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The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

The Cato Institute’s Romina Boccia explains why she’s concerned about a future US fiscal crisis. She explains how entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare are the source of the problem. 

This episode’s guest Romina Boccia is Director of Budget and Entitlement Policy at the Cato Institute, where she specializes in federal spending, budget process, economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Links relevant to the conversation

Romina’s Cato Institute profile

Romina’s first post for the Cato Institution: Joining Cato to Restrain the Federal Budget Leviathan

Council on Foreign Relations article containing deficit projections which Gene mentions: The National Debt Dilemma

U.S. News article: How Much You Will Get From Social Security

Transcript: The future US fiscal crisis and how to avert it w/ Romina Boccia, Cato Institute – EP159

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on economics explored,

Romina Boccia  00:04

The better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory even under the best circumstances. And now is the time to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending.

Gene Tunny  00:21

Welcome to the economics explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 159 on the US federal budget and debt. My guest is Romina Boccia, Director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina is concerned that the US is on a path toward a fiscal crisis. We chat about why this is so and what can be done about it. Please check out the show notes, relevant links and details of how you can get in touch. You can send me an email or a voice message. Please get in touch and let me know what you think about what either Romina or I have to say in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Right now for my conversation with Romina Boccia about the US federal budget. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. Hope you enjoy it. Romina Boccia, a director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute. Romina, great to be speaking with you today.

Romina Boccia  01:26

Thanks so much for having me on your show, Gene.

Gene Tunny  01:29

Oh, it’s, it’s excellent. So you’ve joined Cato in recent months, haven’t you Romania. And I read one of your pieces in which you are introducing yourself at Cato. And you wrote that, today I am joining the Cato Institute, to do my part to prevent a severe US fiscal crisis by restraining the federal budget Leviathan. I’ll write and speak about federal spending, the budget process, the economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform. So really big topics there. To start off with, could I ask you, what do you mean by a fiscal crisis? Just how bad do you think things currently are? How bad could they get in the US?

Romina Boccia  02:26

Yes, you know, the thing with a fiscal crises is a bit like when, whether you’re entering a recession or not that you don’t quite know if you’re in it until you’re in it. And in the United States scenario, there are quite a few factors that make it even more difficult to predict if our when a fiscal crisis might occur, because the United States, of course, as you’re aware, provides the US dollar, which is a world, the primary world reserve currency, which allows the United States government to get away with a lot worse fiscal policy than another nation state might. But that doesn’t mean that lawmakers in the United States can just rest on those laurels. And think that they can spend and borrow as much as they would like in order to satisfy their constituent spending demands, without facing any consequences for that. So what I mean by fiscal crises, and we’ve seen this in various countries over the course of roughly 800 to 1000 years of history. Carmen, Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart did an excellent book on this, that, despite a small mistake they made in a research paper, which was corrected later on, still stands in its lessons. And that was over 800 years of history of public debt, and how that affects the countries that accumulate that debt. And so, in, in the scenario of US fiscal crisis, we could potentially face a sudden and very high rise in interest rates, much higher and much more sudden than we’re currently experiencing. And that could result in disrupting productive investments severely lead us into a significant recession. And this could also potentially precede an episode of hyperinflation, which is something that other countries have lived through in the past. I’m originally from Germany, that has a history of hyperinflation after World War Two. And, and that type of rapid accelerating out of control inflation would be very, very damaging to the country, disrupting employment, markets and causing a tremendous pain for US households. And even just, you know, the recent bout of inflation, which was quite severe and not something that the US population has experienced in a long time. Even that doesn’t come close to what we might potentially face in a hyperinflationary scenario. And in the long run, if the US is fiscal standing were to change significantly if the dollar were to lose its prominent status as a world reserve currency, if markets employment investment were severely disrupted, if inflation got out of control, and the Fed wasn’t able to put this genie back in the bottle, it could also have other unforeseen ramifications affecting the security and global standing of the United States as an economic powerhouse as a foreign powerhouse. And also, its, its attractiveness as a destination for immigrants, investment, etc. My point is that lawmakers are playing with fire. And the sooner they come to reckon with that fact and start making amends, the higher the likelihood that we will be able to avert such a fiscal crisis. But it’s it’s a tough pill to swallow because the programmes that are driving us into this large and rising debt, and that could potentially precipitate a fiscal crisis in the future, who knows when those are also the most popular federal government programmes, namely, Social Security and Medicare, which is why in my work, I want to be focused on making reforms to those drivers of growing spending.

Gene Tunny  06:57

Right. Okay, so you mentioned hyperinflation, and we had a, I had a conversation in the last episode about hyperinflation and you refer to the hyperinflation. So Germany had very extreme, it had hyperinflation after the First World War, when the Weimar Republic, and, I mean, there’s a certain set of circumstances that lead to hyperinflation, I mean, a breakdown of your economic system, really your tax, the ability to raise taxes, and then the government turns on the printing press. So that’s the worst case. But short of that your, I think, uh, you’re, you’re concerned about them? Are you concerned about them having to make rapid adjustments, cutting other programmes to be able to service the interest bill or having to raise taxes? Is that the type of scenario you have in mind.

Romina Boccia  07:54

I think that in a, in a lower severity scenario, what we’ve, what we’ll see is much higher tax rates in the United States in the future, which will negatively impact growth and standards of living, and could also undermine the United States as a, as a, as an innovation powerhouse. There’s also a scenario where the debt continues to rise, lawmakers avoid tax increases, and we find ourselves in more of a Japan like stagnation where the economy barely grows, or maybe growth is even negative for some period of time. That’s another, that’s another alternative, which is also not very desirable. Or in, a in a worst scenario. You know, I don’t, I don’t see lawmakers making rapid changes to Social Security and Medicare unless they had no other options left. Yeah, because their primary interest is to get reelected. So I could see us more likely entering into a high inflation scenario in an attempt to continue to pay these benefits, despite there not being the revenue for it. And, you know, the United States can, can and does print its own money. And we’ve seen several bouts of so-called quantitative easing, which are a version of that, where that unfortunately, to me seems more likely than significant changes to entitlement programmes unless we can strike some kind of a grand bargain, which has happened in other nations before. One scenario found quite illustrative is, Sweden went through some significant budgetary reforms. Many of its means tested and other social insurance programmes. And while Sweden still has much higher tax rates than the United States, they’ve, they’ve been able to get to a place where they’re roughly balancing their budget over time. And that is certainly a more stable scenario than the rapid. And at times accelerating increase in the deficit that we’ve seen in the United States. Of course, we’re coming out of a very highly unusual period of time, with massive supplemental spending bills due to the COVID pandemic, and unprecedented deficits. And those are now declining, because we’re not spending as much as we did during the pandemic, but still, us spending as a steep upward trajectory. And most of it, most of that growth will be financed by additional borrowing, which is, which is quite troubling.

Gene Tunny  10:50

Yeah. So you’ve got deficits projected out for the next few decades, if I remember correctly, I think there was a CBO. Or actually, yeah, Office of Management and Budget, congressional and Congressional Budget Office, there’s a chart from the Council on Foreign Relations, I’ll put a link in the show notes. But it’s got the federal deficit, going from several percentage points of GDP, wherever it is now. And then over the next 30 years, it goes, this is all business as usual, if you just assume nothing changes, and I mean, hopefully something changes, they’ve got it getting up to over 13% of GDP, this is the deficit by 2050. Are these the types of projections you’re looking at Romina. And that’s what’s informing your commentary on this?

Romina Boccia  11:42

Yes, so the Congressional Budget Office is a very reliable primary source in the US Congress. It’s a nonpartisan agency that provides information to Congress. However, they are somewhat limited in how they do projections as well. And there have been some questions about some of their assumptions pertaining to fertility and growth, and at times under estimating the potential increase in higher interest rates. So there are some alternative scenarios as well that we consider as fiscal scholars. So we have a range of potential outcomes that we look at. None of them are very good. The current Congressional Budget Office projections are also in many ways, too optimistic. Because the Congressional Budget Office is, is tasked with projecting the deficit and debt and spending levels based on assumptions of current policy. Now, there are many policies, especially tax policies, but also some spending policies in the US context that have been intentionally adopted for a temporary period of time, like certain middle class tax cuts that are slated to expire that were put in place by the Trump administration by 2025. And it seems highly unlikely that Congress will allow those to expire. Because of the families and individuals, middle class families and individuals that would be affected, it would seem like that would not be very politically popular. So if we run alternative assumptions, where those tax cuts get extended, the, the debt scenario going forward looks a lot worse. We’re going from 185% of GDP and publicly held debt over the next 30 years from the current 110% level, to more than doubling to 260% of GDP, and that, again, over 30 years doesn’t take into account that there might be natural disasters, that there could be another war, or the US might get involved in a current active war more so than it has in the past. Or that there could be another pandemic. I mean, lots of things can happen over the next 30 years. And none of those are taken into account with those projections. So again, the better solution is to realise that we are on a highly precarious fiscal trajectory, even under the best circumstances, and now is the time to to adjust our fiscal scenario to reduce the growth in spending. And because that’s what’s driving it, you know, tax revenues are above their historical average level, even with the economy slowing down. And so that’s not what’s driving the growth in the debt and the deficit. It’s it’s very much on spending and primarily spending on so called entitlement programmes and their entitlement programmes, because you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to. Yeah, you don’t have to be in grave need in order to qualify. Medicare and Social Security are primary or really old age entitlements, with some contributions made by individuals over their lifetimes, but not contributions in the sense of contributions made to say a 401 K, which is the US retirement account that individuals contribute to, they make their defined contributions, and then they own those assets in those accounts. That’s not how these programmes work. There are tax and spend programmes or pay as you go programmes where current workers have financing benefits, health care and retirement benefits for the retire generation. And, of course, lawmakers were able to make promises to these individuals without concerning themselves with how those benefits would be paid. No provision was made to pay those benefits, even social security in the United States context where for some time, there were surpluses, that the programme was accumulating, but they were spend immediately on other federal government priorities. They weren’t saved for Social Security. So now that those bills are coming due, Social Security is already running deficits. Those those those, those prior surplus funds there, they don’t they don’t exist anymore. They would just spend on other priorities. And now Congress would need to raise taxes, or in this case, they’re borrowing more to make up for, for that discrepancy and what they’ve promised current beneficiaries, current retirees, and what they’re able to collect from current workers.

Gene Tunny  17:00

Yeah, I remember reading in the 80s. Or maybe I read the book in the early 90s, that the last time people were worried about the US deficit and debt. This was before the 90s, before Clinton and Gingrich struck some sort of accommodation struck, struck some sort of deal and then managed to get the budget under control for a while. I remember there was a book by Benjamin Friedman, who was at Harvard and day of reckoning. And, and the concern there was because of the tax cuts in the 80s, and the big spending on the, the defence, all of the defence spending, which I mean, arguably lead to the demise of the Soviet Union. So big tick there, but did blow out the deficit. I think the way Friedman described it was that there was a Social Security Trust Fund and the government just took the money out of it and put IOUs in it. So is that right that? Is that roughly right there there? What the I think this is what you were talking about. There was a surplus, but then that money was spent on other purposes?

Romina Boccia  18:12

Yes, the, that’s roughly right. The Social Security trust fund is mainly it’s an accounting mechanism. But it isn’t a trust fund, like you would think about it in the economic or investment sense. Because those trust, investment trust funds would hold real economic assets, could be a portfolio of stocks and bonds. Treasury securities, cash, you name it. The Social Security trust fund is an accounting mechanism for internal governmental purposes. It’s basically is a provision in law that allows Social Security to continue to pay benefits, even when current taxes are no longer sufficient to pay for those benefits. And to find the money elsewhere, in this case, from the Treasury through borrowing by selling more US debt in, in open markets. But those Yeah, those assets, there were no assets in it ever. The way it works is when employers pay payroll taxes or self employed individuals pay their payroll taxes, they go to the Treasury just with, with their income taxes and every and all other tax revenue that the Treasury is collecting. There’s no distinction made, whether those are payroll taxes that are supposed to be designated for Social Security or income taxes or, or corporate taxes. It all gets muddled at that point. And then that money just goes out for current government spending. The US federal government doesn’t have a policy of, say, of saving. And, and so that never happened. Now, the best way in my view, to establish financial security in old age for individuals, if you’re going to have mandatory government programme to, let’s say, help individuals to save for their, for the later years, because apparently, we don’t trust individuals to be able to do that for themselves, then the best way to do it is to do it in a defined contribution way, rather than the current system, which is more akin to a defined benefit system, where you qualify for certain benefit, regardless of what you paid into the system or, or how much money is in the system to pay out those benefits. So a defined contribution system, you would actually set up a savings mechanism, you might invest those funds in the market. Now, I’m not really comfortable with the federal government getting involved in that to a great degree, I would be much more comfortable with individuals being able to own and control the funds in their own accounts. Because the government, as always is subject to special interest pressure, we’re seeing this in the United States with pension funds in the state local level right now, where you have special interest groups, especially the environmental left pushing to disinvest, from fossil fuels and, and other areas of the economy that they disagree with, where there’s more concern for pushing a political agenda through these public investments, then the primary consideration which should be gains for the beneficiaries of these accounts, and I would see a very similar risk if the US government adopted a system of private social security accounts, but actually controlled the investments in those so much better for individuals to be able to control and own their own retirement funds. Though in the big picture, I don’t even think that that is necessary anymore in a way for the federal government to get involved with. I think that the best role the government could play as just to provide a minimum level of security in old age, with the goal of protecting older individuals from falling into poverty if they run out of their own, own resources because they live longer than perhaps they were expecting, or they had low incomes all their lives, and were never really able to save a whole lot, or maybe they fell on hard times their business went went bankrupt, you name it, there’s all sorts of scenarios why individuals can find themselves in need of help. But in terms of private retirement savings, we live in an era where it is so simple to set up auto enrolment savings, to have automatic investments through Target Date retirement funds and other index funds where you don’t have to be a financial whiz to manage your own retirement investments. You can, you can do so much more easily than was the case 85 years ago, when a Social Security first originated. So I questioned the need for a forced, a government based force mechanism for individuals to provide for their own security in old age. I think a minimum poverty level benefit, combined with private individual savings that are owned and controlled by individuals themselves, make much more sense and also take those funds out of the hands of the government which of course, spent the money when it was collecting Social Security funds. They didn’t go towards social security in the end, they went to defence, they went to other social programmes. They went to subsidies and corporate welfare and all sorts of places, but not for their intended use.

Gene Tunny  24:03

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  24:37

Now back to the show. Can I ask about Social Security? So your ,Are you suggesting that the level of social security in the US it’s too generous and that those benefits should be cut? Is that what you’re suggesting? So and that would encourage people to, to save in their own way retirement accounts.

Romina Boccia  25:02

Yes, I’m very much suggesting this. And the benefits are too generous in a number of ways, one of which is that the eligibility age for Social Security has barely budged in light of significant increases in life expectancy. That means that the number of years that have been that individuals are eligible to collect social security benefits has risen significantly. While the number of years that they have to, they’re required to work to qualify for those benefits has not. And so you get an imbalance there, where when Social Security was first launched, the eligibility age was actually above the life expectancy of, of that age, such that very few individuals were expected to ever claim that benefit, it was primarily set aside for those lucky or poor souls who outlive their peers. But today, the Social Security aged early claiming ages is still 62. Right? And, and individuals now live to be roughly 78, which is the current roughly the current life expectancy in the United States. And so there’s many, many more years that individuals can claim those benefits, but they don’t have to work any longer. So that has made the programme more generous over time. And also more unaffordable. Another factor is that the highest income earners receive the highest benefits from Social Security. And they need those benefits the lease. Yeah, so one way to fix the financial picture and also focus benefits on those individuals who need the most. If that was the original intent of old age income support programme, would be to Means test those benefits. Now, I think a fairer way to do this would be by adjusting the benefit formula. So the Means Test doesn’t apply once individuals are in retirement, especially if they’ve done the right thing. They, they work their, their whole lives, they set aside their own funds, so they could enjoy a comfortable retirement. We don’t want to penalise those individuals for doing the right thing for saving for their own needs. But there are ways of making the benefit formula more progressive, that acts as a means test as well. Except it considers lifetime earnings rather than just income in retirement.

Gene Tunny  27:48

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Romina. It didn’t occur to me that was the case that the more you earn, the more the government pays you in Social Security after when you retire. So I was just looking on the web. And I’ll put links in the show notes regarding this. So the average social, social security benefit is $1,657 per month, that was in January 2022. So conceivably, there are people getting more than that from the federal government each month as in Social Security. And, yeah, I can see the logic in, in changing that formula.

Romina Boccia  28:31

You’re correct about the average Social Security benefit, but there are some higher income earners can collect up closer to $3,300 per month in Social Security benefits. And that doesn’t account for if you’re looking at a married couple, an additional spousal benefit, that, that would bring their security benefit more than 4500 to $5,000 per month range.

Gene Tunny  29:02

Yeah. And some of these households probably don’t need it because they’ve got other assets, they own their own home, they’ve got investments, etc. Okay. Now, that’s, that’s Social Security. Is that the big? That’s the big programme driving the future deficits, is it or to what to what extent is it Medicare and Medicaid? Do they play a role too?

Romina Boccia  29:25

Yes, Medicare is actually the elephant in the room. Because with Social Security, you’re primarily looking at a fairly predictable benefit formula where you consider demographic factors like fertility rates, the number of new workers in the United States, including immigrants, and then when do, when do people reach the eligibility age roughly in their mid 60s, and what is their life expectancy? And so right now we’re going through a big growth spurt in Social Security as the baby boomers started retiring at, at significant rates, I want to say it was 11,000 per day. 10,000 per day, I think it was 10,000 per day starting in 2011. And over a 20 year period of time, we’re moving through this big bubble of baby boomers entering the Social Security and Medicare systems. Once we’re through that baby boom, bubble, there’s a decline in fertility after that baby boom. And so Social Security roughly levels out at 6% of GDP. And then, you know, fluctuates around around there. But with Medicare, because you’re looking at a health insurance programme, and health care costs are rising steeply, and don’t seem to be slowing down. And what we also know is that health care is a luxury good, where as societies become wealthier, they desire to consume more health care. So wealthier societies tend to increase the portion of their budgets that they spend on health care, not all of which is is very well spend, we also know that much of healthcare expenditures are going towards the signalling or showing that you care, and paying for medical treatments for conditions that that don’t respond well to those treatments for a number of incentives. And that were spending the most during individuals final years of their lives, where perhaps that additional dollar of healthcare spending isn’t doing that much good anymore. But all of those factors are driving up the growth in health care spending. And that seems to be just going up with that with none of that leaving and inside, if you will, for where it will taper off, we can’t we don’t know when or if it will taper off. And so Medicare is the big elephant in the room. And there too, you have very similar issues where, again, the eligibility age is roughly 65 hasn’t gone up, as individuals are living longer. So increasing the retirement age and then indexing the age of eligibility to increases in life expectancy is a very common sense, change that would help alleviate some of the cost drivers. And the other one, again, is that you should consider how much of a health care subsidy you should be giving, if any, to to high income earners. Those individuals who are capable of paying for their own health care, and retirement should pay for a larger share of it. So that you can focus benefits on those individuals who need them to most means testing is one very, very common sense way of adjusting how much you know, the programme spends and who would spend that money on and to get more in line with what incoming revenues and not to drive up the deficit too much. But in the big picture, I think we we’ve come to over rely on a third party payment system where there’s a lot of treatments and even administrative costs are skyrocketing. Because there’s very little consumer interaction in this marketplace. So much is paid. The vast majority of health care expenditures are paid through insurance systems, I think the best use of an insurance system is to pay for catastrophic health care to pay for very expensive chronic conditions to pay for, you know, a big accidents that, that incur large medical costs for individuals, but not for routine healthcare needs. And that’s that’s where we’ve ended up over over several decades of shifting towards a system of third party payment. And, and one of the big reasons in the United States for that is after World War Two, the health care tax exclusion for employer provided health care has really driven up the cost of health care in the United States. And we should have fairer treatment for individuals who are self employed or who choose not to use their employer’s health care to be able to at least get the same tax treatment as their employer. Better yet. My colleague Michael Tanner at Cato has put forth a proposal where instead of employers buying health insurance for their employees, they could provide the funds that they would spend on their employees health insurance through a health savings account, and then the employees themselves could decide how much of that they want to allocate towards health insurance and how much of that they might want to keep in those health savings accounts to pay for out of pocket costs, such as getting A high deductible health insurance plan that’s primarily focused on those catastrophic expenses, while paying for routine health care needs, out of their health savings accounts, that would bring more consumer involvement into this marketplace, which would also help with price transparency, as consumers become more educated as healthcare consumers, and especially for routine treatments start shopping around. Of course, it’s not possible if you are being picked up in an ambulance because you just suffered from an emergency. But there are, there are other scenarios where becoming a more cost conscious patient and healthcare consumer makes a lot of sense and can help to reduce costs.

Gene Tunny  35:47

Hmm, I’ll have to look at Michael’s work. So Michael Tanner, you mentioned his work. Yeah. But I’ll have to, I’ll have to come back to health in a future episode, because I know it’s a very complicated area to look at. On Medicare Romina, do you have any figures on that? I mean, you mentioned it was at US Social Security will get up to about 6% of GDP. Did I hear that right? And do you have any comparable figures for Medicare?

Romina Boccia  36:17

I’m not going to top of my head, but the Congressional Budget Office provides those in their budget and economic outlook. I’m more focused on Social Security, because as you just mentioned, Medicare has its own complex bag of a variety of different policies. So we have a scholar solely dedicated to that.

Gene Tunny  36:41

Yeah, yeah. Fair enough. And I mean, my understanding is that the Social Security’s that’s the, that’s the big one. But then you’re saying that yeah, Medicare is a, it’s an important issue.

Romina Boccia  36:52

It’s approaching, yeah, the size of Social Security. So between Medicare and Social Security, more than half of the federal government’s budget goes towards these two programmes. Okay, gotcha. So they make up the vast majority of federal spending now, and they’re projected to grow significantly.

Gene Tunny  37:10

Right, do you have any concerns about defence spending at all? I mean, often one thing that’s often pointed out as well, I mean, the US spends much more than any other country on defence, of course, you’ve got an important role in the, the world economic or the world geopolitical order, or however you’d like to describe it. So have you looked at that? And do you have any thoughts on defence?

Romina Boccia  37:34

No, not just the fence. But so the way that the budget is, is allocated in the US context is that there’s a so called discretionary spending, which makes up roughly 1/3. And then there’s the so called mandatory or autopilot spending and the key differences that discretionary spending has to be voted on each and every year. For example, this week, the US Congress is voting on defence and non defence discretionary spending to avert a government shutdown because we’re at the end of the fiscal year. That is not the case for programmes like Medicare and Social Security and even Medicaid, which which which have authorizations, which have spending allocations that don’t expire, so they can just continue spending even when the resources aren’t there. But both non defence and defence discretionary spending has seen a large increases, especially during the pandemic, there’s been large increases in in nondefense discretionary spending for varieties of things including support for state and local government to weather the pandemic. Various handouts for special interest groups. We just recently saw the chips act pass for the semiconductor industry in the United States. And then the inflation Reduction Act, which had a lot of green New Deal policies to subsidise green energy and electric vehicles, etc. So there’s been a while that spending, it doesn’t get projected out over the extended periods, 30 years 50 or 75 years in the case of Social Security, Medicare, because Congress, allocates, appropriates it every single year. We are seeing a rise in discretionary spending also in the area of emergency and disaster relief with no budget or notional account to control that spending. So it’s often used as a as a loophole to fund other priorities without going through the regular budget process. And, yes, overall, I’m concerned about most aspects of the federal government being on a growth trajectory and defence and non defence discretionary spending very much in that in that sphere. are as well. One of one solution there is to adopt us spending caps and the US has adopted those, with some success in the past, with little less success in the recent past. But discretionary spending caps that set a goal or a level that then lawmakers have to fight over or the public can hold them to account for can be very helpful. We don’t have any discretionary spending caps right now. And I think it sets up a good discussion when you have those to say, Okay, if you truly believe that, that is not sufficient, you need to spend more, what can we cut instead. And then in more likely scenario, lawmakers are not going to want to cut anything. So instead, we get some discussion over offsetting spending cuts elsewhere, say in the mandatory portion of the budget. Or if they increase, it agreed to a spending increase, at least now we have something we can hold them to. So I do think it sets up a productive debate around the purpose of spending limits priorities for the federal government, what are true priorities and what they’re just want to have spore favourite lobbying groups, so that the public can do a better job also of holding their lawmakers accountable. And there is an opportunity for the US Congress, the new Congress in the next year to impose more spending restraint. The debt limit will approach again likely next summer and the summer of 2023. And the debt limit is often a very effective action forcing mechanism for fiscal restraint. Basically, lawmakers can make demands that they won’t increase the debt limit, unless there are offsetting spending cuts or a budget plan is put in place. And I think a spending caps over the entire federal budget would be, would be best so that Congress can budget within so called Unified budget, consider all priorities and needs within context and and make those necessary trade offs. But one, one good start and those are easy to implement would be discretionary spending caps on defence and non defence.

Gene Tunny  42:16

Right. Okay, I’ll have to look back and see some, look for some examples of those spending caps in the past that sounds really interesting.

Romina Boccia  42:28

So yes, we had the, the Budget Control Act of 2011, that imposed spending caps for a period of roughly 10 years, but they were, they were circumvented several times. But there were also some offsetting spending cuts to allow for those increases in defence and non defence. The other thing that has become sort of gimmicky in the US context, under President Obama and the Democrats are continuing to try and push this, this this idea of parity that the defence account and the non defence, domestic discretionary accounts should be getting the same amount of money, which is just a goal that they have set as if it this was some kind of a political game without any consideration for real needs, either in the domestic economy or on the defence side, the threats that the United States face, it’s just an arbitrary target, we just want to get as much money as the other guys. And that just doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think I think the public should, should call lawmakers out for that apparently doesn’t make any sense we should not be allocating any more spending than is, is necessary. And it should also be within the within the bounds of the US Constitution. Because that document has a has a purpose, which is to restrain the government and protect the rights of the, of the individual. And so that should be our guidance for what to spend money on and how much to spend not some arbitrary goal of we just want parody because it’s political.

Gene Tunny  44:06

Yeah, yeah. Okay, final question. Romina. Have you looked at what we do here in Australia or what’s done in New Zealand with retirement savings? Have you looked at our we have a compulsory.

Romina Boccia  44:18

A little bit? Yeah, I was reading up recently on, on the superannuation, I think it’s called. Yeah, I mean, I like the defined contribution aspect, but I also recognise that there’s a push to increase the amount that employers have to pay for their employees superannuation and, and that can create distortionary incentives for how many individuals to employ because you’re driving up the cost of labour, I would see, I would think that that would be an issue, but what are your thoughts on how how the system’s working?

Gene Tunny  44:53

Oh, well, I think overall, it’s, it’s better to have it than not have it. So we did have the problem that people were too reliant on the aged pension here. So you’re, well, what our Social Security programme for the elderly, although there are differences in the, in the the rate and it doesn’t. It’s not, it doesn’t increase if you contribute more over your, your lifetime. So if you have higher earnings over your lifetime, so it’s different in that regard. And yeah, so I think it’s, it’s good that we’ve got a system that takes some of the pressure off the age pension, but we’ve still got rising age pension costs, it hasn’t removed that problem entirely, the future imposed on the budget of our age pension is a lot lower than your Social Security system from what I can just from my quick, the quick look, I’ve had the figures. Yep. So I think it’s good in that regard. But yeah, you’re right, there is that issue of the fact that in the short run the can hit employers, so we’ve had an increase in the contribution rate, it was 9%. And they’ve been increasing it, I think half a percent every couple of years. And now it’s up at 10 and a half percent, if I remember correctly. And so initially, the employer has to pay more each quarter to the Australian Tax Office, I’m an employer. So this is something I’m very conscious of. So I’ve had to increase the superannuation contributions. But over the long term, I think what the expectation is that it will come out of wages of the employees, so the employees will end up paying for it, because it is a form of compensation. That’s how it was initially sold in the 90s, when it was introduced. So it was a trade off. The treasurer at the time, Paul Keating, who was on, he was part of the Labour Party, he was on the, on the left of politics, but it was a very sensible, very moderate government, and highly praised around the world for economic reforms. And the way that he sold it was that you will get this super so you’re getting the super, but it means you have to have wage restraint at the same time. So that trade off was explicitly recognised. So yeah, but in the short run, there’s a, there’s certainly an impact on employers. But there’s a recognition that over the longer term, it really is the employees who will be paying for it. Look, there are a couple of issues with the, the design of, of super, there’s a concern that these industry super funds control, they have too much control or they’re controlling too much money and they’re too dominated by unions. There are people who are concerned about that. There are other people that are arguing that oh, look, it’d be better if people had access to this money. So they could buy a house, there’s a big debate about whether people should be able to withdraw from Super to buy a house. What else? Yeah, and clearly, some people might be better off if they were able to use that money while they, were while they were young. And when we had COVID. During the COVID period, the government did allow people to withdraw from their super accounts. And we saw a lot of people take that up. And I think they pulled 10 or $20,000 out, if I remember correctly, that was very popular. So yeah, overall, I think it’s a good thing, even though, as a someone who’s very sympathetic to classical, liberal views, I think, Oh, well, it’s not good that the government saying you’ve got to do this, but on the other hand, I recognise that for a lot of people, they might not be saving enough for retirement, and therefore in that case, the government would have to pay for it. So look on balance, I think it’s good. We’ve got it there and are some issues with it. Sure. Yep. So that’s my general, Yeah, that all make sense or any questions.

Romina Boccia  49:17

It’s, it’s certainly an improvement over the US Social Security system where it’s the government handling the entire thing, even though there are contributions by workers and their employers. I did read that individuals who pulled funds from their super accounts during COVID on average, spend longer unemployed than individuals who didn’t choose to tap their super accounts. So it indicates just like in the US, we saw that extended unemployment benefits tend to incentivize people to stay home longer and go back to work later. Even in the context of super, that seems to have had a similar effect.

Gene Tunny  50:07

Yeah, I think that’s that’s probably true. We’ll have to look up that, that evidence of that sounds right to me. Right. Oh, well, remember, this has been fantastic. I think that’s been a great overview of the fiscal challenges facing the US. I hope that you’re, they’re inviting you to appear before Congress at some time to testify to get your views because I think they’re really well informed and important views. So that’s terrific. So yeah, if there’s any final points, anything else to add?

Romina Boccia  50:42

Thank you. I just wanted to just looked up Medicare as a percentage of GDP and it’s roughly 4% right now. Going up.

Gene Tunny  50:49

Okay, gotcha. Right. So that is a big deal. Okay Romina Boccia from the Cato Institute. Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate your insights and really enjoyed the conversation.

Romina Boccia  51:02

Yeah, so fun chatting with you, Gene. Thanks so much for inviting me on your show.

Gene Tunny  51:06

Okay, thanks Romina. Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

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Podcast episode

US recession, climate change & monetary policy w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP151

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen claims the US economy is not in a recession,  despite two consecutive quarters of declining GDP. Economics Explored EP151 guest Darren Brady Nelson disagrees with the Treasury Secretary and argues she is taking a political position. Whether she’s being political or not, Janet Yellen has certainly taken a big risk, as Darren and Gene discuss. Darren and Gene also talk about the review of the Aussie central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, particularly how climate change could figure in that review. Darren argues the review team should have a broader range of views represented, including Monetarist and Austrian perspectives. 

You can listen to the episode via the embedded player below or via podcasting apps including Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

About this episode’s guest – Darren Brady Nelson

Darren is Chief Economist of the Australian think tank Liberty Works and he’s also an Economics Associate at the CO2 Coalition in Washington, DC. For Darren’s bio, check out the regular guests page.

Links relevant to the conversation

While it’s the NBER that declares whether the US economy is in recession, this CNBC report notes: “Since 1948, the economy has never seen consecutive quarterly growth declines without being in a recession.”

But many economists are skeptical about whether the US is in a recession, including recent podcast guests Stephen Kirchner and Michael Knox. 

Stephen Kirchner on the US recession question.

Michael Knox’s Economic Strategy: Fed hikes rates, but Fed says no recession (PDF).

Transcript: US recession, climate change & monetary policy w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP151

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored 

Darren Brady Nelson  00:05

like to see seemed to have sold or sold for political purposes as the head of Treasury in the US each year is a political appointee. So, that is, to some extent a political position.

Gene Tunny  00:19

Welcome to the economics explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional Economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. 

This is episode 151 on whether the US economy is in a recession. Joining me is returning guest, Darren Brady Nelson. 

Darren is Chief Economist of the Australian Think Tank Liberty Works. And he’s also an Economics Associate at the CO2 coalition in Washington DC. As well as chatting about the US economy. Darren and I discuss climate change and the review of the Reserve Bank of Australia. 

In the show notes, you can find relevant links and details of how you can get in touch. Please let me know your thoughts on what either Darren or I have to say. I’d love to hear from you. 

In the show notes. I’ll include links to some great commentary on whether the US actually is in a recession from two previous guests, Michael Knox and Steven Kirschner. So, make sure you check those links out. 

Right on, for my conversation with Darren. Thanks to my audio engineer, Josh Crotts, for his assistants in producing this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. 

Darren Brady Nelson, Chief Economist at Liberty works. Welcome back unto the program.

Darren Brady Nelson  01:35

Thank you. Good to see you. I guess it’s been a while since we last spoke about Work Capitalism, I think.

Gene Tunny  01:41

Yes, that’s right. That was a few months ago. So yes, it’s good to catch up again. This is a 151st episode, and this is your 11th appearance on the show if I’m counting correctly. So yeah, we get around to another chat every 15 episodes or so. So, it’s about time to catch up with you. So, it’s great to have you on the show again.

Darren Brady Nelson  02:06

Yeah, congratulation, because I’ve been so prolific. 151 That’s great.

Gene Tunny  02:11

Yeah, well, it’s just drip by drip, really. It’s one per week, and they mount up, yes. Thankfully, we’re out of the COVID period, although I had it recently. And I was in isolation, but we’re over all of that craziness which was dominating the conversation for a while, and now we’re getting on to other issues. 

Okay, so I thought we could chat now about the US GDP figures and we had some big news last week, in Australia. You’re still on Saturday there; I think Darren, there in the states in DC. And now we’ve got two consecutive negative quarters of GDP growth. So, GDP grew at an annualized rate or didn’t grow, it fell at an annualized rate of 0.9% in the June quarter, and that followed a decline of, I think it was 1.6% in the March quarter, that’s at an annualized rate. Okay, so there’s a big debate about whether the US is in recession or not. Darren, what do you think? Is the US in a recession at the moment?

Darren Brady Nelson  03:26

Well, yeah, I would say so. I must admit, in this conversation, certainly, you’re going to be more expertise than I. You’re a guru of sort of macro-economic indicators, and all that, particularly from your treasury background, but other things you’ve done, too. So, maybe I’ll be asking you some questions, too, and hoping to get some answers. But yeah, I’m not sure; maybe you know the answer to this, but, the entire time I’ve been, first studying economics and being an economist, putting aside the debates on whether two consecutive quarters is the greatest definition or not, it seems to have been the definition for a long time. And the most interesting thing I’ve seen recently, and I guess this would have been headlines, I imagined in Australia as well, was the Biden administration going. No, no, that’s not really the technical definition of a recession. 

I don’t think I recall an administration, democrat or republican ever; they may come up with excuses and say, it’s not well, it’s not our fault. It’s the previous administration and all that sort of stuff, or you know, external circumstances. But this is really the first time someone’s ever, including, some of the economists that the Biden administration has. On record, obviously, talking about in the past that yes, the recession. You know, the technical definition, if you like, is the two consecutive quarters of negative growth. So, it’s been very interesting times. Again, I guess in the 2020s, including a lot of media organizations and our favorite, sort of Neo Keynesian Economist, Krugman coming out and also defending that the Biden administration on oh, well, it’s not really a recession. So, it certainly fits the technical definition that, if you’d like I grew up with. And, that’s certainly my impression, just actually being in the US. Is it dire just yet? Yes. On the inflation front, yes. But unemployment, still is fairly low. And putting aside the fact that participation rate, that’s a little bit of a worry, but the unemployment rates not so bad at this stage. And usually, obviously, that’s, if you’d like a key secondary indicator, besides GDP itself, that people usually turn to right away, before they maybe dig into, what aspects of GDP have gone down, energy manufacturing, etc, etc.

Gene Tunny  06:02

Yeah. Okay. So, there are a few things you mentioned there, Darren, 

Darren Brady Nelson  06:09

So, yes. Not a strong yes. So, yeah, I’d say yes. Technical definition? Kind of weak, yes in a kind of more judgement point of view.

Gene Tunny  06:16

Yes. So, you referred to what the White House was saying, and what Janet Yellen in the Treasury was saying. So, I might just read that out. And then we can go from there. And I can let you know what I thought about that. 

So, what Janet Yellen said and this is reported by the Financial Times. “The White House has maintained that the US economy is not at present in a recession, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen saying earlier this week that she would be amazed if the NB declared it was okay.” So, what she’s talking about there is the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is I think it’s attached to; is it attached to Harvard or MIT or one of those East Coast universities? There’s this elite group.

Darren Brady Nelson  07:01

I think it’s independent. I mean, look, I don’t know, but I think it’s more independent than even being associated with one particular university, I think.

Gene Tunny  07:10

Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah. But it’s an elite group of macro economists, some of the top people and you’ll have some of the leading lights of economics on it. And they will date the business cycles, they will declare whether the economy’s in recession or not. And generally, what they’re looking for is a sustained downturn that lasts several months, so more than one quarter. And they look at a broad range of indicators. So, it’s not just GDP. But that having said that, it looks like GDP is an important part of it, because it’s that comprehensive measure of economic activity. 

And one thing I noticed when I was preparing for our chat, is there was a report from CNBC, where it noted that I don’t think there’s ever been a recession that the NBR has called, which didn’t have two consecutive quarters of GDP growth, if that makes sense. So, where’s the actual passage? 

Darren Brady Nelson  08:21

I think that’s not correct. I think they call the recession, during the pandemic, and that wasn’t two quarters, I think. So, they do have a bit of leeway. But they tend to usually use the two quarters as part of the definition as a key component.

Gene Tunny  08:38

Okay, look, I’ll have to check that, I thought I read that earlier today. I had that somewhere here in my notes.

Okay. So, we might go back to what Janet Yellen, what she said here. She underscored the message at a press conference on Thursday, emphasizing that the economy remains resilient. Most economists and most Americans have a similar definition of recession, substantial job losses and mass layoffs, businesses shutting down, private sector activities slowing considerably, family budgets under immense strain. In some abroad-based, weakening of our economy. She said, that is not what we’re seeing now. 

Okay. It seems to me that’s a pretty risky call from her because she is running the risk that the NBA does eventually define this as a recession. And that’s going to be incredibly embarrassing for the administration. So, yeah, that would be my sense of it. I think it is a big call from Janet Yellen. And it may be too early to tell. But look, there are a lot of Economists out there who seem positive about the US economy. But that said, it does appear that I mean, is it the interest rates, is it what the Federal Reserve’s been doing that’s causing issues? Is it inflation that’s hitting Consumers? What do you think are the main forces affecting the US economy at the moment, Darren?

Darren Brady Nelson  10:06

Yeah, I think, you’ve definitely touched on two key components. But just to comment on Janet Yellen. But you know, Janet Yellen was totally wrong on inflation. So, that didn’t seem to impact her credibility within her circle that she goes around with, and the people who hire her; that didn’t seem to make any difference. So, probably when she’s proven wrong on recession, which I think she already has been. Yeah, I mean, that inflation is like, one of the key things; it’s the biggest problems in the US, and obviously, even the Federal Reserve, which has been; our Federal Reserve is part of the process of creating inflation. So, they’ve gotten spooked. Biden administration itself has not, which they, at least publicly, they keep on, they don’t seem to be, they acknowledged it a bit, but they don’t really kind of acknowledge it as bad as, even though the official statistics are showing. So, you have, like, I guess we’ve talked about this many times, but, you have kind of two things going on at once, the unprecedented levels of money printing, and the credit that goes with it, which, if you’d like, from a macro point of view, is hitting the demand side. And then on the supply side, they’re doing all sorts of, the Biden administration’s policies are just hurting supply, and hurting productivity and competition. 

So, that can sometimes, make up a lot for that money printing. The supply side can react to it, and really dampen what, it’s for the money to the demand side of things. So, energy is a classic one, they had a complete 180 on their energy policy. So, the US went from the number one energy producer in the world to not that anymore, and, record time, essentially?

Gene Tunny  12:08

And is that the Biden administration’s fault in your view?

Darren Brady Nelson  12:12

Well, exactly. It’s not just their fault, that is literally their policy. You know, they’re going for the green transition, if you like, come hell or hot water, right? So, which includes, not allowing oil companies to extract oil and all sorts of things. Oil, natural gas, coal, etc. And they’ve also hit agriculture with bad policies as well. You know, manufacturing; yeah, literally, if you want to destroy an economy, the Biden’s administration is basically ticking all the boxes with their policies. And, putting aside, you can argue whether that’s intentional or unintentional, but I think there’s not too many, if you like, remotely free, market friendly economists who think the Biden’s policies are particularly good.

Gene Tunny  13:10

Right, okay, I’ll have to have a closer look at some of the policies and come back to that. I just want to go back to that definition of recession; I think I might have missed or may not have communicated properly what that factoid in that CNBC report was. So, what they were saying was that, in fact, every time since 1948, the GDP has fallen for at least two straight quarters. So, they’re not saying that, there could be recessions if you don’t have this, and that’s what you were saying with the pandemic, that was, like you could call a recession, if you don’t have the two negative quarters. But what this point is, is that, in fact, every time since 1948, the GDP has fallen for at least two straight quarters. The NBER ultimately, has declared it a recession. So, you can have a recession, even if you don’t have the two quarters, but every time you’ve seen it in the data, the NBER has ultimately called it a recession. So, what Janet Yellen has done is, yeah, that’s a really big call on her part. And, I mean, Janet Yellen, someone with a distinguished academic reputation, and yep, so really, really big call and potentially, it will backfire on her. We have to wait and see about that. Yeah.

Darren Brady Nelson  14:38

Janet Yellen in not going to make, you know, like she’s she seemed to have sold or sold for political purposes. Not unusual that; it’s not like this has never been seen before. Most of her sort of, like topics when she gets into public is less focused on inflation and recessions and she’s talking about equity and diversity and inclusivity and all that sort of stuff. Well, I guess as the head of Treasury in the US, each year is a political appointee. So, I guess, that is, to some extent, a political position. Although, usually in the past, it’s been Department of Justice and Treasury have, usually been less partisan, if you like. The people regardless of whether it was democrat or republican in charge, but you know, things have changed quite a bit. Certainly, this century and certainly in the 2020s.

Gene Tunny  15:33

Yeah, exactly. Okay. So, you mentioned the supply side before, well, one thing we’ve had in Australia here is just the ongoing disruption to supply chains. And I mean, the random things just been unavailable in the supermarket’s. Quantas seems to have lost its mojo; can’t seem to run a flight on schedule any time anymore. And partly, that’s because they lost people during the pandemic. And now we’ve got people on isolation leave, like if you get COVID, you have to isolate for seven days, and that’s disruptive. Things just don’t seem to be working as they once did. Is that the same in the States? Have you noticed that in the US?

Darren Brady Nelson  16:21

Yeah. I think some extent, less. Although I understand aviation has been kind of bad here, too. But I haven’t actually been, I’m just going on to sort of news reports and talking to other people that, yeah, they’ve had, things. Well, what happened in the US probably, maybe more than Australia is a lot of pilots, either were, let go or just left because they didn’t want to get the vaccine, right? And the federal government has a bigger say in aviation than they do and other industries, for instance, particularly on employment. And so yeah, that’s all contributed, including also I understand, not just pilots, but other people in the aviation industry, various hubs, the people needed at the airports and the hubs as well, similar sort of circumstances. The supply chain disruption in general, I haven’t noticed it as much in terms of like at the grocery store, there was a period where there was a little bit of that. Not as bad, but certainly, there were issues as well, in the US, perhaps, maybe not as bad in terms of like, grocery stores and whatnot. 

So, the 2020s have been very weird times. And I don’t think it’s some sort of like natural market outcomes as such. Obviously, markets wrecked, and they impact, but I think there’s just the amount of, really over the top interventions and status sort of policies in the 2020s have taken me by surprise. We’ve been prepping backwards, if you like, towards bigger and bigger government, and I think, reaping the rewards. I don’t know why people, even people who; seasoned economists, who should kind of, know better, the more the government does stuff and interferes, the worse things get. It literally, is becoming, more and more like an Atlas Shrugged world. I don’t know if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged; probably familiar with the premise anyway. It’s like that. I’m like Atlas Shrugged there, but, there were places to escape to in that world, the fictional world of as many, as you can see, in this world, when, all the governments are, have uniform sort of policies on COVID and uniform policies of not tackling inflation, and all that. And maybe it will be interesting to see if the elbow government copies the Democrat lead, which I suspect they will, if Australia gets two quarters of negative growth, they’ll go that’s not really a recession, we’ll be interesting to see if they go down that road as well.

Gene Tunny  19:12

Yeah, one thing that we’ve traditionally relied on to keep the economy growing is migration, just the addition of people and that those consumption, and so that’s starting to pick up again. Possibly, that try and redefine it. I mean, I don’t think we’re at risk of that at the moment. Although having said that consumer confidence has dropped with the higher interest rates, so people are freaking out over just the increases in interest rates we’ve seen already, because it looks like they just borrow lots of money when interest rates were really low. The Reserve Bank, Governor, I couldn’t believe it. Last year, he was saying, oh, the interest rates will; our official cash rate will stay at 0.1 until 2024. And arguably, he misled people. And so, I mean, he really has a lot of questions to answer for. And there is the Reserve Bank of Australia review, which I’ve talked about in this program. I don’t know if you’ve had a look at that at all, Darren?

Darren Brady Nelson  20:22

No, no. Give me a synopsis of what drove that. And what’s happening? 

Gene Tunny  20:28

Well, the RBA has been under a lot of criticism in recent years for different reasons. There’s been one group of economists who’ve been critical of it, because they argue that they didn’t; that they had interest rates too high in the lead up to the pandemic. Now, whether that’s true or not, I think it’s debatable. But I’ve had people like Peter Tulip and Steve Kirschner on the show. I mean, they’re very good economists. I think it’s worth considering their view for sure. 

Their argument is that if you’re trying to achieve the inflation target of 2 to 3%; they were arguing that because inflation was actually lower than that, you had scope to have looser monetary policy, lower interest rates, to have more employment growth. And there was some modelling that was done by Andrew Lee, who’s a Labor Party MP and a former and new professor, and Isaac Gross, who’s an economist at University of Melbourne, I think. And they showed that if the RBA had met its inflation target, if it had lower interest rates and let the economy grow faster. You could have had; I think it was like 250 to 300,000 more jobs in the economy. So, there were a group of economists criticizing the RBA from that direction. And they were saying that the RBA was too concerned about households taking on too much debt. So, they didn’t want to put interest rates lower. 

I could see why the bank would be concerned about that. So, that’s why I’m not fully on board with that criticism of the bank. That said, I think it is good to review the Reserve Bank, because it is a bit of a; it’s not exactly transparent what they’re doing. So, I think there could be greater transparency. And since last year, when Phil Lowe was making those sorts of bold calls, that turned out to be wrong within months, right. It was obvious that we’re in the in the new year when we started getting those inflation numbers that the Reserve Bank would have to act. So, I think they lost a lot of credibility over that. 

So, it’s important now to have this review. And they’ve appointed Caroline Wilkins from, she’s a former Deputy Governor of the Canadian Central bank. They’ve got Gordon De Brouwer, who’s a former bureaucrat, I worked for him when he was in the treasury. And he was also at a new at times. He’s good. He’s good value. And Rene Fry McKibbin, who’s a professor of Economics at ANU. 

They’re going to review the board like there are issues to do with board composition, who’s on the board? There are issues to do with the inflation target; but I’m not sure they’ll do much about that. They might tweak some of the language. And then there’s issues to do with the transparency of the board’s decision making; what do they release to the public every month? So that’s essentially what the review is about and I think it’s, it’s a good thing that they’re doing that. So, yeah, that’s it. So, yeah, it’s worth definitely worth keeping an eye on. 

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

Female speaker  24:01

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Gene Tunny  24:30

Now back to the show.

Darren Brady Nelson  24:33

So, are they the reviewers? Are they sort of, left or center, for the most part, like a Keynesian and MMT and, something else or what? What’s the story there?

Gene Tunny  24:47

I’d say the typical mainstream macro economists. So, however you’d like to characterize that, they’re definitely not MMT. If you had to give them a label, maybe you give them a new Keynesian label, possibly. But yeah, they’re not I don’t think they’re radical in any particular direction. They’re nonpolitical appointees, which is a good thing. One of the big questions and something that I think the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, Albo, as we call him, one thing he will be, he’ll be getting pressured to put a trade union representative on the board. So, they’ve had one in the past, I think Bob Hawke, our former Prime Minister was on the board in the 70s, when he was the head of the ACTU. 

And then we’ve had various other ACTU secretaries on the Reserve Bank Board. There are some people pushing for a regional rep., but, one thing that Peter Tulip, who’s Chief Economist at Centre for Independent Studies has been pushing for is, he said that the problem is, we don’t have enough people who know about inflation and monetary policy on the board. And so, we need more of those people. We need more, it’d be better to have more economic experts or economists on the board.

Darren Brady Nelson  26:05

Yeah. And maybe, also further, how about a variety of use, and not just the one kind of, you say, mainstream, and but that’s still a worldview, it’s still a way of looking at things. And it’s not the only way of looking at things. The combination of, essentially New Keynesians, for the most part, with maybe a little, like 80-20 Keynesian monetarist; that’s maybe what, most mainstream sort of, macro folks, that’s kind of what they’ve learned and whatnot, be good to have somebody else. Have an Austrian point of view, have maybe a full on monetarist point of view, whatever; just something that’s not just the one point of view, , so it’s not just Tweedledee and Tweedledum, every time either on the board or this review.

I’m not saying these people aren’t smart, or anything like that; the three people you mentioned, but I suspect there’s not going to be a whole lot of push and shove between the three. 

Gene Tunny  27:04

So, I think the review in a way, presumes that there won’t be radical changes. The Reserve bank is going to continue as an institution, we’re still going to have Fiat money. Is that the sort of thing that you think should be up for review, that we should be looking at something more fundamental?

Darren Brady Nelson  27:25

Well, at least you have one person on there who can be the dissenting voice to say, something like that, but I’m saying, even if it was, say, one Keynesian, one monetarist, and one Austrian, I think you might get a pretty decent review out of that, with the monetarist if you like, in between the two, to some extent. 

So, you still have 2 – 1, want to keep a central bank going, but we just, good to kind of be realistic about, what a Central bank does and what inflation is, what monetary policy is, all that sort of stuff. That’s fine, if the board, I’m not saying, the board should be all full of economists, even if it was a mix of those types of economists, I think it’s fine to have some other, you know, depending on how big the board is, you know, there would be room, I guess, for a union and a business representatives and maybe some other stuff as well, that’s fine. 

And then they should also review, also the goals of the Reserve Bank; what’s legislation. There’s a lot of stuff in there besides inflation, maybe, just to look at it, and kind of whether all that needs to be in there, or whether there’s should be a better balance, or you should prioritize and go, inflation is number one, and then something, that type of thing. It’d be great. 

A lot of these reviews aren’t all that genuine, they already have a political goal. I mean, you say they’re not political, but it always is, you know, to some extent, they’re under certainly under pressure anyway, regardless of who they stick in there to review things. Now, in the past, some of these reviews have been a lot less political than others, there’s always a political element, like the competition policy review wasn’t particularly political, but there’s always a little bit of an aspect to it, of course, I’d be surprised if they’re not under, some fairly great political pressure to start going beyond and started looking at, kind of cultural war type stuff, too, that they want to ingrain, sort of, race and gender and all that other stuff. I’ll be I’ll be pleasantly surprised as if that isn’t going to be a part of the review.

Gene Tunny  29:37

So, as far as I’m aware, race and gender won’t be at this stage, I don’t think. But one thing that possibly will be, now whether there’s a culture war issue or not, I don’t know. I think I’m not sure it’s, I guess there are aspects of it that are part of the cultural war but the debate about the climate. So, Warwick McKibbin, who is he’s a Professor of Economics at ANU, and he’s actually the husband of one of the reviewers. But you know, she’s independent of; she’s her own person… Renee Fry McKibbin; she’s Warwick’s wife. 

Darren Brady Nelson  30:22

Actually, by definition, at least the old school definition marriages, you’re not, you’re one flesh. But anyway, I understand what you’re trying to say. 

Gene Tunny  30:29

Okay, yes. So, I don’t think she’ll necessarily go along with Warwick’s view. But Warwick was at the conference of Economists in Hobart two weeks ago, where I caught COVID. And, it was a good conference other than that, it was a great conference.

Darren Brady Nelson  30:46

And super spreader of it.

Gene Tunny  30:49

Yeah, that’s right. And Warwick was on the panel. And now we’re talking about the Reserve Bank review. And one of the points he made is that we may have to amend actually, I think he’s saying we will have to amend our inflation targeting settings or our goals or objectives. We’ll have to amend that to incorporate climate change, because we have to recognize that if we’re going to be responding to climate change, we’re going to introduce a carbon price and one that increases over time. So, that’s what you need to have that sort of lowest cost adjustment path. So, to minimize the cost of adjusting to climate change, you’ll need to have a carbon price that increases and so that’s going to be increasing prices. So, you’ll need to look through the inflation, you’ll have to ignore the inflation that comes from the carbon price. So, I think culture war issues won’t come into it. But I think the climate change will come into the RBA review.

Darren Brady Nelson  32:01

Okay, well, that’s good to know. It’s terrible news. But it’s not surprising though.

Gene Tunny  32:06

But doesn’t it make sense what Warwick is saying? I mean, if a government does introduce a carbon price, and you’re going to have increasing prices because of that, then that’s not really inflation that the Central bank should be concerned about. What do you think of that perspective?

Darren Brady Nelson  32:25

It still should be concerned about it, even if, you know; this is all about thinking about the costs and benefits. It sounds like, just assuming, okay, well look, we’re just not going to worry about the downside of our carbon tax and our climate policies, because it’s such a, unquestionable good to pursue this. That’s ideology, that’s not economics, that’s really bad economics. And it’s also bad constitutional law, like, to what enshrine you know, certainly a very long-standing fad, of the climate sort of industry. But, the concept of inflation is something that stands the test of time. You can disagree on various aspects of it, but it’s always going to be, to the extent you’re going to have monetary policy, inflation is going to be an important thing to be thinking about, right. Climate change, may not be. 

I’ve been following this debate since the mid-90s. And, I can tell you; well, just look at the polling, I can’t speak for Australia, but in the US, it’s something along the lines of; it’s well outside the top 10 of topics that people are concerned about in the US, for instance, then you want to start because, elites like him, are in a position to influence these things. They want to shove in the things that they care most about. And I think it’s just atrocious to think you can stick that into the Reserve Bank act. I assure you another government can come along and potentially change that if they want, if the electorate says, alright, you’ve been trying to convince us that the end of the world has been coming for 30 years, it hasn’t arrived, we no longer trust you. Sure, that might happen. And then, government could change things, but you know, so it’s a bit hard to change stuff in legislation, a lot of damage can be done in the meantime.

Gene Tunny  34:20

Okay. So, on where is where they’d make the change? It probably wouldn’t be in the act, they would have it in the agreement between the treasurer and the Reserve Bank. If I remember correctly, I think the general view on the Reserve Bank act from the late 50s was that, look, some of the language is a bit outdated. But you know, maybe leave that alone, you can do all you need you want to do within the agreement between the treasurer and the Reserve Bank. So, I think that’s where they would adopt something like that. 

Just on that Reserve Bank Act, I think what they talk about in that is that the Reserve Bank is supposed to set monetary policy to have a stable currency to achieve full employment and to promote the prosperity of Australians or something. Something broad like that. Yeah. So, they’ll probably leave that and they’ll do whatever they want to do with if they did want to put some wording in about climate change, it’ll probably be very vague, because it is all very vague. We don’t really, I mean, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen here in Australia. Politically, it’s, it’s such a vexed issue. And you’re saying is not in the top 10 issues in the US, it’s certainly in the top 10. It’s top five; top 3 here in Australia. 

I mean, the previous government lost Blue Ribbon seats, seats that it’s held for decades, seats in affluent areas of Sydney and Melbourne. And it lost them because of climate change, because people in those seats are extremely concerned about it.

Darren Brady Nelson  36:07

Yeah, there’s a different point of view. Certainly, they did, but I wouldn’t extrapolate to say that means Australia as a whole has the same views as these inner-city suburbs, they’ve just changed the demographics and the ideological viewpoints of these people. That’s why they lost. Just like we’ve seen around the world, it’s the rich and upper-class professionals who gravitate towards status policies and status causes, like climate change. The working class, and in the middle, and lower middle classes do not. And electoral politics, isn’t just a straight representation of what the entire nation views necessarily. And putting aside the fact that the polling is often biased and bad and misleading and all that sort of stuff, but that decide. 

I’ve seen some other people who; intelligent Australian commentators, James Allen, and people like that. We’ve been having a bit of look at that, to see whether, that mainstream narrative is actually true. They certainly lost obviously, those seats, they were blue ribbon, but they’ve been changing and moving left for a while now. So, particularly in the US, how climate change is almost really a non-issue from a broad electorate point of view, not any specific electorates. 

Yet, that doesn’t stop the policies from carrying on and then you have all these perverse outcomes of like, I imagined Albanese will get more copy a lot of what the Biden administration so, the push for electric vehicles. Well, electric vehicles are still being produced by coal and natural gas, you know. So, you’re really in many ways, you actually might even be increasing carbon dioxide emissions through transitioning to electric vehicles from petrol vehicles. And the fact is, most of the world is actually increasing the use of coal, mostly India, China, Brazil, etc. And there’s even been a coal like I said, there’s been a coal comeback, even in Western countries as electric vehicle usage gets ramped up. So, these people don’t go, oh, no, we; the same people who say there’s an existential problem, keep on producing, keep on pushing electric vehicles, for instance. So, that their actions speak louder than their words that it isn’t really an existential crisis. Putting aside the fact obviously, all these elites tend to keep on buying beach side homes and all these sorts of stuff. I think just look at their actions, speak much louder than their words. 

So, we’re getting this system where we get a worse electrical system because they keep on showing throwing more and more unreliable and expensive renewable energies on top of it, yet, they’re not actually starting to take much of the load of electricity production, they’re just sitting there costing more money and hurting the rest of the system. Yet, we’re still relying, and we’re going to keep on relying on coal and natural gas and the only renewable energy we’re going to lie and it’s going to be, water – hydro. Putting aside the fact you know, allow many new hydro to be built, but it’s bloody reliable. In the US, if it wasn’t for Quebec, all the hipsters in New York would be having more blackouts because they’re running on water; hydro from Quebec coming down into the US.

Gene Tunny  39:55

Where is that is that near Niagara Falls, or is it is that up in that Region.,

Darren Brady Nelson  40:00

Yeah. Quebec is like, the king of hydro in that part of the world, not just for Canada. In fact, Quebec is mainly supplying electricity to the US, part of the population that’s bigger. And that sort of the northeast of the US. So, that’s kind of insulating on, they can shove on some more solar panels and wind, but that’s not really generating a lot of electricity. And we also have the perverse effect from the main thing that, besides all the kind of pollutants, actually the toxic sort of, chemicals, and all the stuff that it’s needed for electric vehicles, needed for solar panels, needed for wind turbines, which obviously have detrimental environmental effects. They need coal, natural gas, and hydro to make those things in the first place. Not just to be the ones that really, supplemented when the wind’s up blowing, and the sun’s not shining. But if it wasn’t for all the fossil fuels, it couldn’t even build this stuff in the first place. So, all you’re doing is shoving all this stuff, people making a lot of money. A lot of people are virtue signaling, sort of, they keep on crying wolf for what, like 30 years now. There’s, nothing; there’s no significant evidence that we have a problem. 

Gene Tunny  41:15

Well, I’ll push back and say we just had a 40-degree Celsius day in England that they’ve never had in their whole history. 

Darren Brady Nelson  41:23

That’s not true. You go back, and we look at the Paleo challenge. You look at the evidence. For instance, in the US, this damn out in the Colorado River is having; it’s because of climate changes is at its lowest level, lo behold, a study, two weeks prior to them making such statements show that they’ve had more levels on the Colorado River 2000 years ago. 

We’ve had warmer periods, we’ve had more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in times. No, none of this is accurate. It’s all cherry picked to scare the poop out of people to accept these policies they want anyway. And you watch it when we’re old men, we’re going to be the people will go yeah, we’ll look okay, this thing didn’t happen. But I think it was the right thing to do anyway. 

You hear that a lot, even now. They go like it will even for wrong, it’s the right thing to do. How’s it the right thing to do to make people poor? And have people in Africa starve? How’s that the right thing to do?

Gene Tunny  42:22

Okay, so in a future episode, we’ll have to come back to this, Darren, and we’ll see where we are with the with the data.

Darren Brady Nelson  42:28

You want to see the green policies and action? Look at Sri Lanka.

Gene Tunny  42:31

Yeah. Look, I’m not advocating for these policies, necessarily. Yeah. But I do recognize;

Darren Brady Nelson  42:42

That’s not about you, that’s just kind of aim at whoever’s watching this. It’s like, you want to see the future? The potential future? That’s Sri Lanka. That’s the way Australia could look, if they’re not careful.

Gene Tunny  42:55

And what did they do? They actually required organic produce, did they? Did they ban the importation of some fertilizers or something?

Darren Brady Nelson  43:07

Yes, fertilizers. Fertilizer was the main thing using green organic things instead of actual fertilizer. This is what’s happened in countries like Sri Lanka and African countries is to get their aid money. They do the green agenda, essentially. And it’s just a disaster.

I’ll tell you the countries that won’t be, it won’t be China, it won’t be India; the bigger countries that don’t need the foreign aid. And there’s also strategic implications, obviously. Who controls the green energy market, ultimately? China – communist China.

Gene Tunny  43:51

They are producers of a lot of the solar panels. That’s correct. Yeah.

Darren Brady Nelson  43:54

They are almost a monopoly on this, and increasingly, all the support technology for it as well. So, in China, this is not a coincidence. It’s not like, oh, the market chose China, they were just the best people to do it. This is like, this is a plan. It’s a strategy by the Chinese government, and you can see it’s written down. There are books written on this by them to say, oh, this is what we’re going to be trying to do. That basically, it’s their mind calm. So, don’t be surprised, when some of this stuff comes true. 

They have a plan that the Chinese economy is not a free market economy by any stretch of the imagination. You know, it’s a government controlled run for the purposes of, for the benefit of the Communist Party and the strategic interests of China. It’s not like you’re dealing with the Netherlands, that sort of thing. So, that’s also a huge thing. Because they’re an aggressive military power. 

When the time’s right, they’re going to take action. Taiwan and whoever else, eventually over time gets in their way. So, to aid and abet this through these green policies that are aimed at a problem that doesn’t really exist or certainly not in the scale. And certainly, even if the problem doesn’t exist, too deep, to essentially decarbonize the economy is just like literally the worst solution for it. And to decarbonize it in a way that, benefits China immensely. These’re just terrible policies the whole way through and people hopefully one day will be held accountable for this.

Gene Tunny  45:46

Right, okay. We might go back to GDP just before we wrap up, and yeah, I think I agree. There’s a big debate to be had about those policies for sure. I mean, from Australia’s perspective, given that we’re such a small part of the world, doesn’t make sense for us at this stage to adopt those policies on a large scale. My view is we should try to cooperate internationally. But we need to ensure that other countries are following through with their commitments. And I’m not sure that that has always been the case, or it is the case. So, that my perspective on that. 

On GDP, I guess the view is that; my sort of thought is that, Janet Yellen certainly went too far. The US possibly could be in a recession, despite the fact that jobs growth has been strong, despite the fact that you’ve got unemployment at 3.6%, you could be going into; you could be in a downturn. The GDP figures, if you look at the composition of them, you had inventories falling, that was a big part of it. So, businesses were selling goods, but they weren’t replacing their inventories. So, that could be a signal that they’re not expecting; they’re worried about the future, about future sales. We had a drop in residential construction. That was one and that’s probably driven by the increase in interest rates. At the same time consumption spending was up. So, that’s why the summer economists are thinking it’s a bit of a mixed report. And we’re not entirely sure, but my take on it would be the GDP numbers are definitely something be concerned about and Yellen probably went too far when she said, we’re not in a recession. I think that certainly could come back and bite her. 

Darren, do you have any final thoughts on the GDP numbers? Or where the US economy is that?

Darren Brady Nelson  47:55

Pretty much agree with what you just said. And obviously, time is going to tell. I think the bad ministration policies are very bad. And that’s going to come home to roost. So, I think, it’s not going to be good times, economically for the US and if it’s not good times, economically, for the US, it’s not worth it. China is obviously a major player, but it’s not the engine of growth for the world just yet. The US still pretty much is. When the US sneezes, everybody catches a cold.

Gene Tunny  48:39

Yeah, that’s right. I remember that. That was a popular saying in Australia, at the Reserve Bank and Treasury. So, yeah, absolutely. 

Okay. Darren Brady Nelson. Thanks so much for your time. It’s great to catch up, yes. And I look forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Darren Brady Nelson  48:58

Always great to be on your show and see you, Gene, thank you.

Gene Tunny  49:02

Thank you. 

Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com and we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Thanks to this episode’s guest Darren for the great conversations, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au

Please consider signing up to receive our email updates and to access our e-book Top Ten Insights from Economics at www.economicsexplored.com. Also, please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

Stagflation: be alert, not alarmed – EP143 + transcript

In early June 2022, the World Bank downgraded its global economic growth forecast and warned of the rising risk of stagflation, the uncommon combination of high inflation and high unemployment, or falling GDP growth. Stagflation is a portmanteau word, combining stagnation with inflation. Economists first noticed stagflation in 1970s USA (see the chart below) and other advanced economies, when it was triggered by the 1973 oil price shock, which pushed up prices and reduced industrial output as input costs soared.

A simultaneous acceleration of inflation and an increasing unemployment rate in the mid-1970s surprised many people at the time, because it was contrary to the Phillips curve trade-off between unemployment and inflation.

In Episode 143 of Economics Explored, show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Arturo Espinoza discuss how the current global situation is similar and dissimilar to the 1970s, including consideration of recent perspectives from the World Bank and BIS.  While we also have a commodity price shock, associated partly with the war in Ukraine, it is less in proportionate terms than in the 1970s, and we also have better macroeconomic policy frameworks (i.e. explicit inflation targets) than in the 1970s. So the takeaway of the episode is that, while we should be alert to the possibility of stagflation, at this stage we shouldn’t be alarmed.

You can listen to episode 143 using the embedded player below or via Google PodcastsApple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher, among other podcast apps. A transcript and relevant links are also available below.

Links relevant to the conversation

Is a US recession imminent? w/ Michael Knox, Chief Economist, Morgans Financial – EP142 – Economics Explored (Previous episode with Michael Knox)

Jobs report May 2022: Payrolls rose 390,000 in May, better than expected as companies keep hiring 

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=stagflation&geo=US (Google Trends for stagflation)

The Fed must act now to ward off the threat of stagflation | Financial Times

Are major advanced economies on the verge of a wage-price spiral? (BIS Bulletin 53)

Commodity market disruptions, growth and inflation (BIS Bulletin 54)

Robert Heller’s paper on International Reserves and Global Inflation (from p. 28)

Stagflation Risk Rises Amid Sharp Slowdown in Growth (World Bank report) 

Stagflation danger prompts  World Bank to cut growth outlook (Washington Post article)

EP59 on the Natural Rate of Unemployment (re. Milton Friedman’s AEA presidential address)

Friedman’s presidential address

Chart of the Week – The real price of crude oil – Callum Thomas

Clarification

Australia’s wage price index increased 2.4% through the year to March 2022 (see Wage Price Index, Australia, March 2022 | Australian Bureau of Statistics

Transcript of EP143 – Stagflation: be alert, not alarmed

N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.

Gene Tunny  00:01

Coming up on Economics Explored. My personal feeling is that; and this is informed by my conversation with Michael Knox last week. I don’t think we’ll end up with stagflation similar to the 70s or rather, I hope not. I don’t see at the moment.

Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host, Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist based in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m a former Australian Treasury official. This is episode 143 on Stagflation.

Joining me this episode is my colleague at Adept Economics, Arturo Espinosa. Arturo, good to have you on the show again.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  00:44

Thank you, Gene. I am glad to be here.

Gene Tunny  00:48

Excellent, yes. It should be a good conversation because we know that this issue of Stagflation is topical with the recent World Bank report that we’ll get into in this episode. But before we do that, I just thought I’d provide an update on last week’s episode.

So, in Episode 142, I spoke with Michael Knox, who is the Chief Economist at Morgan’s, which is a major Australian wealth management and stock broking firm. And Michael and I chatted about the prospects for the US and Australian economies and what’s been happening with monetary policy. And Michael made a bold prediction in that episode, on where the Australian cash rates, so the policy rate that’s controlled by the Reserve Bank of Australia, so that’s the equivalent of the Federal Reserve in the US or the Bank of England. And he forecast that they would lift it by 50 basis points. So, half a percentage point from 0.35%, he forecast that they would increase it to 0.85%. He was the only economist in Australia who was forecasting there, and he explained why he thought that was the case in the episode.

So, if you’re in the audience, you haven’t listened to that episode yet, please, think about having to listen to it because Michael, I think is one of the best economic forecasters out there. He looks at the global economy, he looks at the Australian economy. And it turned out that the Reserve Bank did increase the cash rate by 0.85%. And it surprised all of the other market economists, all the commentators, and now there’s all this talk about what does this mean for the economy?

Will people now have trouble paying their home loans? Will they get into financial trouble? And there’s a huge conversation about that now in Australia; well done to Michael Knox for forecasting that correctly.

And we were also chatting about this idea or this concern that there could be a recession coming up in the US. So, there’s been a lot of commentary about that. It’s associated with all of this commentary, all this discussion at the moment about stagflation, which we’re going to get into. But Michael is very optimistic about the US economy as we talked about, and just after that episode was published, there was some new data that came out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; at the BLS. And they reported better than expected, employment numbers in the US for May, CNBC reported that the US economy added 390,000 jobs in May, better than expected despite fears of an economic slowdown and with a roaring pace of inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday, at the same time, the unemployment rate held at 3.6% just above the lowest level since December 1969.

Okay, so that’s an update on last week’s episode. Okay. Any questions or thoughts on that, Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  04:04

No, let’s start discussing about the topic.

Gene Tunny  04:09

Yep, about stagflation, absolutely. So, I want to devote the bulk of this episode, or the rest of this episode to talking about stagflation. This is something that I asked Michael about last week in our conversation. And I mean, this is something we haven’t; it’s a term that, that I remember, you know, I learned in when I studied Economics, and as you did, we would have learned this term stagflation about what happened in the 1970s. But we haven’t really heard it in the economic commentary for a while. So, there were decades when no one was really talking about it. And then there was this revival of interest in it, I think, from around late last year.

And if you look at the Google Trends Data, and I’ll put this chart on the show notes, so you can see, when interest in the concept of stagflation has picked up again. And that was from around, I think it was around September, 2021. And we’ve had various commentators talking about the risks of stagflation. So, on 25th of May this year, Martin Wolf; so Martin Wolf is one of the leading financial economic commentators in the world. He writes for The Financial Times. He wrote a column; “The Fed must act now to ward off the threat of stagflation.” And we know from the 1970s, the time to throttle an inflationary upsurge is at the beginning. And is there going to be a recession in the US and other leading economies? This question has naturally arisen among participants at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. So, you probably saw, I think that meeting, they had their World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland last week.

Martin Wolf wrote that this is however, the wrong question, at least for the US. The right one is whether we are moving into a new era of higher inflation and wage growth, similar to the stagflation of the 1970s. If so, what might this mean? That was one of the motivations for having this conversation today.

And almost as if I forecast that the World Bank would produce this study on stagflation, they released it overnight, or it came overnight our time. And so, we’ve just been looking at this morning, this new report, from the reserve; sorry, not the Reserve Bank, that’s our bank here in Australia, the World Bank. And the press release; June 7, press release, I’ll put this in the show notes. So, if you listen, and you’re interested, you can find that; stagflation risk rises amid sharp slowdown in growth.

So, you had a look at this earlier, Arturo, didn’t you? What were your main takeaways from this report from the World Bank?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  06:59

Well, I think these are very good reports, where they dedicate special focus on globalist inflation. And there is a section which they talk about similarities to the 1970s. They mentioned that they are three of them. The first is that supply shocks after a prolonged monetary policy accommodation, the existence of weaker growth. Also, there are some significant problems or inabilities in emerging economies. Those three things can be similar from 1970s to the current period.

Gene Tunny  07:51

This is because these supply side shocks really hurt those emerging economies more than the richer economies; is that the idea? Because they generally have lower incomes in those countries. And so, they’re going to be very badly affected by increases in oil prices, increases in food prices, and that can bring not only economic turmoil, but political turmoil as well.

So, what we might do is; we might revisit those, those similarities. Again, in the podcast first, it just occurred to me that we probably should, or I probably should just talk about what Stagflation is, what does it mean? And I couldn’t find any or there’s no strict definition of what it is. It’s a combination of unemployment and inflation or low GDP growth and high inflation. But there’s no agreed definition of it’s stagflation, if unemployment and GDP growth are x and y and inflation is there; there’s no quantitative definition as far as I can tell.

So, stagflation; it’s a pretty horrible word, if you think about it. I mean, it’s one of these, what do you call it? A portmanteau word. So, it’s a word that is a combination of other words, to try and convey a particular meaning, the combination of themselves. So, it’s a combination of stagnation, plus inflation. Glenn Hubbard’s introductory Economics textbook. So, Glenn Hubbard was the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers for President George W. Bush, in the early 2000s. In his textbook, they define it as a combination of inflation and recession, usually resulting from a supply shock. Okay, and like with everything in Economics, we’ve defined a concept by referring to another concept, we have to define a lot of times. So, supply shock. What do we mean by that? We mean, something that increases the cost of inputs; it’s a shock on the supply side of the economy, our ability to produce.

It’s not like a demand shock, where there’s an increase in spending or an increase in the amount of money. It’s a shock to our productive capacity. So, this concept, I think, originally came into Economics, or it became prominent in the 1970s, when there was the huge spike in oil prices in 1973, when OPEC, because of the Arab countries are upset with the West because they were backing the Israelis in the war, I think it was the young people war. That meant that the cost of inputs increased. And when those inputs increase, we use oil, well for petrol and, you know, across the economy. And so, it’s pushing up costs of production and produces; firms will try and pass that on to customers. That can be inflationary. Okay.

And you mentioned supply shocks before, didn’t you? In terms of the similarities with the 70s? So, we’ve had that,

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  11:10

Yeah, we have the impact. However, there is a difference there in the case of the World Bank report, they say that the current shocks or current supply shocks are smaller, compared to those shocks in 1970s.

Gene Tunny  11:33

That’s right. I should have checked the numbers before I came on to record. But if you look at the real oil price back in the 70s, that was in proportionate terms, that was a huge increase, wasn’t it? I mean, it was multiples of the then current price, and it really shocked people. It was a huge shock to face those price rises.

So, I’ll have to dig out what that stat was and put it in the show notes. But that’s what they’re driving out there, aren’t they? They’re saying, well, okay, we’ve seen some big increases in commodities prices, but they’re, they’re smaller still than what we saw in the 1970s. So, they may have a chart and that report that we can refer people to in the show notes. Okay.

So, just on this definition of stagflation again, that was one definition. Now, note, there’s no quantitative; there aren’t any numbers in that definition. Dornbusch and Fisher; so, that was the textbook I use when I studied macro Economics back in the 90s. Rudy Dorn, Bush and Stan Fisher, so very prominent, US macro economists, I think are at MIT. They wrote that stagflation occurs when inflation rises, while output is either falling or at least not rising. And on well, actually, there’s probably no point me giving textbook page references, because this is sort of the 1994 edition. But in that edition, they wrote that during periods of stagflation, such as 1973, 74, 1980, and 1991. There are articles in the newspapers that the laws of Economics are not working as they should, because inflation is high or rising, even though output is falling.

So if we go to the, the data for the US, so I’ll put this chart in the show notes as well. We look at what happened in 1973 – 74. And this was a huge shock, I think at the time. We see that inflation went from a rate of 2 to 3%. And it ended up at a rate of over 10%. I think it looks like nearly 12½ % on this chart, I’ve pulled up. And so, we had those two years; well, after the ‘73 oil shock, so 74, 75 inflation is accelerating. And unemployment is also increasing, and it’s increasing from about 5% to nearly 8 to 9% or so. I’ll put this chart in, and I’ll just check those numbers. And this came as a big shock, because there was this concept of the Phillips Curve wasn’t there? There was this idea that there was this tradeoff between unemployment and an inflation, that if you had high unemployment, then at the same time, you should have low inflation. Or if you had high inflation, you’d have low unemployment. There was this idea that there was this trade off; because empirically, if you looked at the data for the 50s and 60s in the States, or for the UK or other advanced economies, it looked like there was this trade off. It looked like there was a menu from which economic policymakers could choose.

The typical story about the Phillips Curve was that, you could get unemployment down by stimulating your economy, a bit of Keynesian fine tuning, a bit of pump priming. You could reduce unemployment, but if you get unemployment; if you if you do reduce that, that puts more power in the hands of Labor relative to capital, you can tell stories about unions, you can tell stories about people being more aggressive in their wage negotiations, because Labor is scarcer, and that leads to higher inflation.

So, there’s this idea of a tradeoff. And this Phillips Curve was something that was found by Bill Phillips, who was a professor, Bill is from New Zealand originally. And he ended up being a professor at the London School of Economics. Have you heard about that? This is a bit of a tangent, but he built that hydraulic, economic model. Have you ever heard of that, ever heard of LSE?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  16:08

No, I haven’t heard about it.

Gene Tunny  16:11

And he developed this hydraulic, economic model in the 50s and 60s. They built a representation of the economy; they’re essentially modelling the circular flow of income with using water and mechanical parts. And this was a model that London School of Economics; I just remember that because she gave a lecture at the University of Queensland in 2016, Mary Morgan, she’s a professor at LSE, London School of Economics. She wrote a great book on the World in a Model. So, she’s done some great work on the history of economic modelling. Her first job, she said, was looking after that hydraulic computer.

So, Bill Phillips, one of the great economists, he discovered this correlation between all this trade off; the Phillips Curve, the relationship that ended up being influential in economic policy in the 60s until it broke down in the 70s. As we are talking about, he looked at UK wages growth, so wages, inflation and unemployment data. Even though what he did was look at wages data, well, it soon transferred as a concept to a tradeoff between price inflation and unemployment, because well, there is obviously a link between wages and prices, because employers will try and pass on those increases.

Does that all make sense? I was just trying to explain why this idea of this stagflation came as such a shock in the 1970s.

So, what was wrong with that Phillips Curve concept? Why didn’t it work out? Well, it was because of this supply side shock, wasn’t it? This was something that wasn’t really anticipated in that Phillips Curve story. And the other problem was that when you have high inflation, the expectations of people in the economy of workers and businesses, your expectations of inflation increase. You essentially, come to expect inflation and inflation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because every time there’s a wage negotiation, or a contract negotiation, you essentially allow for the future inflation, you expect it. And you have things like cost-of-living adjustments, you essentially build it into contracts and under wage bargaining. So that’s one of the reasons why the traditional Phillips Curve breaks down. And there was a very famous speech by Milton Friedman; the presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1968. And I’ve talked about this in a previous episode – Episode 59, on the Natural Rate of Unemployment. And Friedman argued, well, in the long run, there’s really no Phillips Curve, you might think that there’s some sort of tradeoff in the short run, that you can get unemployment down if you pump-prime; if you stimulate your economy, and you’ll get some inflation as a result of that or you could go the other way and try and contract the economy to reduce inflation.

But in the long run, there is no trade off; there’s no Phillips Curve to speak of this. The economy should gravitate towards a natural rate of unemployment. And inflation can be whatever is consistent with people’s expectations.

There’s a big problem if you don’t get inflation under control, and people come to expect inflation, and then you can just have persistently high inflation, and you can have that with high unemployment as well.

Have you seen those diagrams of the Phillips Curve, with the vertical long run Phillips Curve? And then if you start off at a point on that Phillips Curve, so say you’re at your natural rate of unemployment, and you’ve got high inflation expected, then what can happen is, there some sort of shock that increases unemployment. And so, you start off at that high point with high inflation already. Maybe, it eventually has some sort of; it does contribute to a reduction in inflation somewhat, but you still at that higher level of inflation. And so, you can have higher unemployment or high unemployment and high inflation still.

So, that was probably a bit more technical information than we needed. If you have a look at an intermediate or advanced macroeconomics textbook, they’ll have some diagrams; I have some models that go over, that we probably don’t need to look into that. But the main point is that this Phillips Curve, discovered by Bill Phillips; people thought it was this stable tradeoff between unemployment and inflation, didn’t hold in the long run. And if your economy is subject to the supply side shocks, so increase in the price of oil, for example. And then if people come to expect inflation, then you can get high levels of inflation. And they can be very persistent, and you can have the economy slow down, you’re going to have high unemployment, and inflation can still persist for a long time.

And if you did want to get that inflation down, you really need a change in monetary policy, you need a much more aggressive monetary policy, and you need a credible Central bank that can deliver it. And I think this is what Paul Volcker in the US did in the early 80s. And this is what when they massively tighten monetary policy, high interest rates, crunch the economy, but they did get inflation under control. And I think this is related to this point that the World Bank made. There was a point about better monetary policy frameworks. Is that right?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  22:37

Yes, that’s right. After that economic event occurring 1970s, most of Central banks started to control prices, try to target inflation. Also, they incorporated the old thing related to these rational speculative in order to take into account potentials proven that pulling golden, been analyzed before 1970s since the Phillips Curve wasn’t explained correctly, the prequel evidence, as you mentioned. In the short run, that Phillips Curve is playing well, but in the long run, they didn’t account other factors, and relationships was different. So, I think most of the Central bank started to work better in terms of expectations.

Gene Tunny  23:45

Yeah. And so, this is this point, that Central banks, they need to have a credible monetary policy. And one way of having a credible monetary policy is to have an explicit inflation target that you’re judged on. And that’s why our Reserve Bank of Australia has a 2 to 3% inflation target, and the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, they’re aiming for, I think it’s 2%. I’ll put that in the show notes. But they sort of; all of these Central banks tend to have inflation targets in 2 to 3%, which is a recognition that you’re going to have some inflation, but what you want to avoid is higher rates of inflation or double-digit inflation, or even worse, that’s what you really want to avoid, because that really causes a lot of misery. People can sort of, live with inflation of 2 to 3%.

So, that was this point about monetary policy; another thing that helps signal a credible monetary policy. So, by credible, we mean that people in the economy, businesses and workers know that if inflation starts to accelerate, the Central bank is going to squash that inflation as soon as it can. And that helps keep inflationary expectations down so people don’t come to expect higher inflation.

Okay, and one other thing that does help with the credibility of a Central bank is having an independent Central bank, who the worst thing you can have is if your Central bank is influenced by politicians; if it’s controlled by politicians, because, say they’re coming up to an election, there might be inflation increasing, but the politicians don’t want the Central bank putting up interest rates just before an election.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  25:43

That’s right. In the world, we have seen many examples. For example, Peru is a good example of a thing that would the government shouldn’t do. For example, in the middle of 80s, Peruvian government, had a high level of debt. That moment, government Allan Garcia took place, and he didn’t recognize the debth. So, they didn’t want to pay. And also, in the government, they started to print money because the other Central bank, was subordinated to the current government. And that was the world’s respond for [unclear] because Peru initiated a stage of hyperinflation. And also, Peru faced a recession period.

Gene Tunny  26:52

So, hyperinflation; there is a quantitative definition of hyperinflation. It’s when you have inflation running at about 50% a month or something. It’s a very high rate, and you can end up with annual inflation rates of over 1,000% or something, which is just mad. What they had in Germany in the 1920s. But also, we’ve seen it in South American countries in the;

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  27:18

Most South American countries, experience periods of hyperinflation.

Gene Tunny  27:23

So, you are highlighting one of the; when it gets really bad when you don’t have that independence. And because the Central bank is the bank for the government as the government just commits to making all of these payments, and it might not actually have the money, but the Central bank just prints the money. It just pays the bills for the government; the money is just created. So yeah, what they call modern monetary theory nowadays; bad results.

We’ve chatted about the Phillips Curve, why it’s not reliable. I’ll put links to all of these things I’ve mentioned particularly to Milton Friedman’s presidential address, which is just brilliant.

Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.

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Gene Tunny  28:47

Now back to the show.

Okay, now, one of the things Central banks are essentially wanting to avoid is this idea of a wage price spiral. So, we’ve talked about inflationary expectations, you want to avoid inflation becoming expected, and then it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, one of the concepts that disgusts is a wage-price spiral.

Okay, so in early May 2022, the Reserve Bank of Australia; this was a report in the Australian Financial Review. The Reserve Bank of Australia has warned of a wage price spiral if unions exploit the low jobless rate to push for higher pay rises to compensate for an inflation rate to peak at a higher than expected 6%.

So, what is a wage-price spiral? The Bank of International Settlements in Basel in Switzerland; it’s defined a wage price spiral in the following way, and this is in a bulletin that they produced, BIS bulletin number 53 on Major Advanced Economies on the verge of a Wage Price Spiral.

A wage price spiral entails feedback in both directions between wages and prices. Inflation then rises persistently on the back of such a spiral. Once the economy enters the spiral, workers bid up nominal wages more than prices, prompting firms to raise prices further, the likelihood of an economy entering the wage price spiral depends in part on macro-economic conditions.

Workers bargaining power is typically greater when Labor demand is strong and Labor supply is tight. Similarly, firms may have more pricing power when aggregate demand is strong. Labor market institutions also influenced the likelihood of a wage price spiral emerging.

Automatic wage indexation and cost of living adjustment. So C-O-L-A or COLA clauses make wage price spirals, more likely.

And this was important in the; well, it became an issue in the Australian election campaign, because the then opposition leader now Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese; did you see his comments when he was saying that, if we were in government, we would support workers being getting a wage rise in line with inflation. Inflation was rising at well; inflation was 5.1%. That was the last reported estimate from the Reserve Bank, which was higher than expected. And then, Anthony Albanese came out and said, yes, workers, their wages should increase by at least 5.1% To make up for that. And then, the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison tried to make a big thing out of that and he said, Anthony Albanese is a loose unit, because this could then lock in inflation permanently.

So, this is his concern about a wage price spiral and the BIS was arguing that, this sort of thing; there’s automatic wage indexation, which is almost what well, it’s essentially what Anthony Albanese, our current prime minister here in Australia was almost hinting at. I think he regretted making that comment, because they really don’t want to do that. And if I think they’ve walked back a bit from that position, I mean, they put a submission to the Fair Work Commission, ultimately, it’s up to the Fair Work Commission to decide the increase in minimum wages in Australia.

There was some criticism of the opposition leader at the time, because it could have; there were commentators who were saying, this is a sort of thing that risks a wage price spiral. And you could take that BIS note as supportive of that position. Ultimately, I don’t think that mattered much in the election campaign. So, who knows? I mean, it could have even increased support for Anthony Albanese. People think, well, that sounds fair enough that we’re compensated for inflation. Most people are wage earners as more wage earners than business owners in the country. So, it could have been a popular thing. The PM at the time was trying to say, well, he’s a loose unit, who knows how much impact it had on the election campaign?

Ultimately, I think the election was decided over concerns about climate change. There was this general perception out there that the government wasn’t doing enough on climate change, rightly or wrongly. And that was the dominant consideration.

Do you remember that whole debate or that whole discussion around the opposition leader’s comments?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  33:43

I remember that. I saw some news about it. I also reviewed some comments from some Australians, And some people or some citizens mentioned that the proposal is not correct for the current situation in the global economy. Because of course, if you want to raise salary, that will be loads, let’s say factor, or determinant to boost inflation pressures in Australia.

I remember that I checked some economic paper; it’s okay to raise the wages, but it could be implemented gradually. Or maybe you can target some sectors in order to improve the salaries but it’s not a good policy response to increase generally, the wages in the whole Australia.

Gene Tunny  35:01

Maybe limited to the lowest paid workers, rather than have at across all of the wage agreements in the economy so that; fair enough. Okay, we might have to come back to this whole issue of how wages are set in a future episode.

So, what did the BIS conclude about whether major economies are on the verge of a wage price spiral? Well, with most economic issues, they weren’t able to reach a firm conclusion. I mean, none of us has a crystal ball. I mean, I’m always very reluctant to give firm or precise forecast, because you just can’t, because there’s so much uncertainty.

So, my reading of what the BIS was saying in that wage price spiral bulletin, is that, well, they’re not really sure. The key things that they noted in their analysis were that while inflation is returned, it’s reached levels not seen in decades, whether inflation enters a persistently higher regime will depend on labor market developments and on whether a wage price spiral emerges. To date, evidence for a broad acceleration in wage growth is mixed. It’s picked up significantly in the US, but it remains moderate in most other advanced economies. So, it’s certainly still moderate in Australia, it is picking up a bit, but it’s not near what arguably, we’d like to have. And this became an issue in the election campaign to you probably remember this. Well, this is why Albanese made those comments to begin with. Because if you looked at wage’s growth, which was, 2.7 or maybe it was a bit lower through the year, compare it with inflation of 5.1%, then you get a real wage decline of 2.6%.

I will put the exact numbers in the show notes. It must have been about 2½%. If we’ve got a 5.1% inflation rate, I think they were saying the real wage decline was 2.6 or 2.7%, that it must have been a 2½% wage price index increase. I’ll put the right data in the show notes.

That became an issue in the recent election campaign.

Here is where the BIS basically admits; we really don’t know:, Extrapolating behavior from low inflation periods is problematic if inflation remains high, households may ask for higher wages to make up for lost purchasing power and firms may raise prices to protect profit margins. And stubbornly high inflation may lead to institutional changes, such as automatic indexation and cost of living adjustment clauses. So, that’s the sort of thing we want to avoid. And that’s why people were worried about what our current Prime Minister was saying, because there was a concern that we could effectively do that sort of thing, if he followed through on what he was saying.

Did you have any thoughts on that wage price spiral article? You had a looked at that today, didn’t you Arturo?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  38:17

Yes. I think, in the report, they also mentioned that some condition must be complied to be under these kinds of wage price spirals. But from my point of view, I think is quite complex to determine if all the countries are going to face that wage price spiral? I think that depends on the particular condition from each country.

Gene Tunny  38:50

Yeah, that’s the problem that the World Bank and the BIS, or the IMF have, because they’re trying to produce forecasts, or do analysis for the whole world or all major economies, whereas there are differences in the institutions within those economies; a very good point.

Okay, so let’s get back to the central question. I mean, all of these things we’ve been talking about, are related to because if we have a wage price spiral, and then we have some shock or the economy goes into a downturn, then we could end up with stagflation. So, it’s all related.

We’ll talk about now, the prospects for stagflation. So, is this something we should be worried about? And it turns out the BIS looked at this last month, so before the World Bank, so this is obviously something that economists in these major institutions are concerned about, and the BIS had to report commodity market disruptions, growth and inflation.

We’ve talked about the broad base supply shock increasing inflation, food and energy prices spilling over to other components of inflation, and possibly; well contributing to a reduction in global economic growth. And we should talk about the World Bank’s forecasts because the World Bank now is forecasting a reduction in global growth, isn’t it? That was one of the major things in that latest report. I’ve got it here.

The bank slashed its annual global growth forecast to 2.9% from January’s 4.1% and said that subdued growth would be likely to persist throughout the decade because of weak investment in most of the world.

And so, the BIS was saying that this is the sort of thing that would happen. It was saying this last month, and I guess, I mean, a lot of other economists have been concerned about that. There’s a recognition that what’s happening with Ukraine, what’s happening with commodity prices, that is going to compromise, global economic growth.

Now, it looks like the BIS; they’re saying similar things to the World Bank and the World Bank, probably. I mean, I’m sure it read what the BIS analysis is pretty much; I think they reach the same conclusions almost. So, let’s go over what the BIS says, and then we’ll compare it with what the World Bank says. So, the BIS has concluded, recent shocks have been smaller than the 1970s oil shocks, but broader based encompassing food and industrial commodities as well as energy. Nonetheless, structural changes, as well as stronger policy frameworks and nominal anchors.

So, by a nominal anchor, they mean, something that’s keeping prices down. They’re talking about inflation targets. So, they make stagflation less likely to return. But this is where they acknowledge that.; we’ve said that, but ultimately, things can happen that derail the economy that can mean our forecast is incorrect. And they know commodity price increases in the wake of the war in Ukraine are likely to weigh on global growth and add to inflation. While lower energy dependence and stronger policy frameworks make a repeat of the 1970s stagflation unlikely, high and volatile commodity prices could still be disruptive. This puts a premium on restoring low inflation quickly before it becomes ingrained in household and corporate decisions.

Absolutely. I think that’s a very good point to make. So, that’s what the BIS said, That’s pretty similar to what the World Bank said, isn’t it?

We might have a look at that now, again. Let me just go back to the media release. They also got a comprehensive report and that chapter, the focus on stagflation, which I’ll link to in the show notes, which is worth reading. I’m just going to consult their media release, which is a really good summary and well written.

Let’s just talk about how the current situation resembles the 70s. And why? What are the reasons why we might think that we could end up with global stagflation?

The current juncture resembles the 1970s in three key aspects: persistence supply, side disturbances, fueling inflation, preceded by a protracted period of highly accommodative monetary policy and major advanced economies, prospects for weakening growth and vulnerabilities in emerging market and developing economies face with respect to the monetary policy tightening that will be needed to rein in inflation.

Let’s have a look at what they’re talking about there. We’ve talked about the persistent supply side disturbances, preceded by a protracted period of highly accommodative monetary policy. By accommodative, we mean, loose, we mean, ultra-low interest rates, we mean lots of money printing, that sort of thing; credit creation, due to the low interest rates. And that’s what we’ve seen in Australia, we’ve seen in the US, we’ve seen it in other advanced economies. So, there’s no doubt about that. And the argument is that buildup of that additional money, that additional liquidity will end up with too much money chasing too few goods, accelerating inflation, right. We’ve talked about that on the show before.

They also talked about vulnerabilities that emerging market and developing economies face with respect to the monetary policy tightening that will be needed to rein in inflation.

So, let’s have a think about what they’re driving out there. I mean, as the western economies increase interest rates, that’s going to mean; this is just one aspect of it. That will attract investment capital, portfolio investment to the US or to other major advanced economies. And if those developing economies don’t put up their interest rates, then that will lead to a depreciation of their exchange rates, which means that the cost of imported goods in those economies will be compromised, or if they’re trying to fix their exchange rates, it puts pressure on their balance of payments. So, it’s a bad situation for those emerging economies.

And also, the thing is, when you have situations like this in the world, when there’s concerns about volatility, there is this flight to safety and money can flow to the advanced economies where there’s a perception, it’s safer, and that could compromise these emerging economies. I wouldn’t be forecasting this yet, but things can happen unexpectedly or rapidly. We know that there can be crises in emerging economies that are difficult to predict, such as the Asian crisis in the late 1990s.

 Any thoughts on any of those key aspects, Arturo? About how, how there are similarities with the 70s?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  46:19

No. Your explanation was very clear.

Gene Tunny  46:23

Okay, well, then we should; before we conclude this episode, we should talk about how the ongoing episode also differs from the 1970s. The dollar is strong, a sharp contrast with a severe weakness in the 1970s, the percentage increases in commodity prices are smaller, and the balance sheets of major financial institutions are generally strong.

More importantly, unlike the 1970s, Central banks in advanced economies, and many developing economies, now have clear mandates for price stability. And over the past three decades, they have established a credible track record of achieving their inflation targets.

And they go on to conclude as the World Bank global inflation is expected to moderate next year, but it will likely remain above; I think I’ve missed the words there, it must be above average.

And they talked about; something’s gone wrong with my printout. They do talk about, you know, there is a risk of stagflation. So, stagflation risk rises amid sharp slowdown in growth, okay, so, there’s going to be some moderation in inflation, but it’s likely to still remain high or higher than the normal. And you couple that with the fact that there’s a risk of a slowdown, and they’re talking about a slowdown in global growth. That’s what they’re forecasting, then, yes, certainly, stagflation of some kind is a risk.

My personal feeling is that; and this is informed by my conversation with Michael Knox last week, I don’t think we’ll end up with stagflation similar to the 70s, or rather, I hope not. I don’t see at the moment. I think the US economy based on the indicators I’ve seen in my conversation with Michael, I think, at least for the next year or so, the prospects for the US economy are very good. Likewise, for Australia, I mean, there are always risks. We’ve got some heavily indebted households; we’ve got interest rates increasing. That’s one of the great unknowns at the moment. But if you look at the indicators, such as job vacancies, you look at the fact we’ve got a 3.9% unemployment rate. You look at what’s happening with commodity prices, which were in net terms benefiting from, because we’re a net exporter of energy and minerals to the world. Like, our coal prices have been $400 – $500 US a ton.

Queensland is a huge producer of coal; and that’s benefiting our state and budget. I mean, there’s ultimately; there may have to be a transition out of coal because of concerns over climate change. But at the moment, it’s something that is beneficial to the state economy. So, I think in Australia, I’m not concerned about stagflation at the moment, but as always, I need to say, I don’t have a crystal ball.

Any thoughts, Arturo? I mean, what’s your general feeling on stagflation? Is this just the latest thing that we’re worried about? Perhaps for no really good reason? I mean, it certainly; I haven’t seen this interest in the concept for a long time. And yes, is it something we should be worried about? What do you think?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  49:35

I think the case is; it’s good to have these discussions and it’s good to know that most of the Central banks are considering these potential, let’s say, this potential event. If they are well prepared, they can avoid that kind of situation for some countries. As I mentioned this thing, if a cure isn’t going to be general, so some countries perhaps are going to face stagflation. In some cases, if they don’t manage properly their monetary policy and some fiscal responses.

But of course, there are many risks that are out there, for example, as the World Bank report mentioned, if the supply disruption proceeds or the commodity prices continue to climb, inflation could remain above Central bank’s target. So, I think those are potential risks, the Central bank must consider giving good response.

Gene Tunny  51:00

Yeah, good point.

One other point I wanted to make is; and this is related to the other thing that differs from the 70s, which is, the World Bank set out a few ways that the economy is not the same as the 70s. And, one of the important ones, I think, is they talk about the US dollar, don’t they, the dollar is strong. Now, this is a very technical issue, it’s a hard one to sort of get your head around, because you have to go back to the situation in the 60s and the early 70s, before the era that we’re now in, in advanced economies of floating exchange rates. When we had the Bretton Woods system.

Michael Knox referred to the growth in international reserves, he talked about the growth of foreign currencies, held by Central banks in the early 70s that just massively increased in the early 70s. Because what was happening were because of the issues in the US and higher budget deficits and concerns about inflation, people around the world were trying to get out of US dollars. And because of the Bretton Woods system, they were trading their US dollars for their own currency or other currencies, or for European currencies, because there was the strong; well, in those that post-war recovery in Europe and Europe was becoming more prominent. And so, there was a move out of US dollars and to buy those US dollars, the Central banks essentially printed money, they created new money.

So, these changes in international reserves that Michael was talking about, I think was like 80%, over from the end of 1972, sometime in 1972. It was a huge growth in these international reserves, that led to a big increase in domestic money supplies, and that fueled inflation.

This is a great article by Robert Heller, that was in one of the IMF journals; might have been finance and development. I put a link to it in the show notes before, I’ll put it again, because it’s just well worth reading. But I think for us to do that justice, we will probably have to come back and talk about Bretton Woods and the whole international financial system pre 1970s. And look, that’s going to be a lot of work.  

This shows the complexity of the issues that we’re dealing with. In the economy, so many moving parts, it’s all interconnected. And yes, but what we’re trying to do, I think on this show is to simplify it as much as possible. And really make sure we understand those mechanisms because in a lot of economic discussion, there’s just too much that’s assumed in terms of the knowledge of the people reading or listening. There are too many concepts explained by reference to other concepts without explaining those concepts. And I want to try to make sure that we’re as clear as possible.

I think we’re probably in a position to wrap this up. Arturo, any final words? Thoughts?

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  54:18

I think this conversation was pretty clear. And you’re to understand what is going on globally, in terms of inflation, potentially stagflation problems that some country may face. So, I think let’s stay alert. I think that Central banks are going to react properly in order to address that problem.

Gene Tunny  54:56

Okay, so you said, be alert, I like that. As our Former Prime Minister John Howard once said, Be alert, not alarmed. We will be alert to the prospects for global stagflation. But we’re not going to be alarmed at the moment.

You may not have been in Australia when he said that. That was something that people had amusing. There was about a serious issue is talking about international terrorism, which was, of course, a serious issue. And he said, be alert, but not alarmed. And then that sort of prompted all of these sorts of jokes about, what does that exactly mean to be alert, but not alarmed? I mean, how worried should we be?

And there was the old joke in Australia. Be alert, Australia needs Lurtz. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. So, I think people would probably; as soon as John Howard said, Be alert, not alarmed. People were instantly sort of thinking, this is a bit of a funny thing to say. But maybe because I remembered that all joke about being alert.

Thank you, Aturo, I really enjoyed that conversation. And if you’re in the audience, and you’re listening, and you’d like to know more about these issues, I’ll put links to everything we chatted about in the show notes. I’ll also make any corrections. If I’ve got anything wrong I discover, in terms of numbers. I generally think the concepts and the facts; I think we got that right. But it’s possible some of the numbers I may have misremembered. So, we’ll put clarifications links in the show notes. And thanks again for listening. Arturo, really appreciate your time today. Thanks so much.

Arturo Espinoza Bocangel  56:43

Thank you again. Thank you very much.

Gene Tunny  56:46 Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to contact@economicsexplored.com And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Until next week, goodbye.

Credits

Big thanks to EP143 guest Arturo Espinoza and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode and to Peter Oke for editing the transcript. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode Uncategorized

US Inflation, Woke Capitalism & China w/ Darren Brady Nelson – EP127

With US inflation at a 40-year high, who wins and who loses? Are greedy corporations to blame as some pundits are suggesting? Episode 127 of Economics Explored features a wide-ranging conversation with Darren Brady Nelson, Chief Economist of LibertyWorks, an Australian libertarian think tank, which also considers so-called Woke Capitalism and what’s going on with China. Here’s a video clip from the episode featuring Darren chatting with show host Gene Tunny about the 40-year high US inflation rate.

In the second part of the show, the Grattan Institute’s Economic Policy Program Director Brendan Coates explains the franking credits controversy, related to some peculiar Australian tax rules, to show host Gene Tunny.   

You can listen to the episode using the podcast player below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, among other podcasting apps.

About this episode’s guests

Darren Brady Nelson is an Austrian School economist and liberty evangelion as well as a C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton style Christian. He is currently the Chief Economist at LibertyWorks of Brisbane Australia and a long-time policy advisor to The Heartland Institute of Chicago USA. He is also a regular commentator in traditional and online Australian and American media. Check out his full profile at Regular guests – Economics Explored.

Brendan Coates is the Economic Policy Program Director at Grattan Institute, where he leads Grattan’s work on tax and transfer system reform, retirement incomes and superannuation, housing, macroeconomics, and migration. He is a former macro-financial economist with the World Bank in Indonesia and consulted to the Bank in Latin America. Prior to that, he worked in the Australian Treasury in areas such as tax-transfer system reform and macro-economic forecasting, with a strong focus on the Chinese economy.

Americans Return to Work as Biden Administration Work Disincentives Expire, but Jobs Remain Over 7 million Below Trend | Latest | America First Policy Institute (article referring to inflation tax of $855/year for an American family associated with a 7% yearly inflation rate)

Summers stumbles – John Quiggin

Woke Capitalism Is a Monopoly Game | Mises Wire

Joe Biden appears to insult Fox News reporter over inflation question

The implications of removing refundable franking credits – Grattan Institute

Here’s another video clip from the episode in which Gene and Darren compare the contributions to economics of Friedman, Keynes, and Mises:

Charts

US CPI inflation rate, through-the-year

US Producer Prices inflation rate, through-the-year

US inflation expectations – University of Michigan estimates

Clarifications

“Average hourly earnings for all employees on US private nonfarm payrolls increased by 5.7% year-on-year in January of 2022” (see United States Average Hourly Earnings YoY – January 2022 Data – 2007-2021 Historical) This compares with inflation running at 7.5% through-the-year. 

Amazon hikes average US starting pay to $18, hires for 125,000 jobs | Reuters

Abbreviations

CPI Consumer Price Index

PPI Producer Price Index

Credits

Thanks to Darren and Brendan for great insights and conversation, and to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Economics Explored Live

Livestream featuring US jobless claims, Aussie GDP + farewell to Tony Makin

I did a livestream earlier today (Friday 3 December 2021) with my regular co-host Tim Hughes on the latest economic news of the week, including the latest US initial jobless claims confirming a strong US economy, the impact of the omicron COVID-variant on equity markets, and the September quarter Australian GDP figures which revealed the adverse impacts of NSW and Victorian lockdowns. You can click on and watch the video on YouTube below. You can also download the slides I showed.  

In the livestream, from around 22:05, I reflected on the late Professor Tony Makin’s contributions to the Australian economic policy debate, particularly on whether we should worry about the current account deficit in the late 80s/early 90s and on the effectiveness of the Rudd Government’s fiscal stimulus. On the current account deficit, Tony’s articles, along with the contributions of John Pitchford, clearly led to a change in the policy consensus on the current account, so it was no longer something that would be a macroeconomic policy target. Sadly, Tony died unexpectedly earlier this week. This came as a huge shock to so many of us, and it’s obvious from all the conversations I’ve had about Tony over the last few days just how much respect and admiration his colleagues and former students had for him. Tony’s funeral is on Monday on the Gold Coast (see notice below). 

Funeral notice for the late Griffith University Economics Professor Tony Makin, who will be greatly missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and former students.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EP114 – Tax rules benefiting tech titans and hedge fund managers

Controversial US tax rules mean that tech titans and hedge fund managers can pay arguably a relatively low amount of tax, as Steve Rosenthal, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains to show host Gene Tunny in Economics Explored episode 114. Steve also talks with Gene about former President Trump’s tax affairs in this episode.

About this episode’s guest – Steven M. Rosenthal

Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, researches, speaks, and writes on a range of federal income tax issues, with a particular focus on business taxes. In 2013, he was the staff director of the DC Tax Revision Commission.

Before joining Urban, Rosenthal practiced tax law in Washington, DC, for over 25 years, most recently as a partner at Ropes and Gray. He was a legislation counsel with the Joint Committee on Taxation, where he helped draft tax rules for financial institutions, financial products, capital gains, and related areas. He is the former chair of the Taxation Section of the District of Columbia Bar Association.

Rosenthal holds an AB and JD from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MPP from Harvard University.

Tax Fairness: President Donald Trump, a Case Study (Steve’s testimony before the U.S. House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee)

Buy, borrow, die: How rich Americans live off their paper wealth (WSJ article)

Thanks to the show’s audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing the episode. 

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com or sending a voice message via https://www.speakpipe.com/economicsexplored. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Economics Explored Live

US inflation and Aussie jobs data – 15 October 21 livestream

Economics Explored Live for 15 October 2021, the first edition of what I’m planning to be a weekly livestream, covered:

  • the growing concern internationally about accelerating inflation, prompted by the latest US CPI figures (see chart below;
  • the September ABS Labour Force data revealing big drops in hours worked and workforce participation in the locked-down economies of NSW and Victoria; and
  • my state of Queensland’s relatively low vaccination rate (72% for 1st dose vs 84% nationally) and what it could mean for the state’s reopening and the economy – it’s pretty obvious the Queensland Premier should set a date for re-opening ASAP to encourage people to get vaccinated promptly, as suggested by the Queensland branch of the Australian Medical Association.

Here’s the video of the livestream, which was streamed to YouTube and LinkedIn Live:

Regarding inflationary pressures in advanced economies, I quoted leading market economist Stephen Roach from his recent Financial Times op-ed The sequencing trap that risks stagflation 2.0:

As brilliant and lucky as they have been, today’s generation of central bankers is afflicted with the same sense of denial that proved problematic in the 1970s. Due to a lack of experience and institutional memory of that tough period, the risk of another monetary policy blunder cannot be taken lightly.

Certainly, central banks have been running a massive monetary policy experiment with ultra-low interest rates and Quantitative Easing, which have been associated with double-digit growth rates in money stocks. I agree with Roach regarding the potential for a “monetary policy blunder”.

Other links relevant to the livestream include:

Pete Faulkner’s post Labour Force; national data hit by lockdowns while QLD powers ahead

QEW post featuring my The Other Side interview on Australia’s economic suicide

Vaccination numbers and statistics

ABS: New data shows lockdown impacts on business turnover

Cross-posted at http://www.queenslandeconomywatch.com. Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EP106 – COVID lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and vaping with Dr Gilbert Berdine

A Texas physician, university lecturer in medicine, and affiliate of a free market think tank Gilbert Berdine MD explains why he thinks COVID lockdowns have been “a disaster” and why he does not support vaccine mandates.

At a time when the COVID pandemic continues, and cities such as Sydney and Melbourne remain locked down, Gilbert Berdine MD from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center shares his views on lockdowns and vaccine mandates with show host Gene Tunny. The conversation also explores Dr Berdine’s views on regulations regarding vaping or e-cigarettes.

About this episode’s guest – Gilbert G. Berdine MD

Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Lubbock, TX

Faculty Affiliate, Free Market Institute, Lubbock, TX

Dr. Berdine earned his B.S. degrees in chemistry and life sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA and his M.D. degree from Harvard University School of Medicine in Boston, MA. He completed residency in Internal Medicine and fellowship in Pulmonary Diseases at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now called Brigham and Women’s Hospital) in Boston, MA.

Dr. Berdine was a faculty member at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio from 1983-1989. He was in the private practice of medicine from 1989-2009 when he returned to academia as a faculty member of TTUHSC.

Dr. Berdine’s current teaching activities include lecturer for the respiratory blocks in the 1st year Major Organ Systems course and the 2nd year Systems Disorders 1 course. His clinical duties include staff attending physician for the inpatient Pulmonary Consult Service, inpatient Internal Medicine Floor Service, and the outpatient Pulmonary Fellow Clinic. He also sees patients in the Pulmonary Clinic for Texas Tech Physicians.

Dr. Berdine’s research interests include the application of Austrian Economics to health care delivery and consumption. Dr. Berdine has published articles on these topics in peer reviewed journals and is a contributor to the Mises Daily Wire and the American Institute of Economic Research.

Contact: gilbert.berdine@ttuhsc.edu

Links relevant to the conversation

COVID-19 Vaccines and the Delta Variant – AIER article by Gilbert Berdine MD

Lockdowns of Young People Lead to More Deaths from Covid-19 – AIER article by Gilbert Berdine MD

Covid Misclassification: What Do the Data Suggest? – AIER article by Gilbert Berdine MD

Sometimes hesitancy is justified by Gilbert Berdine MD

Vaping Laws and the Treachery of Good Intentions by Gilbert Berdine MD

EP100 – Incentivizing Vaccinations or Cash for Jabs

Correspondence from Dr Berdine on COVID mortality rates

…the mortality rate has a range of over 1000:1 depending on your age. The average mortality is heavily determined by the number of people over age 80 in the population. 

Based on latest census data and current CDC figures for COVID deaths

https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2019/demo/age-and-sex/2019-age-sex-composition.html

https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Provisional-COVID-19-Deaths-by-Sex-and-Age/9bhg-hcku

Mortality expressed as 1/mortality : 

Age: Mortality

Under 5: 124,126

5 to 14: 283,027

15 to 24: 32,461

25 to 34: 7,850

35 to 44: 2,845

45 to 54: 1,087

55 to 64: 475

65 to 74: 213

75 to 84: 87

85 +: 31

Cumulative Age

Under 5: 124,126

Under 15: 199,917

Under 25: 64,258

Under 35: 20,120

Under 45: 8,681

Under 55: 3,880

So, for 35 and younger, the cumulative mortality including the overcounting is less than 1/10,000. If one looks at annual mortality, the figure  for Under 45 including overcounting is likely less than 1/10,000. If one adjusts modestly for overcounting, the  figure for Under 55 is likely less than 1/10,000.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EP99 – Carbon border taxes

The European Union intends to impose a carbon border tax and the US is also considering one. What’s the justification for a carbon border tax and what could it mean for international trade? Episode 99 of Economics Explored features a conversation regarding the European Union’s proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), i.e. a carbon border tax, between show host Gene Tunny and his colleague Ben Scott, Research Officer at Adept Economics.

Links relevant to the conversation:

https://adepteconomics.com.au/what-does-the-eus-carbon-border-tax-mean-for-australia/

https://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.812870.de/dp1935.pdf

https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/f52d7587-8103-49a3-aeb6-651885fa6095/files/summary-australias-2030-emissions-reduction-target.pdf

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.

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Podcast episode

EP98 – Political legitimacy with Prof. Phillip LeBel

In Risk and the State, Professor Phillip LeBel argues the political legitimacy of governments worldwide is “under trial from questions of borders and national identity, from rising economic inequality, from the way in which information is gathered, managed, and disseminated, and from varying perceptions of risk.”

In EP98 on political legitimacy, host Gene Tunny interviews  Prof. Phillip LeBel about his new book published earlier this year by Brown Walker Press: Risk and the State: How Economics and Neuroscience Shape Political Legitimacy to Address Geopolitical, Environmental, and Health Risks for Sustainable Governance.  

Phillip LeBel is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Montclair State University, NJ. With a career combining academic research and teaching with professional consulting, Professor LeBel has accumulated a record of economic expertise in a variety of domestic and international fields. Over the years, he has lived in and/or worked in 30 countries, including Africa, East Asia, Central America, and Latin America.

Please get in touch with any questions, comments and suggestions by emailing us at contact@economicsexplored.com. Economics Explored is available via Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcast, and other podcasting platforms.