There were three data releases from the Australian Bureau of Statistics today and all showed that the Australian economy is continuing to weaken. The – Business Indicators, Australia – showed that company gross operating profits fell for the fifth consecutive quarter (7 our of the last 10). Second, the data for – Building Approvals, Australia – which is one indicator of the strength of the housing market and the construction industry, showed that the seasonally adjusted estimate for total dwelling approved fell by 2.4 per cent in January, the second consecutive monthly fall. Finally, the – Mineral and Petroleum Exploration, Australia – showed that “mineral exploration expenditure decreased by 10.2% in the December quarter 2012”. What this data tells us is that private spending is weak and probably weakening. It tells us that fiscal policy should be expansionary rather than following its present course of austerity. It tells us that unless the government reverses its current strategy, the Australian economy will weaken further. It also tells us that commentators and politicians that think fiscal rules such as “balancing the budget over the cycle” are sound strategies to adopt are either operating in a cloud of ignorance or deliberately misleading the public as to the likely outcomes that would follow from pursuing such a rule.
Sometimes one agrees with a conclusion but realises the logic that was used to derive the conclusion was false. Which means that the person will get things wrong when applying the logic to other situations. This is almost always the case when we encounter the reasoning offered by so-called deficit doves. These are economists who do not out-rightly reject the use of deficits but typically believe them to be cyclical phenomenon only and should thus be offset at other points in the economic cycle by surpluses – the so-called balanced budget over the cycle rule. While many progressives think that is a sensible strategy – the reality is that it is an unsustainable fiscal rule to try to follow. The same economists talk about the dangers of pro-cyclical fiscal positions but fail to appreciate that such positions are desirable in certain cases and there is a fundamental asymmetry that applies to evaluation the desirability of a “cyclical” position. Fiscal austerity (pursuing surpluses when the economy is contracting) is never appropriate whereas expanding the deficit when the economy is growing might be. It all depends. This blog aims to clear up some of these misconceptions.
Today (December 19, 2012), the economics editor for the Sydney Morning Herald (Ross Gittins) wrote an Op Ed piece – It’s the weak recovery that worries, not surplus – which urged his readers to reorient their thinking about the Federal government’s obsession with achieving a budget surplus in the coming year. In that sense, it was welcome article from an influential journalist. But closer reading demonstrates that the writer is straddling the line between comprehension and myth-perpetuation. Many readers have asked me to pin-point the strengths and weaknesses of the article for their own edification. So lets proceed. The key point is that the budgets of currency-issuing national governments bear no relation to household budgets. If we do not jettison that myth then very little progress can be made on the more complex parts of the narrative that leads to the conclusion that such a government can never run out of money and all the negative consequences that are alleged to necessarily follow the use of budget deficits (higher interest rates, inflation, eventual insolvency) are lies, which aim to perpetuate a dominant paradigm rather than advance the welfare of all of us.
The Sydney Morning Herald carried an AFP story today (November 14, 2012) – US deficit hits $120b as fiscal cliff nears – which reported the latest US Treasury Department figures which showed that “the US budget deficit rose 22 per cent in October from a year ago, to $US120 billion ($A115.56 billion), as spending far outpaced revenue”. At which point I thought – how lucky the American people are that the Government deficit is still expanding and supporting growth unlike the expanding deficits in Europe which are expanding because of a lack of growth. It is an astounding achievement for the US people. Unfortunately all the signs are that the American polity doesn’t actually understand that their in-fighting, which has allowed the deficits to continue growing, has been good for the nation. Had they actually cut the deficits or failed to pass the debt limit extension, the US economy would be in the doldrums just like Europe. The problem now is that the political debate will reach some conclusion pretty soon and the harbingers of doom are growing stronger. But for the time being with the US budget deficit expanding and supporting growth and private saving it is a win-win.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) released its Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012 report today (May 22, 2012). It is harrowing reading and I will consider it later in the week. It tells us that youth unemployment is rising and will be unlikely to see any improvement until at least 2016. The ILO recommend a raft of government initiatives which would require budget deficits to expand. But, of-course, the dominant political narrative is to cut deficits in the false belief that this will engender growth. Exactly the opposite is happening and for good reason. I came across an article from 1982 today which tells us why austerity is dangerous and damaging. It also conditions us to understand that budget deficits are neither good nor bad but policy choices can be.
Last night’s Federal Budget in Australia proved once again how dominant the macroeconomic myths are in policy development. You can read my pre-Budget comments – Budget 2012: a recipe for disaster – and apart from the 2011-12 deficit being larger than the Government planned as a result of the slowing economy undermining its estimated tax revenue (in other words, the Government was overly optimistic in its forecasts last year) I would not have written much different after seeing all the Budget documents. It remains the largest fiscal consolidation attempted in one fiscal year (equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP) at a time that GDP is growing around 2.5 per cent.and I cannot see private spending growth picking up to fill the gap. Outcome – a movement towards recession. Conclusion – poor fiscal management. But the Budget Papers that the Government releases are always interesting reading and one day I plan to trace the evolution of the shifts in macroeconomic ideology through the way the papers are presented (format, tables, and narratives). There you learn what the economists in Treasury think and the ideas espoused are generally applicable to the international debate given that the tentacles of the dominant paradigm of the day spread widely. In Budget Paper No 1, Statement 4 – Building Resilience Through National Saving we are provided with a demonstration lesson of how a fiat monetary system does not work and a classic depiction of the way the mainstream narrative deceives the citizens.
The US Bureau of Economic Analysis released the first-quarter 2012 National Accounts data for the US last week (April 27, 2012) – see the News Release which showed that the US economy has slowed in the last three months, largely due to a decline in the government contribution. Annualised Real GDP growth was 2.2 per cent down from 3 per cent in the December 2011 quarter. The economy is now growing under trend and the signs are not good. If the politicians actually get around to imposing austerity then the US economy will join the UK in its race to the bottom with the other competitor being the Eurozone. The latest news from the Eurozone is that Spain will become the epicentre of the crisis in the coming weeks/months. Greece is yesterday’s news and the continuing deterioration of the Spanish economy – one considerably larger in importance than Greece – is focusing minds. The problem is that the reaction of the Euro elites is to inflict more austerity onto Spain which will – as night follows day – cause the situation to worsen. But still we read from leading US government officials that budget deficits are like cancer and will destroy countries “from within”. The only thing I can say about that astounding demonstration of ignorance is that I cannot think of a situation where cancer is good. But generally, budget deficits generate benefits to the nation that is enjoying them.
The British government brought down their 2012 Budget yesterday. I haven’t had time to fully digest all the detail yet and I am not yet fully conversant with all the discussion papers that underpinned the official budget documents. My experience tells me that one usually finds some really interesting points that are hidden in the fine print of some of the less obvious government documents. Sometimes these points are “game makers”, which really expose the ideological slant of the budget. Not that you have to do much digging in this budget to determine what agenda the British government is now pursuing. The “bond markets are about to close us down” rhetoric is giving way now to Thatcherite “trickle down” stories. This budget is trying to sell the “puppy” that if more real income is transferred to the rich then they will ensure, through their enhanced enterprise, that the poor (which cedes real income) will eventually be better off. That is a variant on the “fiscal contraction expansion” myth.
There was a Wall Street Journal article (March 5, 2012) – The High Cost of the Fed’s Cheap Money – which is full of statements like “could eventually lead to an economic calamity” etc. The WSJ article basically rehearses a confused form the old supply-side tradition of the pre-Great Depression era where the claim was that “supply creates its own demand” (so-called Say’s Law) which was shorthand for the proposition that flexible prices and interest rates would ensure that whatever was supplied would be purchased. The same sort of arguments were used in a recent lecture to Harvard EC10 students by the Director of the US Congressional Budget Office. It is extraordinary that these myths, which were part of the body of economic theory that led the world into the current crisis, still have currency. They should start by understanding what Keynes meant when he said “Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself”.
Today I am in the nation’s capital, Canberra presenting a class at the European Studies Summer School which is being organised by the Centre for European Studies at the Australian National University. My presentation is entitled – the Euro crisis: fact and fiction. I will have more to say about that in another blog. Today I am considering the issues surrounding the decline in personal consumption spending and increased household saving ratios. The argument is that this behaviour which is now clearly evident in most economies marks an end to the credit-led spending binge that characterised the pre-crisis period of the neo-liberal era. But with that era coming to an end and more typical (“normal”) behaviour emerging, the way we think about the government (as the currency-issuer) will also have to change. There is clearly resistance to that part of the story, in part, because there is a limited understanding to the central role that the government plays in the monetary system. As private sectors become more cautious, we will required continuous budget deficits to become a part of this return to the “new” normal.
Japanese economist Richard Koo recently published his latest paper – The world in balance sheet recession: causes, cure, and politics – which reminds us that patience is the virtue that is required right now and that the major political responses to the crisis are exactly the opposite to what is required to safely steer the World economy back into health. The insights he provides, mostly consistent with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), demonstrate how the current political cycle (and the imperatives that are being imposed) is so far out of kilter with what responsible macroeconomic management requires. The world economy will require continuous and historically large budget deficits in most advanced nations for many years to come. The demands for fiscal consolidation talk about this year and next year and surpluses in a few years. The reality is that deficits will be required to support growth while the private sector reconstructs its unsustainable balance sheet for more than a decade. We have to get use to that or suffer the consequences. To repeat: Historically high budget deficits will be required for the next decade – at least.
This is my Op Ed commentary for the local press on the NSW State Budget which came out today. I had 750 words. It might be of interest to readers although it is localised sort of discussion of state public finances which are very different in terms of constraints etc than those pertaining to the Federal level. I will have a blog later today on Ireland as well.
All the world would-bees are jockeying for position at present to assume leadership of the IMF after its last boss fell prey to extra-curricular activities. Of the names proffered so far I would support none of them. Today, the conservatives in Australia added another name to the list – although this is more a domestic political stunt than a serious claim to the post. In the increasingly tawdry News Limited daily – The Australian today (May 24, 2011) this article – Let Peter Costello work his magic at IMF – mounted a case for our former Treasurer (one of the worst this country has ever had) should get the baton and head to Washington. The problem is that Costello left a destructive mess in his wake and is a budget surplus obsessive. What the IMF needs is a budget deficit-biased head.
I didn’t have much time last night to write about the Federal Budget. Today, there are a few general points I want to focus on which are relevant to the debate in most nations at present and bring out some principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The development of these general ideas hopefully will mean that readers from abroad should find things that they can apply to the debates within their own countries rather than be bogged down in the nuances (ugly as they are) of the Australian fiscal debate. These observations lead me to conclude that it is well past the time to end the “deficits are bad/surpluses are good” narrative.
I have been down in Tasmania today (Hobart) doing some workshops and press interviews about a Report that my research centre prepared for the public sector unions to help them design a policy response to the announcement by the state Labor government that they plan harsh cuts in net public spending which will include the loss of 2300 FTE public sector jobs and concomitant loss of service delivery capacity. As part of the day I met with the leaders of the Greens (part of the minority government with Labor) and the Opposition Liberals (conservative) who wish to understand the technical issues involved in cutting fiscal support at a time when the state economy is still ailing after taking a beating during the financial crisis – largely due to loss of federal revenues. It is also the day the Federal Budget comes out. So I have some comments on each part of the day although I haven’t had that much time to write. The overriding message from the Federal Budget is that we are now entering the land of the mythical “fiscal contraction expansion”. Ireland has been in it for some time and the UK is now entering it. The overriding lesson from the Federal Budget is that despite the Government’s claims to the contrary – more is not less.
I have been working today on the modern monetary theory text-book that Randy Wray and I are planning to complete in the coming year (earlier than later hopefully). It just happens that I was up to a section on what economists call the balanced-budget multiplier which is a way to provide stimulus without running a deficit when I read an article in the New York Times (December 25, 2010) by Robert Shiller – Stimulus, Without More Debt. I also received a number of E-mails asking me to explain the NYT article in lay-person’s language. So a serendipitous coming together of what I have been working on and some requirement for explanation and MMT interpretation. So what is the balanced-budget multiplier?
I imagine a doctor when confronted with a set of symptoms being presented by a patient carefully goes through each one and draws on his/her bank of knowledge, understanding and experience to arrive at an interpretation. A patient that has been sick for some time and is in the early stages of recovery may still exhibit signs of stress and the doctor appreciates that and doesn’t ring any alarm bells. It seems that the same doesn’t apply to my profession. Members of my profession seem to jump on any bandwagon that arrives and which triggers their favourite narratives about excessive government spending and borrowing and all that sort of public misinformation. The most recent example of this came yesterday (December 21, 2010) when the UK Office of National Statistics released the latest data for Public Sector Finances (as at November 2010) which showed that British government spending continues to grow and tax revenue is still lagging. The press reaction and that of my colleagues was expected and as is typically the case way off beam. We can summarise the problem by stating that there is no such thing as a “weak” budget outcome. An economy can be weak but it makes no sense to say a budget outcome is weak unless you have an ideological bias towards some particular outcome.
I have been working on the macroeconomics textbook today that Randy Wray and I are hoping to publish sometime next year. We have a publisher and now just have to complete the text which is progressing well. Also today I have been wondering why UK business firms are not horrified at the latest damaging policy announcement by the new conservative British government. My thoughts generalise to any government at present in terms of the obvious need to expand fiscal policy. I brought those two things together today – the practical need for continued fiscal support for private sector activity and the development of our textbook – by considering the macroeconomic origins of profits. It is an interesting story that very few people really understand because they think micro all the time when it comes to the understanding the profits of business firms whereas you have to start thinking from a macroeconomics perspective to really understand this. It also helps you understand the relationship between the government and non-government sector more fully – a relationship which is at the heart of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). So read on and see if you have thought about this before.
I have always been antagonistic to the mainstream economic theory. I came into economics from mathematics and the mainstream neoclassical lectures were so mindless (using very simple mathematical models poorly) that I had plenty of time to read other literature which took me far and wide into all sorts of interesting areas (anthropology, sociology, philosophy, history, politics, radical political economy etc). I also realised that the development of very high level skills in empirical research (econometrics and statistics) was essential for a young radical economist. Most radicals fail in this regard and hide their inability to engage in technical debates with the mainstream by claiming that formalism is flawed. It might be but to successfully take on the mainstream you have to be able to cut through all their technical nonsense that they use as authority to support their ridiculous policy conclusions. That is why I studied econometrics and use it in my own work. It was strange being a graduate student. The left called be a technocrat (a put-down in their circles) while the right called me a pop-sociologist (a put down in their circles). I just knew I was on the right track when I had all the defenders of unsupportable positions off-side. But an appreciation of the empirical side of debates is very important if a credible challenge to the dominant paradigm is to be made. That has motivated me in my career.
I wrote the following for the local Fairfax press and it covers my reaction to today’s NSW state budget. I had 500 words and so the arguments are not well developed. It will be largely of local interest and I am posting it here for the records.