The mad world of negative interest-rates is on the march

Yesterday as is his want the President of the United States Donald Trump focused attention on one of our credit crunch themes.

Just finished a very good & cordial meeting at the White House with Jay Powell of the Federal Reserve. Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.

I guess he was at the 280 character limit so replaced negative interest-rates with just negative interest. In a way this is quite extraordinary as I recall debates in the earlier part of the credit crunch where people argued that it would be illegal for the US Federal Reserve to impose negative interest-rates. But the Donald does not seem bothered as we see him increasingly warm to a theme he established at the Economic Club of New York late last week.

“Remember we are actively competing with nations that openly cut interest rates so that many are now actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest. Who ever heard of such a thing?” He said. “Give me some of that. Give me some of that money. I want some of that money. Our Federal Reserve doesn’t let us do it.” ( Reuters )

That day the Chair of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell rejected the concept according to CNBC.

He also rejected the idea that the Fed might one day consider negative interest rates like those in place across Europe.

The problem is that over the past year the 3 interest-rate cuts look much more driven by Trump than Powell.

Of course, there are contradictions.Why does the “best economy ever” need negative interest-rates for example? Or why a stock market which keeps hitting all-time highs needs them? But the subject keeps returning as we note yesterday’s words from the President of the Cleveland Fed.

Asked her view on negative interest rates, Mester told the audience that Europe’s use of them “is perhaps working better than I might have anticipated” but added she is not supportive of such an approach in the United States should there be a downturn.

Why say “working better” then reject the idea?  We have seen that path before.

The Euro area

As to working better then a deposit-rate of -0.5% and of course many bond yields in negative territory has seen the annual rate of economic growth fall to 1.1%. Also with the last two quarterly growth readings being only 0.2% it looks set to fall further.

So the idea of an economic boost being provided by them is struggling and relying on the counterfactual. But the catch is that such arguments are mostly made by those who think that the last interest-rate cut of 0.1% made any material difference. After all the previous interest-rate cuts that is simply amazing. Actually the moves will have different impacts across the Euro area as this from an ECB working paper points out.

A striking feature of the credit market in the euro area is the very large heterogeneity across countries in the granting of fixed versus adjustable rate mortgages.
FRMs are dominant in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, while ARMs are prevailing in Austria, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (ECB, 2009; Campbell,
2012)

Actually I would be looking for data from 2019 rather than 2009 but we do get some sort of idea.

Businesses and Savers in Germany are being affected

We have got another signal of the spread of the impact of negative interest-rates .From the Irish Times.

The Bundesbank surveyed 220 lenders at the end of September – two weeks after the ECB’s cut its deposit rate from minus 0.4 to a record low of minus 0.5 per cent. In response 58 per cent of the banks said they were levying negative rates on some corporate deposits, and 23 per cent said they were doing the same for retail depositors.

There was also a strong hint that legality is an issue in this area.

“This is more difficult in the private bank business than in corporate or institutional deposits, and we don’t see an ability to adjust legal terms and conditions of our accounts on a broad-based basis,” said Mr von Moltke, adding that Deutsche was instead approaching retail clients with large deposits on an individual basis.

So perhaps more than a few accounts have legal barriers to the imposition of negative interest-rates. That idea gets some more support here.

Stephan Engels, Commerzbank’s chief financial officer, said this month that Germany’s second largest listed lender had started to approach wealthy retail customers holding deposits of more than €1 million.

Japan

The Bank of Japan has dipped its toe in the water but has always seemed nervous about doing anymore. This has been illustrated overnight.

“There is plenty of scope to deepen negative rates from the current -0.1%,” Kuroda told a semi-annual parliament testimony on monetary policy. “But I’ve never said there are no limits to how much we can deepen negative rates, or that we have unlimited means to ease policy,” he said. ( Reuters )

This is really odd because Japan took its time imposing negative interest-rates as we had seen 2 lost decades by January 2016 but it has then remained at -0.1% or the minimum amount. Mind you there is much that is crazy about Bank of Japan policy as this next bit highlights.

Kuroda also said there was still enough Japanese government bonds (JGB) left in the market for the BOJ to buy, playing down concerns its huge purchases have drained market liquidity.

After years of heavy purchases to flood markets with cash, the BOJ now owns nearly half of the JGB market.

In some ways that fact that a monetary policy activist like Governor Kuroda has not cut below -0.1% is the most revealing thing of all about negative interest-rates.

Switzerland

The Swiss found themselves players in this game when the Swiss Franc soared and they tried to control it. Now they find themselves with a central bank that combines the role of being a hedge fund due to its large overseas equity investments and has a negative interest-rate of -0.75%.

Nearly five years after the fateful day when the SNB stopped capping the Swiss Franc we get ever more deja vu from its assessments.

The situation on the foreign exchange market is still fragile, and the Swiss franc has appreciated in trade-weighted terms. It remains highly valued.

Comment

I have consistently argued that the situation regarding negative interest-rates has two factors. The first is how deep they go? The second is how long they last? I have pointed out that the latter seems to be getting ever longer and may be heading along the lines of “Too Infinity! And Beyond!”. It seems that the Swiss National Bank now agrees with me. The emphasis is mine.

This adjustment to the calculation basis takes account of the fact that the low interest rate environment around the world has recently become more entrenched and could persist for some time yet.

We have seen another signal of that recently because the main priority of the central banks is of course the precious and we see move after move to exempt the banks as far as possible from negative interest-rates. The ECB for example has introduced tiering to bring it into line with the Swiss and the Japanese although the Swiss moved again in September.

The SNB is adjusting the basis for calculating negative interest as follows. Negative interest will continue to be charged on the portion of banks’ sight deposits which exceeds a certain exemption threshold. However, this exemption threshold will now be updated monthly and
thereby reflect developments in banks’ balance sheets over time.

If only the real economy got the same consideration and courtesy. That is the crux of the matter here because so far no-one has actually exited the black hole which is negative interest-rates. The Riksbank of Sweden says that it will next month but this would be a really odd time to raise interest-rates. Also I note that the Danish central bank has its worries about pension funds if interest-rates rise.

A scenario in which interest rates go up
by 1 percentage point over a couple of days is not
implausible. Therefore, pension companies should
be prepared to manage margin requirements at
all times. If the sector is unable to obtain adequate
access to liquidity, it may be necessary to reduce the
use of derivatives.

Personally I am more bothered about the pension funds which have invested in bonds with negative yields.After all, what could go wrong?

 

 

Japan and Korea have chosen a bad time to fire up their own trade war

This is a story influenced by a brewing trade war but not the one that you might think. It is between Japan and Korea and the latest phase started in July when Japan imposed restrictions on trade with Korea for 3 chemicals. This gets more significant when you realise that they are crucial for smartphones ( displays on particular) and that according to CNBC Japan is responsible for 90% of the world’s supply of them. This affects quite of bit of Korean industry with Samsung being the headliner. Them Japan dropped Korea from its whitelist of trusted trading partners making trade more difficult before Korea did the same.

According to Bloomberg Citigroup have tried to downplay this today but I note these bits of it.

Meanwhile, boycotts in South Korea have led to a plunge in sales of Japanese consumer goods and a decrease in tourists to Japan, who may have decided to travel domestically instead, according to Citi………Last month, South Korean exports to Japan fell 14 percent, while imports from Japan slid 23 percent. South Korea’s trade ministry attributed the declines to industrial factors rather than trade actions.

Ah an official denial! We know what that means.

The issue has deep roots in the past and the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula a century ago as well as its later use of Korean “comfort women.” That explains the Korean issue with Japan and on the other side the Japanese consider themselves superior to Koreans and in my time there were quite open about it. Whilst he initially made moves to calm the situation there was always going to be an issue with a nationalistic politician like  Shinzo Abe running Japan.But let us move on noting that both countries will be experiencing an economic brake.

Japan Economic Growth

Let me hand you over to The Japan Times which gives us the position and some perspective.

In the third quarter the world’s third-largest economy grew an annualized 0.2 percent, slowing sharply from a revised 1.8 percent expansion in April to June, according to preliminary gross domestic product data released by the government Thursday.

It fell well short of a median market forecast for a 0.8 percent gain, and marked the weakest growth since a 2.0 percent contraction in the July-September period last year.

So over the past six months Japan has grown by 0.5% and we also get an idea of the erratic nature of economic growth there.This is partly due to the way that Japan does not conform to stereotype as it has struggled more than elsewhere to measure GDP. Partly due to last year’s third quarter drop. annual growth has picked up to 1.3% but that looks like being the peak.

Why? Well the 0.2% growth was driven by a 0.9% rise in domestic demand ( both numbers are annualised) just in time for the consumption tax to be raised. Actually private consumption was up 1.4% in the quarter suggesting that purchases were being made ahead of the rise.

At the end of last month this was reinforced by this.

The Consumer Confidence Index (seasonally adjusted series) in October 2019 was 36.2, up 0.6 points from the previous month.

Yes it was up but you see the number had fallen from around 44 at the opening of 2018 and these are the lowest readings since 2011.

Korea Economic Growth

Real gross domestic product (chained volume measure of GDP) grew by 0.4 percent in the third quarter of 2019 compared to the previous quarter……Real GDP (chained volume measure of GDP) increased by 2.0 percent year on
year in the third quarter of 2019.

In a broad sweep this means that economic growth has been slowing as it was 3.2% in 2017 and 2.7% in 2018. Rather unusually Korea saw strong export growth especially of we look at what was exported.

Exports increased by 4.1 percent, as exports of goods such as motor vehicles and semiconductors expanded. Imports were up by 0.9 percent, owing to increased imports of transportation equipment.

Also manufacturing grew.

Manufacturing rose by 2.1 percent, mainly due to an increase in computer, electronic and optical products.

However the economy has been slowing and if either of those reverse will slow even more quickly. Back on the 18th of October we noted this response.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.50% to 1.25%.

This was more of an external rather than an internal move as last week we learnt this.

During September 2019 Narrow Money (M1, seasonally adjusted, period-average) increased by 0.6% compared to the previous month.

So whilst it had been weak as annual growth was 3.3% in June it has risen since to 5% which is slightly above the average for 2018.

However they could cut on inflation grounds as this from Korea Statistics shows.

The Consumer Price Index was 105.46(2015=100) in October 2019. The index increased 0.2 percent from the preceding  month and was unchanged from the same month of the previous year.

According to the Bank of Korea the outlook is for more of the same.

 The Producer Price Index increased by 0.1% month-on-month in September 2019 – in year-on-year terms it decreased by 0.7%.

Exchange Rate

This is at 10.68 Won to the Yen as I type this and is up over 7% over the past year. So an additional factor in the situation will be that the Korean’s have been winning the currency war. This of course, will be annoying for Shinzo Abe who’s Abenomics programme set out to weaker the Japanese Yen. As we stand Korea has an official interest-rate some 1.35% higher so there is not a lot the Bank of Japan can do about this.

Comment

As we stand it initially looks as if Korea will be the relative winner here.

“Domestic demand had made up for some of the weakness in external demand, but we can’t count on this to continue,” said Taro Saito, executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute.

“A contraction in October-December GDP is a done deal. The economy may rebound early next year, but will lack momentum.” ( Japan Times)

But the argument it is in a stronger position weakens somewhat if we switch to its Gross National Income.

Real gross domestic income (GDI) increased by 0.1 percent compared to the previous quarter.

Over the past year it has gone on a quarterly basis -0.3%,0.2%,-0.7% and now 0.1%.

Korea is looking to use fiscal policy to stimulate its economy which sets it in the opposite direction to the consumption tax rise in Japan. But as they use a time of trouble to posture and scrap let us look at something that they share.

Korea’s potential output growth is expected to fall further in the long term, as the productive population declines in line with population aging and the low fertility rate……In addition, it is necessary to slow down the decline in labor supply resulting from population aging and the low birth rate, through policy efforts including encouraging women and young people to participate in economic activities and coping actively with the low birth rate. ( Bank of Korea Working Paper )

I wonder what the latter bit really means?

Meanwhile this is the last thing Japan needs right now.

(Reuters) – Japan’s Nissan Motor Co Ltd (7201.T) has said it is recalling 394,025 cars in the United States over a braking system defect, causing concerns that a brake fluid leak could potentially lead to a fire.

Podcast

 

 

There are major problems brewing in the Pacific for the world economy

It has been something of an economic tenet for a while now that the most dynamic part of the world economy is to be found in the Pacific region. However the credit crunch era has thrown up all sorts of challenges to what were established ideas and it is doing so again right now. The particular issue is what was supposed to be a strength which is trade and we saw another worrying sign on Wednesday.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.50% to 1.25%.

That is South Korea as we continue our journey past 750 interest-rate cuts in the credit crunch era. Here is their answer to Carly Simon’s famous question, why?

Economic growth in Korea has continued to slow. Private consumption has slowed somewhat, while investment has remained weak. Exports have sustained their sluggish trend as the export prices of semiconductors, petroleum products and chemicals have continued to fall amid the weakening of global trade.

So we see that the economy has been hit by trade issues and that unsurprisingly this has hit investment but also that it has fed through into domestic consumption. Next we got further confirmation that they are blaming trade as we wonder what is Korean for Johnny Foreigner?

Affected mainly by worsening global economic conditions, the growth of the Korean economy is expected to fall back below the July projection…….. The downside risks include a spread of  global trade disputes, a heightening of geopolitical risks and a deepening global
economic slowdown.

We also see that the Korean government has already acted.

Among the upside risks to the growth outlook are an improvement in domestic demand thanks to a strengthening of government policies to shore up the economy and progress in US-China trade negotiations.

 

Quarterly economic growth has been erratic so far this year but Xinhuanet gives us an idea of the trend.

From a year earlier, the real GDP grew 2 percent in the second quarter. It was lower than an increase of 2.8 percent for the same quarter of 2017 and a growth of 2.9 percent for the same quarter of 2018.

Singapore

On the one hand the outlook is supposed to be bright.

Singapore has knocked the United States out of the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness report. The index, published on Wednesday, takes stock of an economy’s competitive landscape, measuring factors such as macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, the labor market and innovation capability. ( CNN )

The good cheer was not repeated in this from the Monetary Authority of Singapore on Monday.

According to the Advance Estimates released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry today, the Singapore economy grew by 0.1% year-on-year in Q3 2019, similar to the preceding quarter. In the last six months, the drag on GDP growth exerted by the manufacturing sector has intensified, reflecting the ongoing downturn in the global electronics cycle as well as the pullback in investment spending, caused in part by the uncertainty in US-China relations.

They are very sharp with the GDP number perhaps helped by being a City state. The future does not look too bright either if we look through the rhetoric.

On the whole, Singapore’s GDP growth is projected to come in at around the mid-point of the 0–1% forecast range in 2019 and improve modestly in 2020.

The Straits Times has fone a heroic job trying to make the data below look positive.

Non-oil domestic exports (Nodx) fell by 8.1 per cent in September, a somewhat better showing than the 9 percent fall in August, according to data released by Enterprise Singapore on Thursday (Oct 17).

This was the third month in a row where shipments improved, and the August figure – revised downwards from the 8.9 per cent fall previously reported – also marked a return to single-digit territory after five consecutive months of double-digit declines.

But many eyes will have turned to this bit.

Electronics products weighed down Nodx, shrinking 24.8 per cent year-on-year in September, following a 25.9 per cent contraction in August.

China

This morning has brought the news we were pretty much expecting.

China’s economic growth slowed in the third quarter amid weak demand at home and as the trade war with the U.S. drags on exports.

Gross domestic product rose 6% in the July-September period from a year ago, the slowest pace since the early 1990s and weaker than the consensus forecast of 6.1%. Factory output rose 5.8% in September, retail sales expanded 7.8%, while investment gained 5.4% in the first nine months of the year. ( Bloomberg ).

Back on the 21st of January I pointed out this.

The M1 money supply statistics show us that growth was a mere 1.5% over 2018 which is a lot lower than the other economic numbers coming out of China and meaning that we can expect more slowing in the early part of 2019. No wonder we have seen some policy easing and I would not be surprised if there was more of it.

The numbers have been slipping away ever since although Bloomberg tries to put a brave face on it. After all you fo not want to upset the Chinese as you might find yourself like the NBA.

Even with the slowdown, year to date growth of 6.2% suggests the government can hit its 6% and 6.5% for 2019.

Actually M1 money supply growth picked up after January to as high as 4.4% but has now fallen back to 3.4%. So the easing has helped and we are not looking at an “end of the world as we know it” scenario in domestic terms but rather caution.

Before I move on let me point out the consequences of the African swine fever outbreak in the pig industry.

Of which, livestock meat price up by 46.9 percent, affecting nearly 2.03 percentage points increase in the CPI (price of pork was up by 69.3 percent, affecting nearly 1.65 percentage points increase in the CPI), poultry meat up by 14.7 percent, affecting nearly 0.18 percentage point increase in the CPI. ( China Bureau of Statistics )

Japan

Overnight the Cabinet Office has informed us that the Bank of Japan is getting ever further away from its inflation target.

  The consumer price index for Japan in September 2019 was 101.9 (2015=100), up 0.2% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as  the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

They will of course torture the numbers to find any flicker so if you here about furniture and household utensils ( up 2.7%) that will be why.

Next month the issue will be solved by the Consumption Tax rise but of course that takes money out of workers and consumers pockets at a time of economic trouble. What could go wrong?

Comment

As you can see there are plenty of signs of economic trouble in the Pacific region. Many of these countries are used to much higher rates of economic growth than us in the west. According to Bloomberg Indonesia is worried too.

Indonesia‘s central bank has room to cut interest rates further, perhaps as soon as next week, says its deputy governor

Then of course there is the Reserve Bank of Australia which is cutting interest-rates at a rapid rate. In fact Deputy Governor Debelle gave a speech in Sydney updating us on his priority.

The housing market has a pervasive impact on the Australian economy. It is the popular topic of any number of conversations around barbeques and dinner tables. It generates reams of newspaper stories and reality TV shows. You could be forgiven for thinking that the housing market is the Australian economy.[1] That clearly is not the case. But at the same time, developments in the housing market, both the established market and housing construction, have a broader impact than the simple numbers would suggest.

 

 

Japan gets paid to issue debt and yet it has just tightened its fiscal policy!

Today I am looking east to the country which is hosting the rugby world cup and let me congratulate them on their victory over Ireland. But there is another area where Japan is currently standing out and that is the arena of fiscal policy. The current establishment view is that it is time that fiscal policy took up the slack after years and indeed in Japan’s case decades of easy monetary policy. One feature of that type of thought is seen by the cheapness of public borrowing in Japan where the ten-year yield is -0.22% and the thirty-year is a mere 0.35%. So Japan is either paying very little or being paid to borrow right now.

Consumption Tax

Last week it did this.

After twice being postponed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the consumption tax on Tuesday will rise to 10 percent from 8 percent, with the government maintaining that the increased burden on consumers is essential to boost social welfare programs and reduce the swelling national debt. ( The Japan Times )

This is an odd move when we note the current malaise in the world economy which just gets worse as we note the fact that the Pacific region in particular is suffering. We looked at one facet of this last week as Australia cut interest-rates for the third time since the beginning of the summer.

Things get complex as we note that there are offsetting measures.

The 2 percentage point boost is estimated to inflict about a ¥5.7 trillion burden on households. However, making preschool education free of charge, keeping the 8 percent rate for food and nonalcoholic beverages and beefing up social welfare are expected to lessen that burden to around ¥2 trillion — about a quarter of the ¥8 trillion cost of the 2014 hike, according to the government and the Bank of Japan. ( The Japan Times )

As you can see this takes away a lot of the point of making the change in the first place! According to the government the net effect will be a bit more than a third of the gross. Also it means the government interfering in more areas leafing to transfers of cash from one group to another. Now whilst free preschool education is welcome we have seen extraordinary transfers in the credit crunch era via policies such as negative interest-rates and QE bond buying.

As ever the numbers seem in doubt as NHK News thinks the impact will be larger.

Half the revenue will be spent on making preschool education and childcare free of charge, easing the financial burden of higher education, among other things. The rest will go to restoring the country’s fiscal health.

The economic impact

The very next day Japan’s Cabinet Office released this bombshell.

The Consumer Confidence Index (seasonally adjusted series) in September 2019 was 35.6, down 1.5 points from the previous month.

The Japan Times covered it like this.

A Cabinet Office survey showed earlier this week that consumer sentiment in Japan weakened for the 12th straight month in September, hitting its lowest since the survey started in April 2013……….The index was lower than the 37.1 marked during the first stage of the hike in April 2014.

The last sentence is especially ominous if we consider the impact of the 2014 Consumption Tax rise. If we return to the survey we see from the series that it has been falling since some readings above 44 in late 2017 and the fall has been accelerating. In terms of detail there is this.

Overall livelihood: 33.9 (down 0.9 from the previous month)
Income growth: 38.7 (down 0.8 from the previous month)
Employment: 41.5 (down 0.7 from the previous month)
Willingness to buy durable goods: 28.1 (down 3.6 from the previous month)

So all elements fell and the employment one is particularly significant when we note this.

 The number of unemployed persons in August 2019 was 1.57 million, a decrease of 130 thousand or 7.6% from the previous year…..  The unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, was 2.2%. ( Japan Statistics Bureau )

As an aside this makes the various natural and equilibrium levels of unemployment look laughable. For newer readers that is demonstrated by the Bank of England thinking it is 4.25% when Japan has an unemployment rate around half that.

This morning has brought news that things have gone from bad to worse.

TOKYO (Reuters) – A key Japanese economic index fell in August and the government on Monday downgraded its view to “worsening”, indicating the export-reliant economy might face slipping into recession.

The outlook was mostly driven by this.

The separate index for leading economic indicators, a gauge of the economy a few months ahead that’s compiled using data such as job offers and consumer sentiment, dropped 2.0 points from July, the Cabinet Office said.

Fiscal Policy

The other side of this particular coin was illustrated by the response of Fitch Ratings to the Consumption Tax hike.

Japan’s consumption tax hike supports medium-term fiscal consolidation efforts, and the country’s sovereign credit profile, Fitch Ratings says. We estimate it will lower Japan’s debt ratio by about 8pp of GDP by 2028; however, very high public debt will remain a key credit weakness.

They further crunched the fiscal numbers here.

Total annual revenue from the tax hike is estimated by the government at about 1% of GDP, half of which is earmarked to reduce debt (the remainder will be used to permanently increase spending for education and long-term care). This would result in Japan’s gross general government debt-to-GDP ratio falling to just over 220% by 2028, from 232% at present.

It hardly seems worth it when it is put like that. Also perhaps unwittingly they let the cat out of the bag as to why Abenomics is so keen on raising the level of inflation.

We estimate that Japan’s public debt dynamics have stabilised due to the resumption of nominal GDP growth in recent years.

Nominal GDP growth includes inflation.

Comment

This is a story with several facets so let us open with the driving force of this which was the IMF or International Monetary Fund and the case it made in the earlier part of this decade for Japan to improve its national debt to GDP ratio. Here is the IMF Blog after the 2014 Consumption Tax rise.

Japan’s GDP declined by almost 7 percent in the second quarter, more than many had forecast including us here at the IMF.  Many cite the increase in the sales tax this April for this decline.  But that is not the full story.

That opening suggests there were other reasons for the fall but fails to state them as it then discusses general rather than specific issues. Oh and it does not day but it means annualised fall in GDP. The impact was so great that the 2015 rise was delayed to now rather ironically because of the recession risk. What it means is that Japan ends up doing this at a very risky time if we look at the world economic outlook.

We now find also that IMF fiscal conservatism is being applied just as it has switched to expansionism. That is quite a mess! No wonder Christine Lagarde shot out of the door. After all Japan can borrow quite cheaply mostly due to the fact that The Tokyo Whale ( Bank of Japan for newer readers ) owns so much of it. The IMF has just published a Working Paper on this so let me give you some numbers from 2017.

As shown in the Fiscal Monitor, Japan’s PSBS stands out as one of the largest PSBS in the world, with assets and liabilities of 533 percent of GDP in 2017. Japan’s
PSBS also includes cross-holdings of assets and liabilities within the public sector, exceeding 210 percent of GDP in 2017—the largest in the IMF’s PSBS database. Much of these come from public corporations’ financing of central government liabilities. ( PSBS = Public Sector Balance Sheet)

Next let me help the author out as the situation below is explained by world wide trends accompanied thsi decade by the enormous purchases of The Tokyo Whale.

Several previous studies considered it puzzling that the stock of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) has been increasing but their yields have been declining
for the last three decades.

Next we get a higher estimate for the national debt.

However, these may not fully explain why Japan has been able to build up 288 percent of GDP in public sector borrowing.

Also it is not only The Tokyo Whale that has bought this.

In 2017, the public sector finances 150 percent of GDP of public sector borrowing,

In some ways it has been buying off other parts of the public-sector.

For example, the Post Bank
reduced allocations to public sector financing from 95 percent of its total assets at its peak in
1998 to 33 percent in 2017. The social security funds also reduced asset allocations to public
sector financing from 77 percent at its peak in 1998 to 34 percent in 2017.

Oh what a tangled web we weave……

Meanwhile it would appear that even extraordinary fiscal expansionism has not done much good.

Borrowing of general government ballooned in the 1990s and 2000s. It was 60 percent of GDP in 1990 and
increased to 226 percent of GDP in 2017.

The ordinary Japanese may have a job but real wages are falling again and fell at an annual rate of 1.7% in August.

Podcast

 

 

What to do with a problem like Japan?

Next week on Thursday we will get the latest policy announcement from the Bank of Japan and it may well be a live meeting. With other central banks acting – and by this I mean easing policy again – there will be pressure on the Bank of Japan to maintain its relative position. But yesterday provided a catch which at the time of writing is in fact a version of Catch-22. This is because financial markets did the opposite of what Mario Draghi and the ECB wanted. At first markets went the right way and let me highlight bond markets as they digested these words from Mario Draghi at the press conference.

First of all let me start from one thing about which there was unanimous consensus, unanimity, namely that fiscal policy should become the main instrument.

This curious statement which is way beyond any central banking mandate even came with an official denial of its purpose.

they are packages not meant to finance Government deficits,

But my point is that the market move then U-Turned and bond yields rose. So for example the German bond market future fell by over 2 points from its peak. The ten-year yield rose and is now -0.51%. Next the Euro fell but then rose strongly and is now 1.108 versus the US Dollar.

Such developments will be watched closely in Tokyo with the concept of more easing leading to a stronger currency being something that would make Governor Kuroda want something a bit stronger than his morning espresso. Actually even something which is good news may have him chuntering as it reminds him of the demographics issue that Japan faces. From NHK news this morning.

Japan now has more than 70,000 centenarians, according to the health ministry. A new high has been reached every year for 49 years in a row.

The ministry says 71,238 people will be 100 or older as of September 15. That’s 1,453 more than last year………

There were only 153 centenarians when the ministry conducted its first survey in 1963. The figure surpassed 10,000 in 1998 and 50,000 in 2012.

Officials attribute the rapid rise to medical advances and campaigns to stay fit.

The ministry says it will provide support to enable elderly people to maintain their well being.

In this area economics lives up or rather down to its reputation as the dismal science as the good news above reminds us of Japan’s shrinking and ageing population.

The Banks

We rarely here these mentioned as of course the Japanese banks passed into the zombie zone some years and indeed decades ago. But The Japan Times is on the case today.

Since negative rates were introduced in 2016, Japanese bank shares have languished as their lending profitability dwindles. Nishihara estimates another rate reduction could wipe out as much as ¥500 billion ($4.6 billion) of bank profits, though lenders could make up ¥300 billion if they charge ¥1,000 per account annually.

They do not specify but they seem to be assuming Japan will match the ECB ( and its last move) and cut interest-rates from -0.1% to -0.2%. As to the making money from fees this would be especially awkward in Japan for this reason.

Such levies could help to address Japan’s unusually high number of accounts, easing costs for banks, then-central bank Deputy Gov. Hiroshi Nakaso said in 2017. There are about seven accounts per adult in Japan, the most in the world, according to International Monetary Fund figures.

I mean who cares about the people when The Precious is a factor?

Smaller Banks

These are a case of “trouble,trouble,trouble” as Taylor Swift would say.

Troubled regional banks are plunging into riskier corners of the credit markets, in a battle to survive ultralow interest rates and an industry shakeout.

A clear backfire from the QE or as we are in Japan QQE era. If you are wondering why QE became QQE in Japan think of how the leaky Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield. I am just trying to remember if it was 13 or 19 versions of QE before the name change but I imagine you get the idea either way.

As to the smaller banks.

The latest case came last week. Local lenders were among the buyers of samurai bonds — those denominated in yen and issued by non-Japanese companies — sold by Export-Import Bank of India with a BBB+ rating, just three steps away from junk, that may have dissuaded the financial firms in the past. In another unconventional move last month, a few regional banks also put their money in the first negative-yielding note issued by a Japanese agency.

The title of “samurai bonds” is worrying enough in itself. Then moving into negative yielding bonds, what could go wrong?

I do enjoy the description of Japan’s face culture as “taking a more lenient view”.

Even Japan’s two major rating firms, which have tended to take a more lenient view, are sounding alarms. Downgrades and outlook cuts of regional lenders have increased to 13 so far this year at Japan Credit Rating Agency and Rating & Investment Information, the most for similar periods in data compiled by Bloomberg going back to 2010.

Oh and please remember when you read the quote below that the third arrow of Abenomics was supposed to be economic reform.

The government also said earlier this year that legislation will be submitted to the Diet in 2020 that will exempt regional banks from the anti-monopoly law for 10 years to facilitate mergers.

Banks are banks

It would seem that banking behaviour is the same wherever we look.

Japan Post Bank improperly sold investment trust products to elderly customers in violation of its rules in a total of some 20,000 cases, according to informed sources.

An investigation by the Japan Post Holdings Co. unit newly discovered some 2,000 cases of improper investment trust sales at 200 post offices, the sources said. Most contracts were conducted in fiscal 2018, which ended March 31.

Bank of Japan

There is often a lot of hot air about private ownership of central banks but as today’s Bank of Japan Annual Review points out, well you can see for yourself.

The Bank is capitalized at 100 million yen in accordance
with Article 8, paragraph 1 of the Act. As of the end of
March 2019, 55,008,000 yen is subscribed by the
government, and the rest by the private sector.

Some food for thought is provided by the word gearing. Why? Well the Bank of Japan has 486,523,186,968,000 Yen of Japanese Government Securities alone on its books.

Life Insurers

A problem for Japan’s life insurers is that they cannot get any interest or yield in Japan without rocketing up the risk scale. So according to Brad Setser they have been doing this.

But that changes when insurers cannot get the returns they want (or need) at home, and they start investing abroad in a quest for yield. Japanese life insurers (and for that matter Post Bank and Nochu) have looked abroad because yields at home are zero, and Japanese firms (in aggregate) don’t need to borrow.

Ah Post Bank again. How much?

For Japan, the data above shows a broader set of institutions—but the life insurers hold around $1.6 trillion, a sum that is around a third of GDP.

Comment

As you can see there are lots of questions about the financial system in Japan. That may move the Bank of Japan to copy the ECB as it notes that shares in The Precious have risen ( Deutsche Bank if up 0.25 Euros at 7.59).

Moving to the real economy it has not had such a bad 2019 so far. Whilst economic growth was revised down from 1.8% to 1.3% in annualised terms in the second quarter that is still better than I though it would be. For Japan these days an annual GDP growth rate of 1% is about par for the course and is better in individual terms due to the shrinking population. But as we look ahead we see a Pacific Region which is in trouble economically and of course a Consumption Tax rise ( which impacted so heavily in 2014) is due soon. So over to you Governor Kuroda.

Oh and something I have not mentioned so far which is that the Yen is at 108.

 

 

 

Will the 2020’s be a decade of currency devaluations?

Sometimes financial markets set the agenda for the week and as this week began they did so as the Renminbi ( Yuan) of China passed what some might call lucky number 7. The New York Times has put it like this.

The renminbi traded in mainland China on Monday morning at roughly 7.02 to the dollar, compared with about 6.88 late on Friday. A higher number represents a weaker currency. The last time China’s currency was weaker than 7 to the dollar was in 2008, as the financial crisis mounted.

In itself a 0.01 move through 7 is no more significant than any other. But that would be in a free float which is not what we have here. Also there has been a move of the order of 2% in total which is significant for an exchange rate which is both closely watched and would be more accurately described as a sort of managed free float. Anyway you do not have to take my word for it as in a happy coincidence the People’s Bank of China has been explaining its position.

China implements a managed floating exchange rate system based on market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies. Market supply and demand play a decisive role in the formation of exchange rate. The fluctuation of RMB exchange rate is determined by this mechanism . This is the proper meaning of the floating exchange rate system. From the perspective of the global market, as the exchange rate between currencies, exchange rate fluctuations are also the norm.

There are more holes than in a Swiss Cheese there as we observe an official denial that China has done this deliberately.

Affected by unilateralism and trade protectionism measures and the imposition of tariff increases on China, the RMB has depreciated against the US dollar today, breaking through 7 yuan, but the renminbi continues to be stable and strong against a basket of currencies. This is the market. Supply and demand and the reflection of fluctuations in the international currency market.

The PBOC clearly does not follow UK politics as otherwise it would know “strong and stable” means anything but these days! For example  the Reminbi has fallen by 1.8% versus the Japanese Yen if we stay in the Pacific and by 1.7% versus the Euro if we look wider.

Time for a poetic influence

I regularly report on the rhetoric of central bankers but I am not sure I have seen anything like this before.

It should be noted that the RMB exchange rate is “ breaking 7” . This “7” is not the age. It will not come back in the past, nor is it a dam. Once it is broken, it will bleed for thousands of miles. “7” is more like the water level of the reservoir, and the water is abundant. The period is higher, and it will fall down when it comes to the dry season. It is normal to rise and fall.

Perhaps the online translator does not help much here but there is a lot more going on than for example the English translation of the Japanese government always being “bold action” for the Yen.

Up is the new down

If your currency is falling then the obvious “Newspeak” response is to suggest it is rising.

In the past 20 years, the nominal effective exchange rate and the real effective exchange rate of the RMB calculated by the Bank for International Settlements have appreciated by about 30% , and the exchange rate of the RMB against the US dollar has appreciated by 20% . It is the strongest currency among the major international currencies. Since the beginning of this year, the renminbi has remained in a stable position in the international monetary system. The renminbi has strengthened against a basket of currencies, and the CFETS renminbi exchange rate index has appreciated by 0.3%

However if you are telling people this is due to the market it might be best to avoid phrases like “control toolbox,”

In the process of dealing with exchange rate fluctuations in recent years, the People’s Bank of China has accumulated rich experience and policy tools, and will continue to innovate and enrich the control toolbox.

So let me finish this section by pointing out that the PBOC has “allowed” the Reminbi to go through 7 this morning in response to something we noted on Friday.

Trade talks are continuing, and…..during the talks the U.S. will start, on September 1st, putting a small additional Tariff of 10% on the remaining 300 Billion Dollars of goods and products coming from China into our Country. This does not include the 250 Billion Dollars already Tariffed at 25%…

As the Frenchman puts it in the Matrix series of films.

action and reaction, cause and effect.

Bond Markets

One immediate impact of this has been that bond markets have surged again and we are reminded of my topic on Friday. The totem pole for this has been the bond or bund market of Germany where we see two clear developments. Another record high as the ten-year yield falls to -0.52% and as I type this the whole curve has a negative yield. Over whatever time span you choose Germany is being paid to borrow.

Japan

I do not envy the person who had the job of explaining market developments to Governor Kuroda at the Bank of Japan daily meeting. Firstly the Yen has surged into the 105s versus the US Dollar which is exactly the reverse of the Abenomics strategy of Japan. Then there was the 366 point fall in the Nikkei 225 index which is not so welcome when you own 5% of the shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. At least the trading desk will have been spared the job as they will have been busy buying the 70.5 billion Yen’s worth of equities that are typically bought on down days like this. This is neatly rounded off by the Japanese Government Bond market not rallying anything like as much as elsewhere due to the “yield curve control” policy backfiring and providing a clean sweep.

Oh and the day of woe was rounded off by the South Korean’s buying much fewer Japanese cars.

Switzerland

Regular readers will recall the period that I labelled the Yen and the Swiss Franc the “currency twins”. Well they are back just like Arnie and in fact with a 2.2% rally against the Renminbi it is the Swiss Franc which is the powerhouse today. It has rallied against pretty much everything as we remind ourselves of the last policy statement of the Swiss National Bank.

The situation on the foreign exchange market continues to be fragile. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market as necessary remain essential in order to keep the
attractiveness of Swiss franc investments low and thus ease pressure on the currency.

Well they were right about “fragile”. Do not be surprised if we see the SNB intervening again which will be further bullish for overseas bond and equity markets as that is where they invest much of the money.

Mind you equity markets are falling now meaning this from last week is already out of date.

SNB‘s pile of U.S. shares hits a record $93 billion on buoyant markets ( Bloomberg)

The Ashes

As I hope that England’s sadly rickety batting order can resist the pressure from a land down under today I have been mulling something else. Both countries have weak currencies at the moment and are perhaps singing along with Level 42.

The Chinese way
Who knows what they know
The Chinese legend grows

I could never lie
For honour I would lie
Following the Chinese way

 

Comment

Just like in the 1920’s will the 2020’s open with some competitive devaluations?

President Trump seems to quite like the idea if his tweets are any guide. In the Euro area we see a central bank that seems set to follow policies which in theoretical terms at least should weaken the Euro although the ECB is swimming against the trade surplus. I have covered the Swiss and the Japanese. So let me leave you with two final thoughts.

In the confused melee has the UK stolen something of a march?

Is there a major economy who wants a stronger currency?

Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

The Bank of Japan fears no longer being the “leader of the pack”

The next two weeks look set to bring a situation you might not expect. After all Japan has built a reputation as the “leader of the pack” as the Shangri-Las would put it in terms of monetary policy easing. Except that it is now facing a situation where it looks set to be left behind. On Thursday the European Central Bank will announce its latest moves and its President Mario Draghi has been warming us up for some action. Either he will announce an interest-rate cut or he will signal one for September. So there are two perspectives here for Japan. The first is that the Euro area looks set to cut by the total amount that Japan has below zero as 0.1% is the minimum and of course 0.2% would be double it. Next is the issue that the new rate of -0.5% or -0.6% would be a considerable amount lower than in Japan.

If we now shift to the United States the US Federal Reserve looks set to cut interest-rates as well when it meets at the end of the month. There was a spell last week when financial markets switched to expecting a 0.5% cut which would put the new rate at 1.75% to 2%. Personally I am far from convinced by that and a 0.25% cut seems much more likely but nonetheless it puts the Bank of Japan under pressure.

The Yen

The factors we have looked at above will be putting some upwards pressure on the Yen as interest-rate expectations shift against it. This has been reinforced by an unintended consequence of the policy applied by the central planners at the Bank of Japan.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain more or less at the current level (around zero percent). 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. JGBs with a wide range of maturities will continue to be eligible for purchase, while the guideline for average remaining maturity of the Bank’s JGB purchases will be abolished.

The problem here as I have pointed out before is that something which was supposed to have kept Japanese Government Bond ( JGB) yields down has ended up keeping them up. Ooops! As world bond markets have surged Japan has been left behind because its bond market is essentially run by the Bank of Japan ( 80 trillion yen a year buys you that) and it has been wrong footed completely. The recent surge began in early March and the German ten-year yield has fallen as much as by 0.6% and the US by 0.8% but Japan by only 0.16%.

So as you can see relative interest-rates and yields have moved to support the Yen since the early spring of this year. The policy of “yield curve control” aiming for bond yields of 0% to -0.1% no doubt seemed a good way of continuing the Abenomics policy of weakening the Yen at the time. However over the period that bond markets have surged the Yen has strengthened from 112 versus the US Dollar to 108 now. That is before we see any shift in the rhetoric of President Trump who as the tweet from the early part of this month below points out, wants a weaker US Dollar.

China and Europe playing big currency manipulation game and pumping money into their system in order to compete with USA. We should MATCH, or continue being the dummies who sit back and politely watch as other countries continue to play their games – as they have for many years!

That will have been viewed with horror in Tokyo because whilst The Donald is not currently putting Japan in his cross hairs they have looking to weaken the Yen since Abenomics began back in 2013. This would be quite a reverse for Japan as it would not want to get into a currency war with the United States.

Moving to other currencies we see that the Yen has been strengthening against the Euro and the UK Pound as well. Indeed we get another perspective I think from looking at Switzerland which regular readers will know I labelled as a “Currency Twin” with Japan due to the way both currencies were borrowed heavily in the pre credit crunch period. There are increasing rumours that the Swiss National Bank has been getting the equivalent of an itchy collar over the strength of the Swiss Franc and has been checking the markets as a hint that it may intervene again. It may well find itself having to match any ECB interest-rate cut and that will echo in Tokyo as well as giving us a new low for negative interest-rates.

The Pacific Trade Crisis

The stereotype of this area is of fast growing economies with the image of many of them being Pacific Tigers compared to the more sclerotic Western nations. Yet troubles are there too now so let us go to Seoul on Thursday.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.75% to 1.50%.

Okay why?

With respect to future domestic economic growth, the Board expects that the adjustment in construction investment will continue and exports and facilities investment will recover later than originally expected,
although consumption will continue to grow. GDP is forecast to grow at the lower-2% level this year, below the April forecast (2.5%).

This morning has brought more news on that front. From Bloomberg.

South Korea’s exports, a bellwether for global trade, appear set for an eighth straight monthly decline as trade disputes take a toll on global demand. Exports during the first 20 days of July fell 14 percent from a year earlier, data from the Korea Customs Service showed Monday. Semiconductor sales plunged 30 percent, while shipments to China, the biggest buyer of South Korean goods, fell 19 percent.

Korea is a bellwether as these numbers are released very promptly and many of its companies are integrated into global supply chains, so it gives a signal for world trade. Currently it is not good and there is a direct link to Japan.

Imports from the U.S. rose 3.7 percent, while those from Japan dropped 15 percent.

Also on Thursday Bank Indonesia decided to join the party.

The BI Board of Governors agreed on 17th and 18th July 2019 to lower the BI 7-day Reverse Repo Rate by 25 bps to 5,75%,

A day earlier say troubling news for the economy of Singapore.

SINGAPORE’S exports, already in double-digit decline for three straight months, fell again in June, according to Enterprise Singapore data released on Wednesday morning.

Non-oil domestic exports (NODX) were down by 17.3 per cent on the year before – a six-year low  ( Business Times )

Comment

The Bank of Japan finds itself between a rock and a hard place on quite a few fronts. The Yen has been strengthening and other central banks are on their way to matching its policies. That is before we get to the issue of the clear trade slow down in the Pacific region. This will add to the problem hidden in what looked on the surface as solid economic growth in the first part of the year.

In the three-month period, exports dropped 2.4 percent and imports sank 4.6 percent, as in the initial reading. As a result, net exports — exports minus imports — pushed up GDP by 0.4 percentage point. ( Japan Times).

In all other circumstances the Bank of Japan would cut interest-rates in a week. But they do not like negative interest-rates much and they are buying pretty much everything ( bonds, equities and commercial property) as it is! In October another Consumption Tax rise is due as well. Perhaps Bryan Ferry was right.

Say, when you’ve been around, what’s left to do?
Don’t know? Ask Tokyo Joe
So inscrutable her reply
“Ask no question and tell me no lie”

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