This is the second and final part in my discussion about the latest attempts by the IMF and notable New Keynesian macroeconomists to keep the ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie alive. The crisis in Italy is once again giving these characters a ‘playing field’ to rehearse their destructive ideas that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. In their article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics continue to argue the case for austerity in Italy as the only way to engender growth. In this second part of my analysis of their argument I show that there is little evidential basis for concluding that Italy is a special case. I argue that imposing fiscal austerity on Italy will turn out badly. The broader conclusion is that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises.
President Trump banned a CNN reporter only to find his position overturned by the judicial system. Well CNN is guilty of at least one thing – publishing misleading and alarmist economic reports about Japan. In a CNN Business article last week (November 13, 2018) – Japan’s economy has a $5 trillion problem – readers were told that the Bank of Japan has no “dwindling options to juice growth if a new crisis hits” because “it’s now sitting on assets worth more than the country’s entire economy”. The real story should have been that the Bank of Japan continues to demonstrate the categorical failure of mainstream macroeconomics and, conversely, ratify the core principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). That is what the Japanese experience since the early 1990s tells us. And all the stories about special cases; cultural peculiarities, closed markets, etc that the mainstream economists wheel out when another one of their predictions about how Japan is about to sink into the sea as a result of its public debt levels, or that interest rates are about to go through the roof because of the on-going and substantial fiscal deficits; or that inflation is about to accelerate because of the massive monetary injections; and more, are just smokescreens to divert our attention from the poverty of their analytical framework. The Japanese 10-year bond trade is called the ‘widow maker’ because hedge funds who try to short it lose big. The Japanese monetary system is my real-time, non-linear economic laboratory which allows all the key macroeconomic propositions to play out live. And MMT is never very far off the mark. Try juxtaposing New Keynesian theory against Japan – total dissonance.
It is Wednesday and I am doing the final corrections to our Macroeconomics textbook manuscript before it goes off to the ‘printers’ for publication in March 2019. It has been a long haul and I can say that writing a textbook is much harder than writing a monograph not only because the latter are more exciting in the drafting phase. The attention to detail in a textbook that runs over 600 pages is quite taxing. Anyway, that is taking my attention today. I also plan to write some more about Brexit in the coming weeks and Japan (tomorrow). But today, I have updated some ECB data on household and corporate borrowing and the cost of borrowing to see what sort of recovery is going on. With nations such as Germany now recording negative growth in the third-quarter, it is clear that the Eurozone is stalling again. The explanation doesn’t require any rocket science. It is all there in the behaviour of the non-government sector (saving more overall) and fiscal rules that are too tight to offset that saving desire. The reliance on monetary policy is an ineffective tool to provide the offset in non-government saving overall. Fiscal policy has to be reinstated to the primary position and that means nations such as Italy must consider exiting the dysfunctional monetary union that biases nations to recession and stagnation.
The widely read German news site, Spiegel Online, published an amazing article last week (November 1, 2018) – Italy Doubles Down on Threat to Euro Stability – which confirms to me that very little progress has been within the Eurozone by way of cultural understandings since the GFC. That, in turn, tells me that the monetary union will not be able to get out of austerity gear and is now more exposed than ever to breakup when the next crisis comes. The current Italian situation is the European Commission’s worst nightmare. It could combine with the ECB and the IMF to bully Greece partly because of the size of the Greek economy but also because they had the measure of Tsipras and Syriza. They knew the polity would buckle and become agents for their neoliberal plans. But the politicians in Italy may turn out to be a different proposition – one hopes so. And Italy is a large economy and one of the original accessions to the Community. So the stakes are higher. But what the Commission is demanding of Italy in the present situation of zero economic growth and massive primary fiscal surpluses is totally irresponsible. It will not even achieve the stated Commission aims of reducing the public debt ratio. The likelihood is that the Commission’s strategy, if they succeed in bullying the Italian government into submission, will push the ratio up further. And meanwhile, Italy wallows in a sort of neoliberal dystopia. Italy should lead the other Member States out of this neoliberal disaster.
One of the on-going myths that mainstream (New Keynesian) economists propagate is that monetary policy (adjusting of interest rates) is an effective way to manage the economic cycle. They claim that central banks can effectively manipulate total spending by adjusting the cost of borrowing to increase output and push up the inflation rate. The empirical experience does not accord with those assertions. Central bankers around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been massively building up their balance sheets through QE to push their inflation rates up without much success. Further, it has been claimed that a sustained period of low interest rates would be inflationary. Well, again the empirical evidence doesn’t support that claim. The evidence supports the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) preference for fiscal policy over monetary policy. Even though the Reserve Bank of Australia has not pursued a QE program (fiscal policy saved our economy from recession during the GFC), it has persisted with very low historic interest rates. And as yesterday’s latest inflation data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Consumer Price Index, Australia – shows, the RBA is struggling to push it inflation rate into the so-called target policy range of 2 to 3 per cent. The data shows that the All Groups CPI grew by 1.9 per cent in the 12 months to September 2018 and the so-called core analytical series – Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – used by the RBA to assess whether interest rates should shift or not grew by less than that. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations are flat and below the RBA’s target policy range.
I have very little free time today. I am now in Dublin and am travelling to Galway soon for tonight’s event (see below). Last evening I met with some Irish politicians at the Irish Parliament and had some interesting conversations. I will reflect on the interactions I have had so far in Ireland in a later blog post. But today (and next time I post) I plan to reflect briefly on my thoughts about the Second International Modern Monetary Theory which was held last weekend in New York City. Around 400 participants were in attendance, which by any mark represents tremendous progress. The feeling of the gathering was one of optimism, enthusiasm and, one might say without to much license, boundless energy. So a big stride given where we have come from. Having said that, I had mixed reactions to the different sessions and the informal conversations I had over the three-day period, which might serve as a cautionary warning not to get to far ahead of ourselves. This blog post is Part 1 of my collection of some of those thoughts. They reflect, to some extent, the closing comments I made on the last panel last Sunday.
The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.
On August 1, 2018, the 10-year Japanese government bond yield, shot through the roof (albeit a very low one). Yields shifted from 0.05 per cent on July 31 to 0.129 on August 1, which was the largest one-day rise since July 29, 2016 (when the yield rose 0.101 per cent). The Financial Times article (August 1, 2018) – Japanese bond market jolted as traders test BoJ resolve – wrote that “traders wasted no time in testing the Bank of Japan’s resolve to loosen its target range for the debt benchmark”. So what was that all about? And what key point does it demonstrate that seems to be lost on mainstream economists who continually claim that government debt is, or can become a problem once bond markets demand higher yields? The Japanese bond market has shown once again that private bond traders cannot set yields on government bonds if the central bank intervenes. Next time you hear some mainstream economist claiming a currency issuing government is running deficits at the will of the investors (read bond markets) politely tell them they are clueless. Japan once again provides the real world Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) laboratory – every day it substantiates the underlying insights contained within MMT and refutes the core mainstream propositions. The bond market over the last month or so demonstrates that the Japanese government is increasingly net spending by using credits created by the Bank of Japan, whatever else the accounting structures might lead one to believe. With inflation low and stable, these dynamics surely put paid to the various myths that a currency-issuing government can run out of money and that central bank credits to facilitate government spending lead to hyperinflation.
The Project Syndicate is held out as an independent, quality source of Op Ed discussion. When you scan through the economists that contribute you see quite a pattern and it is the anathema of ‘independent’. There is really no commentary that is independent, if you consider the term relates to schools of thought that an economist might work within. We are all bound by the ideologies and language of those millieu. So I assess the input from an institution (like Project Syndicate) in terms of the heterodoxy of its offerings. A stream of economic contributions that are effectively drawn from the same side of macroeconomics is not what I call ‘independent’. And you see that in the recurring arguments that get published. In this blog post, I discuss Jeffrey Frankel’s latest UK Guardian article (August 29, 2018) – US will lack fiscal space to respond when next recession comes – which was syndicated from Project Syndicate. Frankel thinks that the US is about to experience a major recession and that its government has run out of fiscal space because it is not running surpluses. We could summarise my conclusion in one word – nonsense. But a more civilised response follows.
I am surprised at the hostility that Part 1 in this series created. I have received a lot of E-mails about it, many of which contained just a few words, the most recurring being Turkey! One character obviously needed to improve his/her spelling given that they thought it was appropriate to write along the lines that I should just ‘F*ck off to Terkey’. Apparently Turkey has become the new poster child to ‘prove’ Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) wrong. Good try! I also note the Twitterverse has been alight with attention seekers berating me for daring to comment on the sort of advice British Labour is receiving. Well here is Part 2. And because you all liked it so much, the series has been extended into a three-part series because there is a lot of detail to work through. Today, I revisit the fiscal rule issue, which is a necessary step in refuting the claim that MMT policy prescriptions (whatever they might be) will drive the British pound into worthless oblivion. And, you know what? If you don’t like what I write and make available publicly without charge, then you have an easy option – don’t read it. How easy is that? Today, I confirm that despite attempts by some to reconstruct Labour’s Fiscal Rule as being the exemplar of progressive policy making, its roots are core neoclassical economics (which in popular parlance makes it neoliberal) and it creates a dependence on an ever increasing accumulation of private debt to sustain growth. Far from solving a non-existent ‘deficit-bias’ it creates a private debt bias. Not something a Labour government or any progressive government should aspire to.