The Bank of Japan begins to face its failures

The last couple of weeks have seen two of the world’s main central banks strongly hint that the path for interest-rates is now lower, or perhaps I should say even lower. So as we open this week my thoughts turn eastwards to what the Shangri-Las would call the leader of the pack in this respect, Nihon or Japan. If we look at the Nikkei newspaper we see that Governor Kuroda of the Bank of Japan has also been conducting some open mouth operations.

TOKYO — Bank of Japan Governor Haruko Kuroda said extra stimulus would be an option if prices refuse to keep rising toward the central bank’s 2% inflation target.

The BOJ “will consider extra easing measures without hesitation” if the economy runs into a situation where momentum toward reaching stable inflation is lost, Kuroda said at a news conference on Thursday in Tokyo after keeping monetary policy unchanged.

There are various problems with this which start with the issue of inflation which has simply not responded to all the stimulus that the Bank of Japan has provided.

  The consumer price index for Japan in May 2019 was 101.8 (2015=100), up 0.7% over the year before seasonal adjustment,   and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis. ( Statistics Bureau).

This has been pretty much a constant in his term ( the only real change was caused by the rise in the Consumption Tax rate in 2014) and as I have pointed out many times over the years challenges Abenomics at its most basic point. If we stick to the monthly report above the situation is even worse than the overall number implies. This is because utility bills are rising at an annual rate of 3.2% but this is offset by other lower influences such as housing where the annual rate of (rental) inflation is a mere 0.1%. Also the services sector basically has virtually no inflation as the annual rate of change is 0.3%. Even the Bank of Japan does not think there is much going on here.

On the price front, the year-on-year rate of change in the
consumer price index (CPI, all items less fresh food) is in the range of 0.5-1.0 percent. Inflation expectations have been more or less unchanged.

Wages

On Friday we got the latest wages data which showed that real wages fell at an annual rate of 1.4% in April, This meant that so far every month in Japan has seen real wages lower than the year before. If we look back we see that an index set at 100 in 2015 was at 100.8 in 2018 so now may well be back where it started.

This matters because this was the index that Abenomics was aimed at. Back in 2012/13 it was assumed by its advocates that pushing inflation higher would push wages even faster. Whereas that relationship was struggling before the credit crunch and it made it worse. Indeed so strong was the assumed relationship here that much of financial media has regularly reported this it has been happening in a version of fake news for economics. The truth is that there has been an occassional rally such as last summer’s bonus payments but no clear upwards trend and the numbers have trod water especially after Japan’s statisticians discovered mistakes in their calculations.

Problems for economics

Back when QE style policies began there was an assumption that they would automatically lead to inflation whereas the situation has turned out to be much more nuanced. As well as an interest-rate of -0.1% the Bank of Japan is doing this.

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 80 trillion yen……….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…….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.

Yet we have neither price nor wage inflation. If we look for a sign of inflation then it comes from the equity market where the Nikkei 225 equity index was around 8000 when Abenomics was proposed as opposed to the 21,286 of this morning. Maybe it is also true of Japanese Government Bonds but you see selling those has been something of a financial widow maker since around 1990.

Misfire on bond yields

2019 has seen yet another phase of the bond bull market which if we look back has been in play since before the turn of the century. But Japan has not participated as much as you might think due to something of a central planning failure.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent. While doing so, the yields may move upward
and downward to some extent mainly depending on developments in economic activity and prices.

That was designed to keep JGB yields down but is currently keeping them up. Ooops! We see that bond yields in Germany and Switzerland have gone deeper into negative territory than in Japan. If we compared benchmark yields they go -0.31% and -0.51% respectively whereas in Japan the ten-year yield is -0.15%.

Economic Growth

On the face of it the first quarter of this year showed an improvement as it raised the annual rate of economic or GDP growth to 0.9%. That in itself showed an ongoing problem if 0.9% is better and that is before we get to the fact that the main feature was ominous. You see the quarterly growth rate of 0.6% was mostly ( two-thirds) driven by imports falling faster then exports, which is rather unauspicious for a trading nation.

If we look ahead Friday’s manufacturing PMI report from Markit posted a warning.

June survey data reveals a further loss of momentum
across the manufacturing sector, as signalled by the
headline PMI dropping to a three-month low. Softer
demand in both domestic and international markets
contributed to the sharpest fall in total new orders for
three years. A soft patch for automotive demand…..

The last few words are of course no great surprise but the main point here is the weaker order book. So Japan will be relying on its services sector for any growth. Also there is the issue of the proposed October Consumption Tax hike from 8% to 10% which would weaken the economy further. So we have to suspect it will be delayed yet again.

Comment

To my mind the Abenomics experiment never really addressed the main issue for Japan which is one of demographics. The population is both ageing and shrinking as this from the Yomiuri Shimbun earlier this month highlights.

The government on Friday released a rough calculation of vital statistics for 2018, revealing that the number of deaths minus births totaled 444,085, exceeding 400,000 for the first time.

The latest numbers on Thursday showed yet another fall in children (0-15) to 12.1% of the population and yet another rise in those over 85 to 4.7%. In many ways the latter is a good thing which is why economics gets called the dismal science. The demographics are weakening as Japan continues to borrow more with a national debt of 238% of GDP.

The size of the national debt is affordable at the moment for two reasons. The first is the low and at times negative level of bond yields. Next Japan has a large amount of private savings to offset the debt. The rub is that those savings are a buffer against the demographic issue and there is another problem with Abenomics which I have feared all along. Let me hand you over to a new research paper from the Bank of Japan.

The reversal interest rate is the rate at which accommodative monetary policy
reverses and becomes contractionary for lending. Its determinants are 1) banks’
fixed-income holdings, 2) the strictness of capital constraints, 3) the degree of passthrough to deposit rates, and 4) the initial capitalization of banks.

So it looks like they are beginning to agree with me that so-called stimulus can turn out to be contractionary and there is more.

The reversal interest rate creeps up over time, making steep but short rate cuts preferable to “low for long” interest rate environments.

Exactly the reverse of what Japan has employed and we seem set to copy.

Podcast

Central banks plan to ride to the rescue of house prices one more time

It is good to be ahead of the pack as I note that this morning the Resolution Foundation has caught up with one of my main themes.

Housing costs have put increasing pressure on living standards for all generations alive today, compared to predecessors at the same age. Housingcost-to-income ratios fell faster (by 1 percentage point) for families headed by
under-30s than for older family units in the year to 2017-18, but this does little to alter the long-term picture. At age 30 housing costs were equivalent to 24 per cent of income for millennials born in the early 1980s, and 21 per cent for
members of generation X born in the early 1970s. That compares to 10 per cent at the same age for members of the silent generation born in the early 1940s.

As you can see this has been a long-running saga where housing in the UK has got more expensive. Yet our inflation numbers have missed much of this. This is for two reasons. The first is that we switched in 2003 to a measure called CPI ( Consumer Price Index) which excludes owner-occupied housing costs and that is what the Bank of England targets. So if we compare the latest situation as we were old yesterday that the official UK House Price Index in April was at 120.1 with for example the 67.8 of April 2003 you can see the danger of ignoring this area as it does.

In some ways more disturbing is that way that our official statisticians claim that such housing costs are now included when in fact they use imputed rental numbers in the CPIH measure. If there is a home owner out there who acts as if they pay themselves rent then you are fine, but the rest of us are not. Actually on a personal basis I fall down on the issue of even knowing how much rent my flat would get.

It gets better in that there are a lot of doubts about the rental series that the numbers are imputed from. These start with concerns that the balance of new to old rents is wrong leading to the number being around 1% too low. Next comes the issue that houses which are bought for ownership may well not be similar to ones which are rented. Finally there is the fact that the Office for National Statistics does not have sight of the actual numbers as it relies on data collected by others.

This is something which the Resolution Foundation returns to.

Younger cohorts are more likely to live in overcrowded homes: between 1994-96 and 2016-18, the share of family units headed by 18-29 year olds in overcrowded
homes increased by almost one-third (from below 8 per cent to above 10 per cent). Younger cohorts spend longer commuting too.

I have highlighted this because it suggests a problem which we have thought is taking place but is hard to get concrete numbers on. This is the issue of a lowering of the quality of housing. We may well be paying more for less meaning that the actual rate of inflation has been higher than we get from just looking at the price indices.

This has consequences.

Our spotlight analysis focuses on the fact that changes in housing costs could be having a more wide-ranging effect on living standards too.

That seems to be the written equivalent of mealy mouthed to me.

Has all the “Help” actually helped?

Maybe a little but as you can see the extraordinary efforts I have documented over the years on here have put only a minor dent in the trend.

While the latest evidence points towards a bottoming out of this decline – family units headed by 18-29 year olds experienced an increase in ownership
rates from 7.9 per cent in 2016 to 9.2 per cent in 2018 – the fundamentals of high house prices and deposit requirements remain a significant barrier to
ownership.

So good work from the Resolution Foundation although as champions of the CPIH inflation measure they have stood on a land mine here in my opinion.

More! More! More!

The issues raised above are on my mind because as the song lyrics above from Andrea True Connection hint the world’s central banks are already riding to the rescue of housing markets and house prices. We have seen rate cuts recently from the Reserve Banks of India and Australia with the latter especially suggesting more is to come. Then yesterday evening there was the US Federal Reserve.

“Overall, our policy discussion focused on the appropriate response to the uncertain environment,” he said. “Many participants believe that some cut to the fed funds rate would be appropriate in the scenario they see as most likely.”……….“Many participants now see the case for somewhat more accommodative policy has strengthened,”  ( Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell via CNBC )

This meant that the market for a rate cut in July went straight to 100% with the only debate being whether it would be a quarter or a half point. So those with variable-rate mortgages can expect better news. Added to that we saw further strong rallies in bond markets with for example this morning the US ten-year Treasury Note yield dipping below 2%. Regular readers will be aware I have been writing for a while that I expect the cost of fixed-rate mortgages to fall and the falls just get larger.

If we switch to the Euro area it was only on Monday that we saw ECB President Mario Draghi move the goal posts on monetary policy. This morning a contender for his job post October has joined in. From Reuters.

“We in the Governing Council are ready to act as appropriate unless there is improvement in the economic conditions,” Rehn told a conference in Brussels.

Asked whether the ECB should proceed with rate cuts or resuming asset purchases, Rehn said: “The whole range of instruments is on the table.”

He is not alone as @DeltaOne reports.

ECB’S DE GUINDOS SAYS RISKS ARE TILTED TO DOWNSIDE, IF THEY START TO MATERIALIZE, WE WILL REACT

Apologies for the capitals which are a regular theme of that twitter feed.

If there is going to be a coordinated easing party from the world’s main central banks then the Bank of Japan has its sake ready at body temperature.

BOJ Governor Kuroda: We Will Not Hesitate To Ease Further If Momentum Towards The Price Target Is Lost ( @LiveSquawk )

Although as they are not especially keen on negative interest-rates and are already buying assets like they are powered up pac-men and women their options are not so obvious.

Comment

This week has seen a turbocharger added to the central banking engine. It is also true that one of the drivers of this is asset prices albeit that President Trump concentrates on the stock market. But it increasingly looks that the central banking cavalry will ride to the rescue of house prices yet again. However there is a catch in that as we approach and then pass 0% for official interest-rates the responsiveness of mortgage-rates has fallen. So the cavalry could yet end up like General Custer.

One game changer would be if banks prove willing to pass on negative deposit rates to the retail customer. But even without that we seem set to see more of what took place in Denmark a few weeks ago when mortgage bonds moved into negative yield territory. The central bankers seem to be placing their tanks on this lawn and have added loudspeakers blaring out Whitesnake.

And here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known
Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone
And I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time

Of course in the UK we see that the Bank of England has been wrong-footed by this change as it is still promising interest-rate increases. But I expect it will not take the unreliable boyfriend long to do another 180 degree turn.

The Investing Channel

Japan adds sharply falling imports to its continuing real wages problem

Today gives an opportunity to head east and look at what is sometimes considered to be the engine room of the world economy looking forwards. We can do so via an old friend which is Nihon the land of the rising sun. It is facing a situation where central banks in Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines have cut interest-rates this month. The latter cut was a reminder of different perspectives as we note this from The Business Times.

Gross domestic product (GDP) expanded 5.6 per cent in the first three months of the year, dragged by a slowdown in government spending, farm output, exports and the country’s budget deadlock. The pace was slower than the previous quarter’s 6.3 per cent and also the 6.1 per cent forecast in a Reuters poll…….On a seasonally adjusted basis, the economy grew 1.0 per cent in the January-March period from the previous quarter, far slower than the upwardly revised 1.8 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Of course Japan would get out it’s party hats and best sake for anything like that rate of growth but for it today’s story started well with this. From Reuters.

Japan’s economic growth unexpectedly accelerated in January- March, driven by net contributions from exports and defying forecasts for a contraction in the world’s third-largest economy.

At this point things look really rather good as in a time of trade wars growth from net exports is especially welcome. Before I get to that we may note that the forecasts were wrong by quite a wide margin but as we have a wry smile I would just like to add that initial GDP data in Japan is particularly unreliable. I know that goes against the national stereotype but it is an ongoing problem. The Bank of Japan thinks that the numbers have been consistently too low but the catch is that it is hardly an impartial observer after all its extraordinary monetary policies. For the moment,however we have been told this.

Japan’s economy grew at an annualized 2.1% in the first quarter, gross domestic product (GDP) data showed on Monday, beating market expectations for a 0.2% contraction. It followed a revised 1.6% expansion in October-December.

The Rub

The problem with growth from net exports as Greece discovered is that it can be a sign of contraction as it is here. Fortunately someone at Reuters seems to have learnt from my style of analysis.

The headline GDP expansion was caused largely by a 4.6% slump in imports, the biggest drop in a decade and more than a 2.4% fall in exports.

As imports fell more than exports, net exports – or shipments minus imports – added 0.4 percentage point to GDP growth, the data showed.

If we look further into the detail we see that this quarter exports knocked some 0.5% off GDP with their fall, although not everyone seems to think that if this from @fastFT is any guide.

 the world’s third-largest economy was boosted by better-than-expected exports.

Let us be kind and assume they though they would be even worse.

Returning to the main point we are now left wondering why imports were so weak. We get a partial answer from this.

Private consumption slid 0.1% and capital expenditure dropped 0.3%, casting doubt on policymakers’ view that solid domestic demand will offset the pain from slowing exports.

Lower consumption will have been a factor although I am much less sure about investment because public investment rose by 1.5% and total investment added 0.1% to the GDP growth figure. So as Japan needs basic materials and is a large energy importer we face the likelihood that industry is nervous about the prospects for late spring and summer and has adjusted accordingly. This from Nippon.com will not help.

The slump in China, which is the center of production and consumption in Asia, has spread to other countries in the region. Trade statistics for March 2019 show that exports to Asian countries (including China) fell by 5.5% compared to the same month the previous year, marking the fifth straight monthly decline since November 2018.

 

If you want a scare story the Japanese way of annualising numbers creates one because on this basis exports fell by 9.4% and imports by 17.9%.

Industrial Production

There was some better news on this from earlier as the preliminary report of a monthly fall of 0.9% in March was revised up to a 0.6% fall. But even so this meant that production was 4.3% lower than a year before. Thus we see why imports have dropped as the official views has gone from “Industrial Production is pausing.” to “Industrial Production is in a weak tone recently.”

The index is at 102.2 where 2015 = 100 but as recently as last October it was 105.6.

Wages

Low wage growth and at times declining real wages has been a theme of the “lost decade” era in Japan and January produced bad news for confidence in this area for both the numbers and the official data series. From the Nikkei Asian Review in late January.

A data scandal at Japan’s labor ministry has created further headaches for the Abe government in its protracted attempts to spur inflation.

The ministry’s Monthly Labor Survey overstated nominal pay increases in the first eleven months of 2018. Corrected monthly results released on Wednesday saw year-on-year wage growth drop by between 0.1 and 0.7 percentage point. Officials revised data for every month.

The new series has seen real wage growth accelerate downwards in 2019 so far starting with an annual fall of 0.7% in January then 1% in February followed by 2.5% in March. If we switch to wage growth on its own we see that the real estate sector was ht hardest in March with an annual fall of 5.9% followed by the finance and insurance sector where it fell by 4.6%.

The highest paid sector ( 446,255 Yen) in March was the utility one (electricity, heat and water).

This weaker set of data also has worries for those on us following at least partly on the same road as Japan as The Vapors once again remind us.

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

Comment

So far I have avoided financial aspects and only briefly referred to the Bank of Japan. It of course has been pursuing the policy of Abenomics for some time now but some of the arrows have misfired. Actually the case of currency depreciation may boomerang in some areas as we see a falling Chinese Yuan. Indeed the Japanese Yen has been rallying against the UK Pound £ which has been pushed back to the 140 level. Signs of economic weakness and trouble give us a stronger Yen as markets adjust in case the Japanese decide to take some of their large foreign investments home.

It is unclear how the Bank of Japan can help much with the current series of problems. For example its role of being the Tokyo Whale and buying Japanese equities on down days for the market is unlikely to do much about the real wages problem or the aging and shrinking population. Although the rhetoric of “powerful monetary easing” continues.

In addition, the Bank decided to consider the introduction of a facility for lending exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that it holds to market participants.  ( Governor Kuroda)

In reality that seems to be forced because it is on its way to buying them all!

While I will not explain these measures in detail today, they all will provide support for continuing with powerful monetary easing through the Bank’s smooth fund-provisioning and securing of market functioning.

Also if fiddling at the margins like this worked Japan would have escaped its lost decade years and years ago.

 

 

 

Are world equity markets front-running expected central bank buying?

Sometimes we get an opportunity to both take some perspective and also to observe what is considered by some to be cutting edge. So let us open with the perspective of the general manager of the Bank for International Settlements.

Growth cannot depend on monetary policy, Agustín Carstens tells CNBC.

I am sure that many of you are thinking that it is a bit late ( like a decade or so) to tell us now.. Interestingly if you watch the video he says in reference to the Euro area that monetary policy “cannot be the only solution for growth”. This reminds me of the statement by ECB President Mario Draghi that it QE was responsible for the better Euro area growth phrase in 2016 to 17. It also brings me to my first official denial of the day.

Some analysts said a tiered rate would make room for the ECB to cut its deposit rate farther — a prospect that one source said was nowhere near being discussed. ( Reuters )

You know what usually happens next….

Asset Markets

This is an area that central banks have increasing moved into with sovereign and corporate bond buying. But in the same Reuters article I spotted something that looked rather familiar.

TLTRO III, a new series of cheap two-year loans aimed at banks, was unveiled in March as a tool to help lenders finance themselves, particularly in countries such as Italy and Portugal. But policymakers now increasingly see it as a stimulus tool for a weakening economy, the sources said.

With the growth outlook fading faster than feared, even hawkish policymakers have given up pricing the loans at the private market rate. Some are even discussing offering the TLTROs at minus 0.4 percent, which is currently the ECB’s deposit rate, the sources said.

That looks rather like the Funding for Lending Scheme which I mentioned yesterday as the way the Bank of England fired up the UK housing market from 2012 onwards. Essentially if you give banks plenty of cheap funding you get a lot of rhetoric about lending to business ( small ones in particular) but the UK experience was that it declined and mortgage lending rose. This was because mortgage rates fell quite quickly by around 1% and according to the Bank of England the total impact rose as high as 2%.

Thus in my opinion the ECB is considering singing along to the “More,more,more” of Andrea True Connection in relation to this.

House prices, as measured by the House Price Index, rose by 4.2% in both the euro area and the EU in the fourth
quarter of 2018 compared with the same quarter of the previous year.

This is one area where the ECB has managed to create some inflation and may even think that the lack of growth in Italy ( -0.6%) is a sign of its economic malaise. Although you do not have to know much history to mull the 6.7% in Spain and 7.2% in Ireland.

Equities

Regular readers will be aware that the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan started buying equities some time ago now. There are differences in that the SNB is doing so to diversify its foreign exchange reserves which became so large they were influencing the bond markets ( mostly European) they were investing in. So it has bought foreign equities of which the most publicly noted it the holding in Apple because if you invest passively then the larger the company the larger the holding. If we note the Apple Watch this must provide food for thought for the Swiss watchmaking industry.

Japan has taken a different route in two respects in that it buys funds ( Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs) rather than individual equities and that it buys Japanese ones. Also it is still regularly buying as it  bought  70.500,000,000 Yen’s worth on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. Whereas buying by the SNB in future will be more ad hoc should it feel the need to intervene to weaken the Swiss Franc again.

Now let us move to Federal Reserve policymaker Neel Kashkari

So an official denial! Also you may note that he has left some weasel room as he has not rejected the Japanese route of indirectly buying them. This is common amongst central bankers as they leave themselves an out and if they fear they might need to introduce a policy that will attract criticism they first deny they intend to do it to give the impression they have been somehow forced.

For a lighter touch @QTRResearch translated it into Trumpese so that the man who many think is really running the US Federal Reserve gets the picture.

Kashkari: We’re not buying stocks, who said anything about buying stocks, we’re definitely not buying stocks, we’d never buy stocks.

It was,of course, only last week that ended with the CIO of BlackRock suggesting that the ECB should purchase equities and no doubt he had a list ready! I suppose it would sort of solve this problem.

ECB will ask Deutsche Bank to raise fresh funds for merger: source ( Reuters)

Although of course that would not open just one can of worms but a whole cupboard full of them. But when faced with a problem the ECB regularly finds itself singing along with Donald Fagen.

Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing
And stay together all night long
And when I really get to know you
We’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn
Confess your passion your secret fear
Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier

Comment

Now let us switch to markets as we remind ourselves that they have developed a habit of front-running or anticipating central bank action. Sometimes by thinking ahead but sometimes sadly via private briefings ( I hope the ECB has stopped them). However you spin it @Sunchartist made me think with this.

*Softbank Group Prices Japan’s Biggest Ever Yen Corporate Bond ¥500 Billion 1.64%

Aramco, Softbank, LYFT, Pinterest, Uber

The gravy train.

Or as Hipster on Twitter put it.

So Uber and Lyft will have a combined market cap of ~$150BN with a combined net loss of ~$3BN

Next there is the issue of something that is really rather uncomfortable.

It’s official: This is an all-time record year for corporate stock buybacks.

Announced buybacks for 2018 are now at $1.1 trillion. And companies are using their authorizations. About $800 billion of stock has already been bought back, leaving about $300 billion yet to be purchased. We’ve seen buyback announcements recently from Lowes’s. Pfizer, and Facebook, but in the last few days, as stocks have moved to new lows, companies are picking up the pace of activity. ( CNBC)

This makes me uncomfortable on several counts. It is the job of a board of directors to run a business not to be punters in its shares. This is especially uncomfortable if their bonuses depend on the share price. Frankly I would look to make that illegal. As to them knowing the future how has that worked out for Boeing? To be fair to CNBC they did highlight a problem.

So the critics of corporate buybacks and dividend raises are correct. It is a form of financial engineering that does not do anything to improve business operations or fundamentals………. obsessing over ways to boost stock prices helps the investing class but not the average American.

Perhaps nothing has been done about this because it suits the establishment after all think of the wealth effects. But that brings inequality and the 0.01% back into focus.

 

The Bank of Japan is exploring the outer limits of monetary policy

Today I wish to invert my usual rule and open with a look at financial markets because in this instance they help to give us an insight into the real economy.

The Nikkei 225 average tumbled 650.23 points, or 3.01 percent, to end at 20,977.11, its first closing below 21,000 since Feb. 15. On Friday, the key market gauge rose 18.42 points.

The Topix, which covers all first-section issues on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, finished 39.70 points, or 2.45 percent, lower at 1,577.41 after gaining 2.72 points Friday. ( The Japan Times)

We have a crossover here as Japan catches up with what western markets did on Friday. But if we return to Friday’s subject of expected central bank activity, well in Japan it is already happening. In other markets discussions of the existence of a Plunge Protection Team for stock markets are more implicit than explicit but Japan actually has one. The Bank of Japan or as it has become known the Tokyo Whales does so and according to its accounts bought some 70,200,000.000 Yen’s worth this morning in its attempt to resist the fall. That amount has become a habit in more ways than one as on days of solid falls that is the amount it buys as for example it bought the same amount on the 13th, 8th and 7th of this month. It’s total holdings are now at least 24,595,566,159,000 Yen and I write at least because whilst it declares most of them explicitly in its accounts some other holdings are tucked away elsewhere.

Monetary Policy

To finance these purchases the Bank of Japan creates money and expands the monetary base. It adds to its other attempts to do so as for example it also buys commercial property ( in a similar route to the equity market it buys exchange-traded funds or ETFs) as well as commercial paper and corporate bonds. But the main effort is here.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent. While doing so, the yields may move upward
and downward to some extent mainly depending on developments in economic activity and prices.
7 With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 80 trillion yen.

As you can see it is buying pretty much everything with the only variable left being how much. If we stay with that theme we have seen regular media reports that it is tapering it s buying of which the latest was Bloomberg on the 14th, Those reports have varied from being outright wrong ( about equity purchases) to nuanced as for example circumstances can limit the size of JGB buys.

Meanwhile, the government would continue to undertake expenditure reforms and reduce the
amount of newly issued government bonds for fiscal 2019 by about 1 trillion yen compared to that for fiscal 2018. ( Bank of Japan)

But also market developments play a role as I note this from @DavidInglesTV this morning.

Japan 10Y yields collapse further into negative territory

There is a bit of hype in the use of the word collapse to represent the benchmark yield falling to -0.06% but there are relevant factors in play. For example yet another benchmark bond yield is moving further into negative yield territory as Japan accompanies Germany. Next we have an issue for Bank of Japan policy as it is left sitting on its hands if Mr(s) Market takes JGBs to where its “guidance” is anyway meaning it does not have to buy more. So its bond buyers are left singing along with the Young Disciples.

Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently
Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently

The Yen

This is another area where the Bank of Japan is active. These days it is not that often in the news promising “bold action” and much less actually explicitly intervening. But according to economics 101 all the money printing ( more technically expansion of the monetary base) should lead to a lower Yen. For a while it did but these days the position is more nuanced as The Japan Times reminds us.

The stronger yen battered export-oriented issues. Industrial equipment manufacturers Fanuc sagged 3.84 percent and Yaskawa Electric 5.35 percent, and electronic parts supplier Murata Manufacturing lost 3.14 percent.

In a way here the Tokyo Whale is spoilt for choice as it could act to weaken the Yen and/or buy ETFs with those equities in them. But the reality is that lower equity markets create a double-whammy for it as hoped for wealth effects fade and a flight to perceived safety strengthens the Yen. Thus we find the Yen at around 110 to the US Dollar as I type this.

One of the central tenets of Abenomics was supposed to be the delivery of a 2% annual inflation target which would “rescue” Japan from deflation. Yet mostly through the way the Yen has resisted the downwards pressure leaves us observing this.

As for prices, members concurred that the year-on-year rate of change in the CPI for all items less fresh food was in the range of 0.5-1.0 percent, and the rate of increase in
the CPI for all items less fresh food and energy remained in the range of 0.0-0.5 percent, due partly to firms’ cautious wage- and price-setting stance.

The all items inflation rate was 0.2% in February. The situation is a clear failure leading one Board Member to spread the blame.

households’ tolerance of price rises had not shown clear improvement and services prices in such sectors as dining-out had not risen as much as expected.

Comment

We can now bring in a strand from recent articles which has been illustrated earlier by the former chair of the US Federal Reserve Janet Yellen.

*YELLEN: GLOBAL CENTRAL BANKS DON’T HAVE ADEQUATE CRISIS TOOLS ( @lemasabachthani )

Also something which we figured out some months back.

*YELLEN: FED TO OPERATE WITH LARGE BALANCE SHEET FOR LONG TIME

Also let me throw in something which shows an even deeper lack of understanding.

Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Monday that the U.S. Treasury yield curve[s:TMUBMUSD10Y], which inverted on Friday for the first time since 2007, may signal the need to cut interest rates at some point, but it does not signal a recession. ( @bankinformer )

Firstly central bankers have pretty much a 100% failure rate when it comes to forecasting recessions. Next we have an issue where they help create an inverted yield curve then worry about it! That may turn out to be something with very different effects to one achieved more naturally.

But the real issue here is that Janet like her ilk is guiding us towards more monetary easing but we have been observing for some years that in terms of the Shangri-Las the Bank of Japan is the Leader of the Pack. But once we switch to how is that going we hit trouble. From Friday.

The flash Nikkei Manufacturing PMI for March remained unchanged at 48.9 in March, registering below the 50.0 no change level for a second successive month to indicate an ongoing downturn in the goods-producing sector. The latest readings are the lowest recorded since June 2016.

Among the various survey sub-indices, the output index signalled a third consecutive monthly fall in manufacturing production, with the rate of decline accelerating to the fastest since May 2016. The drop in production was the third largest seen since 2012.

Now today.

Japan’s new vehicle sales in fiscal 2019 are projected to fall 2.0 percent from the current fiscal year to 5.22 million units amid growing economic uncertainty, an industry body said Monday. ( The Mainichi )

That adds to the slow down in the real growth rate such that GDP rose in the final quarter of 2018 by a mere 0.3% on a year before. Not exactly an advert for all the monetary easing is it?

Weekly Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

 

What happens when the Bank of Japan has bought everything?

It is time for another chapter of our Discovering Japan ( h/t Graham Parker and the Rumour) series and let us open by dipping into Japanese culture.

As spring approaches, the country’s weather forecasters face one of their biggest missions of the year: predicting exactly when the famed cherry blossoms will bloom.

The nation’s sakura (cherry blossom) season is feverishly anticipated by locals and visitors alike. Many tourists plan their entire trips around the blooms, and Japanese flock to parks in droves to enjoy the seasonal spectacle. ( Japan Times).

This is something which can be shared to some extent by users of Battersea Park as the Japanese Embassy financed an avenue of cherry blossom trees there in a nice touch of what is called cherry blossom diplomacy.

If we switch to financial news that will be considered good by the Bank of Japan, then we can see three factors at the moment. We can start with the equity market where the Nikkei 225 index has risen 126 points to 21,431 this morning. This means that the dip of the end of December is now only a bad dream for it as we recall that central banks love higher equity markets especially when in this case they have been buying it. Japan is a country that literally has a Plunge Protection Team as what has become called the Tokyo Whale makes equity purchases on down days.

If we switch to the currency then the Bank of Japan will be a lot happier than it was in mid-January. At that point markets had what we might call a yen for Yen and in a “flash rally” it went below 105 versus the US Dollar which rather suspiciously broke more than a few Japanese exporters currency hedges and to 132.5 versus the UK Pound £. As a central bank with an objective to weaken the yen under the Abenomics strategy this will have upset the Bank of Japan and it will be much happier with the 110.87 to the US Dollar as I type this. It would of course prefer an exchange rate over 120 as it managed for a while but with a summit due with President Trump that can be overlooked for now.

Next we can look at what is a strong candidate for the most rigged market on earth which is the Japanese Government Bond market. So far the Bank of Japan has purchased some 473,087,792.358,000 Yen’s worth of Japanese government securities in as near to monetary financing as a first world country has actually got. Whilst the pure definition of the treasury issuing debt to the central bank does not take place over time it starts to rather look like that in effect. Here is the current description.

yield curve control, in which the Bank seeks a decline in real interest rates by controlling short-term and long-term interest rates, has been placed at the core of the new policy framework.

This means that Japan can borrow effectively for nothing as its ten-year yield is -0.04% as I type this and therefore a lot of its debt is adding to the world total of negative yielding debt. Not all of it as the thirty-year yield is 0.58% but even that is very low and means that should it so choose Japan can borrow incredibly cheaply.

So Governor Kuroda can sleep soundly at night on these three grounds.

The economy

This is much less satisfactory as it shrank in the second half of last year as quarterly growth of 0.3% followed -0.7%. This meant that at the end of 2018 the annual rate of growth was zero or as their official statisticians put it. -0.0%. This is quite a slowing on the 2.4% recorded at the end of 2017 but if we take a broad sweep we see that all this monetary action of negative interest-rates and QQE doesn’t seem to be doing that much good. This theme will hardly be helped by this morning’s news.

The nation’s trade deficit for January grew from a year earlier with exports to China tumbling in their worst decline in three years, government data showed Wednesday.

Japan logged a trade deficit for the month of ¥1.41 trillion ($12.8 billion), 49.2 percent larger than a year before, the Finance Ministry said. ( Japan Times)

The January data is generally a weaker month due to the timing of the Chinese New Year but as you can see there has been a sharper impact this year as we get another perspective on the Chinese economic slow down.

But last month, “exports of products such as microchip-making devices that are not related to China’s New Year celebration fell, showing that Chinese companies’ spending on equipment and plants is falling,” Minami said.

Overall Japanese exports in January were 8.4% lower in January than in 2018 and this will be a further deduction from an already weak economic outlook. This adds to this from Reuters.

Data released on Monday showed core machinery orders, considered a leading indicator of capital expenditure, fell 0.1 percent month-on-month in December……

Highlighting bigger concerns about the external environment, however, was a 21.9 percent month-on-month slump in orders from overseas, the biggest fall since November 2007.

This had previously been a strong series but whilst domestic demand has continued foreign demand has not.

Demographics

We have looked at the consequences of an ageing and indeed shrinking population many times and here is a new perspective from the World Economic Foundation.

In 2018, there were 921,000 births and 1.37 million deaths, meaning Japan’s population fell by 448.000 people. That was its largest ever annual natural population decline.

The number of male workers in 2040 will fall by 7.11 million from 2017, while the number of working women will decrease by 5.75 million.

Or to add it all up.

As many as 12 million Japanese people may disappear from the country’s workforce by 2040, according to official estimates. That’s a fall of around 20%.

Comment

Let me open by advancing my theme that it would be better if Japan simply accepted reality rather than undertaking what are King Canute style actions. On this road it would accept that a shrinking and ageing population will have periods of economic decline in GDP terms.  In many ways Japan deals with its ageing population better than we do and it could also be a leader in terms of a shrinking one. This could be a route forwards for our planet too as fewer humans would place less of a strain on Japan’s limited natural resources. Also it does have a very large national debt but it is mostly domestically owned and would benefit from a national debate of how to deal with it rather than snake-oil efforts. Instead we get ever more financial action pushing for growth accompanied by threats and sanctions based on a green response to the growth.

Meanwhile the chorus is tuning up for “more,more,more” as this illustrates.

“If (currency moves) are having an impact on the economy and prices, and if we consider it necessary to achieve our price target, we’ll consider easing policy,” ( Governor Kuroda yesterday according to Reuters).

Mind you even past supporters of the extraordinary monetary policies are giving up or rather switching to fiscal policy.

Japan must ramp up fiscal spending with debt bank-rolled by the central bank, the Bank of Japan’s former deputy governor Kikuo Iwata said, a controversial proposal that highlights the BOJ’s challenge as it tries to reignite an economy after years of sub-par growth. ( Reuters)

It is not that he would not like to expand monetary policy more but he is unable to look beyond his “precious”

He said there are few tools left to ease monetary policy further as cutting already ultra-low interest rates could push some financial institutions into bankruptcy.

Where these people never get challenged is that they promise success each time but in a burst of collective amnesia their past failures seem to give them credibility rather than demotion. I guess that is what happens when you do what the establishment wants….

Also the financial media that pushed the story of last autumn that the Bank of Japan was reducing equity purchases should be red faced now. For the rest of us we need to be thinking if the Vapors were prescient all those years ago.

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

 

 

We are now facing a reality of QE to infinity

Today has according to CNBC brought us to a birthday anniversary.

Happy birthday to the BOJ it’s the twentieth anniversary of them starting QE ( @purpleline)

As ever the picture is complicated as the Bank of Japan started buying commercial paper ( which we consider part of QE now) in 1997 and started purchases of Japanese Government Bonds in March 2001. But the underlying principle is that it has been around for much of the “lost decade” period and those claiming success have an obvious problem with the “lost decade” theme. Also they have a problem with then explaining why the name was changed in Japan from QE to QQE as name changes are a sure sign of something that has gone wrong. After all if you have a great brand you don’t change the name. In case you were wondering it is now Qualitative and Quantitative Easing.

It was not consider a triumph as even early on (2006) the San Francisco Fed was worried about this.

While these outcomes appear to be consistent with the intentions of the program, the magnitudes of these impacts are still very uncertain. Moreover, in strengthening the performance of the weakest Japanese banks, quantitative easing may have had the undesired impact of delaying structural reform.

That second sentence has echoed around all subsequent attempts at QE leading to the zombie banks theme of which at the moment Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland come to mind but there are plenty of others. The gain was a small drop in JGB yields which is why government’s love the policy as it makes it cheaper for them to borrow.

In 2012 the IMF conducted its own review but with similar results.

Using different measures for economic activity, ranging from growth to unemployment, the VAR
regressions pick up some impact on economic activity. While the evidence is still weak, these results are still an improvement over earlier findings looking at previous QE periods

Looked at like that it makes you wonder why some many countries copied this course of action? The band Sweet gave us a clue I think.

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
We just haven’t got a clue what to do
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Block Buster

Central banks cut interest-rates to what they considered the lower bound saw it was not working and were desperate to find something else. On that subject a theme of mine was confirmed yesterday when David Blanchflower who was a Bank of England policymaker tweeting this.

at mpc in 2008 we were told zlb was .5% for tech reasons relating to building societies. ( ZLB = Zero Lower Bound)

In response to my enquiry that I had heard it was the banks he replied he thought it was due to a regulation but cannot remember exactly. It certainly was a line repeated by Governor Carney although he of course then contradicted it by cutting to 0.25%!

To Infinity! And Beyond!

Regular readers who have followed by argument that interest-rate increases in the United States could be accompanied by more QE in what would no doubt be called QE4 will not be surprised that I spotted this.

U.S. central bankers are currently debating whether it should confine its controversial tool of bond buying to purely emergency situations or if it should turn to that tool more regularly, San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Mary Daly said on Friday.

This is intriguing not least because the actual policy right now is an unwinding of QE that we call Qualitative Tightening or QT. We actually have not had much QT and already there seems to be an element of cold feet about it. Let us look at her exact words.

In the financial crisis, in the aftermath of that when we were trying to help the economy, we engaged in these quantitative easing policies, and an important question is, should those always be in the tool kit — should you always have those at your ready — or should you think about those are only tools you use when you really hit the zero lower bound and you have no other things you can do,” Daly told reporters after a talk at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

“You could imagine executing policy with your interest rate as your primary tool and the balance sheet as a secondary tool, but one that you would use more readily,” she added. “That’s not decided yet, but it’s part of what we are discussing now.”

These sort of “open mouth operations” are often a way of preparing us for decisions which if not already been taken are serious proposals. So there is an element of kite flying about this to see the response. The bit that sticks out for me is that Mary Daly is willing to use more readily something she is not even sure worked as this below is far from a claim of success for QE.

when we were trying to help the economy,

That is rather different to it did help.

If we move on to looking at the economic outlook then if the US Federal Reserve is debating this the European Central Bank must be desperate to restart QE. Maybe there was a hint this morning from Jens Weidmann of the German Bundesbank when he spoke in South Africa.

Central banks all over the world were forced to climb great hills over the last decade. And there are more hills on the horizon.

Comment

Let us step back for a moment and consider what QE is and what it has achieved. Is it money printing? Well in electronic terms yes as the money supply grows but it is also a liquidity swap in that the money is exchanged usually for government bonds which then leads to other liquidity swaps via purchases of other assets. Then the trail gets colder….

So the economic effects are

  1. Money flowing into other assets leading to equity and house prices being at least higher than otherwise and usually higher.
  2. It supports companies that would otherwise have folded leading to the zombie banks and businesses theme.
  3. Lower interest-rates and bond yields meaning that it has indirectly helped both politicians and fiscal policy. This does not get much of an airing in the media because it is not well understood.
  4. Higher narrow money supply which has not led to the surge in inflation expected by economics 101 although that is at least partly due to consumer inflation measures being directed to ignore asset prices.

These may improve economic growth at the margin but there are no grand effects here although Mario Draghi only recently claimed that it was responsible for the Euro improvement in 2016/17. But this ignores the problems created as for example many central bankers are now telling us economic growth has a “speed limit” of 1.5% and the place with QE longest ( Japan) guides us to below 1%. Also there are the problems with productivity which have popped up. Finally there is the issue of helping the already wealthy and boosting inequality that is so bad they have to keep making official denials.

Quantitative easing has also helped to reduce net wealth inequality slightly through its positive impact on house prices. ( ECB January 2019)