The land of the rising sun sees rising GDP too

Today starts with good news from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. I do not mean the sporting sphere although there was success as a bronze medal in the men’s 4 by 100m relay was followed by silver and bronze in the men’s 50 km walk at the world athletics championships. There was also a near miss as Hideki Matsuyama faded at the US PGA  and did not become the first Japanese man to win a golf major. But the major good news came from the Cabinet Office as this from The Mainichi tells us.

Japan’s economy grew an annualized real 4.0 percent in the April-June period for a sixth straight quarter of expansion, marking the longest growth run since 2006, as private consumption and corporate spending showed signs of vigor, government data showed Monday.

If we convert to the terms we use there was 1% economic growth from the previous quarter which was quite a surge. Actually that is way beyond what the Bank of Japan thinks is the potential growth rate for Japan but let us park that for now and move on to the detail.  Reuters points out that consumption was strong.

Private consumption, which accounts for about two-thirds of GDP, rose 0.9 percent from the previous quarter, more than the median estimate of 0.5 percent growth.

That marked the fastest expansion in more than three years as shoppers splashed out on durable goods, an encouraging sign that consumer spending is no longer the weak spot in Japan’s economic outlook.

In fact so was investment.

Capital expenditure jumped by 2.4 percent in April-June from the previous quarter, versus the median estimate for a 1.2 percent increase. That was the fastest growth in business investment since January-March 2014.

The combination is interesting as this is something that Japan has wanted for a long time as its “lost decade(s)” of economic malaise have seen domestic demand and consumption in particular struggle. Some countries would be especially troubled by the trade figures below but of course Japan has seen many years of surpluses as this from the Nikkei Asian Review indicates.

 Japan’s current account surplus expanded in the January-June period to the highest level since 2007 as earnings from foreign investments moved further into the black, despite rising energy prices pushing up the overall value of the country’s imports, government data showed Tuesday.

 

Thus it is likely to see this as another welcome sign of strong domestic demand.

External demand subtracted 0.3 percentage point from GDP growth in April-June in part due to an increase in imports.

Those who look at the world economy will be pleased to see a “surplus” economy importing more.

Where does this leave Abenomics?

There are various ways of looking at this and the Japanese owned Financial Times leads the cheers.

‘Not a fluke’: Japan on course to record best GDP growth streak since 2000

“Not a fluke” is an odd thing to write because if you look at the GDP chart they provide we see several spikes like this one which imply it may well be er not only a fluke but another one. They are less keen to credit another form of Abenomics which is the way that the latest stimulus programme impacted with a 5.1% (21.9% annualised) rise in public investment causing a 0.2% rise in GDP on its own. Perhaps this is because of the dichotomy in this part of Abenomics where on the one hand fiscal expansionism is proclaimed and on the other so is a lower deficit! Also there are memories of past stimulus projects where pork barrel politics led to both bridges and roads to nowhere.

Actually the FT does then give us a bit of perspective.

 

Japan’s economy, as measured by real GDP, is now 7 per cent larger than when prime minister Shinzo Abe took office in late 2012, notes Emily Nicol at Daiwa Capital Markets.

That is a long way short of the original promises which is one of the reasons why the Japanese government page on the subject introduces Abenomics 2.0.  If we look at the longer-term chart below is there a clear change.

On such a basis one might think it was the US or UK that had seen Abenomics as opposed to Japan. Of course the figures are muddied by the recession created by the consumption tax rise in 2014 but the performance otherwise even with this quarter’s boost is far from relatively stellar.

Bank of Japan

It will of course be pleased to see the economic news although it also provides plenty of food for thought as details like this provide backing for my analysis that ~0% inflation is far from the demon it is presented as and can provide economic benefits. From Bloomberg.

The GDP deflator, a broad measure of price changes, fell 0.4 percent from a year earlier.

Board Member Funo confirmed this in a speech earlier this month.

The rate of increase for all items less fresh food and energy had remained on a decelerating trend, following the peak of 1.2 percent in winter 2015; recently, the rate of change has been at around 0 percent.

He of course followed this with the usual rhetoric.

The rate will likely reach around 2 percent in around fiscal 2019.

It is always just around the corner in not entirely dissimilar fashion to a fiscal surplus in the UK. As to the official view it is going rather well apparently.

Taking this into consideration, the Bank decided to adopt a commitment that allows inflation to overshoot the price stability target so as to strengthen the forward-looking mechanism in the formation of inflation expectations, enhance the credibility of achieving the price stability target among the public, and raise inflation expectations in a more forceful manner.

Make of that what you will. The reality is that the QQE programme did weaken the Yen but that effect wore off and inflation is now ~0% as is wage growth.

Comment

This growth figures are good news and let me add something that appears to have been missed in the reports I have read. Back to Board Member Funo.

In an economy with a declining population.

Thus the per capita or per person GDP numbers are likely to be even better than the headline. I would say that this would benefit the ordinary Japanese worker and consumer but we know that real wage growth has dipped into negative territory again. This provides a problem for Prime Minister Abe as when he came to power the criticisms were based around his past history of being part of the Japanese establishment. What we see nearly 5 years down the road is a lack of real wage growth combined with good times for Japanese corporate profitability. As to the reform programme there is not a lot to be seen and maybe this is why Board Member Funo was so downbeat.

In an economy with a declining population, as is the case in Japan, demand is expected to decrease for many goods and services; therefore, it will be important to adequately adjust supply capacity; that is, employees and production capacity to meet such a decreasing trend.

I do not know about you but trying to raise prices when you expect both demand and supply to fall seems extremely reckless to me.

As to the GDP numbers themselves we need a cautionary note as Japan has had particular problems with them and they are revised more and by larger amounts than elsewhere.

 

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

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

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

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

Japan shows Europe how to dial back stimulus without spooking investors

The Bank of Japan responds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worsened liquidity in domestic government bond market

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

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

Number Crunching

Currently Japan owes this according to Japan Macro Advisers.

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

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

The Yen

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

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

The Inflation Target

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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

 

Will we see unlimited bond buying from the Bank of Japan?

After a difficult 2016 to say the least Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan has some reasons to be cheerful. So let us remind ourselves of the view of Ian Dury and the Blockheads about this.

Reasons to be cheerful, part 3
Reasons to be cheerful, part 3
Reasons to be cheerful, part 3
Reasons to be cheerful – 1, 2, 3

Part 1

If we look for reason one well that is easy as DailyFX have already pointed out.

USD/JPY hits 111.125 its highest since May 31, as reflationary Trump-trade rolls on. Perhaps only Thanksgiving can put a temporary brake on.

As the policy of Abenomics has a lower Yen as perhaps its major weapon and objective its recent fall will be welcome to the Japanese establishment. It was at 103 just before the election of Donald Trump so quite a fast decline although we should not overplay his impact as the Yen had been weakening since the near 100 of late September. Even the poor battered UK Pound £ has seen a bounce versus the Yen from the 125 of middish October to 137 overnight.  If we look at the battle of the currency depreciators of the Far East then I note that it now takes just over 16 Yen to buy in Chinese Renminbi or Yuan as opposed to just over 15 in late September. Cue smiles from Tokyo and frowns from Beijing.

Part 2

This is something which is associated with the weaker currency as we note something which all central bankers love these days. As they are keen to proclaim wealth effects then a higher equity market is close to their heart. There has been quite a push higher to 18,106 in the Nikkei 225 equity index from the below 15,000 of  June 24th. It is now in a bull market although of course that is merely another way of saying it has risen under the modern definition of a 20% rise.

Part 3

Economic growth as measured by GDP was relatively strong in the quarter just passed as Japan Macro Advisers point out.

According to the preliminary estimates by Cabinet Office, the Real GDP grew by 0.5% from the previous quarter (QoQ), or by 2.2% on annualized terms. The pace of the growth was significantly stronger than the prior market expectation.

It was to say the least export led.

The external demand added 0.5% point to the GDP growth on the account of rising exports and a fall in imports.

At this point Governor Kuroda might be considering joining the Japanese version of Strictly Come Dancing as those suggesting “innovation” in monetary policy seem to do these days. However whilst he might be smiling even the recent better silver lining had a cloud. If we stay with Japan Macro Advisers.

A key point from the preliminary estimate is that weak domestic activity continues to cast doubts on a sustainable recovery of the Japanese economy as there has been virtually no growth in private consumption nor private expenditure.

Okay so sadly same as it ever was in this regard and the day after the report Governor Kuroda did not seem that optimistic about more export growth.

Against this background, exports and production are expected to start increasing moderately.

You may wonder about the start but you see he does not think that Japan’s exports have been doing that well.

Exports as a whole have therefore been flat. Against this background, production also has been almost flat.

The past was bright

Back on the 30th of September I pointed out that using a new methodology the Bank of Japan has decided things were much better than they previously thought.

According to an experimental index prepared by the BoJ, Japan’s economy expanded 2.4 per cent in 2014, rather than falling 0.9 per cent as the official data showed.

They use the income version of GDP to get this as we not that the moral hazard meter rises perhaps even to the mythical 11 out of 10 described by Spinal Tap.

Unlimited bond buying

Back on the 21st of September the Bank of Japan introduced “QQE with Yield Curve Control” as described below.

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).

Actually very little happened here as things as I have pointed out carried on pretty much as before although the change of language did obtain a fair bit of comment and claims of a clear change. For those wondering why QE is called QQE or Quantitative and Qualitative (monetary) Easing in Japan the answer is easy as so many versions of QE led to it being discredited.

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal was on the case again.

The Bank of Japan on Thursday offered to buy an unlimited amount of Japanese government bonds at fixed rates for the first time since the introduction of a new policy framework—a sign of its concerns over recent rises in yields.

There is an issue here as I note that the ten-year Japanese Government Bond yield is at 0.03% above zero. It is up 0.08% over the past 30 days according to Bloomberg which gives a different perspective on the media reports of success. Also how do claims of unlimited buying face up to the extraordinary buying which was already happening?

This is yet another market where the Bank of Japan has become the Tokyo Whale. Here is something of an update of how it is progressing on the Tokyo Whale front elsewhere.

It’s the No. 1 shareholder in piano maker Yamaha Corp., Bloomberg estimates show, after its ownership stake via ETFs climbed to about 5.9 percent…..The BOJ is set to become the top holder of about five other Nikkei 225 companies by year-end, after boosting its annual ETF buying target to 6 trillion yen last month. By 2017, the central bank will rank No. 1 in about a quarter of the index’s members.

How do “wealth effects” made by the central bank benefit the consumer?

Comment

There is much to consider here. If we consider the use of the phrase “unlimited buying” how did that work out for the foreign exchange purchases of the Swiss National Bank? That too was portrayed as a triumph until the engine blew a gasket. Also whilst the government of Japan offers a ready supply of newly printed Japanese Government Bonds via its fiscal deficit the supply is not unlimited so we have to ask what happens if they run out of bonds to buy? Not so long ago that would have seemed not far off crazy.

There is another irony for 2016 which goes as follows. When the Bank of Japan acted in 2016 things went wrong for it but when it talked but did nothing it saw the Yen fall and Nikkei rise. One in the eye for the central planners!

Another problem for the central planners in that in some ways Japan is not doing too badly. What I mean by that is that any economic growth may be an achievement compared to an ageing population which is also doing this according to The Japan Times.

Japan’s population excluding resident foreign nationals fell last year at the fastest pace yet, down 271,834 from a year earlier to 125,891,742 as of Jan. 1,……Japan’s population peaked in 2009 at 127,076,183 and has since been declining.

So the performance per head is better than the headlines. This of course brings us to something of a crunch because the official medicine for ever fewer people seems to be policies to accommodate an ever larger national debt. Also the current establishment mantra is for lower interest-rates and easier fiscal policy, well that’s Japan……..

However another issue currently on the sidelines is the price of crude oil as Japan via its lack of natural resources is perhaps the biggest gainer from lower oil prices.