Elites debate boosting the economy, but for whom?

Elites and the talking heads in the media are arguing about how to respond to Canada’s soured economic outlook. Who should try to boost the economy, the federal government via fiscal stimulus or the Bank of Canada via monetary policy? But while elites argue amongst themselves, the overriding context is a transfer and concentration of economic power upwards. This, not $10 billion here or 0.25% there, is what hamstrings any policy response going to the benefit of the many.

First, some context. Yesterday’s report from the Bank of Canada describing the state of the economy did not make for happy reading. While there is no crash, no panic and no crisis, the picture isn’t particularly rosy. The kind of generalized malaise and stagnation that has affected much of the globe since the last crisis—and that our resource boom staved off—seems to be hitting home. The Bank revised downwards its projections for both growth and inflation, and has a history of being overoptimistic. (more…)

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QE: Furthering the habit of privatizing gains and socializing losses

“Privatizing gains and socializing losses” could be the motto for the neoliberal era. Alongside this and “there is no alternative”, few slogans better capture the ideology that has been so successfully diffused throughout the world over the past several decades.

Five years after latest financial crisis, this motto rings true as ever. To say that the losses stemming from the crisis were large is a heroic understatement; indeed, not only were they humongous, their exact size remains a tad fuzzy. Meanwhile, across the world in the aftermath of the crisis, stock markets have rebounded, wealth and income inequalities have grown and corporations and financial institutions have returned to making healthy profits. At the same time, many countries have seen both employment and median incomes either stagnate or fall.

In short, once again, losses were socialized, while gains privatized. Prominent among the means employed by governments to ensure that this be the case were various kinds of asset purchase programs. First, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, came actions that transferred toxic financial assets into public hands either through direct buybacks (as in the US TARP program) or temporary nationalization/bailout. Since these short-term, more explicit socializations of private loss came to an end, the policy of quantitative easing (QE), through which central banks purchase vast amounts of long-term debt from financial markets, has been their implicit continuation. Unlike the earlier programs, QE is aimed instead at the other end of the equation, privatized gains. (more…)

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Myths of central banking

The Bank of Canada has been in the news lately – or, more precisely, the news has been full of other well-placed people telling our central bankers what to do. In an interview on CTV this past weekend, Jim Flaherty made comments (later retracted) that Canada’s central bank will be pressured to raise interest rates sooner rather than later. On Tuesday, the influential, pro-business Conference Board of Canada also came out with some advice. A Globe and Mail editorial written its chief economist suggested, somewhat surprisingly, that the Bank should target a higher level of inflation, up to 4% from the current 2%.

Predictably, these pronouncements, especially Flaherty’s, spawned a chorus of criticism from conservative commentators. They lambasted the Minister of Finance for potentially undermining the central bank’s independence. Such attacks from the right were to be expected; however, even the NDP chimed in, calling the Minister’s comments “inappropriate”.

One reason for such universal criticism of any perceived meddling in central bank matters is that central banks are some of the most mythologized institutions of contemporary capitalism. They are often the subject of pious reverence on the part of media, politicians and economists. There is broad consensus that central banks should be independent and target low inflation (which, for many economies in the North has meant about 2%). This is why it was particularly odd to hear conservative voices question both of these assumptions: Flaherty, independence, and the Conference Board, low inflation.

In reality, however, both of these assumptions should be open to discussion and questioning. First, take the central bank’s independence. While we have many institutions that should be at arms-length from the government, these are largely bodies that hold government accountable and ensure that it is correctly carrying out its mandate – whether in terms of environmental protection, child welfare or accounting principles. The central bank is, however, not this kind of institution. (more…)

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