Could the Japanese Government cope with an end to QE in Japan?

It is time for us to look east again to the land of the rising sun or Nihon. It remains in the grip of an extraordinary economic experiment as its central bank continues to offer freshly printed Yen ( albeit electronic rather than paper ones) on a grand scale in return for bonds, commercial paper , corporate bonds, equities and property so just about everything!

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases at more or less the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings of about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of the long-term interest rate specified by the guideline. …… The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively.

Perhaps it was the scale of all of this that led much of the media to start writing articles that the Bank of Japan would reduce its operations or as it is now called “taper” them. Only on Friday I quoted this from the Wall Street Journal.

Japan shows Europe how to dial back stimulus without spooking investors

The Bank of Japan responds

Sadly for the media the word taper required the word reverse in front of it. From the Nikkei Asian Review only a few short hours later.

At 10:10 a.m. Japan time, the BOJ unleashed what a market manager for a leading brokerage called a “devastating” combination, announcing both a fixed-rate operation, in which the central bank agrees to buy unlimited bonds at a fixed yield, and an increase in the size of regular bond-buying operations. It was the first time the bank had executed such policies simultaneously.

So more is apparently less as we note that this bit could only have come from Japan.

When yields on 10-year Japanese government bonds hit 0.1% on Thursday evening, the central bank was forced to ring up Japan’s leading securities firms for advice.

What would they have done in places like Greece Italy or Portugal in the Euro area crisis or in the early days of my career when longer UK Gilt yields passed 15%?!

By Friday morning, 10-year JGB yields had reached 0.105% — the last straw

We will have to see what happens next but should the Bank of Japan feel the need to keep intervening this could be the state of play.

If the central bank keeps buying up 10-year JGBs as quickly as it did Friday, annual purchases could exceed new issuance, according to Takenobu Nakashima of Nomura Securities, burning through fuel for measures to combat a future yield surge.

Actually if it bought them all that would of itself tend to stop any yield surge. Although of course that is just the flow so there would still be an existing stock albeit one which the Bank of Japan owes a fair bit of.

Massive bond purchases have swollen the BOJ’s balance sheet to roughly the size of Japan’s gross domestic product

Around 90% I think. There are various issues here one of which has been conveniently pointed out by the European Central Bank this morning.

Worsened liquidity in domestic government bond market

They mean in the Euro area but imagine how much worse the state of play will be in Japan. We do know that trading volumes have dropped a lot so should the day come that the Bank of Japan decides to withdraw a lot of Japanese fingers will be crossed that past traders and buyers will return. The truth is we simply do not know.

Oh and I see some looking at the equity capital of the Bank of Japan implying it could go broke. But that misses the fact that not only is it backed by the Japanese Treasury but it is pursuing Abenomics a government policy.

Number Crunching

Currently Japan owes this according to Japan Macro Advisers.

At the end of March 2017, the Japanese general government owed a total of 1270.5 trillion yen in liability, equivalent to 236.4% of GDP. The liability includes 863 trillion yen of JGBs, 115.2 trillion yen of T-bills and 157.5 trillion yen of loans.

The Bank of Japan owns over 400 Trillion Yen of these so in round numbers if it wrote these off it would reduce the debt burden to ~160% of GDP. I am by no means suggesting this but if such a situation led to a lower value for the Japanese Yen well that is government policy isn’t it? Of course the danger of debt monetisation of that form is that the currency falls heavily or plummets in a destabilising fashion like Ghana saw for those who recall when I looked at its woes.

The Yen

This has been drifting lower recently and Friday’s news added to that with it now taking more than 114 Yen to buy one US Dollar. This continues a trend which began in the middle of last month.  A sign of the Yen weakness is that the poor battered UK Pound £ is near its post EU Leave vote highs at 147 Yen.

But none of this is anything like enough to spark off the amount of inflation required by Abenomics.

The Inflation Target

More than 3 years down the road after the Bank of Japan kicked off its QQE ( Qualitative and Quantitative Easing) effort we find ourselves noting this. From Japan’s Statistics Bureau.

The consumer price index for Japan in May 2017 was 100.4 (2015=100), up 0.4% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis……  The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in June 2017 (preliminary) was 99.8 (2015=100), the same level as the previous year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

This represents not far off complete failure in spite of the rhetoric about defeating deflation as if Tokyo is any guide 0% is the new 2%. Although of course we have seen asset price inflation leaving us mulling how much of the rise in the Nikkei 225 equity index from around 8000 to the current 20000 is growth and how much inflation?

Often policies to raise inflation really mean wages growth so let us look at that. From The Japan Times.

Japan’s real wages in May gained 0.1 percent from a year earlier for the first rise in five months, the government said Friday.
Total cash earnings per worker, including base and overtime pay, increased 0.7 percent to an average ¥270,241 (around $2,300), the second consecutive monthly rise, the Health and Welfare Ministry also said in a preliminary report.

You can look at this in two ways. The first is that it is not much and the second is that it is about as good as it has got over the past decade or so. One area that is different to the West where we are worrying about workers in the gig economy is that wage growth in Japan is centred on part-time work. It appears to be the one area where conventional economics can breathe a sigh of relief.


The situation continues to see some gains but also some retreats as these two quotes from The Japan Times today indicates.

Japan ‘economy watchers’ sentiment rises in June for third straight month……..Core private-sector machinery orders defied expectations and fell in May, the second consecutive month of decline, due to weakness in the service sector, the government said Monday.

Of course the UK data on Friday reminded us of the problems that sentiment indicators can have as optimism emerged as a fall!

I would like to return to my central theme that Japan has done okay in many ways with 0% inflation especially as we note its demographic problem. So why all the bond buying? Well a debt burden does of course often require some inflation to ease the burden for debtors of which the largest debtor is the government. The biggest beneficiary has been the Japanese government which has been able to do a lot of its borrowing for pretty much nothing for a while. Could it afford a return to normality? At what bond yield would it find things difficult and would it have to apply austerity? A sort of road to nowhere……




21 thoughts on “Could the Japanese Government cope with an end to QE in Japan?

  1. I now know that the whole thing is mad. In the middle of your excellent piece, you said that the BoJ could write off the bonds bought, thereby reducing government debt to a mere 160%.
    Why doesn’t the BoJ buymore bonds etc worth another 160% of GDP, write it off and then the Japanese government could declare itself debt-free.
    You couldn’t make it up.

    • why bother with buying any bonds ?

      because it gives a thin veneer of cover that this is not money printing ?

      gee, someone should have told Zimbabwe !


    • ‘Why doesn’t the BoJ buymore bonds etc worth another 160% of GDP, write it off and then the Japanese government could declare itself debt-free.’

      You are Mark Carnage and I claim my fiver.That’s a super idea,I don’t know why the Swiss National Bank didn’t think of it first.

  2. Hello Shaun,

    “he biggest beneficiary has been the Japanese government which has been able to do a lot of its borrowing for pretty much nothing for a while”

    but isn’t this the reason for all governments that follow QE , ie western ones ?

    In the end they could always write the lot off , just a case of who goes first?


    • I think a lot of Western Govts looked at japan,thought ‘we’re fifteen years behind them on the curve,if there’s any nasty surprises,they’ll get whacked first’.

      Which sort of works until you get whacked or the Euro collapses.

  3. Shaun
    Does this mean that the B of Japan has discovered the “Magic Money Tree”, as printing money has not lead to inflation?
    Would it work for the UK?


    • Japan has a trade surplus and most of the non-govt investors are Japanese. UK has a trade deficit and many of the non-UK-govt investors are foreign.

      This implies different levels of risk ….

  4. Shaun,

    Are ETFs fully invested? ie no cash reserves/ liquidity – if so to whom do you sell & at what price when panic sets in and investors attempt to liquidate these assets?

  5. Shaun/anyone, if as is the case here and in the US, the central bank then rebates the interest on the bonds issued to the treasury, the interest rate doesn’t matter does it? it can never go up( as the central bank can just buy at any price). Calculations of how the system will collapse if interest rates go back up are irrelevant as under the current system, they never can!

    Admittedly central bank balance sheets will never stop expanding, and this encourages further borrowing and irresponsible behaviour by governments who can buy more votes with freshly created money knowing it never has to be repaid, but if the people behind this farce want it to continue, I cannot see what can stop it, bond vigilantes know they cannot fight a central bank with unlimited money.

    • What will stop it is a currency collapse/decline.

      You’re bang on in that at the moment they are the marginal buyer.It’ll only affect the politicians when the people can’t buy food and fuel.

  6. hello shaun,

    why is this kind of action not fraud? because its the government and its banks ( or visa versa as I posit? )

    Could it afford a return to normality?

    Ans: this is normal now.

    At what bond yield would it find things difficult and would it have to apply austerity?

    Ans. no level – they set up this market and “austerity” is for the small fish , like Greece ( because they’re bad boys n girls dont you know ? )

    A sort of road to nowhere……

    Ans: oh no , the road is clearly marked 😉


  7. I’ve been stunned every year since about 2000 that Japan hasn’t collapsed in on itself.

    How did the West used to mock Zimbabwe?
    ‘I found myself doing extraordinary things that arent in the textbooks. Then the IMF asked the U.S. to please print money. The whole world is now practicing what they have been saying I should not. I decided that God had been on my side and had come to vindicate me.’
    Gideon Gono
    Governor Reserve Bank of ZIm 2003-2013

  8. Hi Shaun
    Like most of us who respond on your blog, I
    agree that the vehicle of the CB’s doesn’t even have
    a reverse gear to engage.
    Although the following video is nothing new
    it does state what obviously needs to be done. However,
    the huge BUT is how you get the all conquering, all
    powerful powers that be to ceed their might for the
    common good, and we know that they will not do so.


  9. Great we can all retire Governments can issue bonds pay us with the proceeds then right them off.
    This cannot continue how are they getting away with it,this will end disastrously

    • Hi Private Fraser

      Like quite a few things in economics it is a brick attached to an increasingly stretched length of elastic. You can keep stretching the elastic but eventually either it breaks or the brick shoots back at you. We then get told it is a surprise that could not possible have been expected.

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