Trade Wars what are they good for?

This week trade is in the news mostly because of the Donald and his policy of America First. This has involved looking to take jobs back to America which is interesting when apparently the jobs situation is so good.

Our economy is perhaps BETTER than it has ever been. Companies doing really well, and moving back to America, and jobs numbers are the best in 44 years. ( @realDonaldTrump )

This has involved various threats over trade such as the NAFTA agreement primarily with Canada and Mexico and of course who can think of Mexico without mulling the plan to put a bit more than another brick in the wall? Back in March there was the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP. From Politico.

While President Donald Trump announced steel and aluminum tariffs Thursday, officials from several of the United States’ closest allies were 5,000 miles away in Santiago, Chile, signing a major free-trade deal that the U.S. had negotiated — and then walked away from.

The steel and aluminium tariffs were an attempt to deal with China a subject to which President Trump has returned only recently. From the Financial Times.

Equities sold off and havens firmed on Tuesday after Donald Trump ordered officials to draft plans for tariffs on a further $200bn in Chinese imports should Beijing not abandon plans to retaliate against $50bn in US duties on imports announced last week.

According to the Peterson Institute there has been a shift in the composition of the original US tariff plan for China.

 Overall, 95 percent of the products are intermediate inputs or capital equipment. Relative to the initial list proposed by the Office of the US Trade Representative on April 3, 2018, coverage of intermediate inputs has been expanded considerably ……….Top added products are semiconductors ($3.6 billion) and plastics ($2.2 billion), as well as other intermediate inputs and capital equipment. Semiconductors are found in consumer products used in everyday life such as televisions, personal computers, smartphones, and automobiles.

The reason this is significant is that the world has moved on from even the “just in time” manufacturing model with so many parts be in sourced abroad even in what you might think are domestic products. This means that supply chains are often complex and what seems minor can turn out to be a big deal. After all what use are brakes without brake pads?

Thinking ahead

Whilst currently China is in the sights of President Trump this mornings news from the ECB seems likely to eventually get his attention.

In April 2018 the euro area current account recorded a surplus of €28.4 billion.

Which means this.

The 12-month cumulated current account for the period ending in April 2018 recorded a surplus of €413.7 billion (3.7% of euro area GDP), compared with €361.3 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to April 2017.

 

 

So the Euro area has a big current account surplus and it is growing.

This development was due to increases in the surpluses for services (from €46.1 billion to €106.1 billion) and goods (from €347.2 billion to €353.9 billion

There is plenty for the Donald to get his teeth into there and let’s face it the main player here is Germany with its trade surpluses.

Trade what is it good for?

International trade brings a variety of gains. At the simplest level it is access to goods and resources that are unavailable in a particular country. Perhaps the clearest example of that is Japan which has few natural resources and would be able to have little economic activity if it could not import them. That leads to the next part which is the ability to buy better goods and services which if we stick with the Japanese theme was illustrated by the way the UK bought so many of their cars. Of course this has moved on with Japanese manufacturers now making cars in the UK which shows how complex these issues can be.

Also the provision of larger markets will allow some producers to exist at all and will put pressure on them in terms of price and quality. Thus in a nutshell we end up with more and better goods and services. It is on these roads that trade boosts world economic activity and it is generally true that world trade growth exceeds world economic activity of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth.

Since the Second World War, the
volume of world merchandise trade
has tended to grow about 1.5 times
faster than world GDP, although in the
1990s it grew more than twice as fast. ( World Trade Organisation)

Although like in so many other areas things are not what they were.

However, in the aftermath of the global
financial crisis the ratio of trade growth
to GDP growth has fallen to around 1:1.

Although last year was a good year for trade according to the WTO.

World merchandise trade
volume grew by 4.7 per
cent in 2017 after just
1.8 per cent growth
in 2016.

How Much?

Trying to specify the gains above is far from easy. In March there was a paper from the NBER which had a go.

About 8 cents out of every dollar spent in the United States is spent on imports………..The estimates of gains from trade for the US economy that we review range from 2 to 8 percent of GDP.

Actually there were further gains too.

When the researchers adjust by the fact that domestic production also uses imported intermediate goods — say, German-made transmissions incorporated into U.S.-made cars — based on data in the World Input-Output Database, they conclude that the U.S. import share is 11.4 percent.

So we move on not enormously the wiser as we note that we know much less than we might wish or like. Along the way we are reminded that whilst the US is an enormous factor in world trade in percentage terms it is a relatively insular economy although that is to some extent driven by how large its economy is in the first place.

Any mention of numbers needs to come with a warning as trade statistics are unreliable and pretty universally wrong. Countries disagree with each other regularly about bilateral trade and the numbers for the growing services sector are woeful.

Comment

This is one of the few economic sectors where theory is on a sound footing when it meets reality. We all benefit in myriad ways from trade as so much in modern life is dependent on it. It has enriched us all. But the story is also nuanced as we do not live in a few trade nirvana, For example countries intervene as highlighted by the World Trade Organisation in its annual report.

Other issues raised by members
included China’s lack of timely and
complete notifications on subsidies
and state-trading enterprises,

That is pretty neutral if we consider the way China has driven prices down in some areas to wipe out much competition leading to control of such markets and higher prices down the road. There were plenty of tariffs and trade barriers long before the Donald became US President. Also Germany locked in a comparative trade advantage for itself when it joined the Euro especially if we use the Swiss Franc as a proxy for how a Deutschmark would have traded ( soared) post credit crunch.

Also there is the issue of where the trade benefits go? As this from NBC highlights there were questions all along about the Trans Pacific Partnership.

These included labor rights rules unions said were toothless, rules that could have delayed generics and lead to higher drug prices, and expanded international copyright protection.

This leads us back to the issue of labour struggling (wages) but capital doing rather well in the QE era. Or in another form how Ireland has had economic success but also grotesquely distorted some forms of economic activity via its membership of the European Union and low and in some cases no corporate taxes. Who would have thought a country would not want to levy taxes on Apple? After all with cash reserves of US $285.1 billion and rising it can pay.

So the rhetoric and actions of the Donald does raise fears of trade wars and if it goes further the competitive devaluations of the 1920s. But it is also true that there are genuine issues at play which get hidden in the melee a bit like Harry Kane after his first goal last night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Japan is a land of high employment but still no real wage growth

Some days quite a few of our themes come naturally together and this morning quite a few strands have been pulled together by the news from Nihon the land of the rising sun. Here is NHK News on the subject.

Workers in Japan are continuing to take home bigger paychecks. A government survey says monthly wages rose year-on-year for the 9th-straight month in April.

Preliminary results show that pay for the month averaged about 277,000 yen, or roughly 2,500 dollars. That includes overtime and bonuses.

The number is an increase of 0.8 percent in yen terms from a year earlier. But when adjusted for inflation, the figure came in flat.

Nonetheless, labor ministry officials say that wages are continuing on a trend of moderate gains.

As you can see this is rather familiar where there is some wage growth in Japan but once we allow for inflation that fades away and often disappears. This is a particular disappointment after the better numbers for March which were themselves revised down as Reuters explains below.

That follows a downwardly revised 0.7 percent annual increase in real wages in March, which suggests that the government’s repeated efforts to encourage private-sector wage gains have fallen flat.

Growth in March was the first in four months, which had fueled optimism that a gradual rise in workers’ salaries would stimulate consumer spending in Japan.

Actually Reuters then comes up with what might be one of the understatements of 2018 so far.

The data could be discouraging for the Bank of Japan as it struggles to accelerate inflation to its 2 percent price target.

Let us now step back and take a deeper perspective and review this century. According to Japan Macro Advisers real wages began this century at 114.1 in January 2000 and you already get an idea of this part of the “lost decade” problem by noting that it is based at 100 some fifteen years later in 2015. As of the latest data it is at 100.5 so it has been on a road to nowhere.

Abenomics

One of the features of the Abenomics programme which began in December 2012 was supposed to be a boost to wages. The Bank of Japan has launched ever more QE ( which it calls QQE in the same way that the leaky Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield) as shown below. From July 2016.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

This is the main effort although as I have noted in my articles on the Tokyo Whale it has acquired quite an appetite for equities as well.

The Bank will purchase ETFs so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 6 trillion yen(almost double the previous pace of about 3.3 trillion yen)

As it likes to buy on dips the recent Italian crisis will have seen it buying again and as of the end of March the Nikkei Asian Review was reporting this.

The central bank’s ETF holdings have reached an estimated 23 trillion yen based on current market value — equivalent to more than 3% of the total market capitalization of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first section — raising concerns about pricing distortions.

So not the reduction some were telling us was on the way but my main point today was that all of this “strong monetary easing” was supposed to achieve this and it hasn’t.

The Bank will continue with “QQE with a Negative Interest Rate,” aiming to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent, as long as it is necessary for maintaining that target in a stable manner.

The clear implication was that wages would rise faster than that. It is often forgotten that the advocates of QE thought that as prices rose in response to it then wages would rise faster. But that Ivory Tower world did not turn up as the inflation went into asset prices such as bonds,equities and houses meaning that wages were not in the cycle. Or as Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda put it at the end of last month.

Despite these improvements in the real economy, prices and wages have remained sluggish. This phenomenon has recently been labeled the “missing inflation” or “missing wage inflation” puzzle………. It is urgent that we explore the mechanism behind the changes in price and wage dynamics especially in advanced economies.

Most people would think it sensible to do the research before you launch at and in financial markets in such a kamikaze fashion.

The economy

There are different ways of looking at this. Here is the economic output position.

The economy shrank by 0.6 percent on an annualized basis, a much more severe contraction than the median estimate for an annualized 0.2 percent.

Fourth quarter growth was revised to an annualized 0.6 percent, down from the 1.6 percent estimated earlier. ( Reuters)

Imagine if that had been the UK we would have seen social media implode! As we note that over the past 6 months there has been no growth at all. In case you are wondering about the large revision those are a feature of the official GDP statistics in Japan which reverse the stereotype about Japan by being especially unreliable.

If we move to the labour market we get a different view. Here we see an extraordinary low-level of unemployment with the rate being a mere 2.5% and the job situation is summed up by this from Japan Macro Advisers.

In March 2018, New job offers to applicant ratio, a key indicator in Japan to measure the tightness of the labor demand/supply was 2.41 in March, signifying that there are 2.41 new job postings for each new job seeker. The ratio of 2.41 is the highest in the statistical history since it begun in 1963.

So the picture is confused to say the least.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but let us start with the reality that whilst there are occasional flickers of growth so far the overall pattern in Japan is for no real wage growth. Only yesterday we were looking at yet another Bank of England policymaker telling us that wage growth was just around the corner based on a Phillips Curve style analysis. We know that the Bank of England Ivory Tower has an unemployment rate of 4,25% as the natural one so that the 2.5% of Japan would see Silvana Tenreyro confidently predicting a wages surge. Except reality is very different. If we stick to the UK perspective we often see reports we are near the bottom of the real wage pack but some cherry picking of dates when in fact Japan is  worse.

Moving back to Japan there was a paper on the subject of low unemployment in 1988 from Uwe Vollmer which told us this.

Even more important, the division of annual labour income
into basic wages, overtime premiums and bonuses
allows companies to adjust wages flexibly to changes in
macroeconomic supply and demand conditions,
resulting in low rigidities of both nominal and real wages.

On the downside yes on the upside no as we mull the idea that in the lost decade period Japan has priced itself into work? If so the Abenomics policy of a lower exchange-rate may help with that but any consequent rise in inflation will make the Japanese worker and consumer worse off if wages continue their upwards rigidity.

Meanwhile as we note a year where the Yen was 110 or so a year ago and 110 now there is this from an alternative universe.

The Bank of Japan’s next policy move may be to raise its bond-yield target to keep the yen from weakening too much, according to a BOJ adviser and longtime associate of Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda.

Or maybe not.

With its inflation target still far away, the BOJ must continue its current monetary stimulus for now, Kawai said

Also in his land of confusion is a confession that my critique has been correct all along.

While a weak yen helps the BOJ’s efforts to stoke inflation — and has been an unspoken policy objective — too much weakness can hurt businesses that import raw materials, while some consumers would feel the pain of higher prices for imports.

He seems lost somewhere in the Pacific as in terms of the economics the economy has seen a weak patch and you are as far away as ever from your inflation target yet you do less? Still the inflation target will be helped by a higher oil price except as I often point out Japan is a large energy importer so this is a negative even before we get to the fact that it makes workers and consumers poorer.

 

 

 

Wages finally rise in Japan but are such small rises the future for us too?

This morning has brought news from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. Actually it is news that much of the media has been churning out over the Abenomics era when they have tried to report wage growth when there has not been any. However today the Ministry of Labor published some better news of the real variety.

Nominal cash earnings rose 2.1 percent year-on-year in March, the fastest annual gain since June 2003. It followed a revised 1.0 percent gain in February.

Regular pay, which accounts for the bulk of monthly wages, grew 1.3 percent in the year to March, the biggest gain since July 1997, while special payments jumped 12.8 percent as many firms offered their employees end-of-the-year bonuses.

Overtime pay, a barometer of strength in corporate activity, rose an annual 1.8 percent in March versus a revised 0.4 percent increase in February. (Reuters)

As you can see these numbers are something of a landmark in the lost decade era as we note the best overall earnings numbers since 2003 and the best regular pay data since 1997. Overtime pay was up too which is intriguing as the Japanese economy has not had the best start to 2018 and may even have shrunk in the first quarter ending a run of growth. Maybe this year Japanese employers are actually fulfilling their regular promises to raise wage growth.

Care is needed in that this is only one monthly number but after some revisions we see that 2018 so far has recorded annual wage growth of 1.2%,1% and 2.1%. These are low numbers but in the context are a shift higher. This can be explained if we look at the index for such numbers which is still only 101.9 after being set at 100 in 2015. We get an idea as it was 100 in 2014 as well and 100.6 in 2016 and 101 in 2017. Also we need to be aware that the main months for pay in Japan come in June/July and particularly December as for example pay in December is around double that for March but for now let us move on with a flicker of spring sunshine.

Is this the revenge of the Phillips Curve?

No doubt it is party time at the Ivory Towers although many may not have spotted this yet as of course news reaches them slowly. However I am still something of a “party pooper” on this subject as it still does not really work. Here is a tweet from a discussion I was involved in yesterday.

As you can see the state of play is very different between the American situation which we have looked at many times and the Japanese one. Female participation in the labour force changed with the onset of the lost decade era and male participation has picked up in the era of Abenomics although it had started around the beginning of the credit crunch.

If we look at the Abenomics impact I will let you decide if a major swing is good or bad. You see in the age group 55-64 the female participation rate is up by 10.2% in the past 6 years and the male one by 6.6%. I have written in the past that Japan looks after it older citizens well but there have been more and more suggestions that this is if not forced due to difficult circumstances. From the Independent on the 23rd of April.

For decades prior to this trend, it was a tradition for families and communities to care for their older citizens, but a lack of resources is making that harder to do so.

With the older population feeling more and more isolated as a result of this, women especially have turned to a life of crime in the hope that prison will provide them with a refuge and a home.

Returning to conventional economics there is also this to consider.

The number of unemployed persons in March 2018 was 1.73 million, a decrease of 150 thousand or 8.0% from the previous year.   The unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, was 2.5%. ( Japan Statistics Bureau).

These are extraordinary numbers as it was 3.9% in 2007 so it has been singing along with Alicia Keys.

Oh baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall

We cannot rule out the possibility it will fall even further as it was 2.4% in January. Also it is being combined with rising employment.

The number of employed persons in March 2018 was 66.20 million, an increase of 1.87 million or 2.9% from the previous year.

Inflation

I though I would add this into the mix as it provides something of an irony. The view of the Bank of Japan has been for so long that an annual inflation rate of 2% is just around the corner. Yet in its last report it lost the faith.

In terms of the outlook for prices, most members shared the view that the year-on-year rate of change in the CPI was likely to continue on an uptrend and increase
toward 2 percent, mainly on the back of the improvement in the output gap and the rise in medium- to long-term inflation expectations.

And later this.

the momentum of
inflation was not yet strong enough to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent at an
early stage.

Of course now with an oil price of US $77 for a barrel of Brent Crude they may see an inflationary push bringing them nearer to their objective. Of course they think inflation at 2% per annum is a good thing whereas I do not. After all even the recent better wage data would leave real wages flat in such a scenario.

We will have to see if oil prices remain here but for now the news just coming through that Saudi Arabia has intercepted two ballistic missiles seems set to support it.

Comment

Let me start with some good news for Japan which is that on what used to be called the Misery Index it is doing very well. It used to add the unemployment rate ( 2.5%) to the inflation rate ( 1%) and as you can see it is rather low. Very different to the double-digit numbers from the UK when it was a popular measure.

But for economic theory and for the Phillips Curve in particular this is much less satisfactory.  This comes partly from asking where has it been? Let me hand you over to the Bank of Japan.

(1) the actual unemployment rate had been substantially below 3.5 percent, which had formerly been regarded as the structural unemployment rate,

So wage growth should have been surging for ages and it has not. Now we face a situation which may be more like a cliff-edge that the smooth Phillips Curve. This is because on every measure Japan has been approaching full employment and in the mad world of economics 101 has in fact passed it.

(2) the recruitment rate of new graduates and the employment rate of women had risen
considerably.

In fact if you look at the demographic situation full employment seems set to be lower than it was due to the aging population as so far rising participation has offset it. But here is the rub if participation had not changed then unemployment would be below 2% now as we are left wondering what level would generate some real wages growth?

Meanwhile if we look back at the US participation data there were some chilling responses as to the cause. They looked at something which has troubled us before on here.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09yfqsy#play

 

However much the Tokyo Whale buys wages and consumption seem to struggle

On Wednesday evening the US Federal Reserve will announce its latest policy decision and it will be a surprise if it does not give US interest-rates another 0.25% nudge higher. Yet we see in an example of clear policy divergence other countries ploughing on with monetary easing. For example the European Central Bank continues with monthly QE of 30 billion Euros a month and still has a deposit rate of -0.4%. However the leader of this particular pack is the Bank of Japan especially if we look at other signals of what are known as side-effects. From Bloomberg last week.

That’s the backdrop to Tuesday’s session, when not a single benchmark 10-year note was traded on exchange, according to Japan Trading C0. data. Barclays Securities Japan rates strategist Naoya Oshikubo, summed it up, with perhaps an understatement: “the JGB market was generally thin.”

The latter part is simply part of the Japanese concept of face. One reason for this is the size of the holdings of the Bank of Japan.

The Bank of Japan has vacuumed up so much of the government bond market — in excess of 40 percent — that it’s left fewer securities for others to buy and sell. Some other buyers, such as pension funds and life insurers, also tend to follow buy-and-hold strategies.

The latter sentence there is weak as pension funds and life insurers enact such strategies all over the world and have done so for decades so it is hardly their fault. Indeed quite the reverse s many national bond markets have relied on such purchases.

Whilst we keep being told the Bank of Japan is cutting back the amount of buying remains enormous.

Governor Haruhiko Kuroda noted to lawmakers Wednesday that the central bank has bought 75 percent of the government bonds issued in the fiscal year ending this month.

The next bit contradicts itself as it seems to be claiming that if you buy everything you do not need to intervene. Oops!

The upside for the BOJ is that with such little going on in the market, it makes it easier to control the yield curve, with less need for intervention

The Bank of Japan is the yield curve it would seem which is we step back for a moment begs all sorts of questions. For example you might compare currencies as I have certainly done in the past by comparing bond yields yet in such a calculation there is the implicit assumption that you have a “market” rate. But no, we clearly do not in Japan and that is before we get to the moral hazard of it being set by a body trying to depreciate/devalue the Yen. Oh and if you are a Japanese bond trader you might want to send your CV to the Bank of Japan.

Some jobs might be threatened by automation. But when it comes to government bond trading in Japan, the biggest threat might be the country’s central bank.

The Tokyo Whale

This for newer readers refers to the way that the Bank of Japan has piled into the equity market as well. The numbers are opaque as they are in several accounts but Bloomberg has been doing some number-crunching.

The BOJ started buying ETFs in 2010, with Governor Haruhiko Kuroda later accelerating purchases as part of an unprecedented stimulus package aimed at revitalizing the economy. The central bank had spent $150 billion on Japanese ETFs as of Dec. 8. It owned 74 percent of the market at the end of October, up from 65 percent a year earlier, according to Investment Trusts Association figures, BOJ disclosures and data compiled by Bloomberg. ( ETFs are Exchange Traded Funds)

As the Nikkei-225 equity index fell by 195 points today we know that the Tokyo Whale would have been buying again.

The BOJ stepped up purchases in November after equities retreated, buying 598 billion yen of ETFs.

With there being a buy the dip strategy we can be sure that the Bank of Japan has been buying this year as there have been dips. If we were not sure then this morning’s release of “opinions” from the latest policy meeting reinforce the message.

If the current trends of the appreciation of the yen and the decline in stock prices become prolonged, business fixed investment and consumption will be restrained due to negative wealth effects and a deterioration of households’ and firms’ balance sheets,

Just for clarity the BOJ is breaking new ground here is it really believes that. Not by arguing for “wealth effects” as central bankers the world over are true believers in them. What I mean is the implication that they are larger than other factors at play whereas the evidence I have seen over time is that they are minor and thus often hard to find at all. Looking deeper we see that the BOJ seems to have little intention of changing course although a boundary is on the horizon as some holders must want to keep their ETFs meaning it cannot be long before it has to look for greener pastures.

Perhaps this are suggested last November, from Reuters.

The Bank of Japan should consider using derivatives, rather than buying Japanese stock funds directly as it does now, to affect risk premium on stocks, because that would be a better tool, said the chief investment officer of Japan Post Bank………By selling put options of Japanese stocks, the BOJ should be able to not only help bring down the stock market’s volatility but also to make it easier to wean the markets off its stimulus, said Katsunori Sago, a former Goldman Sachs (GS.N) executive.

Alumni of the Vampire Squid get everywhere don’t they? So the fact that the Bank of Japan’s policies have in effect been a put option for Japanese equities should be added to by writing actual put options. Who would be silly enough to buy these options from the Bank of Japan? It is hard to know where to begin with the moral hazard here.

If the BOJ sells out-of-the-money puts, for example, put option with strike price below the current market levels, it can reduce the market’s volatility, Sago said.

Er simply no. You can reduce perceived or implied volatility but should the market move there is actual volatility. Unless of course Sago san is suggesting that the Bank of Japan should intervene in equity markets on the same scale as it has in bond markets and I think there we have it. Whilst there would presumably be profits for equity holders as much of the Japanese markets are Japanese owned we are in many cases simply shifting from one balance sheet to another.

Yen

This is something that fits the famous Churchillian phrase.

 It is a riddlewrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;

Why? Well it is something which all the buying above should according to economics 101 be on its way down and yet there it is at 106 to the US Dollar. You can argue the US Dollar has been weak but I note that the UK Pound £ has been pushed back to 148 Yen as well. We get a clue from this from the Nikkei Asian Review.

Foreign assets held by Japanese institutional and individual investors appear to have topped 1,000 trillion yen ($8.79 trillion) for the first time, according to Nikkei estimates. The amount has increased roughly 50% during the past five years and now is more than twice as much as the country’s gross domestic product.

The market has been responding to fears of a repatriation much more than any new flows. Also as the BOJ has to some extent driven investors overseas it has undermined its own weak Yen policy. We are back to timing effects where something may be true but for a limited time period, Keynes understood it but modern central bankers lack such humility.

Comment

We have looked at the financial economy today but lets us via the “opinions” of the Bank of Japan switch to the real economy.

For instance, although the structural unemployment rate was formerly said to be around 3.5 percent, the actual
unemployment rate has continued to decline and registered 2.4 percent recently.

I imagine each Board Member sipping from their celebratory glass of sake as they type that. But there is a problem as we see below.

Although wage increases by firms have been at around 2 percent for the past few years, real wages registered negative growth in 2017 on a year-on-year basis.

That claim about wage rises is news to me and also the ministry of labor but let us pass that as we note the fall in real wages admitted as we reach the nexus of all of this.

The weak recovery in household consumption since last summer is of concern.

You see one way of looking at the Japanese economy is of deficient domestic demand. So when we are in an official world of wealth effects, plunging unemployment and surging wages ( 2% is a surge in Japanese terms or at least it would be) it should be on the up whereas with a little poetic licence it seems still to be rather Japanese.

What is happening with fiscal policy?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the way that monetary policy has taken so much of the strain of the active response. I say active because there was a passive fiscal response as deficits soared caused on one side by lower tax revenues as recession hit and on the other by higher social payments and bank bailout costs. Once this was over the general response was what has been badged as austerity where governments raised taxes and cut spending to reduce fiscal deficits. Some care is needed with this as the language has shifted and often ignores the fact that there was a stimulus via ongoing deficits albeit smaller ones.

Cheap debt

Something then happened which manages to be both an intended and unintended consequence. What I mean by that is that the continued expansion of monetary policy via interest-rate reductions and bond buying or QE was something which governments were happy to sign off because it was likely to make funding their spending promises less expensive. Just for clarity national treasuries need to approve QE type policies because of the large financial risk. But I do not think that it was appreciated what would happen next in the way that bond yields dropped like a stone. So much so that whilst many countries were able to issue debt at historically low-levels some were in fact paid to issue debt as we entered an era of negative interest-rate.

This era peaked with around US $13 trillion of negative yielding bonds around the world with particular areas of negativity if I may put it like that to be found in Germany and Switzerland. At one point it looked like every Swiss sovereign bond might have a negative yield. So what did they do with it?

Germany

This morning has brought us solid economic growth data out of Germany with its economy growing by 0.6% in the last quarter of 2017. But it has also brought us this.

Net lending of general government amounted to 36.6 billion euros in 2017 according to updated results of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In absolute terms, this was the highest surplus achieved by general government since German reunification. When measured as a percentage of gross domestic product at current prices (3,263.4 billion euros), the surplus ratio of general government was +1.1%.

So Germany chose to take advantage of being paid to issue debt to bring its public finances into surplus which might be considered a very Germanic thing to do. There is of course effects from one to the other because their economic behaviour is one of the reasons why their bonds saw so much demand.

But one day they may regret not taking more advantage of an extraordinary opportunity which was to be able to be paid to borrow. There must be worthy projects in Germany that could have used the cash. Also one of the key arguments of the credit crunch was that surplus countries like Germany needed to trim them whereas we see it running a budget surplus and ever larger trade surpluses.

In the detail there is a section which we might highlight as “Thanks Mario”

 Due to the continuing very low-interest rates and lower debt, interest payments decreased again (–6.4%).

Switzerland

The Swiss situation has been similar but more extreme. Membership of the Euro protected Germany to some extent as the Swiss Franc soared leading to an interest-rate of -0.75% and “unlimited” – for a time anyway – currency intervention. This led to the Swiss National Bank becoming an international hedge fund as it bought equities with its new foreign currency reserves and Switzerland becoming a country that was paid to borrow. What did it do with it? From its Finance Ministry.

A deficit of approximately 13 million is expected in the ordinary budget for 2018.

So fiscal neutrality in all but name and the national debt will decline.

 It is expected that gross debt will post a year-on-year decline of 3.3 billion to 100.8 billion in 2018 (estimate for 2017). This reduction will be driven primarily by the redemption of a 6.8 billion bond maturing combined with a low-level of new issues of only 4 billion.

The UK

Briefly even the UK had some negative yielding Gilts ( bonds) in what was for those who have followed it quite a change on the days of say 15% long yields. This was caused by Mark Carney instructing the Bank of England’s bond buyers to rush like headless chickens into the market to spend his £60 billion of QE and make all-time highs for prices as existing Gilt owners saw a free lunch arriving. Perhaps the Governor’s legacy will be to have set records for the Gilt market that generations to come will marvel at.

Yet the path of fiscal policy changed little as indicated by this.

Or at least it would do if something like “on an annual basis” was added. Oh and to complete the problems we are still borrowing which increases the burden on future generations. The advice should be do not get a job involving numbers! Which of course are likely to be in short supply at a treasury………..

But the principle reinforces this from our public finances report on Wednesday.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £7.2 billion to £37.7 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to January 2018), compared with the same period in the previous financial year; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since the financial year-to-date ending January 2008.

So we too have pretty much turned our blind eye to a period where we could have borrowed very cheaply. If there was a change in UK fiscal policy it was around 2012 which preceded the main yield falls.

Bond yields

There have been one or two false dawns on this front, partly at least created by the enthusiasm of the Bank of Japan and ECB to in bond-buying terms sing along with the Kaiser Chiefs.

Knock me down I’ll get right back up again
I’ll come back stronger than a powered up Pac-Man

This may not be entirely over as this suggests.

“Under the BOJ law, the finance ministry holds jurisdiction over currency policy. But I hope Kuroda would consider having the BOJ buy foreign bonds,” Koichi Hamada, an emeritus professor of economics at Yale University, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

However we have heard this before and unless they act on it rises in US interest-rates are feeding albeit slowly into bond yields. This has been symbolised this week by the attention on the US ten-year yield approaching 3% although typically it has dipped away to 2.9% as the attention peaked. But the underlying trend has been for rises even in places like Germany.

Comment

Will we one day regret a once in a lifetime opportunity to borrow to invest? This is a complex issue as there is a problem with giving politicians money to spend which was highlighted in Japan as “pork barrel politics” during the first term of Prime Minister Abe. In the UK it is highlighted by the frankly woeful state of our efforts on the infrastructure front. We are spending a lot of money for very few people to be able to travel North by train, £7 billion or so on Smart Meters to achieve what exactly? That is before we get to the Hinkley Point nuclear power plans that seem to only achieve an extraordinarily high price for the electricity.

One example of fiscal pump priming is currently coming from the US where Donald Trump seems to be applying a similar business model to that he has used personally. Or the early days of Abenomics. Next comes the issue of monetary policy where we could of course in the future see news waves of QE style bond buying to drive yields lower but as so much has been bought has limits. This in a way is highlighted by the Japanese proposal to buy foreign bonds which will have as one of its triggers the way that the number of Japanese ones available is shrinking.

How does Abenomics solve low wage growth?

The last day or two has seen a flurry of economic news on Japan. If we look back it does share a similarity with yesterday’s subject Italy as economic growth in Japan has disappointed there too for a sustained period. The concept of the “lost decade” developed into “lost decades” after the boom of the 1980s turned to bust in the early 1990s. This is why Japan was the first country to formally start a programme of Quantitative Easing as explained by the St. Louis Fed in 2014.

An earlier program (QE1) began in March 2001. Within just two years, the BOJ increased its monetary base by roughly 60 percent. That program came to a sudden halt in March 2006 and was, in fact, mostly reversed.

This is what other western central banks copied when the credit crunch hit ( except of course overall they are still expanding ) which is really rather odd when you look at what it was supposed to achieve.

Inflation expectations in Japan have recently risen above their historical average. The Japanese consumer price index (CPI) in October 2013 was roughly the same as in October 1993. While Japan’s CPI has had its ups and downs over the past 20 years, the average inflation rate has been roughly zero.

The author David Andolfatto seems to have been a QE supporter and hints at being an Abenomics supporter as that was the time it was beginning.

However, some evidence relating to inflation expectations suggests that this time could be different.

We also see something familiar from QE supporters.

Essentially, the argument is that the BOJ was not really committed to increasing the inflation rate…………More generally, it suggests that QE policies can have their desired effect on inflation if central banks are sufficiently committed to achieving their goal. Whether this will in fact eventually be the case in Japan remains to be seen.

In other words the plan is fine any failure is due to a lack of enthusiasm in implementing it or as Luther Vandross would sing.

Oh, my love
A thousand kisses from you is never too much
I just don’t wanna stop

As the CPI index is at 101.1 compared to 2015 being 100 you can see that the plan has not worked as the current inflation rate of 1% is basically the inflation since then. Extrapolating a trend is always dangerous but we see that if the Bank of Japan bought the whole Japanese Government Bond or JGB market it might get the CPI index up to say 103. Presumably that is why QE became QQE in Japan in the same fashion that the leaky UK Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield.

Economic growth

The good news is that Japan has had a period of this as the lost decades have been something of a stutter on this front.

But it is still the country’s eighth consecutive quarter of growth – the longest streak since the late 1980s.

Indeed if you read the headline you might think things are going fairly solidly.

Japan GDP slows to 0.5% in final quarter of 2017.

But if we switch to Japan Macro Advisers we find out something that regular readers may well have guessed.

According to Cabinet Office, the Japanese economy grew by 0.1% quarter on quarter (QoQ), or at an annualized rate of 0.5%.

Not much is it and I note these features from the Nikkei Asian Review.

 Private consumption grew 0.5%, expanding for the first time in six months……….Capital expenditures by the private sector also showed an expansion of 0.7%, the fifth consecutive quarter of growth, as production activities recovered and demand for machine tools increased.

Whilst it may not be much Japan is keen on any consumption increase as unlike us this has been a problem in the lost decades. But if we note how strong production was from this morning’s update we see that there cannot have been much growth elsewhere at all.  The monthly growth rate in December was revised up to 2.9% and the annual growth rate to 4.4%.

Troublingly for a nation with a large national debt there was this issue to note.

Nominal GDP remained almost unchanged from the previous quarter, but decreased 0.1% on annualized rate, the first negative growth since the July-September quarter of 2016.

Yes another sign of disinflation in Japan as at the national accounts level prices as measured by the deflator fell whereas of course the nominal amount of the debt does not except for as few index-linked bonds.

Wages

There was rather a grand claim in the BBC article as shown below.

Tokyo-based economist Jesper Koll told the BBC that for the first time in 30 years, the country’s economy was in a positive position.

“You’ve got wages improving, and the quality of jobs is improving, so the overall environment for consumption is now a positive one, while over the last 30 years it was a negative one,” said Mr Koll, from WisdomTree asset management company.

One may begin to question the wisdom of Koll san when you note wage growth in December was a mere 0.7% for regular wages and even more so if you note that overall real wages fell by 0.5% on a year before. So his “improving” goes into my financial lexicon for these times. You see each year we get a “spring offensive” where there is a barrage of rhetoric about shunto wage increases but so far they do not happen. Indeed if this development is any guide Japanese companies seem to be heading in another direction.

Travel agency H.I.S Co., for instance, is turning to robotics to boost efficiency and save labor. At a hotel that recently opened in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district, two humanoid robots serve as receptionists at the front desk. The use of advanced technology such as robotics enables the hotel, called Henn Na Hotel (strange hotel), to manage with roughly a fourth of the manpower needed to operate a hotel of a similar size, a company official said. ( Japan Times)

Comment

As we look at the situation we see that there is something foreign exchange markets seem to be telling us. The Japanese Yen has been strengthening again against the US Dollar and is at 106.5 as I type this. It is not just US Dollar weakness as it has pushed the UK Pound £ below 150 as well. Yet the Bank of Japan continues with its QE of around 80 trillion Yen a year and was presumably shipping in quite a few equity ETFs in the recent Nikkei 225 declines. So we learn that at least some think that the recent volatility in world equity markets is not over and that yet again such thoughts can swamp even QE at these levels. Some of the numbers are extraordinary as here are the equity holdings from the latest Bank of Japan balance sheet, 18,852,570,740,000 Yen.

So the aggregate position poses questions as we note than in spite of all the effort Japan’s potential growth rate is considered to be 1%. However things are better at the individual level as the population shrank again in the latest figures ( 96,000 in 5 months) so per capita Japan is doing better than the headline. If we note the news on robotics we see that it must be a factor in this as we wonder who will benefit? After all wage growth has been just around the corner on a straight road for some time now. Yet we have unemployment levels which are very low (2.8%).

As to the “more,more,more” view of QE ( QQE) we see that some limits are being approached because of the scale of the purchases.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

What is going on at the Bank of Japan?

It is time to take another step on our journey that Graham Parker and the Rumour would have described as discovering Japan as quite a bit is currently going on. On Tuesday eyes turned to the Bank of Japan as it did this according to Marketwatch.

The central bank cut its purchases of Japanese government bonds, known as JGBs, expiring within 10-25 years and those maturing in 25-40 years by ¥10 billion ($88.8 million) each.

It created something of a stir and rippled around financial markets. There were two pretty clear impacts and the first as you might expect was a stronger Yen which has become one of the themes of this week. An opening level of above 113 to the US Dollar has been replaced by just above 111 and any dip in the 110s will give a sour taste to the Friday night glass of sake for Governor Kuroda.

If we look back to this time last year we see that the Yen is stronger on that measure as back then it was above 114 versus the US Dollar. This may seem pretty poor value in return for this.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

Even in these inflated times for assets that is a lot of money and the Bank of Japan is not getting a lot of bang for its buck anymore as we have discussed. It would be particularly awkward if after not getting much progress for the extra (Q)QE any reduction or tapering took it back to where it began. The impact of Quantitative Easing on currencies is something we regularly look at as the impact has become patchy at best and this week has seen us start to wonder about what happens should central banks look to move away from centre stage. That would be a big deal in Japan as a weaker currency is one of the main arrows in the Abenomics quiver. As ever we cannot look at anything in isolation as the US Dollar is in a weaker phase as let me pick this from the Donald as a possible factor partly due to its proximity to me.

Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!

Mind you that is a lot better than what he called certain countries! If nothing else this was to my recollection also planned before the Obama administration.

Bond Markets

You will not be surprised to learn that the price of Japanese Government Bonds fell and yields rose, after all the biggest buyer had slightly emptier pockets. However in spite of some media reports the change here was not large as 0.06% for the ten-year went initially to 0.09% and has now settled at 0.07%. Up to the 7 year maturity remains at negative yields and even the 40 year does not quite yield 1%. If we look at that picture we see how much of a gift that the “independent” Bank of Japan has given the government of Shinzo Abe. It runs a loose fiscal policy where it is borrowing around 20 trillion year a year and has a debt of 1276 trillion Yen as of last September which is around 232% of GDP or Gross Domestic Product. So each year QQE saves the Japanese government a lot of money and allows it to keep its fiscal stimulus. We do not get much analysis of this in the media probably because the Japanese media is well Japanese as we mull the consequences of the owning the Financial Times.

A stronger effect was found in international bond markets which were spooked much more than the domestic one. US government bond prices fell and the 10-year yield went above 2.5% and got some questioning if we were now in a bond bear market? After around three decades of a bull market including of course these days trillions of negative yielding bonds around the globe care and an especially strong signal is needed for that. Maybe we will learn a little more if the US 2-year yield goes above 2% as it is currently threatening to do. But in a world where Italian 10-year bonds yield only 2% there is quite a way to go for a proper bond bear market.

The real economy

If we look at the lost decade(s) era then Japan is experiencing a relatively good phase right now. From The Japan Times.

The economy grew an annualized real 2.5 percent in the July-September period, revised up from preliminary data and marking seven straight quarters of growth — the longest stretch on record —.

Someone got a bit excited with history there I think as there was a time before what we now call the lost decade. However for those who call this success for Abenomics there are some things to consider such as these.

Exports grew 1.5 percent from the previous quarter amid solid overseas demand as the global economy gains traction.

Japan is benefiting from a better world economic situation but like so often in the era of the lost decades it is not generating much from within.

But private consumption, a key factor accounting for nearly 60 percent of GDP, continued to be sluggish with a 0.5 percent decline from the previous quarter as spending on automobiles and mobile phones fell.

Let us mark the fact that we are seeing another country where car demand is falling and move to what is the key economic metric for Japan.

Workers will see a 1 percent increase in their total earnings next year, the most since 1997, as rising profits and the tightest labor market in decades add upward pressure on pay, a Bloomberg survey shows.

Actually what we are not told is that compared to so many Bloomberg reports this is a downgrade as in its world wages have been on the edge of a surge for 3-4 years now. But reality according to the Japan Times is very different as we note the size of the increase it is apparently lauding.

In a sign that worker could receive better pay, a separate survey on the average winter bonus at major companies this year showed a slight increase — 0.01 percent — from a year earlier to ¥880,793, up for the fifth consecutive year.

Comment

There are quite a few things to laud Japan for as we note its ultra low unemployment rate at 2.7% and the way it takes care of its elderly in particular. At the moment the economic wheels are being oiled by a positive world economic situation which of course helps an exporting nation. That poses a question for those crediting Abenomics for the improvement as we note the more recent surveys are not as positive and the rises in commodity and oil prices and the likely effect on a nation with limited natural resources.

But more deeply this weeks market moves are tactically perhaps just a response to the way that “Yield Curve Control” works in practice which currently requires fewer bond purchases. But strategically the Bank of Japan is left with this.

 

That tweet misses out the QQE for Japan and QE for the latter two but we return yet again to monetary policy being pro cyclical and in the case of Japan fiscal policy as well. What could go wrong in a country where demographics are a ticking economic time bomb?