A close friend send me some pages from a book she is reading – Ministry for the Future – by author Kim Stanley Robinson, which was published in 2020. It is about an organisation that is chartered with defending the rights of future generations and they pursue various projects accordingly. Its major challenge is climate change, after a “deadly heat wave in India” and the narrative allows the author to entertain very interesting discussions about economics, ecology and society. It is classified as “hard science fiction” because while the work reflects the imagination of the author, he bases the narrative on “scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science” to bring home the challenges we face with climate etc. The pages I received came from Chapter 73 (pages 365-366), which has a two-page discussion about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The author writes in his future scenario that “Enough governments were convinced by MMT to try it. That it influenced so much policy through the late thirties was regarded as a sign either of progress or of desperate fantasy solutions.” While the discussion is interesting, I want to focus on one of the ideas the author presents because they illustrate an important distinction between ‘Keynesian’ and ‘Post Keynesian’ thought on fiscal policy and MMT analysis.
Yesterday, I commented on Tuesday’s RBA interest rate rise. I wasn’t complementary. In the last two days, more data has been released since the decision, which further suggests that the RBA erred. It also suggests that part of the housing problem everyone is focused on is not due to lax monetary policy, which is the mainstream mantra, but is, rather, due to flawed tax policy. So, we have seen housing loan demand in decline and building approvals plummetting in the last month, a sign that the housing market, especially for owner-occupiers is in decline. Further, the growth in retail sales was only 1.6 per cent, and while mainstream economists are pointing to the rapid growth over the 12-month period (9.4 per cent March to March), they ignore the fact that the the March 2022 observation shows a decline on the previous month. The RBA statement yesterday did not mention housing at all, even though its decision has already pushed up mortgage rates in an already declining market. All they seem to want to do is cause massive damage to low income workers through even lower real incomes and rising unemployment and underemployment. There are fiscal options that should be pursued right now but the policy makers appear blind to them.
The ECB published a Working Paper recently (September 2021) – Monetary and fiscal complementarity in the Covid-19 pandemic – which represents progress in the narrative. While the technical model that the ECB uses is just an ad hoc attempt to reverse engineer the reality so they can claim they can explain it, what is useful from the exercise is that the old mainstream narratives that fiscal policy is ineffective in providing permanent boosts to real output (or that austerity does not permanently damage the growth trajectory) can no longer be sustained. The taboo surrounding central bank purchases of government debt because they cause accelerating inflation can no longer be sustained. The claims that fiscal deficits drive up interest rates can no longer be sustained. Now the public debate just has to reflect that reality and we will have made progress. Of course, this is all core MMT – we knew it all along!
It’s Wednesday and I have now settled back into my office after being stuck away from home for 9 weeks as a result of border closures between Victoria and NSW. So I am reverting back to the usual Wednesday pattern of limited writing, although today, the topic is worthy of some extended narrative. Before we get to the swamp blues music segment, I am analysing a speech made by the RBA governor yesterday on the role of monetary policy during a pandemic, whether low interest rates are driving house prices too high, and, what should be done about that. The conclusion is that he supports better use of fiscal policy – sustaining supportive fiscal deficits and dealing with the distortions that are contributing to high housing prices, via amendments to taxation (eliminating incentives for high income earners to buy multiple properties) and public infrastructure policies (more social housing).
Last week, the EU finance ministers (the ‘Eurogroup’) met (June 13, 2019) in Luxembourg as part of their regular schedule. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the meeting whether Emmanual Macron’s push for a more coherent EU fiscal capacity to act as a counter-stabilisation capacity for the beleaguered Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As is normal, there was no progress made and the press reports said that the finance ministers “continued to clash over almost every feature of the new fiscal tool, including the source of funding” (Source). No surprises at all. So the ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’ agenda, that many Europhile Left commentators have been hoping for, was abandoned. The roof still has gaping holes and the EMU will once again fail badly when the next economic cyclical downturn comes through. And further, the lack of leadership in the fiscal area is creating a massive dilemma for the ECB and its conduct of monetary policy. In effect, the lacuna is demonstrating to all and sundry that monetary policy is incapable of achieving the aims despite the ECB deliberately breaching the legal framework established for it in the Treaties. The Eurozone dysfunction goes to a new level – and it is a time of growth.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
This is the final part of my three-part series on the why I have confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy and eschew any proposals, by other Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates or others, to replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. Such a proposal is not core MMT. It is an opinion that, in my view, is based on deeply flawed logic and would would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. In this final part, I extend the reasons that progressives should oppose such outsourced decision-making and, instead, advocate the introduction of processes that always make our elected politicians fully responsible for the decisions they take on our behalf. Our polity should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or fiscal authority).
This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the political issues that give me confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy. The series is designed to help readers see that the recent criticisms of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as being politically naive and unworkable in a real politic sense have all been addressed in the past. In Part 1, I gave examples of how ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ fiscal policy can be when an elected government has it in their mind to use their spending and taxation capacities to change the direction of the non-government economic cycle. It is simply untrue that fiscal policy is inflexible and cannot make effective, well-designed policy interventions. In this second part, I will address aspects of how such interventions might be organised. Specifically, some people have advocated that MMT might replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. The intentions might be sound but the idea is the anathema of what progressives, interested in maintaining democratic accountability would propose. I consider such an independent fiscal authority would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. They should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or an external fiscal authority).
I did an interview overnight with a WSJ journalist from London on the ‘political’ aspects of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This blog post covers some of that conversation, although I started writing this a few weeks ago. Regular readers will recall I was promising a post about the ‘nimbleness’ of fiscal policy. That promise instigated the request from the WSJ. When I write about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I try to be careful to distinguish between what we might consider the core MMT principles (theory, description, accounting) and the imposition of my own values (political and otherwise) that is informed by those core principles. That separation is important and should (but doesn’t) stop others misrepresenting the core principles by appealing to proposals that might flow from the value imposition. An example of this separation (and confusion), a topic which I receive many E-mails from people which seek clarification, is the concept of setting up an independent fiscal authority. The proposal to establish such an authority is not a core MMT principle. It might reflect an opinion that has been expressed by someone writing about MMT but that is as far as it goes. For the record, I am deeply opposed to establishing such an authority. It would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. Can we trust them? We have elections to deal with those issues. Should technocrats rule? Technocrats do not stand for election. They give advice but have no democratic responsibility. Is fiscal policy agile enough to be an effective source of counter-stabilisation against the non-government spending cycle? That is what this blog post is about. This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 will be published on Monday.
Remember back in early 2009, when the then head of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet (boasted that the “euro … is a success … it helps to secure prosperity in participating states”. He was still making these claims in October 2018. At an event in honour of he and former German finance minister Theodor Waigel, organised by the Banque de France, Trichet said that “the euro is a historic success … in terms of credibility, resilience, adaptability, popular support and real growth during its first 20 years is impressive”. He particularly singled out the “delivery of price stability”. Well the latest data confirms beyond doubt that the ECB has failed to deliver on its price stability charter. Further, the descent back into recession in Italy and probably Germany in the December-quarter 2018 tells us that this reliance on monetary policy to stimulate growth while maintaining ridiculous levels of fiscal rectitude has undermined growth and unnecessarily condemned millions to unemployment and rising poverty.
Its Wednesday, so just a few short snippets that came to my attention, some comedy and some great music that has kept me company today while I have been working today. The first snippet concerns my revelation that fiscal policy in Australia is undermining the future of our grandchildren. Yes, an out-of-control government is spending our way to a future oblivion. The second snippet is my analysis of the latest INSA/YouGov German poll which shows that the euphoria if you can call it that which followed the formation of the GroKo has now dissipated and the AfD have overtaken the SPD in popularity. Which tells you that the progressive movements in Germany are failing. Why? Because they decided not to be progressive and, instead, decided to ape the conservatives. Not a good idea. The polls are showing why.
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.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has just hosted its annual Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming where central banks, treasury officials, financial market types and (mainstream) economists from the academy and business gather to discuss economic policy. As you might expect, the agenda is set by the mainstream view of the world and there is little diversity in the discussion. A Groupthink reinforcing session. One paper that was interesting was from two US Berkeley academics – Fiscal Stimulus and Fiscal Sustainability – which the news reports claimed suggested that governments should be increasing fiscal expansion even though they may be carrying high levels of public debt. The conclusion reached by the paper is correct but the methodology is mainstream and so progressives should not get carried away with the idea that there is signs that some give is emerging, which will lead to more progressive outcomes. A progressive solution will only come when the neo-liberal dominance of my profession is terminated and an entirely new macroeconomics paradigm based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is established. There is still a long way to go though.
Japan is different, right? Japan has a different culture, right? Japan has sustained low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, high public deficits and high gross public debt for 25 years, but that is cultural, right? Even the mainstream media is starting to see through the Japan is different narrative as we will see. Yesterday (August 14, 2017), the Cabinet Office in Japan published the preliminary – Quarterly Estimates of GDP – which showed that the Japanese economy is growing strongly and has just posted the 9th quarter of positive annual real GDP growth. Private consumption and investment is strong, the public sector continues to underpin growth with fiscal deficits and real wages are growing. The Eurozone should send a delegation to Tokyo but then all they would learn is that a currency-issuing government that doesn’t fall into the austerity obsession promoted by many economists (including those in the European Commission) can oversee strong growth and low unemployment. Simple really. The Japan experience is interesting because it demonstrates how the reversal in fiscal policy can have significant negative and positive effects in a fairly short time span, whereas monetary policy is much less effective in influencing expenditure.
In a paper – Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy and Central Bank Independence – delivered to the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, last week (August 25-27, 2016), Princeton University academic Christopher Sims suggested that monetary policy effectiveness cannot be judged independent of the fiscal position taken by the government. He argued that the current reality has demonstrated that when central banks shift to very loose monetary policy settings these policy changes will be ineffective if the fiscal authorities are simultaneously pursuing austerity. Even conservatives like Christopher Sims are starting to understand that the dominant mantra that places all policy responsibility on central banks and, meanwhile, pursues fiscal austerity, represents a failed and deeply flawed overall strategy. That is, the core neo-liberal macroeconomics strategy is now being shown by conservatives to be ridiculous. Modern Monetary Theory has long argued that monetary policy has to work hand-in-glove with fiscal policy and if the central bank is cutting interest rates then the fiscal authority has to be increasing its fiscal deficit to make the policy changes stick. Some of the more enlightened conservative economists are now seeing this reality.
The week before last, the Bank of Japan didn’t set off any bazookas and basically held ground on monetary policy. In its – Summary of Opinions at the Monetary Policy Meeting on July 28 and 29, 2016 – (released August 8, 2016), we detect some tension among the Board members as to the effectiveness of monetary policy as a counter-stabilisation force (altering the economic cycle). The distinguishing feature about Japan is that monetary and fiscal policy are working in harmony in contradistinction to other nations (or currency blocs) where monetary easing is being accompanied by fiscal contraction. The latter ensures that growth will not occur, while the former provides a virtuous cycle. The recent retail sales data for Australia, released last week by the Australian Bureau of Statistics provides further evidence that monetary policy is not very effective in stimulating spending. The same data demonstrated categorically in 2009 how effective fiscal policy can be. It is time for the Australian government to shift policy positions and introduce another major fiscal stimulus and stop relying on the central bank to salvage what is becoming an ugly situation. The latter simply hasn’t got the policy tools available to fulfill the task it has been (implicitly) set by the Government’s irresponsible pursuit of fiscal surpluses.
There was an article (May 24, 2016) – Helicopter money: The illusion of a free lunch – written by three institutional bank economists (two from the BIS, the other from the central bank of Thailand), which concluded that Overt Monetary Financing (OMF), where the bank provides the monetary capacity to support much larger fiscal deficits with no further debt being issued to the non-government sector, was “too good to be true”, in the sense that it “comes with a heavy price” – summarised as “giving up on monetary policy forever“. The argument they make is very consistent with the work that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents have published for more 20 years now, which is now starting to penetrate the mainstream banking analysis. However, the conclusion they draw is not supported by the original MMT proponents who would characterise OMF as a highly desirable policy development, more closely representative of the intrinsic monetary capacity of the government. The article also raises questions of what we mean by a “free lunch”, a term which was popularised (but not invented) by Monetarist Milton Friedman. Its use in economics is always loaded towards the mainstream view that government interventions are costly. But if we really appraise what the term “no such thing as a free lunch” really means then, once again, we are more closely operating in the MMT realm which stresses real resource constraints and exposes the fallacies of financial constraints that are meant to apply to currency-issuing governments.
I am in Barcelona today until later then I am off to Valencia for two days. More on the Spanish tour later. The latest edition of the ECB’s Economic Bulletin released on May 5, 2016 carried and – Update on economic and monetary developments – provides more evidence, as if any was needed, that the current reliance on monetary policy – standard or otherwise – to reboot the stagnant economies of Europe has failed and will continue to fail. Why? It is the wrong policy tool. Journalists are increasingly writing that policy options are exhausted because central bankers ‘have fired all their shots’ and the “more shots they fire, the less effective they become”. The implication is that the world is locked into a future of secular stagnation with elevated levels of unemployment and low productivity growth. They seem to have forgotten that fiscal policy remains effective if it is used properly. There is no secular stagnation – just irresponsible fiscal policy use.
Sometimes we have to take a longer look at things to see the present in perspective. Greece has been a living experiment for the neo-liberal Groupthink machine that is the Troika. We rarely experiment on humans on any sort of large-scale if there is the likelihood of adverse result. That would breach any notion of human ethics. It is a pity that we relax those standards when dealing with other animals, but that is another story again, which I will leave silent here. The Nazis certainly conducted large-scale experiments on humans and we vilified them for it. The Troika is conducting different types of experiments on the citizens of Greece, which defy reason, and which also have had devastating effects. But still the mantra continues from the babbling mouths of the political leadership in Europe and its technocratic squawk squad (SS) embedded in the European Commission bureaucracy, the ECB, the IMF and various so-called ‘think tanks’ that continually pump out pro-Euro propaganda disguised as research – more structural reform, more fiscal austerity. Apparently, this scorched earth approach is the only alternative and will deliver higher productivity, increased international competitiveness and underpin a return to prosperity. Greece is on the front line of this approach. I never believed it would work because it defies economic reason. Economic reason that is not blighted by the neo-liberal Groupthink. It hasn’t worked. And now, the IMF, or at least segments within the IMF, are admitting that and producing research that supports the opposite case – the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) case – that expansive “fiscal policy is a potent instrument for productivity growth through innovation”. Correct!
The World’s financial system would have collapsed in 2008 and early 2009 if the governments of the day (including their central banks) had have maintained the dominant belief held by most mainstream economists that fiscal policy is not capable of an effective stimulus to real economic activity and that building central bank reserves to historically massive levels would cause accelerating inflation. Within a short time, all that orthodox posturing that had been shared by politicians, their advisors, and the mainstream financial and economics media was abandoned and pragmatism reigned supreme. Well sort of! The system was saved because governments largely ignored the dominant mainstream economics view. At the time, I thought that this shift in policy practice was the beginning of a paradigm shift in macroeconomics. The crisis clearly demonstrated the poverty of the orthodox theoretical framework and the policy prescriptions that flowed from it. The dominant theoretical models didn’t even have banking sectors included such was the arrogant ignorance of the profession. However, I was wrong or perhaps a bit hasty in thinking that the defences built up by the orthodox economics Groupthink would fall so quickly in the face of this amazing failure. There was a period of quietness within the profession, save for the manic interventions of some of the more extreme Monetarist elements who called on the governments to do nothing other than continue deregulation and target even bigger fiscal surpluses. But the conservative voices progressively gathered volume as the crisis moved from the probability of collapse to a deep (balance-sheet) recession and the attacks on the fiscal and monetary policy shift that occurred in 2008 and 2009 began to reach fever pitch. Governments retreated somewhat and the recoveries were then stalled and we are where we are now as a consequence – still bearing the residual damage of the GFC with many of the trigger points still unresolved and facing a new calamity. Maybe the paradigm shift is still coming. Let’s hope so.