Macroeconomic Policy – where we’ve been and where are we going?

The Economist ‘Briefing’ recently looked at what now for macroeconomic policy in the global economy. The GFC of 2008 and outbreak of COVID-19 has got policymakers scratching their head as what can be done to stimulate aggregate demand.

Keynes’ ideas of government involvement in managing the economy in the business cycle – spend in recessions and pay of debt in booms – was flavour of the month in the post-war period. However by the1970’s this policy was in trouble which the spectre of stagflation – high inflation accompanied by high unemployment. According to Keynes the two variables should move in opposite directions. In 1976 the UK Prime Minister James Callaghan in his speech at the Labour Party Conference said:

We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employ­ment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of infla­tion into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment.

The 1980’s saw monetarist ideas enter the scene with a focus on the control of inflation though constraining the money supply. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker knew that in order the get inflation down that the economy would have to go through a recession and very higher unemployment in the short-run. However once inflation started to drop the Central Bank could relax monetary policy (interest rates) and then encourage more economic activity in the economy and thereby reducing unemployment. Previously policy had focused on equality of incomes which had a large impact of economic efficiency. Price stability was now the primary focus of a central bank and it was in New Zealand with the 1989 Reserve Bank Act that the first central bank became independent from government. Gone were the days where the Minister of Finance could get on the phone to the Reserve Bank Governor to change interest rates. Central banks had inflationary targets whilst fiscal policy was to keep government debts low and to redistribute income as the government saw fit.

This policy came unstuck after the GFC as central banks dropped interest rates to record levels and implemented a series of quantitative easing (QE) measures to no avail. Growth was stagnant for a long time but eventually demand for labour picked up. This would have normally been accompanied by higher inflation but it wasn’t the case. Just like in the 1970’s inflation and unemployment were not behaving according to the theory but at this time both were favourable – low inflation and low unemployment. However inequality was now gripping the attention of economists and there was concern about the monopoly position of some firms. The rich have a higher tendency to save rather than spend, so if their share of income rises then overall saving goes up and lower interest rates and QE were driving up inequality by increasing house and equity prices.

Once COVID-19 hit it was government’s fiscal policy which has been used to try and stabilise the economy and boost growth. Fiscal stimulus – government spending with running up large deficits might be required for a long period of time in order to support the economy. This is more acceptable amongst economists as low interest rates enable the government to service much larger debts and with such low inflation it is unlikely that rates will increase anytime soon. This resembles Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – the situation where the government can create its own money therefore:

  1. Cannot default on debt denominated in its own currency;
  2. Can pay for goods, services, and financial assets without a need to collect money in the form of taxes or debt issuance in advance of such purchases;
  3. Is limited in its money creation and purchases by inflation, which accelerates once the economic resources (i.e., labor and capital) of the economy are utilised at full employment;
  4. Can control inflation by taxation and bond issuance, which remove excess money from circulation, although the political will to do so may not always exist;
  5. Does not need to compete with the private sector for scarce savings by issuing bonds. Within this model the only constraint on spending is inflation, which can break out if the public and private sectors spend too much at the same time. As long as there are enough workers and equipment to meet growing demand without igniting inflation, the government can spend what it needs to maintain employment and achieve goals such as halting climate change.

Negative interest rates

Some governments have gone the way of negative interest rates (see graphic) to try and stimulate more aggregate demand. This would discourage saving and see a potential withdrawal of cash from the banking system leaving less money to lend out. Avoiding this scenario might involve abolishing high-denomination bank notes and making the holding of large amount of cash expensive and unfeasible. However in order to keep money in the banks might renege on interest rate cuts as customers might move their money to rival banks therefore high negative interest rates would severely dent banks’ profits.

The current economic environment may make negative interest more plausible as:

  • Cash is in decline.
  • Banks are becoming less important to finance.
  • Central bankers are looking at creating their own digital currencies

Final thought

Greater government intervention is what the majority of economists want but it does carry with it risks of significant debt and high inflation. There is an opportunity to rethink the economics discipline and as stated in The Economist:

A level-headed reassessment of public debt could lead to the green public investment necessary to fight climate change. And governments could unleash a new era of finance, involving more innovation, cheaper financial intermediation and, perhaps, a monetary policy that is not constrained by the presence of physical cash. What is clear is that the old economic paradigm is looking tired. One way or another, change is coming

The Economist – A new era of economics – July 25th 2020

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