Abenomics does not address the economic problems facing Japan

At the moment Japan must be looking at the UK with some bemusement. That is because it has been a country with political instability with a merry-go-round of Prime Ministers and yet an axis has shifted. We are now in a type of flux whereas Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in power since November 2012. This means that his economics policy of Abenomics has had a decent run in terms of time and yet again we see someone who has taken the Matrix style blue pill and declared it a success. Let me hand you over to Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post.

Its unemployment rate has fallen to a 22-year low of 2.8 percent — yes, you read that right — due in large part to all the yen it has created the past four years.

The former which we have looked at before is a success and it is the flip side of this.

Maybe the best way to tell isn’t its super-low unemployment rate, but rather its super-high employment rate. That, as you can see below, has shot up since the start of Abenomics to an all-time high of 83.5 percent, making our own 78.3  ( He means the US ) percent rate look downright measly in comparison.

Again a success in itself as the quantity measures in the labour market are as strong as anywhere. But then we get an enormous leap of what I can only call faith.

It can’t be the fiscal or structural parts of Abenomics, because they’ve barely been tried……..All their money-printing seems to have given businesses the confidence — and the cheaper currency — they needed to expand a little more.

Thus we see a conclusion that the money printing has led to higher employment. Some would argue that with a fiscal deficit of 4.8% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% last year with a debt to GDP ratio that fiscal stimulus had been tried rather a lot. Also there seems to be any lack of a causal relationship as the phrase “seems to have” suggests. Let us finish with some hyperbole.

And all it would have taken was printing a few trillion yen, which actually isn’t that high a price to pay.

Numbers may not be a strength for Matt as we remind ourselves of this from the 6th of this month.

At the end of May 31 2017, the Bank of Japan held a total of 500.8 trillion yen in assets,

Taking the red pill

Dissent in Japan is mostly considered to be non-Japanese so this from the Nikkei Asian Review ( NAR ) is interesting. First the ground is described.

“In order for Japan’s economy to achieve more than a recovery and continue stable, long-term growth after that, it is essential to strengthen Japan’s growth potential,” proclaimed a key economic and fiscal policy plan finalized in June 2013,

Okay so what has happened since then?

But the country’s potential growth rate now stands at 0.69%, according to the Bank of Japan, compared with 0.84% in the second half of fiscal 2014 — a sobering take on what Abenomics has actually accomplished.

If we return to the case made by Matt O’Brien above the fact that estimates of the potential growth rate have fallen seems to be missing doesn’t it? That is awkward for business supposedly being more confident in response to a promise to print money to infinity and maybe beyond. The tectonic plates on which supporters of QE stand would be on their own Ring of Fire if there are further suggestions that it reduces potential economic growth. I have been a critic of QE style policies and note that this below suggests yet another problem with the claimed transmission mechanism.

But while tax cuts helped boost businesses, many are merely hoarding their cash. Total internal reserves held by Japanese corporations have grown some 40% under Abe to 390 trillion yen. No solutions are in sight.

The NAR seems to agree with me about the trajectory of fiscal policy as well.

In terms of fiscal policy, Japan has passed seven supplementary budgets in just five years, spending about 25 trillion yen in the process.

“Extreme fiscal spending and other measures have led to a distorted allocation of resources in the economy and reduced productivity,” said Ryutaro Kono, chief Japan economist at BNP Paribas.

Also the NAR fires a lot of criticism at the so-called third arrow of Abenomics which is reform in Japan.

The debate on compensation for unfairly dismissed employees has stalled. While Tokyo opened the door for foreign workers with exceptional skills or those in certain sectors such as cleaning, it has shied away from a comprehensive discussion on immigration. Momentum to tackle regulatory barriers is fading.

It points out that if Abe wished to reform the labour market politically he is in what might be called a “strong and stable” position due to the way his party the LDP controls both the upper and lower houses in parliament.

The economy

There was some disappointment last week as the economic growth figures for the first quarter took a downwards revision.

The expansion in real gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services produced in the country adjusted for inflation, was revised to an annualized 1.0 percent growth from the previously estimated 2.2 percent expansion, the Cabinet Office said. ( The Japan Times ).

The good part of that was that it meant that Japan had grown for five quarters in a row which it had not done for over a decade. There were two bad parts though in that as well as being in the economic growth dog kennel with the UK there was an implication for the Abenomics plan of boosting inflation to 2% per annum.

In  nominal terms, or unadjusted for price changes, the economy shrank an annualized 1.2 percent, the biggest contraction since 2.2 percent registered in the July-September period of 2012.

Also the period of Abenomics was supposed to see a rise in inflation and more particularly a rise in wages. As the Japan Times reminds us the labour market is tight.

Moreover, there were 148 job positions open for every 100 people looking for work, the highest ratio in 43 years.

But wage growth is at best anemic.

But the labor ministry reported that in 2016, wages across the board — regardless of whether we’re talking full-time or part-time employment, regular or nonregular employees — only rose by 0.4 percent

Why? Well as we observe in some many countries official definitions of being in a job miss changes in the real world.

a larger portion of the workforce is in part-time and non regular jobs, which traditionally pay less.

Comment

There have been some extraordinary claims made for the success of monetary easing and QE. In my opinion we see a clear divorce between the financial and real economy. If we look at the financial economy in the era of Abenomics we see booming equity markets ( the Nikkei 225 has risen from 9000 or so to ~20,000), a lower currency ( versus the US Dollar it has gone from 80 to 110) and booming bond markets with a ten-year yield of 0%. But the real economy has not seen the boom in wages promised nor any great turn in the rate of GDP growth. Ironically it has been the recent fall in inflation that seems to have given GDP an upwards push rather than the claimed surge to 2% per annum.

Meanwhile the real challenge is adapting to this.

The annual number of babies born in Japan slipped below 1 million in 2016 for the first time since records began, with the estimated figure for the year coming in at 981,000, according to government figures. ( Japan Times)

The reminds us of the demographic changes underway highlighted by the fact that the figures for the 6 months to May showed the population falling by another 245,000. Exactly how will QE fix those?

 

 

 

 

In the future will equities be allowed to fall?

The credit crunch era has seen an enormous expansion of monetary policy activity which has manifested itself in two main ways. We have seen interest-rates cut not only to zero but below it into negative territory. Then we saw enormous expansion of central bank balance sheets as well as Quantitative Easing style policies were added to the play book. Indeed this is continuing apace in both the Euro area and Japan and the latter of course has moved into newer areas as well. Japan Macro Advisers have updated us on the current state of play.

At the end of May 31 2017, the Bank of Japan held a total of 500.8 trillion yen in assets, of which Japanese government securities accounted for 427.2 trillion yen.

I think we have a new candidate for the largest number we have used on here! That sends out its own message but also there is the issue that some 14.7% of the total is not purchases of Japanese government bonds or JGBs. So what might be regarded as conventional QE is already out of date as we note that the Bank of Japan calls its operations Quantitative and Qualitative Easing or QQE.

What is it buying?

You might expect this as after all both the Bank of England has recently and the ECB currently, have ventured into this area.

As for CP and corporate bonds, the Bank will maintain their amounts outstanding at about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively. ( CP is Commercial Paper ).

Whether it does much good is of course another matter as it ossifies economic structures but subsidising larger companies who are able to issue such debt whereas smaller ones cannot. But the main game here is shown below.

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.

Here we see intervention in a different sphere as both property and equities are being bought here. The property purchases are relatively small, if you can say that about 90 billion! But the main game in town is the equity purchases.

For comparison here is the plan for what is conventional QE.

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases more or less in line with the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings at about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of a long-term interest rate specified by the guideline.

The target level of JGB yields is around 0% for the ten-year.

The Tokyo Whale

Just over a year ago on the 25th of April I alerted readers to what was taking place.

They may not realize it yet, but Japan Inc.’s executives are increasingly working for a shareholder unlike any other: the nation’s money-printing central bank……….It’s now a major owner of more Japanese blue-chips than both BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest money manager, and Vanguard Group, which oversees more than $3 trillion.

That begged more than a few questions as for example shareholders are supposed to hold company directors to account and sometimes provide direction to the business. How can a central bank possibly do that? There is of course the issue of potential losses as well before we get to the creation of a false market.

Let us bring this up to date with thanks to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Japan’s central bank nearly doubles ETF holdings in one year.

With the rate of purchases we looked at above I suppose that is no great surprise but there are genuine questions as to where this is taking us?

The Bank of Japan has stepped up purchases of exchange-traded funds as part of its monetary easing policy, with the balance surging to 15.93 trillion yen ($144 billion) as of March 31.

The total marks an 80% rise from a year earlier and more than a sevenfold increase since the central bank kicked off its quantitative and qualitative easing — adding riskier assets to its balance sheet — in April 2013.

Will stock markets be allowed to fall?

I do not mean on a day to day basis as for example the Nikkei 225 equity index dipped below 20,000 earlier today. But I am starting to wonder about this in terms of sustained corrections. Why? Well take a look at this from the Nikkei Asian Review.

The bank apparently buys frequently on days when the stock market dips in the morning, serving to stabilize share prices.

At what point did central bankers become experts in where share prices should be at? If anybody else did this they would be facing accusations of creating a false market. The point gets reinforced later.

“The BOJ’s ETF purchases help provide resistance to selling pressure against Japanese stocks,” says Rieko Otsuka of the Mizuho Research Institute.

This is quite different to central banks responding to a market collapse and panic in terms of timing,size,scale and indeed intention. There is also the danger of a Buzz Lightyear “To Infinity! And Beyond!” reality as we mull the consequences of this.

The bank’s growing market presence has raised concerns about the repercussions when the easing policy eventually winds down. When speculation of a BOJ exit grows, the anticipated cutbacks on ETF purchases would accelerate selling of Japanese stocks. As a precaution against a sharp market decline, “the BOJ many need to set aside provisions,” Otsuka says.

So that poor battered can has been kicked into the future one more time! If we cannot allow equity market falls now how will we be able to in say 5 years time? This leaves the Bank of Japan sounding rather like Elvis Presley.

Don’t you know I’m caught in a trap?
I can’t walk out

As time goes by the situation will go from bad to worse in terms of market manipulation.

Should the current pace of buying continue, the BOJ’s ETF holdings would reach about 30 trillion yen in about two years. The market capitalization of the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first-section companies comes to 550 trillion yen.

Also all the jokes and humour about a “Plunge Protection Team” stopping equity market falls move from satire to reality.

Comment

There is much for us to consider here. So far the expansion of central bank activity has not been put into reverse. Even the US Federal Reserve which has nudged interest-rates higher has only talked about reducing its balance sheet as opposed to actually doing it. Others are still chomping away like Pac-Men and Women but the scale of their purchases is increasingly posing problems for government bond markets.

Should the next recession or slow down hit before we see any form of exit strategy then there will be much less scope to buy government bonds. Now that the Bank of Japan has broken the moral barrier around buying equities and indeed property such a scenario would see others follow. If we look at the UK then as the current Bank of England Governor is a “dedicated follower of fashion” he would be likely to join the party.

There are a lot of catches here as we look forwards to a potential future. Equities are supposed to provide a form of price discovery as individuals buy and sell and hopefully there is investing in what are good ideas and people. Central banking bureaucrats are unlikely to add any value here.There attempts so far have fallen on stony ground.

Despite the initial excitement among major financial institutions, the Bank of Japan’s push for exchange-traded funds tracking companies that actively raise employee pay or invest in new equipment has run aground. ( Nikkei Asian Review)

But their loudspeakers should have Yazz on repeat in terms of equity indices..

The only way is up, baby
For you and me now
The only way is up, baby
For you and me now

 

What next for the world of negative interest-rates?

There were supposed to be two main general economic issues for 2017. The first was the return of inflation as the price of crude oil stopped being a strong disinflationary force. The second was that we would see a rise in interest-rates and bond yields as we saw an economic recovery combined with the aforementioned inflation. This was described as the “reflation” scenario and the financial trade based on it was to be short bonds. However we have seen a rise in inflation to above target in the UK and US and to just below it in the Euro area but the bond market and interest-rate move has been really rather different.

Negative Official Interest-Rates

Euro area

These are still around particularly in Europe where the main player is the European Central Bank. This plays out in three main areas as it has an official deposit rate of -0.4%, it also has its long-term refinancing operations where banks have been able to borrow out to the early 2020s at an interest-rate that can also be as low as -0.4% plus of course purchasing sovereign bonds at negative yields. So whilst the rate of monthly bond purchases has fallen to 60 billion Euros a month the envelope of negative interest-rates is still large in spite of the economic recovery described earlier this week by ECB President Draghi.

As a result, the euro area is now witnessing an increasingly solid recovery driven largely by a virtuous circle of employment and consumption, although underlying inflation pressures remain subdued. The convergence of credit conditions across countries has also contributed to the upswing becoming more broad-based across sectors and countries. Euro area GDP growth is currently 1.7%, and surveys point to continued resilience in the coming quarters.

Indeed the economic optimism was turned up another notch by the Markit PMI business surveys on Tuesday.

The PMI data indicate that eurozone growth remained impressively strong in May. Business activity is expanding at its fastest rate for six years so far in the second quarter, consistent with 0.6- 0.7% GDP growth. The consensus forecast of 0.4% second quarter growth could well prove overly pessimistic………

That is better than “resilience” I think.

Sweden

This is one of the high fortresses of negative interest-rates as you can see from the latest announcement.

The Executive Board decided to extend the purchases of government bonds by SEK 15 billion during the second half of 2017 and to hold the repo rate unchanged at −0.50 per cent. The repo rate is now not expected to be raised until mid-2018, which is slightly later than in the previous forecast.

As you can see a move away from the world of negative interest-rates seems to have moved further into the distance rather than get nearer. If you look at the economic situation then you may quite reasonably wonder what is going on here?

Swedish economic activity is good and is expected to strengthen further over the next few years. Confidence indicators show that households and companies are optimistic and demand for exports is strong. The economic upturn means that the demand for labour is still strong.

We do not have the numbers for the first quarter but we do know that GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) increased by 1% in the last quarter of 2016. If you read the statement below then it gets ever harder to justify the current official interest-rate.

Rising mortgage debt is a serious threat to Sweden’s economy while regulators need to introduce tougher measures to strengthen banks against future shocks, the central bank said in its semi-annual stability report, published on Wednesday………Swedish house prices have doubled over the last decade. Apartment prices have tripled. Household debt levels – in relation to disposable income – are among the highest in Europe.

Switzerland

The Swiss National Bank feels trapped by the pressure on the Swiss Franc.

The Swiss franc is still significantly overvalued. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market are necessary and appropriate to ease pressure on the Swiss franc. Negative interest has at least partially restored the traditional interest rate differential against other countries.

You may note that they are pointing the blame pretty much at the ECB and the Euro for the need to have an interest-rate of -0.75% ( strictly a range between -0.25% and -1.25%).

Denmark

As you can see Denmark’s Nationalbank has not moved this year either.

Effective from 8 January 2016, Danmarks Nationalbank’s interest rate on certificates of deposit is increased by 0.10 percentage point to -0.65 per cent.

The 2016 move left it a little exposed when the ECB cut again later than year but it remains firmly in negative interest-rate territory.

Japan

Until now we have been looking at issues surrounding the Euro both geographically and economically but we need to go a lot further east to see the -0.1% interest-rate of the Bank of Japan. Added to that is its policy of bond purchases where it aims to keep the ten-year yield at approximately 0%. So there is no great sign of a change here either.

 

The United States

Here of course we have seen an effort to move interest-rates to a move positive level but so far we have not seen that much and it has not been followed by any of the other major central banks. Indeed one central bank which is normally synchronised with it is the Bank of England but it cut interest-rates and expanded its balance sheet last August so it has headed in the opposite direction this time around.

This theme has been reflected in the US bond market where we saw a rise in yields when President Trump was elected but I note now that not much has happened since. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields around 2.25% which is pretty much where it was back then. We did see a rise to above 2.6% but that faded away as events moved on. Even the prospect of a beginning of an unwinding of all of the bond holdings of the Federal Reserve does not seem to have had much impact. That seems extraordinarily sanguine to me but there are two further factors which are at play. One is that investors do not believe this will happen on any great scale and also that there is no rule book or indeed much experience of how bond markets behave when a central bank looks for the exit.

How much?

There was a time when we were regularly updated on the size of the negative yielding bond universe whereas that has faded but there is this from Fitch Ratings in early March.

Rising long-term sovereign bond yields across the eurozone contributed to a decline in outstanding negative yielding sovereign debt to $8.6 trillion as of March 1 from $9.1 trillion near year-end 2016.

The fall such as it was seemed to be in longer dated maturities.

The total of negative-yielding sovereign debt with remaining maturities of greater than seven years fell significantly to $0.5 trillion as of Mar. 1 from over $2.6 trillion on June 27 2016.

Since then German bond yields have moved only a little so the general picture looks not to be much different.

Comment

I wanted to point out today the fact that whilst it feels like the economic world has moved on in 2017 in fact the negative interest-rate and yield story has changed a lot less than we might have thought. It has fallen out of the media spotlight and perceptions but it has remained as a large iceberg floating around.

One of my themes has been that we will find out more about the economic effects of negative interest-rates as more time passes. Accordingly I noted this from VoxEU yesterday.

Banks throughout the Eurozone are reluctant to cut retail deposit rates below zero, wary of possible client reactions

That has remained true as time has passed and it seems ever clearer that the banking sector is afraid of a type of deposit flight should they offer less than 0% on ordinary retail savings. That distinguishes it from institutional or pension markets where as we have discussed before there have been lots of negative yields and interest-rates. Also if we look at average deposit rates there remain quite large differences in the circumstances.

For example, the average rate on Belgian deposits has dropped to 0.03%. If Belgians took their money across the border, they could get almost ten times that in the Netherlands (0.28%). In France even, rates average 0.43%.

If we move to household borrowing rates we see that there are much wider discrepancies as we wonder if at this level we can in fact call this one monetary policy?

The Finns borrow against 1.8%, the Irish pay 3.6%

Some of the differences are down to different preferences but as the Irish borrowing is more likely to be secured ( mortgages) you might reasonably expect them to be paying less. Oh and as a final point as we move to borrowing we note that rates are a fair distance from the official ones meaning that the banks yet again have a pretty solid margin in their favour, which is somewhat contrary to what we keep being told.

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

Today I intend to look east to the land of the rising sun or Nihon where the ongoing economic struggles have been a forerunner to what is now happening to western economies. Also of course Japan is intimately tied up with the ongoing issue and indeed problem that is North Korea. And its navy or rather maritime self-defence force is being reinforced as this from Reuters only last month points out.

Japan’s second big helicopter carrier, the Kaga, entered service on Wednesday, giving the nation’s military greater ability to deploy beyond its shores………..Japan’s two biggest warships since World War Two are potent symbols of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to give the military a bigger international role. They are designated as helicopter destroyers to keep within the bounds of a war-renouncing constitution that forbids possession of offensive weapons.

We cannot be to critical of the name misrepresentation as of course the Royal Navy badged its previous aircraft carriers as through deck cruisers! There are of course issues though with Japan possessing such ships as the name alone indicates as the last one was involved in the attack on Pearl Habour before being sunk at Midway.

Demographics

This is a crucial issue as this from Bloomberg today indicates.

Japan Needs More People

The crux of the problem will be familiar to regular readers of my work.

Japanese companies already report they can’t find people to hire, and the future isn’t likely to get better — government researchers expect the country’s population to fall by nearly a third by 2065, at which point nearly 40 percent will be senior citizens. There’ll be 1.3 workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to 2.3 in 2015.

So the population is both ageing and shrinking which of course are interrelated issues. The solution proposed by Bloomberg is rather familiar.

It’s plain, however, that he needs to try harder still, especially when it comes to immigration……..Researchers say that to maintain the current population, Japan would have to let in more than half a million immigrants a year. (It took in 72,000 in 2015.)……..He now needs to persuade Japan that substantially higher immigration is a vital necessity.

There are various issues here as for example the Bloomberg theme that the policies of  Prime Minister Abe are working seems not to be applying to population. But as they admit below such a change is the equivalent of asking fans of Arsenal football club to support Tottenham Hotspur.

In a society as insular and homogeneous as Japan, any such increase would be a very tall order.

The question always begged in this is if the new immigrants boost the Japanese economy surely there must be a negative effect on the countries they leave?

The 0% Problem in Japan

I thought today I would look at the economy in different ways and partly as a reflection of the culture and partly due to the effect above a lot of economic and financial market indicators are near to 0%. This is something which upsets both establishments and central bankers.

Real Wages

Let me start with an issue I have been writing about for some years from Japan Macro Advisers.

The real wage growth, after offsetting the inflation in the consumer price, was 0% YoY in February.

The official real wage data has gone 0%,0%,0.1%, -0.1% and now 0% so in essence 0% and is appears on a road to nowhere. This is very different to what you may have read in places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times which have regularly trumpeted real wage growth in their headlines. There is a reason why this is even more significant than you might think because let me skip to a genuine example of economic success in Japan.

Given the prevalent labor shortage situation in Japan, there should be an economic force encouraging wages to rise. At 2.8%, the current unemployment rate is the lowest since 1993. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Actually in another rebuttal to Ivory Tower economics we see that unemployment is above what was “full employment”.

One could argue it is a matter of time, but it has already been 2.5 years since the unemployment rate reached 3.5%, the level economists considered as full-employment equivalent. (Japan Macro Advisers )

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

The consumer price index for Japan in February 2017 was 99.8 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.1% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

If you compare 99.8 now with 100 in 2015 you see that inflation has been in essence 0%. This is quite a reverse for the policy of Abenomics where the “Three Arrows” were supposed to lead to inflation rising at 2% per annum. An enormous amount of financial market Quantitative Easing has achieved what exactly? Here is an idea of the scale comparing Japan to the US and Euro area.

As we stand this has been a colossal failure in achieving its objective as for example inflation is effectively 0% and the Japanese Yen has been reinforcing this by strengthening recently into the 108s versus the US Dollar. it has however achieved something according to The Japan Times.

Tokyo’s skyline is set to welcome 45 new skyscrapers by the time the city hosts the Olympics in 2020, as a surge of buildings planned in the early years of Abenomics near completion.

Although in something of an irony this seems to cut inflation prospects.

“This could heat up competition for tenants in other areas of the city”

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

Naruhito Nogami, a 37-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, drives to discount stores on weekends to buy cheap groceries in bulk, even though he earns enough to make ends meet and the prospects for Japan’s economic recovery are brighter.

“I do have money, but I’m frugal anyway. Everyone is like that. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

Jaoanese businesses have responded in a way that will be sending shudders through the office of Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda.

Top retailer Aeon Co. is cutting prices for over 250 grocery items this month to lure cost-savvy shoppers, and Seiyu, operated by Wal-Mart Stores, cut prices on more than 200 products in February.

More of the same?

It would seem that some doubling down is about to take place.

The Abe government on Tuesday nominated banker Hitoshi Suzuki and economist Goshi Kataoka to the Bank of Japan Policy Board to replace two members who have frequently dissented against the direction set by Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda. ( Bloomberg)

Also Japan seems ever more committed to a type of centrally planned economic culture.

Japanese government-backed fund eyes Toshiba’s chip unit (Financial Times )

With the Bank of Japan buying so many Japanese shares it has been named the Tokyo Whale there more questions than answers here.

Comment

There is much to consider here but let me propose something regularly ignored. Why does Japan simply not embrace its strengths of for example full employment and relatively good economic growth per capita figures and abandon the collective growth and inflation chasing? After all lower prices can provide better living-standards and as  wages seem unable to rise even with very low unemployment may be a road forwards.

The catch is the fact that Japan continues to not only have a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio of 231% according to Bank of Japan data but is borrowing ever more each year. It is in effect reflating but not getting inflation and on a collective level not getting much economic growth either. Let is hope that Japan follows the lead of many of its citizens and avoids what happened last time after a period of economic troubles.

For us however we are left to mull the words of the band The Vapors.

Turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so

Let me finish with one clear difference we in the UK have much more of an inflation culture than Japan.

Are the currency wars still raging?

One of the features of the post credit crunch era is that economies are less able to take further economic stress. This leads us straight into today’s topic which is the movements in exchange rates and the economic effects from that. Apart from dramatic headlines which mostly concentrate on falls ( rises are less headline grabbing I guess…) the media tends to step back from this. However the central banks have been playing the game for some time as so many want the “cheap hit” of a lower currency which is an implicit reason for so much monetary easing. The ( President ) Donald was on the case a couple of months ago. From the Financial Times.

“Every other country lives on devaluation,” said Mr Trump after meeting with US motor industry executives. “You look at what China’s doing, you look at what Japan has done over the years. They play the money market, they play the devaluation market and we sit there like a bunch of dummies.”

Actually the FT was on good form here as it pointed out that perhaps there were better examples elsewhere.

South Korea has a current account surplus of nearly 8 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund, compared with just 3 per cent for China and Japan. Taiwan, meanwhile, has a colossal surplus of 15 per cent of GDP while Singapore is even higher at 19 per cent.

Care is needed here as a balance of payments surplus on its own is not the only metric and we do know that both Japan and China have had policies to weaken their currencies in recent years. So the picture is complex but I note there seems to be a lot of it in the Far East.

Japan

Ironically in a way the Japanese yen has been strengthening again and has done so by 1% over the weekend as it as headed towards 110 versus the US Dollar. So the Abenomics push from 76 was initially successful as the Yen plunged but now it is back to where it was in September 2014. Also for perspective the Yen was so strong partly as a consequence of US monetary easing. Oh what a tangled web and that.

The Bank of Japan will be ruing the rise ( in Yen terms) from 115 in the middle of this month to 110.25 as I type this because it is already struggling with this from this morning’s minutes.

The year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) for all items less fresh food is around 0 percent, and is expected to gradually increase toward 2 percent, due in part to the upward pressure on general prices stemming from developments in commodity prices such as crude oil prices.

Even worse for the Bank of Japan and Abenomics – but not the Japanese worker and consumer – the price of crude oil has also been falling since these minutes were composed. Time for more of what is called “bold action”?

Germany

It is not that often on these lists because the currency manipulation move by Germany came via its membership of the Euro where it added itself to weaker currencies. But its record high trade surpluses provide a strong hint and the European Central Bank has provided both negative interest-rates and a massive expansion of its balance sheet as it has tried to weaken the Euro. So we see that an exchange-rate that strengthened as the the credit crunch hit to 1.56 versus the US Dollar is now at 1.086.

So the recent bounce may annoy both the ECB and Germany but it is quite small compared to what happened before this. Putting it another way if we compare to Japan then a Euro bought 148 year in November 2014 but only 120 now.

The UK

In different circumstances the UK might recently have been labelled a currency manipulator as the Pound £ fell. As ever Baron King of Lothbury seems keen on the idea as he hopes that one day his “rebalancing” mighty actually happen outside his own personal Ivory Tower. There is food for thought for our valiant Knight of the Garter in the fact that we were at US $2.08 when her bailed out Northern Rock and correct me if I am wrong but we have indeed rebalanced since, even more towards our services sector.

However it too has seen a bounce against the US Dollar in the last fortnight or so and at US £1.256 as I type this there are various consequences from this. Firstly the edge is taken off the inflationary burst should this continue especially of we allow for the lower oil price ( down 11.2% so far this quarter according to Amanda Cooper of Reuters). That is indeed welcome or rather will be if these conditions persist. A small hint of this came at the weekend. From the BBC.

Motorists will see an acceleration in fuel price cuts over the weekend as supermarkets take up to 2p off a litre of petrol and diesel.

Not everybody welcomes this as I note my sparring partner on BBC 4’s MoneyBox Tony Yates is again calling for higher inflation (targets). He will then “rescue” you from the lower living-standards he has just created….

The overall picture for the UK remains a lower currency post EU vote and it is equivalent to a 2.5% reduction in Bank Rate for those considering the economic effect. Meanwhile if I allow for today’s rise it is pretty much unchanged in 2017 in effective or trade-weighted terms. Not something in line with the media analysis is it?

South Africa

This has featured in the currency falling zone for a while now, if you recall I looked at how cheap property had become in foreign currencies. There had been a bounce but if we bring things right up to date there has been a hiccup this morning. From the FT.

The rand plunged almost 2 per cent in less than half an hour on Monday morning after the latest row between president Jacob Zuma and his finance minister Pravin Gordhan, only moments after it had risen to its highest level since July 2015.

Perhaps the air got a bit thin up there.

The rand has been the best-performing currency in the world over the last 12 months, strengthening more than 23 per cent against the dollar, but it has suffered a number of knock backs prompted by the president and finance minister’s battles.

Back to where it was in the late summer of 2015.

Bitcoin

If we look at the crypto-currency then there has been a lot of instability of late. At the start of this month it pushed towards US $1300 but this morning it fell to below US $940 and is US $991 as I type this. Not for widows and orphans…

Comment

There is much to consider here as we wonder if the US Dollar is merely catching its breath or whether it is perhaps a case of “buy the rumour and sell the fact”. Or perhaps facts as you can choose the election of the Donald and or a promised acceleration in the tightening of monetary policy by the US Federal Reserve. But we see an amelioration in world inflation should this persist which of course combines as it happens with a lower oil price.

So workers and consumers in many countries will welcome this new phase but the Bank of Japan will not. Maybe both Euro area workers and consumers and the ECB can as the former benefit whilst the latter can extend its monetary easing in 2017 and, ahem, over the elections. Whilst few currencies are stable these days the crypto one seems out of control right now.

Japan continues to see wages stagnate

A feature of the credit crunch era has been weak wage growth and in particular weak real wage growth. More than a few countries such as my own the UK have not seen real wages fully recover to their pre credit crunch peaks. If we look back we see that the assumptions of the Ivory Towers ( in the UK for example wage growth of ~4% and real wage growth of ~2%) were already built on rather shaky foundations as real wage growth was already fading. Sadly the Ivory Towers learned little as I note last week at its Inflation Report press conference the Bank of England was criticised for consistently over-estimating wage growth. Or if you like another Forward Guidance failure.

However the real front line for the malaise in real wage growth is to be found by looking east to Nihon or the land of the rising sun where there has been trouble for some time. The problem was described by the World Economic Forum back in June 2013.

According to a survey by Reuters in February, 85% of responding firms said they would maintain current wage levels or make further cuts this year. Japanese companies typically resort to wage cuts for workers with so-called life-long employment contracts rather than lay-offs to adjust for cyclical downturns or due to tougher price competition from abroad. As a result, the unemployment rate has been low, but wages continue to decline. Due to the strong protection of permanent workers, firms typically have redundant permanent workers, thus have no incentive to increase their wages.

People sometimes ask me about full employment but Japan has in some areas gone further and had a type of over employment. In the time I was working there people were employed to count numbers crossing walkways or to open lift doors. A nice service but not especially necessary. However there is another feature of the Japanese labour market which keeps wages low.

Worse yet, only a third of the Japanese labour force (typically older and male labour) has a permanent contract. The majority of the young and female labour force is working under a temporary contract with much lower salary and practically no job security, which creates a kind of caste system in the labour market.

Enter Abenomics

This was supposed to be something of a cure-all for the Japanese economy with higher inflation and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth boost wages. also the third arrow of Abenomics was supposed to be reforms to help deal with the labour market issues above. Regular readers will be aware that I doubted both routes from the beginning as Prime Minister Abe was an “insider” who in his previous term was guilty of what is called pork barrel politics. However places like Bloomberg and the Financial Times supported the new programme of Abenomics and have regularly produced headlines describing success even when the numbers do not describe that at all.

2016 was a better year

NHK News takes up the case.

Japan’s labor ministry says average monthly wages adjusted for inflation rose in 2016, the first increase in 5 years.

The data is the preliminary result of a nationwide survey.

The ministry says the average monthly wage, including bonuses and overtime pay, was about 315 thousand yen, roughly 2,800 dollars. That’s up 0.7 percent in real terms from the previous year.

The good news is that there was a rise albeit a small one. However there are several issues raised as we are 4 years or so into Abenomics and this is way below what was promised. There is also a clear fundamental flaw as wages were supposed to rise with higher inflation but instead we see this reported.

Lower consumer prices pushed the adjusted figure higher.

So exactly the opposite of what was intended! If we move to The Mainichi we see little sign of the promised reforms either.

The average monthly pay of full-time workers in 2016 increased 0.8 percent to 411,788 yen from the preceding year, while that of part-time workers was down 0.1 percent to 97,670 yen.

December

If we move to the data for the month of December we see an all too familiar pattern. From Reuters.

Japanese wages, on an annual inflation-adjusted basis, dropped in December for the first time in a year, government data showed on Monday, a setback for hopes that consumer spending can increase and help lift economic growth.

The decline was caused by a rise in the cost of living, which outpaced nominal pay hikes, officials said. Higher prices for items such as fresh vegetables have increased living costs.

Higher inflation driving real wages lower is somewhat awkward for Abenomics which plans for exactly the reverse! If we look at the numbers cash earnings were 0.1% higher than a year before so inflation did not have to be much to push real wages lower. The worst sector to be in was the utility one where wages fell by 2.8% and the best was the real estate sector where they rose 4.5%. This meant that real wages fell by 0.4% on a year before and December with its high level bonus payments meaning it is the peak month ( around 60% higher than the average) is the worst month for this too happen.

Prospects

Earlier I quoted from a wages survey from 2013 so how is that going now? From Reuters.

Nearly two-thirds of Japanese companies do not plan to hike their workers’ wages this year, a Reuters poll showed, a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign for higher pay to spur a recovery and a way to end two decades of deflation.

The Reuters Corporate Survey, conducted Jan. 4-17, also found that most wage gains over the past four years since Abe came to power have been minimal and that nearly one-quarter of firms have implemented none at all.

Indeed Reuters appears to have been reading me.

On the other hand, prices may increase as oil prices rebound, which will curb (inflation-adjusted) real wages and hurt households’ purchasing power,

Also this next bit makes grim reading for those in the media who have proclaimed success on the wage front in Japan.

The Corporate Survey also asked companies how much they have raised wages since 2012. Some 23 percent said they have kept overall wages unchanged, while 51 percent have raised them around 0.5-1.5 percent. Only 26 percent said wages had risen by about 2 percent or more.

Comment

Back on the 15th of May 2015 I pointed out my fears in this area.

If we look at real wages I note the number of references in rising wages in Governor Kuroda’s speech. Except real wages fell by 2.6% in the year to March which means that they have fallen in every month of the two years of QQE now.

There has been an improvement on an annual basis which you can see if I give you the real wages data, 2013 -0.9%,2014 -2.8%,2015 -0.9% and 2016 +0.7%. So it is possible to argue that there is an improving trend. Except the elephant in that particular room is that it is lower inflation which has driven that ads opposed to the higher inflation Abenomics is so keen on. Also you can see that the overall number for real wages is lower.

If we look back wages rose in Japan at the end of the last century but have fallen this and it is hard to avoid the thought that the numbers below have impacted here. From The Economist.

The number of 20- to 29-year-olds in Japan has crashed from 18.3m to 12.8m since 2000, according to the World Bank. By 2040 there might be only 10.5m of them. Cities like Tama are therefore playing not a zero-sum game but a negative-sum game, frantically chasing an ever-diminishing number of young adults and children.

It also looks at the Okatuma region.

Children have become so scarce that the large primary school is only about one-quarter full. Residents in their 70s outnumber children under ten by more than five to one

The Bank of Japan can do all the “yield curve management” it likes but even if it ends up buying the Japanese government bond market how will that improve the real economy and in particular wages? Still it could be worse you could be one of the footballers invited to play at the Fukushima TEPCO plant.

welcomes professional soccer players at Daiichi to show progress made at the power station

 

Rising bond yields are feeding into the real economy

Once upon a time most people saw central banks as organisations which raised interest-rates to slow inflation and/or an economy and cut them to have the reverse effect. Such simple times! Well for those who were not actually working in bond markets anyway. The credit crunch changed things in various ways firstly because we saw so many interest-rate cuts ( approximately 700 I believe now) but also because central bankers ran out of road. What I mean by that is the advent of ZIRP or near 0% interest-rates was not enough for some who plunged into the icy cold waters of negative interest-rates. This has posed all sorts of problems of which one is credibility as for example Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told us the “lower bound” for UK Bank Rate was 0.5% then later cut to 0.25%!

If all that had worked we would not be where we are and we would not have seen central banks singing along with Huey Lewis and the News.

I want a new drug
One that won’t make me sick
One that won’t make me crash my car
Or make me feel three feet thick

This of course was QE (Quantitative Easing) style policies which became increasingly the policy option of choice for central banks because of a change. This is because the official interest-rate is a short-term one usually for overnight interest-rates so 24 hours if you like. As central banks mostly now meet 8 times a year you can consider it lasts for a month and a bit but in the interest-rate environment that changes little as you see there are a whole world of interest-rates unaffected by that. Pre credit crunch they mostly but not always moved with the official rate afterwards the effect faded. So central banks moved to affect them more directly as lowering longer-term interest-rates reduces the price of fixed-rate mortgages and business loans or at least it should. Also much less badged by central bankers buying sovereign bonds to do so makes government borrowing cheaper and therefore makes the “independent” central bank rather popular with politicians.

That was then and this is now

Whilst there is still a lot of QE going on we are seeing ch-ch-changes even in official policy as for example from the US Federal Reserve which has raised interest-rates twice and this morning this from China.

Chinese press reports that the PBoC have raised interest rate on one-year MLF loans by 10bps to 3.1% ( @SigmaSqwauk)

The Chinese bond market future fell a point to below 96 on the news which raised a wry smile at a bond market future below 100 ( which used to be very common) but indicated higher bond yields. These are becoming more common albeit with ebbs and flows and are on that road because of the return of inflation. So many countries got a reminder of this in December as we have noted as there were pick-ups in the level of annual inflation and projecting that forwards leaves current yields looking a bit less than thin. Or to put it another way all the central bank bond-buying has created a false market for sovereign and in other cases corporate bonds.

The UK

Back on the 14th of June last year I expressed my fears for the UK Gilt market.

There is much to consider as we note that inflation expectations and bond yields are two trains running in opposite directions on the same track.

In the meantime we have had the EU leave vote and an extra £60 billion of Bank of England QE of which we will see some £1 billion this afternoon. This drove the ten-year Gilt yield to near 0.5%. Hooray for the “Sledgehammer” of Andy Haldane and Mark Carney? Er no because in chart terms they have left UK taxpayers on an island that now looks far away as markets have concentrated more on thoughts like this one from the 14th of October last year.

Now if we add to this the extra 1.5% of annual inflation I expect as the impact of the lower UK Pound £ then even the new higher yields look rather crackpot.

In spite of the “Sledgehammer” which was designed by Bank of England lifer Andy Haldane the UK ten-year Gilt yield is at 1.44% so higher than it was before the EU leave vote whilst his ammunition locker is nearly empty. So he has driven the UK Gilt market like the Duke of York used to drill his men. I do hope he will be pressed on the economic effects of this and in the real world please not on his Ivory Tower spreadsheet.

The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
When they were up, they were up
And when they were down, they were down
And when they were only halfway up
They were neither up nor down.

If you look at inflation trends the Gilt yield remains too low. Oh and do not forget the £20 billion added to the National Debt  by the Term Funding Scheme of the Bank of England.

Euro area

In spite of all the efforts of Mario Draghi and his bond-buyers we have seen rising yields here too and falling prices. Even the perceived safe-haven of German bonds is feeling the winds of change.

in danger of taking out Dec spike highs in yield of 0.456% (10yr cash) ( @MontyLaw)

We of course gain some perspective but noting that even after price falls the yield feared is only 0.456%! However it is higher and as we look elsewhere in the Euro area we do start to see yield levels which are becoming material. Maybe not yet in Italy where the ten-year yield has risen to 2.06% but the 4% of Portugal will be a continuous itch for a country with such a high national debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio. It has been around 4% for a while now which is an issue as these things take time to impact and I note this which is odd for a country that the IMF is supposed to have left.

WILL PARTICIPATE IN EUROGROUP DISCUSSION ON – BBG ( h/t @C_Barraud)

 

The US

The election of President Trump had an immediate effect on the US bond market as I pointed out at the time.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

 

As I type this we get a clear idea of the trend this has been in play overall by noting that the long bond yield is now 3.06%.  We can now shift to an economic effect of this by noting that the US 30 year mortgage-rate is now 4.06% and has been rising since late September when in dipped into the low 3.3s%. So there will be a contractionary economic effect via higher mortgage and remortgage costs. There will be others too but this is the clearest cause and effect link and will be seen in other places around the world.

Japan

Here we have a slightly different situation as the Bank of Japan has promised to keep the ten-year yield around 0% so you can take today’s 0.07% as either success or failure. In general bond yields have nudged higher but the truth is that the Bank of Japan so dominates this market it is hard to say what it tells us apart from what The Tokyo Whale wants it too. Also the inflation situation is different as Japan remains at around 0%.

Comment

We find ourselves observing a changing landscape. Whilst not quite a return of the bond vigilantes the band does strike up an occasional tune. When it plays it is mostly humming along to the return of consumer inflation which of course has mostly be driven by the end of the fall in the crude oil price and indeed its rebound. What that has done is made inflation adjusted or real yields look very negative indeed. Whilst Ivory Tower spreadsheets may smile the problem is finding investors willing to buy this as we see markets at the wrong price and yield. Unless central banks are willing to buy bond markets in their entirety then yields will ebb and flow but the trend seems set to be higher and in some cases much higher. For example German bunds have “safe-haven” status but how does a yield of 0.44% for a ten-year bond go with a central bank expecting inflation to go above 2% as the Bundesbank informed us earlier this week?

The economic effects of this will be felt in mortgage,business and other borrowing rates. This will include governments many of whom have got used to cheap and indeed ultra-cheap credit.