You know, an Italian won the British Open golf championship yesterday (the first Italian to ever win a golf major) because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit negotiations. The causality is impeccable. I am sure about that, although it might take me a while to work it out. But if a British golfer cannot win their Open Championship (Rose tied for second, two shots back) then it must be because of Brexit. Everything else that goes wrong is, so why not the golf? It is the same when three former US policy makers, central bankers, Wall Street-types, claim that the US no longer “have to tools to counter the next financial crisis”. They know full well that that statement is a blatant lie. But they say it. To remain relevant as their stars dim? To do service to their conservative mates? All of the above and more. But the media grab the headline and the American public and the public in general is dealt another piece of neoliberal misinformation that helps entrench the hold on power by the elites. But things are changing, and these entrenched elites and the vested interests they serve don’t like it a bit.
On June 24, 2018, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) released their – Annual Economic Report 2018 – which contains their latest analysis of the global economy including the risks they think the current growth process faces. It is full of myth and like previous statements from the BIS it only serves to perpetuate the policy mentalities that caused the global financial crisis. These multilateral organisations (including the BIS, IMF, World Bank, OECD etc) have become the harbingers of the neoliberal ideology. In doing so, they have breached their original charter. They should be dissolved and replaced with new institutions within a revised international framework. We sketched that framework in our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017).
Those who follow European politics will be familiar now with the recent events in Italy. I wrote about them in this blog post – The assault on democracy in Italy. The facts are obvious. The democratic process for all its warts rejected the mainstream political parties in the recent national election and minority parties Lega Nord and M5S formed a governing coalition. The trouble started when they nominated Paolo Savona as Finance Minister. He had occasionally made statements that paranoid European elitists would interpret as being anti-Europe and anti-German. The political solution was easy and Italian President Sergio Mattarella vetoed Savona’s nomination. The Coalition withdrew and a right-wing technocrat Carlo “Mr Scissors” Cottarelli was to be installed as Prime Minister. That arrangement didn’t last long and the Lega Nord/M5S coalition emerged in government with the unelected Guiseppe Conti the new Prime Minister. But the interesting story to emerge out of all that relates to overt political behaviour by the supposedly independent European Central Bank. It has been clear for some time that the ECB has used its currency-issuing capacity to ensure that ‘spreads’ on Member State government bonds (against the benchmark German bund) do not widen too much. But it is also clear that when the ‘market forces’ do increase the spreads, which foments a sense of financial crisis, the ECB doesn’t necessarily act immediately. A good dose of crisis talk is what the political process needs to keep the anti-European forces at bay. The ECBs behaviour in this context became very political in the recent weeks and the only explanation is that they wanted the sniff of crisis to pervade while all the negotiations were going on over who would emerge as the new government in Italy. Democracy suffers another blow in that neoliberal madhouse that is the European Union.
Although this blog post considers some very technical material its message is simple. Mainstream macroeconomic models that are used to determine policy choices by governments are deeply flawed and the evidence strongly supports a central thrust of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – that fiscal policy is powerful and that austerity will kill growth. In that sense, it helps us understand why various nations and blocs (such as the Eurozone) struggled after the onset of the GFC. It also explains why the deliberate attack on Greek prosperity by the Troika was so successful in demolishing any prospect of growth – an outcome that the official dogma resolutely denied as they constructed one vicious bailout after another. It also explains why New Keynesian approaches to macroeconomics are flawed and should be ignored. I was reminded this week by a research paper I had read last year (thanks Adam for the reminder) which presents a devastating critique (though muted in central bank speak) of the mainstream approach to macroeconomic modelling. A research paper from the ECB (May 2017, No 2058) – On the sources of business cycles: implications for DSGE models – provides a categorical critique of DSGE models and a range of other stunts that mainstream economists have tried to introduce to get away from the obvious – economic cycles are demand driven.
I was running late yesterday and the blog post was already rather long so I left some matters concerning central banks for today. The question we address briefly today is what is the role of central banks in all these trade transactions. Does an export surplus country face an ever increasing money supply as central banks provide the counterparty service to traders who sell in a foreign currency but want their own currency (such as a manufacturer who incurs costs in say Yen but sales revenue in $AUD – as per our example yesterday)? There appears to be confusion on that front as well. So while I am not typically going to write a detailed blog post on a Wednesday, in the interests of continuity, here is Part 2 of the series on trade and currencies.
I have received many E-mails and direct twitter messages overnight and today following the ‘debate’ on Real Progressives yesterday, where trade issues and related financial transactions were discussed. I saw that section of the debate (after the fact) and concluded that only one of the guests knew what happened when nations exported and imported. But it appears that readers of this blog who listened to the debate were confused by what they heard. So, today, by request, I aim to clarify a few of these issues. They are in fact fairly simple to understand once you trace through the transactions carefully, so it is a surprise that basic errors were expressed in the ‘debate’. So here is the way Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps you understand trade transactions.
On April 20, 1018, the IMF presented its – Asia and Pacfic Department Press Briefing – in conjunction with the release of the April 2018 World Economic Outlook and the upcoming (May 9, 2018) release of its Asia and Pacific Regional Economy Outlook. The Deputy Director of the Asia and Pacific Department, one Odd Per Brekk, told the audience that Japan should continue its Quantitative Easing (QE) program and maintain transparency in its purchase volumes so as to ensure the strategy to accelerate the inflation rate up to the 2 per cent target is achieved. Part of this strategy involves shifting inflationary expectations from their recent low levels. Critics of the program shriek that the asset base of the Bank of Japan is now approaching the nominal GDP level and given that a high proportion of those assets are comprised of Japanese Government Bonds, that reversing the strategy eventually will be difficult and risks involving the Bank is huge losses, which might render it insolvent. Insolvency has no application in the case of a central bank which can never go broke. Further, the Bank never needs to reverse the QE purchases. There is no relevance in the rising assets to GDP ratio. The problem is that QE will not achieve the desired end. The Bank has expanded its QE program significantly yet the inflation rate and inflationary expectations remain well below the 2 per cent target. They will eventually work out that the mainstream theory that predicted otherwise is erroneous.
I have been (involuntarily) copied into a rather lengthy Twitter exchange in the last week or so where a person who says he is ‘all over MMT’ (meaning I presume, that he understands its basic principles and levels of abstraction and subtlety) has been arguing ad nauseum that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents are a laughing stock when they claim that taxes and debt-issuance do not fund the spending of a currency-issuing government. He points to the existing institutional structures in the US whereby tax receipts apparently go into a specific account at the central bank and governments are prevented from spending unless the account balance is positive. Also implicated, apparently, is the on-going sham about the ‘debt ceiling’, which according to the argument presented on Twitter is testament to the ‘fact’ that government deficits are funded by borrowings obtained from debt issuance. I received many E-mails about this issue in the last week from readers of my blog wondering what the veracity of these claims were – given they thought (in general) they sounded ‘convincing’. Were the original MMT proponents really overstating the matter and were these accounting arrangements evidence that in reality the government has to raise both tax revenue and funds from borrowing in order to deficit spend? Confusion reigns supreme it seems. Once one understands the underlying nature of the financial flows associated with government spending and taxation, it will become obvious that the argument presented above is superficial at best and fails to come to terms with the basic questions: where do the funds come from that we use to pay our taxes and buy government debt? Once we dig down to that level, the matter resolves quickly.
A few things came up late last week which demonstrate the neoliberal Groupthink is alive an well at the highest levels of policy in Australia (and elsewhere). First, there was a story that a report from an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) journalist on the Australian government’s corporate tax cuts was withdrawn after publication by the ABC after receiving several complaints from senior government ministers including the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. The story was not even radical. The journalist who I have had dealings with is a neoliberal herself when it comes to understanding macroeconomics. Second, one of the claims that the neoliberals make is that central banks are now firmly independent and not part of the political process. This is all part of the depoliticisation process whereby governments absolve themselves of political responsibility for policies that harm the citizens by appealing to ‘independent’ external authorities (such as the IMF, or central banks). Well we know that the claim about central bank independence is not true both in terms of the way the monetary system operates but also in the conduct of various central bankers over the last few decades. Last week, the Reserve Bank of Australia governor once again demonstrated how politically independent he is NOT by invoking key mainstream neoliberal myths about deficits and grandchildren. And then an old hack and largely failed British Labour politicians got in on the act. The Groupthink is powerful but becoming increasingly desperate under the increasing pressure from citizens for more accountability.
This is the second part of my response to an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers. Part 1 considered the thorny issue of the capacity of fiscal policy to be an effective counter-stabilising force over the economic cycle, in particular to be able to prevent an economy from ‘overheating’ (whatever that is in fact). Jared Berstein prescribes some sort of Monetarist solution where all the counter-stabilising functions are embedded in the central bank which he erroneously thinks can “take money out of the economy” at will. It cannot and its main policy tool – interest rate setting – is a very ineffective tool for influencing the state of nominal demand. In Part 2, I consider his other claims which draw on draw on the flawed analysis of Paul Krugman about bond issuance. An understanding of MMT shows that none of these claims carry weight. It is likely that continuous deficits will be required even at full employment given the leakages from the income-spending cycle in the non-government sector. Jared Bernstein represents a typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics but the gap between that (neoliberal oriented) view and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is wide. For space reasons, I have decided to make this a three-part response. I will post Part 3 tomorrow or Thursday. I hope this three-part series might help the (neoliberal) progressives to abandon some of these erroneous macroeconomic notions and move towards the MMT position, which will give them much more latitude to actually implement their progressive policy agenda.