Austerity, household debt and Brexit: the case for a weaker pound

What are we to make of the current performance and future prospects for the British economy and for the JAM (Just About Managing) households which the Conservative government proclaims to be trying to help?

According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), households, on average, became net borrowers in 2017 for the first time since records began in 1987. The savings ratio fell to its lowest annual level since 1963.

Household spending growth also fell to 1.7%, the lowest since 2011.

There was some better news on the current account deficit for 2017, which fell to 4.1% of GDP, also the lowest figure since 2011. And in the fourth quarter of last year, it fell to 3.6%. The improvement is at least partly down to the weakness of the pound and a stronger world economy boosting net exports and net earnings on foreign investments.

But the improvement in the current account is also being flattered by weaker growth in imports due to their higher cost reducing real household income and consumption growth. In an open economy, part of household income is inevitably spent on imported goods and services. A fall in the current account deficit can come from a reduced demand leakage into imports as well as increased growth in exports.

With the weaker pound and higher inflation reducing real household income, and interest rates still at very low levels, households are taking the opportunity to add to their already substantial levels of debt, rather than reduce consumption even further.

With the household sector spending more than its income, it is adding to the growth of aggregate demand, as credit acts as a net injection of purchasing power into the economy.

But with household debt already high, interest rates set to rise gradually, and real wage growth still negative, these trends will prove unsustainable. Although inflation has perhaps peaked, and real wages should start to grow once again, there is some way to go before the JAMs start to see a sustained and substantial rise in living standards. Continue reading

Michael Hudson on Modern Monetary Theory

There is an enormous amount of information across the internet on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). A search in google gives around 2.6 million results, while that for post-Keynesian produces a mere 974 thousand! Marxist economics gives even fewer, at 913 thousand.

Having said that, a search for Marxism produces 13.3 million results. Of course, Marxist thought has had an influence far beyond economics, and even philosophy, politics and sociology, into such fields as anthropology and psychology.

Here is maverick economics Professor Michael Hudson on MMT, taken from his book J is for Junk Economics (p.155-7). Hudson is supportive of the theory and the economic policies which it implies.

Later in the week I will outline some ideas on money and inflation drawn from Anwar Shaikh‘s 2016 work Capitalism. Shaikh is critical of some aspects of MMT and provides extensive theoretical discussion and empirical evidence to make his case for a ‘Classical’ theory of modern money and inflation. Continue reading

Yanis Varoufakis explains debt deflation

A short video featuring the ever-engaging Yanis Varoufakis, self-styled ‘erratic Marxist’ and former finance minister of Greece. Here he explains the process of debt deflation which, during the eurozone crisis, has hit Greece hard. In particular he outlines the difference between devaluing the national currency and reducing wages, and the effect these have on the debt burden and the prospects for economic recovery.

Understanding the ‘Three Balances’

This 14 minute animated video is a nice introduction to the Three Sectoral Financial Balances, which are an important part of macroeconomics, or the study of the economy as a whole. The dialogue sounds a little odd, but stick with it.

The video helps to dispel some myths about the desirability or otherwise of government budget deficits and surpluses, and how the associated money flows interact with the rest of the economy: the private sector (firms and households) and the foreign sector (the rest of the world).

In particular, the discussion outlines how the US government ran budget surpluses in the late 1990s, but also how this was more than offset by the private sector deficit, and the resultant accumulation of private debt, which ultimately proved unsustainable.

The post-Keynesian economist Wynne Godley, originator of the Three Balances approach, warned about this in 1999 here, and forecast a recession, accompanied by rising unemployment and government deficits, as these trends necessarily began to unwind over the medium term.