Abenomics does not address the economic problems facing Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the red pill

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

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

Okay so what has happened since then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wage growth is at best anemic.

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

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

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

Comment

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

Meanwhile the real challenge is adapting to this.

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

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

 

 

 

 

What is the problem with wage growth?

The problem with wages growth has been a long running theme of this website, also if we look back it is something which even preceded the credit crunch. Although of course the credit crunch has made it worse. The world of economics has been wrong-footed by this as the Ivory Towers as usual projected that it would be “the same old song” as the Four Tops told us. For example the UK Office for Budget Responsibility projected that wages growth in the UK would be 4.5% now, and if they had known how far that unemployment would fall would presumably have projected it even higher.

A contributor to this has been the concept of full employment. From Investopeadia.

Full employment is an economic situation in which all available labor resources are being used in the most efficient way possible. Full employment embodies the highest amount of skilled and unskilled labor that can be employed within an economy at any given time. Any remaining unemployment is considered to be frictional, structural or voluntary.

There were and amazingly still are concepts such as the “natural rate of unemployment” below which inflation was supposed to rise. The catch has been that as we have seen unemployment rates fall post credit crunch we have seen wages either rise weakly or stagnate. At best wage growth has been lower than expected and at worst we have seen it actually fall. Something has changed.

One factor in this is clearly that the old Ivory Tower way of looking at the labour market through the lens of official unemployment rates is flawed. The concept of “underemployment” has been developed whereby people work fewer hours than they would like or take a lower skilled job. This has become entwined with quite a few issues around the concept of self-employment which is often counted as a type of “full” employment when it is not. Indeed being fully employed is in fact in the UK something you think you are rather than being something properly defined. On this road we start to understand that the clouds have yet again gathered between the elevated heights of the Ivory Towers and the ground zero where the rest of us live and work.

Japan’s problem

Weak wages growth has been one of the features of the “lost decade(s)” for the Japanese economy and accordingly it was one of the objectives of the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reverse this. So let us examine today’s data as reported by Reuters.

Japan’s March real wages fell at the fastest pace in almost two years, pressured by meagre nominal pay hikes and a slight rise in consumer prices,

The detail is not good.

Inflation-adjusted real wages dropped 0.8 per cent in March from a year earlier to mark their biggest rate of decline since June 2015, labour ministry data showed on Tuesday (May 9)….In nominal terms, wage earners’ cash earnings fell 0.4 per cent year-on-year in March, also notching the biggest rate of decrease since June 2015.

If we continue the themes expressed above then if we imagined that we were inhabitants of an Ivory Tower we would be projecting fast wage growth. From Japan Macro Advisers.

The demand/supply balance in the Japanese labor market continues to remain tight. The unemployment rate remained steady at 2.8% in March 2017, matching the lowest rate since June 1994. Japan is likely to be at its full employment status, with only frictional unemployment remaining in the labor market.

Full employment with no wage growth and maybe even falls in real wages? Actually this is perhaps even worse for the concept of a natural rate of unemployment.

NAIRU, the Non-Accelerating-Inflation-Rate of Unemployment rate, was considered to lie between 3.5% and 4.5% in Japan.

So wages should be rising and doing so quite quickly whereas in reality they are not rising at all. Indeed contrary to the hype and media reporting they have been falling in the period of Abenomics  as the 103.9 of 2013 has been replaced by the 100.7 of 2016 where 2015 =100. The slight nudge up in 2016 has been replaced by falls so far in 2017.

This from Morgan Stanly only last month already seems like it is from a parallel universe.

Record low unemployment rates are pushing up salaries,

The Bank of Japan regularly tells us that wages will rise next year and Governor Kuroda stated this again only on Friday, but so far next year has never arrived.

Is Japan are forerunner for us and should we be singing along with The Vapors one more time?

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

The United States

A month ago US News reported this from US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

“With an unemployment rate that stands at 4.5 percent, that’s even a little bit below what most of my colleagues and I would take as a marker of where full employment is,” Yellen said. “I’d say we’re doing pretty well.”

Yet on Friday the Bureau of Labor Statistics told us this.

In April, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 7 cents to $26.19. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 65 cents,
or 2.5 percent.

So we are at what we are told is pretty much full employment and we are below the natural rate of employment ( 5.6% according to the Congressional Budget Office) and yet pay growth is still rather weak. It has been so for a while.

http://www.epi.org?p=117112&view=embed&embed_template=charts_v2013_08_21&embed_date=20170509&onp=75850&utm_source=epi_press&utm_medium=chart_embed&utm_campaign=charts_v2

The other issue is that in spite of us apparently being at full employment the level of wage growth is not a lot above inflation with the US CPI being at 2.4% and the Personal Consumption Expenditure being at 1.8%. Something is not right here and we do perhaps get some more perspective by looking at both the underemployment rate in the US ( 8.6%) and the way that the participation rate has fallen.

The UK

The situation here as I have been pointing out pretty much each time the data is released is very good in terms of the quantity measures as we see falling unemployment and rising employment but poor on the price or wages measure. This has been illustrated somewhat ironically by one of the failures of the Bank of England. Remember when it made an issue of the unemployment rate falling below 7%?

In particular, the MPC intends not to raise Bank Rate from its current level of 0.5% at least until the Labour Force Survey headline measure of the unemployment rate has fallen to a threshold of 7%,

There was a clear implication there that it expected economic changes as we moved below that threshold such as higher wage growth. Of course this was abandoned very quickly as unemployment fell sharply leaving the Bank of England’s spinners and PR people with plenty of work. But with the unemployment rate now well below 7% and indeed being 4.7% then wages should be rising quickly as we are well below the rate at which it was expected by our central banking overlords and masters. Er no, as you see wage growth for total pay was 2.3% back then and is 2.3% now. In terms of exact numbers that is happenstance but in terms of theme and principle it is yet another sign that the economic world has seen ch-ch-changes.

Comment

We are seeing something of a shift in the economic tectonic plates. Some of this is welcome as we see a strong recovery in levels of employment and falls in unemployment. However the other side of this coin is that wage growth is weak and in my home country the UK real wages have in spite of the economic recovery are still short of where they were a decade ago. It was only yesterday when I noted the German housing market getting like us well today it is our labour market which has mimicked theirs! Weak wage growth with low unemployment is rather Germanic and in fact is something we aimed at, well until we got it anyway.

Until now I have left out productivity which is an important factor in real wage growth as we wonder if the switch to a mainly service based  economy has neutered it? But there have been issued here as this morning’s working paper from the ECB indicates and its analysis applies much wider than just in the Euro area.

Higher labour productivity growth is a key factor in raising living standards in advanced economies……..Recent labour productivity growth in the euro area has, however, been low – by both historical and international standards – albeit against the backdrop of a generalised slowdown in global labour productivity growth…………..Over the period 2008-16, annual growth in euro area labour productivity per person employed slowed to an average of around 0.5% (based on a three-year moving average), from an average of around 1.1% over the course of the decade to 2007

 

The 0% problem of Japan’s economy

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

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

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

Demographics

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

Japan Needs More People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 0% Problem in Japan

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

Real Wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inflation

The latest official data hammers out an increasingly familiar beat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cultural issue

From The Japan Times.

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

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

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

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

More of the same?

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Are the currency wars still raging?

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

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

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

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

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

Germany

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

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

The UK

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

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

Perhaps the air got a bit thin up there.

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

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

Bitcoin

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

Comment

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

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

Japan continues to see wages stagnate

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Abenomics

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

2016 was a better year

NHK News takes up the case.

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

The data is the preliminary result of a nationwide survey.

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

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

Lower consumer prices pushed the adjusted figure higher.

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

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

December

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

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

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

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

Prospects

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

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

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

Indeed Reuters appears to have been reading me.

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

It also looks at the Okatuma region.

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

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

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

 

Rising bond yields are feeding into the real economy

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

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

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

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

That was then and this is now

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

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

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

The UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Euro area

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

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

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

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

 

The US

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

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

 

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

Japan

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

Comment

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Part 1

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

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

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

Part 2

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

Part 3

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

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

It was to say the least export led.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The past was bright

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

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

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

Unlimited bond buying

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

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain more or less at the current level (around zero percent).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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