Japan Real Time Charts and Data

Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog from time to time, but he does run a lively Twitter account with plenty of Japan related comment. He also maintains a collection of constantly updated Japan data charts with short updates on a Storify dedicated page Is Japan Once More Back in Deflation?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Japan: To Raise or Not to Raise, That is the Question

Well in some ways this is an interesting week in Japan. The Boj has to take a decision on whether or not to raise interest rates. As Claus Vistesen says in an aptly titled post, this is just too close to call. Nonetheless I will stick my neck out just a little, I don't think they will raise, but I wouldn't attach a very high level of certainty to this, since there are a lot of pressures in both directions. But the underlying issue is one of asymmetric risk (ie the presence of so many downside factors, plus the need to do something on the fiscal front). Nevertheless I a may well be wrong, since the international pressures on Japan at this point are enormous. If they do raise I am categorically of the opinion that this would be a BAD decision, and indeed bending to political pressures rather than going by economic fundamentals.

I won't dwell more on this here, since Claus has already covered the ground in two excellent posts on Global Economy Matters (here and here).

What I will do is draw attention to an intersting piece from the FT Japan correspondant David Pilling. Pilling offers an interesting rundown of the history of Japanese central banking and monetary policy since the bursting of the bubble at the end of the 1980s. He also draws attention to the crucial dilema now facing Japan:

On one side of the debate, many academic economists argue that it is ludicrous even to consider raising rates now. Stripped of energy costs – the normal practice in other advanced economies – Japanese prices are still falling. Few textbooks, to put it mildly, advocate tightening at such a juncture.

Furthermore, sceptics say, the BoJ’s central scenario on which it bases monetary policy is patently failing to come to fruition. The bank has said it expects profits gradually to feed through to wages and consumption, exerting upward pressure on prices. But wages have barely budged, as companies have held tenaciously on to their earnings. Although consumption grew strongly in the fourth quarter, as revealed in the GDP numbers, that merely cancelled out an equally sharp drop in the previous three months.

As he says many academic economists argue that it is ludicrous even to consider raising rates now (and I would be among these I guess) but on the other hand:

Mr Yamakawa at Goldman says there are big risks to the BoJ’s policy objectives if it does not raise rates this time. “If it doesn’t move, the markets will receive a clear-cut message that the BoJ will not increase rates until it sees very definite signs of a recovery in consumption and the CPI. That means it would be waiting until everybody, including the politicians, was happy.”

But waiting for what he calls the “full set” of data confirming Japan’s transition from a deflationary to an inflationary economy “risks a distortion in the process of asset price formation”, Mr Yamakawa says. In particular, if markets conclude that rates will stay at 0.25 per cent for another six months, the carry trade is likely to swell further, increasing the impact of any sudden reversal.

I think this is only partly right, the risk to asset prices is not in Japan, but elsewhere (via the carry trade) and this is why there is so much pressure on Japan.

There is one more element to add to this potent mix. In the past few weeks, Tokyo has come under pressure from European – though not US – officials over the weak yen which, in trade-weighted terms, is at 20-year lows. Some European finance ministers have linked the issue to Japanese interest rates being 5 percentage points below those in the US and the UK. As well as making Japan’s exports “unfairly” competitive, the criticism goes, the wide differential has fuelled the so-called carry trade, encouraging people to convert cheap yen into higher-yielding foreign assets.

The issue came up at this month’s Group of Seven finance ministers meeting in Essen, although the final communiqué contained no direct demand that Japan should act. Some bond traders speculated that Mr Fukui may have helped head that off by hinting that Japan would raise rates soon.

So the risk here is that the BoJ may be forced into taking a bad decision (and against all sound macroeconomic advice) for political reasons, but these political reasons would be external and not internal ones. This is not the basis for sound monetary policy, and is a likely recipe for a loss of central bank credibility inside Japan, with unknown subsequent consequences. As Pilling notes since gaining independance back in 1998 the BoJ has already made one bad call (by starting to raise rates back in 2000, only to be forced to backtrack as deflation persisted), can it really now afford to make another one?

One last detail, and one which makes me lean towards the idea that the BoJ will continue to hold, the US situation. Now as Pilling notes:

The bank could be further emboldened by recent strength in the stock market and increasing evidence that the US economy, on which Japan depends for exports, will not fade nearly as quickly as once feared.

But if we look at the latest set of housing data from the US the position is by no means as clear as it was only last week:

Construction of new homes and apartments plunged by 14.3 percent in January, the Commerce Department reported Friday. The bigger-than-expected drop left construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.408 million units, the lowest level in nearly 10 years.

Now don't get me wrong, the US economy is clearly not set on any kind of downward tailspin course, but it does seem that the immediate outlook is a little weaker than some had been hoping for. And the Japanese are deeply sensitive to any indications of ongoing weakness in the all important US consumer market, and this is the reason I feel that they will most probably come down on the side of caution.

Update: this piece in Bloomberg seems to confirm my view to some extent, certainly the markets are not anticipating a change, and comments from Japanese Finance Minister Koji Omi stressing the importance of central bank policy supporting economic growth seem to confirm this. Also the suggestion that Bank of Japan Governor Toshihiko Fukui will judge not only what's good for the economy but also what's good for the reputation of the central bank can be read in both directions. We will see.

Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Hiroko Ota today said consumption is basically flat and it's up to the BOJ to decide policy. She declined to say whether the government will exercise its right to ask the bank to delay any decision to raise rates.