Some notes on the political economy of central banking

EpsteinPolEconofCentralBankingI have just finished a very useful collection of some of the papers of economist Gerald Epstein, entitled The Political Economy of Central Banking. Epstein is Professor of Economics and Co-Director in the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the US, which is known for the progressive research agendas of its members.

Rather than write a lengthy review, this post sets out some of the key points made in the book and which stood out for me as being original and important. Epstein’s focus on central banks (CBs) remains especially relevant in today’s world of increased inflation and CB efforts to return it to target rates.

  • Epstein argues that CBs, especially the US Federal Reserve, are not as independent as they make out and tend to be captured by a variety of vested interests. In today’s financialised economies, many are predominantly influenced by the financial sector, particularly since its liberalisation, expansion and rising power and influence since the 1970s and 80s. Thus they tend to serve finance and support financial sector profits more than industry/industrial profits and workers/wages and employment.
  • Historically, CBs have often played a more developmental role at various times and in various countries, supporting industrial expansion and allocating credit to more productive sectors in order to encourage economic growth rather than financialisation.
  • Epstein argues that major reforms to CBs and the economy more broadly are needed today to democratise CBs and make them more accountable to society as a whole, so that they better serve the public good and not simply the financial sector. They need to play a larger role in supporting employment in the macroeconomy and industrial growth, especially in driving the green transition which is so vital to building a more sustainable economy.
  • CBs should be more accountable to society eg. to Congress in the US, and their boards and staff more generally should reflect the wider society and economy, including industrial and labour interests.
  • Monetary policy in the form of changes to interest rates have distributional impacts and are therefore political. Thus no CB can be truly ‘independent’ and free of partisan influences and political outcomes.
  • The financial sector, industry and labour (as classes or sectors in the economy) are impacted differently by monetary policy in terms of their respective income flows in the form of profits and wages, as well as their borrowing and servicing of their stocks of debt.
  • Lower interest rates may stimulate industrial investment, economic growth and employment, but can lead to a profit squeeze if the labour market becomes sufficiently ‘tight’. They may also inflate asset prices and boost financial profits. However higher interest rates can also boost financial profits and rentier incomes.
  • Epstein contrasts speculative finance with enterprise finance as two different sets of relations between the financial sector and industry. Speculative finance, more dominated by capital markets, may mean that the two sectors operate further apart and with more conflict between their respective economic aims, while enterprise finance means that banks and industry are more closely connected and cooperate in the service of expanding longer term productive investment and profitability. In a more financialised economy, industrial firms may themselves become more like financial institutions, with potentially detrimental impacts on economic performance. These varying relations, which can also be seen as different class coalitions, may alter their members’ preference for tight or loose monetary policy on the part of the CB. Varying degrees of conflictual and cooperative relations between industry and labour can do likewise.
  • Epstein questions the evidence that sustaining very low inflation, the remit of independent CBs, is a precondition for robust economic growth. He suggests that moderate inflation can be positively associated with growth and that overly tight monetary policy can damage growth performance over a significant period.
  • Quantitative Easing (QE) since the Great Recession of 2008-09 in the US has increased inequality through the inflation of asset prices, and despite some positive impact from increased employment, this has been offset by wage stagnation for many in work. However, an absence of QE and higher interest rates could also have increased inequality by reducing employment growth apart from its other effects. This paradox suggests that more wide-ranging progressive policy responses are needed to reduce inequality in the US and elsewhere, such as changes to labour market regulation and a higher minimum wage, as well as the effective use of fiscal policy.

Epstein’s contributions in the book are varied, original and interesting. His ideas are founded on a political economy approach, so that economics is necessarily seen as political. Particular class configurations in society therefore play a role in determining institutional and policy change, and for the author, CBs can never be ‘independent’ of them. This has major implications for the economy. In a more financialised world, the finance sector itself has become a more powerful influence on CB policy in many countries, and for Epstein, this has had detrimental effects on economic outcomes. The interests of labour in terms of employment and wages have in many cases been neglected in the service of finance and financial profits.

The reforms to CBs that the author proposes are an attempt to democratise aspects of finance and monetary policy so that they better serve the wider society and economy. The aim is to support employment and rising living standards for the majority, and this requires reforms that go beyond CBs alone, with changes made to the financial sector as a whole so that it better supports non-financial business investment. CBs and finance more broadly need to play a more developmental role, as they have done at certain times throughout history. Given the current need for massive investment in the transition to a green economy, there is a case to be made for a comprehensive progressive policy agenda which supports this.

CBs have been called upon to play such a role during episodes of national emergency, such as wartime. In these kind of situations, some of the ‘normal’ rules of capitalism have been suspended in order to focus on a huge collective effort. Repressed interest rates, the state-led allocation of credit to vital industries and price controls have all come into play when needed. A return to more peaceful conditions has tended to see such interventions set aside and a return to freer markets and a less regulated private sector.

Today the global economy faces multiple major challenges which have increasingly called for the state to play more of a role in securing the public good. These include, not least, maintaining political, social and economic stability as nations are battered by a variety of shocks, from the pandemic to war, climate change and inflation, as well as geopolitical instability and a global order under threat of fragmentation as a particular form of globalisation evolves in an uncertain fashion. In understanding and responding to all of this, CBs and their actions are a key part of the institutional and policy makeup. Epstein’s work on the political economy of central banking offers a richer, more comprehensive and more progressive contribution than a purer and narrower mainstream economic approach.

Opening up Keynesianism – the implications for economic policy

keynesAt its simplest, Keynesian economics makes the case for the role of aggregate demand in determining output and employment in the economy as a whole. Government policies should therefore attempt to achieve low levels of unemployment through the management of aggregate demand, or the growth of expenditure. A crude form of this emphasises fiscal policy, the balance between tax revenues and public spending. A weak economy with rising unemployment may need an expansionary fiscal policy, with public spending increases or tax cuts to boost demand, while an overheating economy may need the opposite, to reduce demand and lower inflation.

This is a crude characterisation of a major school, or truthfully what has given rise to many schools, of economic thought. It is unfortunate since, in the wake of economic crises in recent decades, particularly that of 2008-09, commentators proclaimed the return of Keynesian ideas as governments across the world responded to recession with degrees of expansionary fiscal policy, as the use of monetary policy alone was deemed to be inadequate. But it didn’t last, and the turn to austerity and ‘tighter’ fiscal policy quickly followed. Alongside a return to reliance on monetary policy and the adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), this played a role in the weakness of the recovery.

Following the global pandemic and the advent of war in Ukraine, many countries now face the prospect of stagflation, the combination of weak growth and rising unemployment alongside high inflation. Policymakers are now tightening monetary policy by raising interest rates, even as recent fiscal expansions come to an end. Crude Keynesianism appears to have little to offer, echoing its abandonment during the stagflation of the 1970s.

But genuine Keynesianism does have far more to offer public policy than expansionary fiscal policy during a deep recession. It may start with a focus on aggregate demand, but can be used to illustrate the importance of industrial policy, the reduction of inequality and the reform of the global monetary and trade system. This post intends to explain how. Continue reading

Marx, Keynes and the limits to wage increases

“Marx is very clear that labour is exploited and that a higher wage would make workers’ lives less miserable without removing the exploitation per se. But he doesn’t think, therefore, that a higher wage  will make the system operate better or indeed even make workers as a whole better off. In fact, in the discussions of this in “The Reserve Army of Labour” he argues something quite striking given his political view: namely, that if workers get into a better situation to the point that the reserve army of unemployed labour shrinks and the wage begins to rise relative to productivity, then the wage share rises and the profit rate falls. If the profit rate falls, accumulation slows down, mechanisation speeds up, the import of labour becomes more feasible, and the system re-creates the reserve army of labour. So, now you have a situation where the success of labour leads to the undermining of that success – from the internal logic of the system. Many people, many of my friends who are Post Keynesians, argue this is not true, because if workers’ wages are higher, consumption demand will be higher, then demand will be higher, and capitalists will hire more people. I think that’s not true as a general proposition because of the limits I described. I would like it to be true, but for me you cannot, you should not, persuade yourself that something is true because you would like it.”

In the spirit of recent posts, the above is another extract from an interview with Anwar Shaikh in the book What is Heterodox Economics? Conversations with Leading Economists. Shaikh is clearly being intellectually honest here, admitting that he would like capitalism to enable wage increases for ordinary workers across the economy that drive faster growth and falling unemployment in a win-win sustainable process, but that his own theoretical understanding suggests that this is unlikely to be sustainable. For Shaikh, falling unemployment will tend to strengthen the bargaining power of labour, such that at some point wages for the economy as a whole will start to rise faster than productivity growth, leading to a rising wage share and a falling profit share. The latter will blunt the stimulus to investment and growth will then slow down, leading to rising unemployment once again, and ‘re-creating the reserve army of labour’. Continue reading

Quote of the week: Anwar Shaikh on opposing capitalism

Anwar-InterviewThis week’s quote comes from the New School’s Anwar Shaikh, whose work I have discussed on this blog a number of times. Working in what he has called the ‘Classical Keynesian’ tradition, his efforts to synthesise the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes culminated in his 2016 magnum opus Capitalism. Although he is both highly critical of and well outside the broadly neoclassical mainstream, he remains an independent spirit and has clearly forged his own path through his research and writing.

The extract below is taken from a volume of interviews with leading heterodox economists, and considers the importance of understanding the world as part of the basis for changing it in a progressive direction, with capitalism being the dominant economic system in the world today. Shaikh’s own book is proffered as a contribution towards that endeavour.

Although I have sympathies with Keynesian economists arguing for policies which achieve and sustain full employment, I can also see where Shaikh is coming from when he argues that the sustaining of it under capitalism has been historically problematic. Sooner or later, economic crises occur, either from within the system itself, or through policy responses to, say, high inflation, which undermine its achievement. However, in Capitalism Shaikh does argue that a social pact between government, business and trade unions can mitigate inflation even in the presence of a tight labour market and high employment rates. Historically, this has been achieved in certain countries at certain times, and for reasonably sustained periods. For me, this is worth shooting for as part of a progressive policy package for improved economic and social performance, and, yes, this would be taking place within capitalism.

At the same time, a combination of reforms to, and the evolution of, the capitalist system itself, may ultimately take it beyond its particular limits and towards something else. What exactly that might be, and what it might be called, may be beyond any one individual’s capacity to imagine. I prefer to leave this problem open for now.

“Many people change the world without understanding, but there are consequences of not understanding it, too. I have done my share of demonstrations and marches. I was a founding member of the Union for Radical Political Economics also. But it seemed to me that providing a space for people to oppose capitalism is not the same thing as providing a framework in which this opposition can be located and which the consequences of opposition can be located also. And some of those consequences are consequences people on the left don’t like to hear. They don’t like to hear that Keynesian policy cannot just provide full employment. Well, I happen to believe that capitalism will not sustain full employment and that’s an uncomfortable belief. But I can’t reject it merely because I don’t like that outcome, so I have to deal with the fact that if that’s the case then that’s the limits of capitalism. Where can you go within those limits? And then it also leads you naturally to ask where do you go beyond capitalism, even though my work is not about that. But it seems to me that understanding the limits helps you think about the fact that you can’t go beyond those limits without leaving the system because these are system limits, not human limits.”

‘Anwar Shaikh’, Ch.13 in A. Mearman, S. Berger and D. Guizzo (2019), What is Heterodox Economics? Conversations With Leading Economists, Abingdon: Routledge, p.219.

Quote of the week: Thatcher, monetarism and Marx’s reserve army

Following the last two weeks’ quotes from an interesting chapter by Fabio Petri, this is the third and final extract in this ‘mini’ series. It includes a revealing statement by a top Treasury civil servant under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which saw a severe recession and the return of mass unemployment, topping three million by the middle of the decade, justified by the need bring down inflation.

The use of incomes policies involving negotiations between government, employers and trade unions to limit wage rises and mitigate the wage-price spiral of the time had largely broken down and the new government declared that the monetarist policies championed by Milton Friedman were the only way to do it. But the quote below reveals that Thatcher, rather than strongly adhering to monetarism, saw mass unemployment as an effective way of weakening the power of organised labour and its wage demands.

Inflation did come down, not just due to the renewed weakness of the working class, but also due to the sharp fall in the price of oil and other commodities on global markets, caused by recession across many of the world’s advanced economies. These developments came at great cost, and one must still wonder whether there could have been an alternative to the economic and social brutalities they engendered. Thatcher had declared not, an attitude exemplified by her famous TINA (There Is No Alternative) slogan. The reappearance of what Marx called the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed, and the end of the post war policy commitment to full employment had been predicted by Michal Kalecki back in 1943.

“The 1970s witnessed the end of the Golden Age. Palma (sic) reports a declaration by Sir Alan Budd (a top civil servant at the British Treasury under Thatcher, and later Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford) on the real reasonings behind the Thatcher government’s use of neoclassical monetarist arguments to justify its brutal restrictive monetary policy:

The Thatcher government never believed for a moment that [monetarism] was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did however see that this would be a very good way to raise unemployment. And raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes…What was engineered – in Marxist terms – was a crisis of capitalism which re-created the reserve army of labour, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.”

Fabio Petri (2023), Class struggle and hired prize-fighters, in J. Eatwell, P. Commendatore and N. Salvadori (eds.), Classical Economics, Keynes and Money, Abingdon: Routledge, p.58.

Quote of the week: why progressive and interventionist policies prospered following World War Two

Here is another extract from the same chapter as last week’s, by Fabio Petri. These weekly quotes are not necessarily meant to be ‘classic’, nor even penned by the greatest economists in the history of the subject, though sometimes this may be the case. Rather, they make a point that I could not put better myself, and are thus worth posting.

Here the author accounts for the rise of forms of Keynesian interventionism, an effective welfare state in Western Europe, and full employment policies in the US following World War Two.

“One must wait for the Great Depression of the 1930s coupled with the danger of communism to see the hold of marginal theory and policy partly shaken: Keynes candidly admitted he wanted to save capitalism from itself in order to save it from communism, and here we have a strong reason for the general acceptance of his theory in spite of the immediate wave of criticisms, not entirely unjustified, moved against it by Henderson, Hicks, Meade and others. And the beautiful book by Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison, Capitalism since 1945, convincingly shows how at the end of WW2 the fear that the working class would turn communist was the reason for the concession of the welfare state in Western Europe and for a general acceptance, in the USA too, of the interventionist Keynesian state with a duty to maintain unemployment low.”

Fabio Petri (2023), Class struggle and hired prize-fighters, in J. Eatwell, P. Commendatore and N. Salvadori (eds.), Classical Economics, Keynes and Money, Abingdon: Routledge, p.57-8.

Inflation, the supply-demand debate and the policy response

BankofEnglandAs central banks around the world tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates in order to restrict demand, there remains an ongoing debate about whether this is the right response to the current inflation.

A large share of the inflation in many countries has been caused by supply shocks, as much of the world went through and then emerged from pandemic lockdowns, and as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Taken together, these two have restricted the supply and thus increased the cost of food and energy on global markets. But there have also been impacts from the demand side, as many governments supported their economies with major fiscal stimuli during and after the lockdowns. The scale of these varied across countries, with the economic impact varying as a result. The US stimulus was particularly large and has helped restore its collapsed employment rate to the pre-pandemic level in recent weeks. However it is also arguable that this dramatic boost to demand has helped to fuel inflation. EU countries tended to be less ambitious fiscally, with the supply shocks contributing a greater share of the rise in inflation there than they have done in the US. The current inflation varies between countries, with Japan seeing a much smaller increase given its structurally weak demand and its historic struggles with deflation and weak growth in recent decades.

One of the big questions that has fuelled much debate in the media, not least on Twitter, is whether central banks need to be raising interest rates, which their own models say will only fully affect the rate of inflation a year or two down the line, when the global economy has begun to slow and forecasts of recession are becoming more frequent. If the very purpose of monetary tightening is to reduce demand in the form of investment and consumption and raise unemployment, which economists tend to think of as socially undesirable even if they may sometimes be intentional consequences of policy, the question arises as to whether such moves are necessary. Continue reading

Joseph Stiglitz on what to do about the present inflation — via LARS P. SYLL

To be sure, some normalization of interest rates would be a good thing. Interest rates are supposed to reflect the scarcity of capital, and the “correct” price of capital obviously is not zero or negative – as near-zero interest rates and very negative real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates would seem to imply. But there are substantial […]

What to do about the present inflation — LARS P. SYLL

Robert Reich destroys minimum wage myths

In this video, Robert Reich, former labour secretary under Bill Clinton, and founder of Inequality Media, destroys a number of the myths surrounding the minimum wage, which in the US has not risen since 2009. In particular, he challenges the notions that raising it will kill jobs, damage business, raise inflation and even benefit the wrong people. In fact, it is likely to raise productivity, reduce worker turnover and training costs, boost demand by increasing consumer spending and have a negligible impact on the inflation rate. It will also reduce both racial inequality and the need for welfare spending to support those on the lowest incomes. As he says, if business owners rely on paying workers ‘starvation wages’ in order to survive, they should not be in business!

A paradox of inflation: supply shocks can be caused by excess demand

InflationMartin Wolf of the Financial Times made an important point with regard to the causes of inflation in last week’s economics commentary. His article drew on the latest Annual Report of the Bank for International Settlements. I will quote him in full:

“Explaining away what is happening as due to “exogenous” supply shocks is a big error. What is exogenous to any one economy is often endogenous to all of them. Thus, rapidly expanding demand in a number of significant economies will create a surge in global demand…excess demand will always show up first where prices are flexible, notably in commodities, before spreading.”

Thus today’s high inflation in many economies is not wholly the result of supply shocks due to pandemic-related supply-chain issues and war in Ukraine. It is also, in part, the result of excess global demand. Continue reading