How many more central banks will end up buying equities?

One of the features of modern economic life is the way that central banks have expanded their operations. In a way that development is a confession of failure ( as why are new policies requited if they existing ones are working? ) Although of course that would be met with as many official denials as you can shake a stick at. We moved from sharply lower interest-rates to QE (Quantitative Easing) bond purchases to credit easing and in some places to negative interest-rates. The latter brings me to the countries I classified as the “Currency Twins” Japan and Switzerland who both have negative interest-rates and some negative bond yields. In fact this morning the Bank of Japan gave Forward Guidance on this subject.

The Bank intends to maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding
economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.

So the first feature seems to be negative interest-rates and perhaps ones which persist as both Japan and Switzerland are on that road. Thus you start by funding yourself with money at a negative cost something which ordinary investors can only dream of. But we also have countries with negative interest-rates which have not ( so far) bought equities such as Sweden and the Euro area although the latter does have a sort of hybrid in its ongoing corporate bond programme.

However we find more of a distinguishing factor if we note that both Japan and Switzerland ended up with soaring exchange-rates due to the impact of the large carry-trades that took place before the credit crunch. This was what led me to label them the “Currency Twins”  and the period since then has seen them respond to this which has seen them via different routes end up as equity investors on a larger and larger scale albeit by a different route. An irony comes if we look at an alternative universe where Germany had its own currency too as in that timeline it too would have seen a soaring currency and presumably it too would be an equity investor.

Bank of Japan

Here is this morning’s announcement.

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. With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase
or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

As you can see the Tokyo Whale will continue to gobble up the plankton from the Japanese equity world and at quite a pace. The latter sentence refers to the way it buys more when the market drops which of course looks rather like a type of put option for other equity investors. That is what it means by “lower risk premia” although more than a few would question if this is “appropriate”

Also there are ch-ch-changes ahead. From the Financial Times.

the BoJ also said it would alter the balance of its ¥6tn ($54bn) per year ETF buying programme so that a much greater proportion was focused on ETFs that track the broader, market cap-weighted Topix index. The scale of its Topix-linked ETF purchases would rise from ¥2.7tn to ¥4.2tn per year, the bank said in its statement.

The Japanese owned FT fails however to note the main two significant points of this. The first is that the Tokyo Whale was simply running out of Nikkei index based ETFs to buy as it was up to around 80% of them and of course rising. The next comes from a comparison of the two indices where the Nikkei is described as very underweight this sector and it is much larger in the Topix ( ~9%). Regular readers will no doubt have figured that this is the “precious” or banking sector.

As of this month it has made major purchases on 3 days buying 70.5 billion Yen on each occasion.

Let us move on by noting that Japan has bought equities but so far they have been Japanese ones boosting its own market and keeping the impact on the exchange-rate to an implied one.

Swiss National Bank

The SNB has been a buyer of equities as well but came to it via a different route which is that once it implemented its “unlimited” policy on foreign exchange intervention it then found it had “loadsamoney” and had to find something to do with all the foreign currency it had bought. The conventional route would be to buy short-dated foreign government bonds which it did but because of the scale of the operation it began to impact here and may have been a factor in some Euro area bond yields going negative. The Geneva Whale would have found itself competing with the ECB QE operation if it had carried on so switched to around 20% of its foreign exchange reserves going into equities.

That is a tidy sum when we note it had some 748.8 billion Swiss Francs of foreign exchange reserves at the end of June. How is that going?

. The profit on foreign currency positions amounted to CHF 5.2 billion.

So at that point rather well but of course it is rather strapped in for the ride with its holdings which will have led to some fun and games more recently as it notes its holding in Facebook as the tweet below illustrates.

 

If you ride the tiger on the way up you can end up getting bitten by it in the way down. Also a passive investment strategy means you raise your stake as prices rise whereas an active one means you are an explicit as opposed to an implicit hedge fund. Some like to express this in terms of humour.

SNB OFFERS TO BUY UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF TESLA AT 305 ( @RudyHavenstein )

We do not know if the recent weakness in the so-called FANG tech stocks is just ebb and flow or a sea change, but the latter would have the SNB entering choppy water.

Comment

We see that this particular development can be traced back to the carry trade and a rising currency. Both of the countries hit by this ended up with central banks buying equities although only the Swiss have bought foreign equities. Perhaps the Japanese think that as a nation they own plenty of foreign assets already or there is an inhibition against supporting a gaijin market. That would be both emotional and perhaps logical if we note how many lemons have been passed onto them.

Looking ahead newer entrants may not follow the same path as we note that once a central bank crosses a monetary policy Rubicon it has the effect of emboldening others. The temptation of what so far have been profits will be an incentive although of course any suggestion that such moves are for profit would be meant with the strictest official denial. Should there be losses however we know that they will be nobody’s fault unless they become large in which case it will be entirely the fault of financial terrorists.

Putting this into perspective is the price I am about to describe. Around 1000 until the middle of 2016 but rose to 8380 earlier this year and as of the last trade 6080. One of those volatile coins the central bankers dislike so much? Nope, it is the SNB share price in Swiss Francs.

 

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Japan is the land with no inflation

The concept of the “lost decade” in Japan which of course now encompasses at least two of them has many features but one of them is the lack of inflation. This has continued in spite of the enormous effort to create some driven by the Abenomics economic policy of the current government and the Bank of Japan. Or as James Mackintosh put it yesterday.

Japanese consumer prices are now at the same level as in October 1998. Not inflation, but the *level* of CPI.

So not quite two lost decades although care is needed because as regular readers will be aware my view is that the inflation obsession of the world’s central banks is misguided. After all the 2% annual target was something that seemed right rather than being a considered thought out plan.

If we move to more recent developments we see a familiar tale of not much going on as the annual inflation rate was 0.7% in June. The index based at 2015 levels is at 100.9. Even in an area where you would expect inflation which is medical services ( for an aging population) there is not much as it is 2% and 103.3 respectively. This is a world where the 100 Yen machine still exists and you get the same drink or chocolate bar you got years ago. The feature that sticks in my mind from when I worked in Tokyo was the gloriously named “Pocari Sweat” which tasted better than in sounds. Another feature that is different to the UK in particular is the housing sector where there is little or no inflation either as it registers a 0.1% fall in the last year and the index is at 99.6. That’s where it was in 1996!

The Bank of Japan

There have been developments here this week as it once again faces the prospect of failing with regards to it inflation target. This is analagous to Mario Draghi calling for reform in the Euro area which is also in every policy statement. This morning saw the release of its latest research into underlying inflation which of course central bankers love when the headline isn’t behaving. But if anything it makes things worse as we plough through the trimmed mean, the weighted median and the mode. If I was Governor I would be rather pleased to see the weighted median at 0% but Governor Kuroda of course is not.

Here is yesterday’s response described by NHK News.

The Bank of Japan has made a move to curb the recent rise in long-term interest rates.

BOJ officials said on Monday that they are offering to buy an unlimited amount of Japanese government bonds at a fixed rate.

There is a bit of hype in the use of “unlimited amount” as whilst Japan issues plenty of bonds the Tokyo Whale has gobbled quite a few up already. Also the yield movements are very Japanese.

On Monday morning, the yield on the benchmark 10-year government bond briefly hit 0.090 percent on speculation the central bank may review its bond-buying program at next week’s meeting. The BOJ’s target for the yield is around zero percent.

After the officials made the suggestion, the yield fell to 0.065 percent.

Firstly let us note the small difference here before we look at the  Reuters perspective

The country’s government bond yields rose sharply on Monday, the first chance Asian traders had to react to a Reuters report that the central bank was debating whether to scale back monetary stimulus………Yields on the benchmark 10-year Japanese government bonds, or JGBs, shot up nearly six basis points on Monday before the central bank offered to buy unlimited amounts at a yield of 0.11 percent.

So returning to the yield issue it is not much but is better in real terms than in many places especially if you take a broad sweep of Japanese inflation. You may also note that the Bank of Japan more threatened to buy rather than actually buying. This is the new yield curve control programme which has seen its purchases slow. The hint it might step back has the problem that for so long it has pretty much centrally planned the Japanese Government Bond market which otherwise has withered on the vine.

 

The economy

There have been problems here too as we remind ourselves of what happened in the first quarter.

The economy shrank by an annual rate of 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2018 as consumers kept their purse strings tight despite signs that paychecks are finally beginning to rise after decades of flat wages. ( Japan Times).

This morning’s PMI business survey for manufacturing has done little to improve the mood.

Japan Flash Manufacturing PMI falls to 20-month
low of 51.6 in July, from 53.0 in June…….New business grew at a much weaker rate and was broadly flat,
while export demand, despite further yen depreciation,
deteriorated for a second month running ( Markit ).

Actually these developments bring things more into line with the Bank of Japan in the sense that it felt the Japanese economy had outperformed in the previous 2 years.

However the labour market remains strong.

The unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in more than 25 years in May as companies ramped up hiring amid solidifying economic conditions, government data showed Friday……..The rate fell to 2.2 percent, against an estimated 2.5 percent, the lowest since 1992, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said. Separate data released the same day by the labor ministry showed the job-to-applicant ratio was 1.6, the highest since 1974.

There was also a flicker from wage growth in May as bonuses boosted the numbers meaning that real wages were 1.3% higher than a year before. It has led t the usual flurry of excitement from the media desperate to justify all their past pro Abenomics headlines who presumably follow the advice of “look away now” at the previous months as 3 out of 4 showed negative annual growth. Still for fans of “output gap” style analysis it is an improvement from complete disaster to mere failure assuming it lasts. They would be expecting the equivalent of the 41 degrees celsius recorded near to Tokyo yesterday.

Comment

Actually the twenty years of being an inflation free zone has not gone that badly for Japan. Collectively the economic growth rate has been weak but individually it has done better as we see a positive spin on the falling population level. Personally I think that pumping up inflation to 2% per annum would be likely to inflict economic danger on Japan because if we look across to the west we see that the Ivory Tower assumption that wages would automatically rise in response is another error.

But as so often the cry for “More! More! More!” goes up as I note this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times.

Even with very careful communication and forward guidance, monetary policy may not be sufficient, on its own, to reach the inflation target. Eventually, unconventional fiscal easing may also be needed, though this is not remotely on the horizon at present.

So the monetary policy which apparently could not fail has so lets pump up fiscal policy. That starts from an interesting level of the national debt and from a curious view of where inflation has been.

Bank of Japan faces the return of very low inflation

How can you return if you never went away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abenomics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the picture is confused to say the least.

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe not.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tokyo Whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this are suggested last November, from Reuters.

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

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

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

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

Yen

This is something that fits the famous Churchillian phrase.

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does Abenomics solve low wage growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also see something familiar from QE supporters.

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

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

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

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

Economic growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wages

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

What is going on at the Bank of Japan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bond Markets

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

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

The real economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

 

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

 

The link between “currency wars” and central banks morphing into hedge funds

The credit crunch era has brought us all sort of themes but a lasting one was given to us by Brazil’s Finance Minister back in September of 2010. From the Financial Times.

“We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness,” Mr Mantega said. By publicly asserting the existence of a “currency war”, Mr Mantega has admitted what many policymakers have been saying in private: a rising number of countries see a weaker exchange rate as a way to lift their economies.

The issue of fears that countries were undertaking competitive devaluations was something which raised a spectre of the 1920s being repeated. I note that Wikipedia calls it the Currency War of 2009-11 which is in my opinion around 7 years too short as of the countries mentioned back in the FT article some are still singing the same song and of course Japan redoubled its efforts and some with the advent of Abenomics.

The Euro

It was only last week that we looked at the way Germany has undertaken a stealth devaluation ironically in full media view via its membership of the Euro. But also of course if QE is a way of weakening your currency then the ECB ( European Central Bank) has had the pedal to the metal as it has expanded its balance sheet to around 4.5 billion Euros. On this road it has become something of an extremely large hedge fund of which more later but currently hedge funds seem to be fans of this.

If we combine this with the positive trade balance of the Euro area which has been reinforced this morning by Germany declaring a 25.4 billion current account surplus in November we see why the Euro was strong in the latter part of 2017. We also see perhaps why it has dipped back below 1.20 versus the US Dollar and the UK Pound £ has pushed above 1.13 to the Euro as currency traders wonder who is left to buy the Euro in the short-term?

But let us move on noting that a deposit rate of -0.4% and QE of 30 billion Euros a month would certainly have been seen as a devaluation effort back in September 2010.

Turning Japanese

Has anyone tried harder than the Japanese under Abenomics to reduce the value of their currency? We have seen purchases of pretty much every financial asset ( including for newer readers commercial property and equities) as the Bank of Japan balance sheet soared soared to nearly ( 96%) a years economic output or GDP. This did send the Yen lower but in more recent times it has not done much at all to the disappointment of the authorities in Tokyo. Is that behind this morning’s news that the Bank of Japan eased its bond buying efforts? Rather than us turning Japanese are they now aping us gaijin? It is too early to say but it is intriguing to note that December was a month in which the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet actually shrank. Care is needed here as for example the US Federal Reserve is in the process of shrinking its balance sheet but some data has seen it rise.

Perhaps the Bank of Japan should play some George Michael from its loudspeakers.

Yes I’ve gotta have faith…
Mmm, I gotta have faith
‘Cause I gotta have faith, faith, faith
I gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith

South Korea and the Won

Last week we got a warning that a new currency wars outbreak was on the cards as this was reported. From CNBC.

South Korea’s central bank chief said that the bank will leave its currency to market forces, but would respond if moves in the won get too big. Lee Ju-yeol said the Bank of Korea will take active steps when herd behavior is seen.

Not quite a full denial but yesterday forexlive reported something you are likely to have already guessed.

Bank of Korea is suspected to have bought around $1.5 billion in USD/KRW during currency trading today.

As we wonder what herd was seen in the Won as of course the “Thundering Herd” or Merrill Lynch is no longer with us? Also as this letter from the Bank of Korea to the FT last year confirms Korea does not play what Janet Kay called “Silly Games”.

First, Korea does not manage exchange rates to prevent currency appreciation. The Korean government does not set a specific target level or direction of the exchange rate. The Korean won exchange rate is basically determined by the market, and intervention is limited to addressing disorderly market movements.

Next time lads it would be best to leave this out.

Second, Korea’s current account surplus should not be understood as evidence of its currency undervaluation.

Of course not. Anyway the Won has been strong.

The South Korean currency surged almost 13 percent last year, as an expanding trade surplus and the nation’s first interest-rate increase in six years boosted its allure. (Bloomberg).

Another way of looking at that is to look back over the credit crunch era. We do see that the Won dropped like a stone against the US Dollar to around 1600 but with ebbs and flows has returned to not far from where it began to the 1060s. Of course we can get some more insight comparing more locally and if we look at the real trade-weighted exchange rates of the BIS ( Bank for International Settlements) then there was a case against the Yen in fact a strong one. Compared to 2010= 100 the Japanese Yen was at 73.7 ( see above) but the Won was at 113. However the claim of a strong currency might get the Chinese knocking at the South Korean’s door as the Yuan was at 121.4.

China

Perhaps the Chinese are now on the case as Bloomberg reports.

The yuan, which headed for its biggest drop in two months on the news, is allowed to move a maximum of 2 percent either side of the fixing. Analysts said the change shows China is confident in the yuan’s current trajectory, which has been one of steady appreciation.

Hedge Fund Alert

There are two pieces of good news for the modern theory of central banks morphing into hedge funds around this morning so let us first go to Switzerland.

According to provisional calculations, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) will report a profit in
the order of CHF 54 billion for the 2017 financial year. The profit on foreign currency
positions amounted to CHF 49 billion. A valuation gain of CHF 3 billion was recorded on
gold holdings. The net result on Swiss franc positions amounted to CHF 2 billion

With all that profit the ordinary Suisse may wonder why they are not getting more?

Confederation and cantons to receive distribution of at least
CHF 2 billion

Whilst the SNB behaves like a late Father Christmas those in charge of the ever growing equity holdings at the Bank of Japan may be partying like it is 1999 and having a celebratory glass of sake on this news.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 reaches fresh 26-year high; ( FT)

Meanwhile a not so polite message may be going from the ECB to the Bank of Finland.

The European Central Bank has sold its bonds of scandal-hit retailer Steinhoff , data showed on Monday, potentially suffering a loss of up to 55% on that investment. (Reuters)

Comment

So there you have it as we see that the label “currency wars” can still be applied albeit that the geography of the main outbreak has moved across the Pacific. Actually Japan was always in the game and it is no surprise that its currency twin the Swiss Franc is the other central bank which has become a subsidiary of a hedge fund. That poses a lot of questions should the currency weaken as the Swissy has albeit so far only on a relatively minor scale. There have been discussions so far this year about how bond markets will survive less QE but I do not see anyone wondering what might happen if the Swiss and Japanese central banks stopped buying equities and even decided to sell some?

For all the fire and fury ( sorry) there remains a simple underlying point which is that if one currency declines falls or devalues then others have to rise. That is especially awkward for central banks as they attempt to explain how trying to manipulate a zero-sum game brings overall benefits.