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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Abenomics - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

If this week's economics news is positive then that is good.  But if it's bad then that's even better, since there is more potential for it to improve next week, and if it doesn't, well that's doubly better since there will be  even more reason for central banks to step in and push up asset prices. Maybe all this sounds peculiar, even perverse, but it would seem to be how many people working in financial markets are reasoning these days.

In an article entitled "Why Japan's GDP Plunge Isn't As Bad As It Seems", Bloomberg writer Bruce Einhorn put it like this:
The last time Japan raised the consumption tax, in 1997, the economy went into a tailspin. The impact doesn’t seem to be as bad this time, though. The economy contracted at an annualized 6.8 percent in the second quarter of the year. Bad, to be sure, but not dismal. For all its severity, the plunge was actually smaller than many economists had expected, with a survey of 37 economists by Bloomberg showing a median estimate of a 7 percent decline. That’s why investors looked at today’s numbers and shrugged. 
 Takeshi Minami, chief economist at the Norinchukin Research Institute in Tokyo also felt the number wasn't a disaster, since he told Bloomberg despite the sharp fall, “the probability is high that the July-September quarter will see a rebound.” Well, naturally, after a 19.2% annualised drop in household consumption, or a 35.3% drop in residential investment doing better won't be hard, but that's a kinda low bar to be working from.

Another line of argument you can find repeatedly in the financial press is that the number was a bad one, but the silver lining is that this means the Bank of Japan is more likely to do additional QE. “The contraction was sharp. There is no argument about that,” Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute told the Wall Street Journal, however he had “no doubt” the government and the Bank of Japan would come under pressure to act as a result. Pressure from whom? As we will see later, maybe not from Japanese the citizens these institutions are supposed to represent.

At the end of the day what matters isn't whether Japan's economy grows slightly (or not) in the coming quarter, but whether the country is on a stable recovery path or whether growth will continue to remain lackluster and weak even as the government debt level rises.

Apart from the obvious shockers, details worth noting are the 1% of GDP's worth of quarterly inventory accumulation (see chart above), which will have to be sweated down in the next quarter, and the 20.5% annualized fall in imports. This was good for the net trade component, which was positive for the first time in yonks, but the fall is simply the reverse side of the consumption drop. In fact Japanese export growth has been weakening steadily in recent months, and this obviously has nothing to do with the sales tax.


Exports were down 2% in June over a year earlier, and in volume terms they were down 2.5% from September 2012, just before the Abenomics driven yen devaluation started. So if one of the objectives of Abenomics was boosting exports it is obviously failing. As Naohiko Baba, chief Japan economist at Goldman Sachs Group and former central bank employee told Bloomberg: “The BOJ predicted that a weak yen would boost export volumes and spur spill-over effects by increasing domestic production and expanding the overall economy -- but that path isn’t working. It raises the question of what the weak yen has done in terms of living standards of the general public.”

It seems that manufacturers have been moving production to lower-cost countries during the years of yen strength, thus reducing the effect of exchange rates on exports. Honda, for example, has more car production capacity in North America than its home market and last year exported more vehicles from its U.S. factories than it imported into the country from Japan.

Inflation Surge Weakening?

The Bank has had more success with inflation since core inflation was up 3.3% over a year earlier in June. But that number soon shrinks in proportion when you strip out the estimated impact of the recent tax hike. According to the Bank of Japan the ex-tax number for June was 1.3%, down from 1.4% a month earlier. And even this inflation isn't demand driven: it is largely a carry over from the earlier yen devaluation. As such it is quite likely to disappear with time.

Representatives of the Bank of Japan continue to insist that the country is on course to exit deflation, but many external observers aren't convinced, as this recent chart from analysts at Credit Suisse suggests. 



As the Wall Street Journal put it:
 "The latest data, which exclude the effects of April's consumption-tax hike, suggest that Japan is slipping away from the 2% inflation target set by Mr. Abe's central banker, Haruhiko Kuroda. Price increases for imports, triggered by a yen-devaluation campaign, have now filtered through the economy. Since Abenomics hasn't included concrete economic reforms, Japan is sliding back into its status quo before Mr. Abe was elected in late 2012."

Winners and Losers

Another problem which faces Abe is that the results of his policy have been very unevenly distributed.Those who gained from the yen devaluation (shorting the yen) or from the rise in Japanese equities, or those corporates who  made windfall profits on their sales have been the lucky ones, because the rest of the Japanese have been facing falling living standards. As the Economist pointed out: even as jobs grow scarce, real wages continue to fall.




Nominal wages have been rising again in Japan. Average total wages, consisting of base pay, overtime and bonuses covering both regular and part-time workers, grew 0.4% on year in June, following increases of 0.6% for May and 0.7% for April and March. Four straight months of year-on-year risse is the longest stretch since total wages grew for six straight months between June and November 2010. But real wages - which take into account inflation and matter much more to consumers than nominal wages, declined 3.8% on year in June, the fourteenth consecutive month of decline, and the biggest drop since December 2009.

Shadow Over Abenomics?

Not unnaturally many Japanese are starting to get fed up with Premier Abe and his economics revolution. What good to them is a policy which only helps the upper 10% of the population and the overseas investment community. Tokyo University's Shin-ichi Fukuda has carried out some pretty interesting research in this regard. As can be seen in the two charts reproduced below, most of the movement in both  the Nikkei has taken place while the Japanese themselves were offline and asleep.



And pretty much the same picture emerges if we look at movements in the yen.

It shouldn't surprise us then to find that Shinzo Abe's popularity is plummeting in Japan. Opinion surveys conducted in July by Japan’s major newspapers show Abe’s support ratings have fallen below 50 per cent for the first time since he became Premier, while the number of people who say they disapprove of his government is approaching the number who say they approve.



And at the heart of the dissatisfaction lies the governments economic policy. A recent survey published by the Sankei newspaper showed 47 per cent of respondents said they disapproved of his government’s handling of the economy, 7 percentage points more than the number who approved.The Sansei, described by the FT's Jonathan Soble as a "right-leaning" daily that has mostly "cheer-led" for Abe, had a headline stating "There is a shadow over Abenomics". As Soble says one of the reasons for such dissatisfaction among many Japanese "is simply that Abenomics has made them poorer, thanks to its uneven effect on prices and wages."

So while many in the markets and in the academic community think the obvious response to what is happening in Japan will be more BoJ easing, the Japanese themselves may not see it this way.

Part of the reason they might not see it in the same light as the central bank dependent investment community is that there is a solid body of opinion in Japan that recognizes that a large part of the country's issue is demographic and that simply "jump starting" a bit of inflation won't make the problem go away..

The question I would ask is this: given all the doubt which exists about the real roots of Japan's problem, and the fact that it may well be a permanent structural problem and not a temporary liquidity trap one, is it really justified to run such a high risk, all-or-nothing experiment? Even Paul Krugman seems to have changed his assessment various times since the  problem started and while he still fully supports the general approach being taken he now thinks the natural rate of interest may remain permanently negative and that fiscal stimulus might be necessary on a permanent basis (liquidity trap without end, amen).  What makes people like me nervous is the thought that if the central bank can't deliver on its promise to deliver inflation, or if the Japanese voters decide they have had enough of the experiment, then a loss of confidence might ensue, and all those dubious risky asset positions might unwind suddenly, just like an earlier set did in 2008.

And there are plenty of people in Japan who have been pointing this out all along. Seki Obata, a Keio University business school professor for example, who in 2013 published a book "Reflation is Dangerous," argues exactly this, that "Abenomics" is exposing Japan to considerable risk without any clear sense of what it can accomplish. Obata also makes the extremely valid point that there is simply no way incomes can rise across the entire economy because the baby boomers are now retiring to be replaced by fewer young workers with post labour reform entry-level wages. Japan's overall consumer spending power will therefore fall, rather than rise as Abe hopes. "Individual companies may offer wage increases, but because of demographics it is simply impossible to increase the total amount that is paid out in wages," says Obata. "On the contrary, that amount will shrink." Simple logic you would have thought, but logic in the face of irrational exuberance scarcely stops people in their tracks.

As far as I can see, all of this  points to one simple and evident conclusion: that Japan needs deep seated cultural changes, especially ones directed to greater female empowerment and more open-ness towards immigration. Hardly matters for central bank initiatives, and indeed ones for which Shinzo Abe, who naturally has given his name to this new economic trend, is singularly ill equipped to carry through. Japan needs a series of structural reforms – like those under discussion around the third arrow – but these would be to soften the blow of workforce and population decline, not an attempt to run away from it. Monetary policy has its limits. As Martin Wolf so aptly put it, "you can't print babies".

The above is based on arguments fleshed out in much more detail in my  "mini book" the A B E of Economics.

The book is available with Amazon as an e-book. It can be found here. You don't need to buy a Kindle to read this book. You can download a free app from Amazon.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Japan Inflation At A 32 Year High?

Just in case anyone was in any doubt last weeks newspaper  headlines blared it out for us loud and clear - Japanese inflation is back, and has even hit levels last seen in 1982. (Click on image below for better viewing).


In fact consumer prices in Japan rose at an annual rate of 3.4% in May according to the Bank of Japan's preferred measure, driven higher from one month to another by the growing impact of the April sales tax hike. The May surge in inflation follows a previous jump to 3.2%  in April, up from 1.3% in March. Apart from the tax hike, the delayed impact of last years yen devaluation is still being felt: electricity charges rose 11.4% year on year in May, gasoline was up 9.6%, while fresh seafood prices climbed 14.3%.


However, stripping out the effect of the higher tax, Japan's core consumer-price index rose 1.4% in May according to statistics office estimates (see BoJ chart below), below the 1.5% increase the previous month. This underlying inflation fell, even while the headline core index rose, which is why I say the "growing impact" of the tax hike, since it is clear that businesses passed on more of the tax rise in May than they did in April. The slowdown in price growth was the first since September 2013, and BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda also recognized last week that ex-tax core inflation is "expected to slow to around 1%" in the summer, as the effects of higher imported energy prices diminish.



But beyond the waning impact of rising energy prices, a second factor is likely to put downward pressure on Japan prices: the continuing shortfall in domestic demand. Household spending was down 8% year on year in May, following a 4.6% drop in April.


And it's not hard to fathom why consumption is so weak: wages excluding overtime payments and bonuses fell for a 23rd month in April. In fact real wages fell 3.8% year on year. With the purchasing power of salaries falling, and weak demand for credit it is hard to see how consumption wouldn't be falling - maybe not as sharply as in May, but falling all the same.


On the positive side,  Japan's unemployment rate hit a 16-year low of 3.5%  in May. At the same time, the availability of jobs rose to its highest level since 1992, with the jobs-to-applicants ratio for May hitting 1.09, meaning there were 109 jobs available for every 100 job seekers. The data showed the job market tightening across the economy, from construction to auto manufacturing to education.


In fact it isn't just unemployment that is falling - employment is also rising, and was up by just over half a million workers over the last twelve months taking the number of jobs in the economy to a post crisis high.

But if the number of people employed is rising, why isn't what Prime Minister Abe calls the "virtuous cycle" starting to work, with jobs growth producing income growth to spur consumption, so lifting corporate profits and investment spending? Part of the answer lies in the kind of jobs being created. The growth in the number of workers on short-term or part-time contracts means that total earnings (as opposed to basic wages) across the economy are not rising. Employment was up 0.9% while disposable income among worker households FELL 3.4% in real terms. The numbers just don't add up.


As the Economist (who prepared the above chart) puts it, "workers used to be protected by an expensive system of lifetime employment. But firms place new entrants on short-term, ill-paid contracts. Nearly two-fifths of the workforce now falls into this “irregular” category."

The Price Of Permanent Stimulus

Nothing, as we know, comes free, and Abenomics is no exception. Apart from the problem of inducing consumption on the back of falling real wages, the country's external balances are also suffering.  Japan logged its 23rd successive month of trade deficits in May, as exports and imports both declined. The May deficit  was 909 billion yen ($8.8 billion), as exports to the U.S. fell by nearly 3 percent from a year earlier. Exports fell 2.7 percent to 5.6 trillion yen ($54.9 billion) while imports dropped 3.6 percent to 6.5 trillion yen ($63.7 billion).

The current account surplus is also deteriorating and plunged 76.1% in April when compared with the previous year. The current account balance was the lowest seen in April since1982 according to the Japanese Finance Ministry.


All this notwithstanding, with the Bank of Japan buying almost all new issue Japan Government Bonds, yields remain incredibly low. As the FT's James Mackintosh points out the yield on the 7-year bond fell to just 0.28% last week, only 6bp above its all-time low.


As James notes, rising inflation and falling bond yields don't mix well in the longer term, and don't offer much prospect of a serious market beyond BoJ purchases, unless of course the inflation is not sustainable.  The black line in the following chart shows an index of inflation-linked JGB real yields, while the other two show the 7- and 10-year yields minus inflation.



Really there isn't that much mystery about what is going on in Japan. Falling working age population is steadily reducing the country's potential growth rate (as the chart below from the Bank of Japan illustrates), and while structural reforms may help raise productivity and offset the decline on the supply side to some extent, they won't address the underlying structural demand shortage problem. So it could be that at the end of the day the only lasting legacy of the Abenomics experiment will be a seriously distorted economy and a pile of sovereign debt which will be hard to ever pay down and will make raising interest rates in the longer term really problematic.



More detailed arguments to justify the idea that Abenomics is unlikely to achieve its objectives can be found in my recent short book - The ABE of Economics (for more information visit my webpage). The book is available with Amazon as an e-book. It can be found here. You don't need to buy a Kindle to read this book. You can download a free app from Amazon.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Will Japan Re-enter Deflation in April 2015?

Reading the most recent statements from Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda or Finance Minister Taro Aso you would get the impression that the days of deflation are now well and truly numbered in Japan. Martin Schulz, economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, goes even further. “Deflation is over in Japan,” he told Bloomberg Television First Up’s Angie Lau . Even Japan’s industrial leaders now believe inflation is here to stay: the country’s inflation rate will be 1.5 percent in the spring of 2015, and 1.7 percent in 2017, according to average forecasts in a Bank of Japan survey conducted in March this year.

But is such optimist justified? According to the Bank of Japan's favored index, which includes energy but not the cost of fresh food, inflation stood at an annual 3.2% in April. Sounds good if what you want to do is generate inflation.


But before getting too excited, it is worth bearing in mind that inflation one month earlier has stood at only 1.3% on the same measure. The difference between months is, naturally, the result of the impact of the 3% sales tax hike which came into force on 1 April. Without that, inflation would have been much lower since the base effect of the 20% yen devaluation is now starting to work its way out of the calculation. Indeed stripping out energy costs (which are the principal knock on cost effect of the devalued yen), inflation in April was but 2.3%, notably below the size of the tax hike. So the question which should be being asked is what will the level of annual inflation be in April 2015, assuming that is there are no further yen devaluations or tax hikes to help push the number back up again? Analysts at Credit Suisse seem pretty clear (see chart below), we’ll be back in deflation again.



Leaving aside the sustainability issue, the type of inflation Japan has been experiencing since the advent of Abenomics – driven by rising energy costs and tax hikes – also constitutes a problem. It has been described by Bloomberg journalists Tsuyoshi Inajima and Brian Swint as the "wrong kind", a way of putting things which highlights the amount of confusion there is out there about just what it is that the BoJ is doing and what it is supposed to be achieving.

To back their point they cite Klaus Baader, chief Asia Pacific economist for Societe Generale in Hong Kong to the effect that “this isn’t the kind of inflation we want in Japan to break the deflation mindset. We’d like inflation that is a reflection of higher wages, whereas this is pure cost inflation that decreases purchasing power.” So now we learn that Japan doesn’t need just any old inflation, it needs a very specific kind, which could be described as “demand pull”, but this brings us straight back to the original problem: domestic demand in Japan just isn’t strong enough to generate this kind of inflation, and nudging up inflation expectations for a couple of years won’t change anything substantial in this regard. Possibly the type of cost push inflation Japan is experiencing is the "wrong kind" for adherents of the Abenomics approach, but it is more than likely the only kind they are going to get. If the structural lack of demand argument I have been advancing is valid, then this means there is permanent downward pressure on costs in an environment of constant oversupply making inflationary wage increases difficult to envision. Indeed, as reported by another group of Bloomberg journalists (Masaki Kondo, Mariko Ishikawa and Yumi Ikeda) , reality itself belies such expectations, since Japan's wage index hit a post 1992 low at the start of 2013. And the downward drift has continued. In April 2014 the average basic salary fell for the 23rd straight month, declining 0.2 percent to 243,989 yen, while average real, or inflation-adjusted, wages decreased 3.1 percent from a year earlier, marking the largest year-on-year fall in more than four years.


Rising inflation and falling wages don’t seem like the sort of combination to make for a sustainable recovery. Indeed it seems so off-mark as to make you wonder whether official sector economists really thought through what they were doing before embarking on this experiment.

The thing is this, given all the doubt which exists about the real roots of Japan's problem, and the fact that it may well be a permanent structural problem and not a temporary liquidity trap one, is it really justified to run such a high risk, all-or-nothing experiment? Even Paul Krugman seems to have changed his assessment various times since the  problem started and while he still fully supports the general approach being taken he now thinks the natural rate of interest may remain permanently negative and that fiscal stimulus might be necessary on a permanent basis (liquidity trap without end, amen).  What makes people nervous is the thought that if the central bank can't deliver on its promise to deliver inflation then a loss of confidence might ensue, and all those dubious risky asset positions might unwind suddenly, just like an earlier set did in 2008.

And there are plenty of people in Japan who have been pointing this out all along. Seki Obata, a Keio University business school professor for example, who in 2013 published a book "Reflation is Dangerous," argues exactly this, that "Abenomics" is exposing Japan to considerable risk without any clear sense of what it can accomplish. Obata also makes the extremely valid point that there is simply no way incomes can rise across the entire economy because the baby boomers are now retiring to be replaced by fewer young workers with post labour reform entry-level wages. Japan's overall consumer spending power will therefore fall, rather than rise as Abe hopes. "Individual companies may offer wage increases, but because of demographics it is simply impossible to increase the total amount that is paid out in wages," says Obata. "On the contrary, that amount will shrink." Simple logic you would have thought, but logic in the face of irrational exuberance scarcely stops people in their tracks.

As far as I can see, all of this  points to one simple and evident conclusion: that Japan needs deep seated cultural changes, especially ones directed to greater female empowerment and more open-ness towards immigration. Hardly matters for central bank initiatives, and indeed ones for which Shinzo Abe, who naturally has given his name to this new economic trend, is singularly ill equipped to carry through. Japan needs a series of structural reforms – like those under discussion around the third arrow – but these would be to soften the blow of workforce and population decline, not an attempt to run away from it. Monetary policy has its limits. As Martin Wolf so aptly put it, "you can't print babies".

The above is an extract from my new "mini book" the A B E of Economics.

The book is available with Amazon as an e-book. It can be found here. You don't need to buy a Kindle to read this book. You can download a free app from Amazon.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Growing Mess Which Will Be Left Behind By The Abenomics Experiment

According to wikipedia, "overdetermination is a phenomenon whereby a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once, any one of which alone might be enough to account for ("determine") the effect.That is, there are more causes present than are necessary to generate the effect".  In this strictly technical sense Japan's deflation problem is overdetermined - there are multiple causes at work, any one of which could account for the observed phenomenon. Those who have been following the debate can simply choose their favourite - balance sheet recession, liquidity trap, fertility trap - each one, taken alone, could be sufficient as a cause. The problem this situation presents is simply epistemological - in a scientific environment the conundrum could be resolved by devising the requisite, consensually grounded, tests.

But I would here like to use the term "overdetermination" in another, less technical, sense, since it seems to me Japan's problem set is overdetermined in that we always seem to be facing at least one more problem than we have remedies at hand.

The case of the country's ongoing energy dependency which is producing a growing trade and current account deficit would be a good example. Notionally the problem forms part of the legacy of the tragic tsunami which hit the country in March 2011 and lead to the decision to phase out  nuclear energy capacity.  But now  that decision has been reversed, and starting this summer nuclear generating capacity is once more to be "phased up". The issue is, from a strictly economic point of view would that be good news? Well, it would certainly help with the deteriorating trade balance:


But what about deflation? Would having cheaper domestically produced energy help here? Wasn't generating inflation supposed to be the whole point of the Abenomics exercise? Don't rising energy costs constitute the lions share of the country's recent, much heralded, inflation? Damned if I do, and damned if I don't would seem to be the only conclusion to draw. A win-win policy which both closes the trade deficit and foments inflation (if that's what you think Japan needs) doesn't seem to be on the table. The trade deficit could also be corrected by reducing the fiscal deficit, but that would lower domestic demand, possibly send the economy back towards recession and almost certainly ignite deflation yet one more time.

The remainder of this post can now be found in my Kindle e-book published with Amazon.

You don't need to buy a Kindle to read this book. You can download a free app from Amazon.