a balanced budget would be an act of vandalism. Further, given the non-government spending dynamics, it is likely that continuous budget deficits will be required into the indefinite future.

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A Budget that reduces growth and increases joblessness – for no sound reason

Last night, the Federal Government brought down the – 2013-14 Budget – claiming it was a responsible response to the circumstances it faced (declining world growth, declining terms of trade and persistently high exchange rate) and that it emphasised growth and jobs. Neither claim is remotely correct. It is a pro-cyclical budget – that is, a contractionary budget that builds on the contractionary fiscal shift in 2012-13, which by its own arithmetic reduces growth and causes the unemployment rate to rise. It will damage employment growth and increase poverty rates. It reflects a failure to acknowledge the state of the economy (4 per cent output gap) and to implement the correct counter-cyclical fiscal response (a significant rise in the projected budget deficit). It might have some education and disability spending in it. But even in those areas the spending is inadequate and, in the case of education, based on a neo-liberal view that the federal government should be funding the private schools, which, in general, educate the children from wealthy and high-income families. Overall, a destructive fiscal plan given the state of the economy.

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The Fantasy Budget 2013-14

This is my Fantasy Budget 2013-14, which will be part of Crikey’s Budget coverage leading up to the delivery of the Federal Budget on May 14, 2013. This blog is relatively short and more or less within the constraints I was given with respect to words. I have added a section on the sectoral balances for clarity and some more detail about cuts.

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British Budget – verging on delusion

The Olympics have come and gone. No doubt the event gave some macroeconomic respite to the British economy because major events bring immediate spending and spending drives output and national income. But the fourth-quarter 2012 real GDP data showed that the British economy had contracted by -0.3 per cent. Household final consumption expenditure slowed throughout 2012 as private investment growth contracted over the second-half of 2012. Further, despite the hope that the fiscal austerity would be painless as a result of a boost in net exports, especially given the depreciation in the British currency, the data showed the the current account deficit increased as a result of a fall in exports over 2012. It was in this context that the British government brought down the – 2013 Budget – which provides no path out of this malaise. At a time when the correct economic strategy would have included a political admission that the previous 3 budgets were detrimental interventions for the British economy and a commitment to some discretionary stimulus, the British government chose to adopt a neutral position in the coming financial year, which when taken in perspective just maintains the contractionary bias of fiscal policy. The mismanagement of the British economy thus continues.

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