MMT and the impossible trinity

There’s generally not a lot of common ground between fans of Robert Mundell (the intellectually respectable face of supply side economics) and those of Modern Monetary Theory. Yet in one very important respect, their ideas are two sides of the same coin.

Mundell got his Nobel Memorial Prize, in large measure, for what’s been called the ‘impossible trinity’, namely that a country can’t have all three of a fixed exchange rate, an independent monetary policy and free capital movement.

Turn that round and it says that, if you are willing to give up one of the three, you can have the other two. If we ignore the idea of controlling capital movements completely (limited controls don’t do the job) the trinity becomes a simple two-way choice: fixed exchange rate or independent monetary policy.

If you are on the gold standard, or part of a monetary union, then you are stuck with a fixed exchange rate, and Mundell’s point is that you can’t have an independent monetary policy. Conversely, if you are a sovereign nation, issuing your own fiat money, and you choose not to defend a fixed exchange rate, you can choose your own monetary policy.

That observation is what gives Modern Monetary Theory its name. Under modern (post-gold standard) conditions, any country with its own currency can choose its own monetary policy.

Underemployment in Australia

I’m working on a revision of a chapter on unemployment (its with Stephen Bell, and the book is the 4th edition of a text called Social Policy in Australia. One of the issues we’ve stressed in previous editions is hidden unemployment, particularly including underemployment.

I haven’t paid much attention to this issue in the last few years, focusing mainly on the set of issues usually tagged as “the future of work”. When I came back to it, I was surprised to find that, even though unemployment has been more or less stable for the last decade, underemployment has risen sharply, and is now at an all-time high of 8 per cent.

The increase is concentrated among 15-24 year olds. I have a few ideas about what might be going on here, but I thought I’d see if readers can point to any serious studies or, failing that, anecdotal evidence on the question.

Cutting the financial sector down to size

That’s the provisional title I used for my latest piece in Inside Story. Peter Browne, the editor, gave it the longer and clearer title “Want to reduce the power of the finance sector? Start by looking at climate change”.

The central idea is a comparison between the process of decarbonizing the world economy and that of definancialising it, by reducing the power and influence of the financial sector. Both seemed almomst impossible only a decade ago, but the first is now well under way.

There’s also an analogy between the favored economists’ approach in both cases: reliance on price based measures such as carbon taxes and Tobin taxes. Despite the theoretical appeal of such measures, it looks as if regulation will end up doing much of the heavy work.

Cheap at twice the price

One of the vanished joys of academic life is the experience, after publishing an article, of getting a bundle of 25 or 50 reprints in the mail, to be distributed to friends and colleagues, or mailed out in response to requests from faraway places (if you live in Australia, everywhere is faraway), often coming on little postcards. Everything is much more efficient nowadays, and I just finished throwing away my remaining collection of reprints. But now, an electronic ghost of the reprint has come to visit.

Earlier this year, I contributed an article to a special issue of Globalizations on “The diffusion of public private partnerships: a world systems analysis”. This is a fair way outside my usual academic area of expertise, a fact which may be apparent to readers who know more about the topic than me, but I wanted to say something about Australia and New Zealand. I just got an email from the publisher offering 50 free e-prints . I don’t think my fellow economists will be much interested, and most would have library subscriptions anyway. So, I’m opening it up to my readers. As I understand it, the first 50 to download it get it for free. After that, anyone really interested can email me for a copy.

Update If you want a copy just click on the link

Adani’s silent partners

A month after Adani got the final approvals for its Carmichael mine, it’s still hard to work out what’s going on with Adani and the Galilee Basin in general. Adani has been making a fair bit of noise, but the project still seems to consist of tree clearing and road building.

To get past this stage, and without significant in-house experience of major projects, Adani needs partners: engineering design firms, construction contractors, and so on. And even if no external funding is needed, the project still needs insurance, which is getting harder to come by.

Adani claims it has insurance lined up, but declines to say which firm is providing it. Assuming the claim is true, the obvious explanation is that the insurer is worried about reputational damage from being associated with such a toxic project. Presumably, that concern will be reflected in higher premiums.

The same is true as regards engineering. It’s widely rumored that global firm Gutteridge, Haskins and Davey will get the job, but so far GHD has refused to comment. As well as reputational damage, GHD needs to consider the fact that Adani has burned a string of previous contractors. They are still fighting their last partner, AECOM over a payment of $12 million. AECOM must surely be regretting ever getting into bed with Adani, ending up losing their money as well as their reputation.

Any firm looking at this history, and tendering to Adani, would want a high price and money up front for its services, as well as trying to keep its involvement as quiet as possible. That in turn raises the question of how a project that was marginal to begin with can manage to pay over the odds for everything it needs. This at a time when a company like Whitehaven is relying for its continued profitability on the assumption that existing producers will leave the market.

On the jobs front, Adani has been advertising positions in its Townsville office (about 60, as of today). But that’s barely enough to replace the cuts made last year. There’s no sign of the promised thousands of jobs so far.

A message from the recent past

That’s the headline from my latest piece in Inside Story, in Libra, Facebook’s newly announced cryptocurrency. Opening and closing paras below

Facebook’s announcement that it is launching a #cryptocurrency called Libra raises two questions. Will Libra compete with the most famous cryptocurrency, #Bitcoin ? And what is a cryptocurrency anyway?

Ultimately, the crucial part of the name is “crypto.” What Bitcoin and Libra have in common is a desire to avoid the constraints of government regulation of financial markets by burying their operations in layers of technological mystery. These aspirations, brought together in the term “fintech,” reflect the market libertarianism that dominated both the technology and finance worlds in the heady days of the 1990s, and persisted even after the global financial crisis of 2008. It remains to be seen whether such aspirations will flourish in the current, much less favourable environment