Has Abenomics in Japan found what it is looking for?

This morning has brought news from Nihon the land of the rising sun and no I do not mean that the summer has been especially hot this year peaking at above 40 degrees centigrade around Tokyo. I mean this from The Japan Times.

Separate data showed workers’ real wages rose 2.8 percent in June from a year earlier, accelerating from a 1.3 percent increase in May and marking the fastest pace of growth since January 1997.

We have been noting a change in the pattern and waiting for developments and the June numbers are good but come with a kicker. What I mean by this is that it is the month where around two thirds of the summer bonuses are paid so it is good for workers as the 2.8% is of a larger than normal amount as pay is 41% above average in the month. But the kicker is that the boost is mostly bonuses and therefore will fade.

Looking into the detail we see that nominal wage growth was 3.6% and was pulled higher by the manufacturing sector where the summer bonuses saw wage growth rise to 4.2%. It must have been party time in the wholesale and distribution sector as total wage growth rose at an annual rate of 10.7%. So there was an excellent bonus season as 3.6% growth replaced the 0.4% of this time last year.

What about base or regular pay?

This was by no means as good as contracted earnings rose at an annual rate of 1.5% and scheduled earnings at 1.3%. However these are better numbers than seen in 2017 or indeed in the Abenomics era. Just to give you the picture starting in 2014 annual growth has gone -0.1%, 0.2%,0.2% and 0.4% last year. When you consider that one of the Abenomics “arrows” was supposed to be higher wages that was quite a failure when you consider all the monetary easing.

Now the picture looks a little better as real wage rises have replaced falls albeit that they are small such that pressure is put on the accuracy of the data. They probably cannot take it but they are what we have.

Full employment

I get regularly asked what this concept is and if it is seen anywhere in practice Japan seems to be it. For example whilst the unemployment rate nudged higher to 2.4% in June it is extraordinarily low. The job applicant to vacancy ratio has been setting new highs at 2.47 according to Japan Macro Advisers. Thus economic theory would predict that wages would have been rising and frankly surging, after all the Bank of Japan estimated that the structural rate of unemployment was 3.5% as another Ivory Tower foundation bites the dust.

The blame game

At the end of last month the Bank of Japan published some new research on this issue. First we get something of a criticism of what is called Japan Inc.

Basically, the reason for this is that, under Japan’s
labor market structure, which is characterized by
different wage-setting mechanisms for regular and
non-regular employees, the increase in wages of
regular employees has been remarkably
sluggish.

This is pretty standard analysis world-wide of course except the degree of tightness of the labour market is exceptional in Japan. But the theme of employers being willing to do almost anything other than raising basic pay we have seen pretty much all over the world. However the next bit of research has more than a few implications.

With labor shortage intensifying recently, the pace
of increase in the labor force participation rate,
especially among women and seniors, is
accelerating.

Encouraging women to work has been a government objective and you can see the rise in older people working in two ways. One as a sign of good health in that they can but the second is not so positive as I have noted before some are forced to work because times are hard. A while back I noted the issue of retired women in Japan sometimes being very poor which is against its culture. Well if you throw all of these factors into the pot look what the Bank of Japan thinks you get.

In other words, among these groups,
there will be greater labor supply for the same rate
of increase in wages . As a result, as
labor demand increases (represented by a shift of
the labor demand curve to the right in the chart),
women and seniors will supply more labor, which
in turn suppresses wage increases.

So this has been a boost for Japan Inc which has increased its labour supply cheaply but not good for existing workers.

If the labor supply of women and seniors were not elastic,
wage increases likely would have been larger.

So it was them that done it if we look at it in tabloid terms but where the Bank of Japan does not go I will. You see if we go back to the critiques of the likely behaviour of Prime Minister Abe before he was elected there was the case that he would favour Japanese businesses and Japan Inc. Just like he had in his first term. Well is there anything they would like more than a cheap labour supply? Especially in a country which due to a shrinking population has a clear issue with labour supply.

Next comes the impact of a supply of cheap labour. This makes me think of the UK where the Ivory Towers tell us again and again that the increase in labour supply from net immigration did not affect wage growth. Now there are various factors to put in this particular melting pot but this research from the Bank of Japan is clearly heading in the opposite direction.

Productivity

Here is something you may not expect but I mention it from time to time so let me hand over to the Bank of Japan and the emphasis is mine.

One reason is that the productivity of
Japanese firms is relatively low and there is large
room to raise productivity, mainly in the
nonmanufacturing sector. In fact, Japan’s labor productivity remains at only 60 to 70 percent of the U.S. level.

Japan has been doing well in terms of growth recently but there are two issues. Firstly even 1.2% per annum is not great and secondly it has been forced on it as it looks to a future of labour shortages.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. The rise in wages in June is welcome and the Yen in the workers pocket does not know whether it is a result of regular or bonus pay. But for now it looks like some icing on a similar cake. Combining this with the news on inflation that I discussed last time means that one area of Abenomics failure will in fact  be a positive here.

Another factor is that households are reluctant to
accept rises in housing rent and administered
prices given the low actual inflation rate and
inflation expectations ( Bank of Japan)

If we throw in imputed rent as well that is half the inflation measure. The Japanese do not know have lucky they are to have this and for all the Turning Japanese themes the Bank of Japan wants them to turn British in this respect. But if we move on from the detail we see that low inflation means this looks like a better year for real wages. Accordingly if we look back to my last update on this issue from a fortnight or so ago this from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times looks even worse than it did then.

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

As ever the picture remains complex as so far the wages growth has yet to filter through.

Household spending fell 1.2 percent in June from a year earlier, government data showed on Tuesday, marking the fifth straight month of declines.

 

 

 

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Japan is the land with no inflation

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

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

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

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

The Bank of Japan

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

Here is yesterday’s response described by NHK News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The economy

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

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

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

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

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

However the labour market remains strong.

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

Bank of Japan faces the return of very low inflation

How can you return if you never went away?

Trade Wars what are they good for?

This week trade is in the news mostly because of the Donald and his policy of America First. This has involved looking to take jobs back to America which is interesting when apparently the jobs situation is so good.

Our economy is perhaps BETTER than it has ever been. Companies doing really well, and moving back to America, and jobs numbers are the best in 44 years. ( @realDonaldTrump )

This has involved various threats over trade such as the NAFTA agreement primarily with Canada and Mexico and of course who can think of Mexico without mulling the plan to put a bit more than another brick in the wall? Back in March there was the Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP. From Politico.

While President Donald Trump announced steel and aluminum tariffs Thursday, officials from several of the United States’ closest allies were 5,000 miles away in Santiago, Chile, signing a major free-trade deal that the U.S. had negotiated — and then walked away from.

The steel and aluminium tariffs were an attempt to deal with China a subject to which President Trump has returned only recently. From the Financial Times.

Equities sold off and havens firmed on Tuesday after Donald Trump ordered officials to draft plans for tariffs on a further $200bn in Chinese imports should Beijing not abandon plans to retaliate against $50bn in US duties on imports announced last week.

According to the Peterson Institute there has been a shift in the composition of the original US tariff plan for China.

 Overall, 95 percent of the products are intermediate inputs or capital equipment. Relative to the initial list proposed by the Office of the US Trade Representative on April 3, 2018, coverage of intermediate inputs has been expanded considerably ……….Top added products are semiconductors ($3.6 billion) and plastics ($2.2 billion), as well as other intermediate inputs and capital equipment. Semiconductors are found in consumer products used in everyday life such as televisions, personal computers, smartphones, and automobiles.

The reason this is significant is that the world has moved on from even the “just in time” manufacturing model with so many parts be in sourced abroad even in what you might think are domestic products. This means that supply chains are often complex and what seems minor can turn out to be a big deal. After all what use are brakes without brake pads?

Thinking ahead

Whilst currently China is in the sights of President Trump this mornings news from the ECB seems likely to eventually get his attention.

In April 2018 the euro area current account recorded a surplus of €28.4 billion.

Which means this.

The 12-month cumulated current account for the period ending in April 2018 recorded a surplus of €413.7 billion (3.7% of euro area GDP), compared with €361.3 billion (3.3% of euro area GDP) in the 12 months to April 2017.

 

 

So the Euro area has a big current account surplus and it is growing.

This development was due to increases in the surpluses for services (from €46.1 billion to €106.1 billion) and goods (from €347.2 billion to €353.9 billion

There is plenty for the Donald to get his teeth into there and let’s face it the main player here is Germany with its trade surpluses.

Trade what is it good for?

International trade brings a variety of gains. At the simplest level it is access to goods and resources that are unavailable in a particular country. Perhaps the clearest example of that is Japan which has few natural resources and would be able to have little economic activity if it could not import them. That leads to the next part which is the ability to buy better goods and services which if we stick with the Japanese theme was illustrated by the way the UK bought so many of their cars. Of course this has moved on with Japanese manufacturers now making cars in the UK which shows how complex these issues can be.

Also the provision of larger markets will allow some producers to exist at all and will put pressure on them in terms of price and quality. Thus in a nutshell we end up with more and better goods and services. It is on these roads that trade boosts world economic activity and it is generally true that world trade growth exceeds world economic activity of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth.

Since the Second World War, the
volume of world merchandise trade
has tended to grow about 1.5 times
faster than world GDP, although in the
1990s it grew more than twice as fast. ( World Trade Organisation)

Although like in so many other areas things are not what they were.

However, in the aftermath of the global
financial crisis the ratio of trade growth
to GDP growth has fallen to around 1:1.

Although last year was a good year for trade according to the WTO.

World merchandise trade
volume grew by 4.7 per
cent in 2017 after just
1.8 per cent growth
in 2016.

How Much?

Trying to specify the gains above is far from easy. In March there was a paper from the NBER which had a go.

About 8 cents out of every dollar spent in the United States is spent on imports………..The estimates of gains from trade for the US economy that we review range from 2 to 8 percent of GDP.

Actually there were further gains too.

When the researchers adjust by the fact that domestic production also uses imported intermediate goods — say, German-made transmissions incorporated into U.S.-made cars — based on data in the World Input-Output Database, they conclude that the U.S. import share is 11.4 percent.

So we move on not enormously the wiser as we note that we know much less than we might wish or like. Along the way we are reminded that whilst the US is an enormous factor in world trade in percentage terms it is a relatively insular economy although that is to some extent driven by how large its economy is in the first place.

Any mention of numbers needs to come with a warning as trade statistics are unreliable and pretty universally wrong. Countries disagree with each other regularly about bilateral trade and the numbers for the growing services sector are woeful.

Comment

This is one of the few economic sectors where theory is on a sound footing when it meets reality. We all benefit in myriad ways from trade as so much in modern life is dependent on it. It has enriched us all. But the story is also nuanced as we do not live in a few trade nirvana, For example countries intervene as highlighted by the World Trade Organisation in its annual report.

Other issues raised by members
included China’s lack of timely and
complete notifications on subsidies
and state-trading enterprises,

That is pretty neutral if we consider the way China has driven prices down in some areas to wipe out much competition leading to control of such markets and higher prices down the road. There were plenty of tariffs and trade barriers long before the Donald became US President. Also Germany locked in a comparative trade advantage for itself when it joined the Euro especially if we use the Swiss Franc as a proxy for how a Deutschmark would have traded ( soared) post credit crunch.

Also there is the issue of where the trade benefits go? As this from NBC highlights there were questions all along about the Trans Pacific Partnership.

These included labor rights rules unions said were toothless, rules that could have delayed generics and lead to higher drug prices, and expanded international copyright protection.

This leads us back to the issue of labour struggling (wages) but capital doing rather well in the QE era. Or in another form how Ireland has had economic success but also grotesquely distorted some forms of economic activity via its membership of the European Union and low and in some cases no corporate taxes. Who would have thought a country would not want to levy taxes on Apple? After all with cash reserves of US $285.1 billion and rising it can pay.

So the rhetoric and actions of the Donald does raise fears of trade wars and if it goes further the competitive devaluations of the 1920s. But it is also true that there are genuine issues at play which get hidden in the melee a bit like Harry Kane after his first goal last night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abenomics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the picture is confused to say the least.

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe not.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Wages finally rise in Japan but are such small rises the future for us too?

This morning has brought news from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. Actually it is news that much of the media has been churning out over the Abenomics era when they have tried to report wage growth when there has not been any. However today the Ministry of Labor published some better news of the real variety.

Nominal cash earnings rose 2.1 percent year-on-year in March, the fastest annual gain since June 2003. It followed a revised 1.0 percent gain in February.

Regular pay, which accounts for the bulk of monthly wages, grew 1.3 percent in the year to March, the biggest gain since July 1997, while special payments jumped 12.8 percent as many firms offered their employees end-of-the-year bonuses.

Overtime pay, a barometer of strength in corporate activity, rose an annual 1.8 percent in March versus a revised 0.4 percent increase in February. (Reuters)

As you can see these numbers are something of a landmark in the lost decade era as we note the best overall earnings numbers since 2003 and the best regular pay data since 1997. Overtime pay was up too which is intriguing as the Japanese economy has not had the best start to 2018 and may even have shrunk in the first quarter ending a run of growth. Maybe this year Japanese employers are actually fulfilling their regular promises to raise wage growth.

Care is needed in that this is only one monthly number but after some revisions we see that 2018 so far has recorded annual wage growth of 1.2%,1% and 2.1%. These are low numbers but in the context are a shift higher. This can be explained if we look at the index for such numbers which is still only 101.9 after being set at 100 in 2015. We get an idea as it was 100 in 2014 as well and 100.6 in 2016 and 101 in 2017. Also we need to be aware that the main months for pay in Japan come in June/July and particularly December as for example pay in December is around double that for March but for now let us move on with a flicker of spring sunshine.

Is this the revenge of the Phillips Curve?

No doubt it is party time at the Ivory Towers although many may not have spotted this yet as of course news reaches them slowly. However I am still something of a “party pooper” on this subject as it still does not really work. Here is a tweet from a discussion I was involved in yesterday.

As you can see the state of play is very different between the American situation which we have looked at many times and the Japanese one. Female participation in the labour force changed with the onset of the lost decade era and male participation has picked up in the era of Abenomics although it had started around the beginning of the credit crunch.

If we look at the Abenomics impact I will let you decide if a major swing is good or bad. You see in the age group 55-64 the female participation rate is up by 10.2% in the past 6 years and the male one by 6.6%. I have written in the past that Japan looks after it older citizens well but there have been more and more suggestions that this is if not forced due to difficult circumstances. From the Independent on the 23rd of April.

For decades prior to this trend, it was a tradition for families and communities to care for their older citizens, but a lack of resources is making that harder to do so.

With the older population feeling more and more isolated as a result of this, women especially have turned to a life of crime in the hope that prison will provide them with a refuge and a home.

Returning to conventional economics there is also this to consider.

The number of unemployed persons in March 2018 was 1.73 million, a decrease of 150 thousand or 8.0% from the previous year.   The unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, was 2.5%. ( Japan Statistics Bureau).

These are extraordinary numbers as it was 3.9% in 2007 so it has been singing along with Alicia Keys.

Oh baby
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
I, I, I, I’m fallin’
Fall

We cannot rule out the possibility it will fall even further as it was 2.4% in January. Also it is being combined with rising employment.

The number of employed persons in March 2018 was 66.20 million, an increase of 1.87 million or 2.9% from the previous year.

Inflation

I though I would add this into the mix as it provides something of an irony. The view of the Bank of Japan has been for so long that an annual inflation rate of 2% is just around the corner. Yet in its last report it lost the faith.

In terms of the outlook for prices, most members shared the view that the year-on-year rate of change in the CPI was likely to continue on an uptrend and increase
toward 2 percent, mainly on the back of the improvement in the output gap and the rise in medium- to long-term inflation expectations.

And later this.

the momentum of
inflation was not yet strong enough to achieve the price stability target of 2 percent at an
early stage.

Of course now with an oil price of US $77 for a barrel of Brent Crude they may see an inflationary push bringing them nearer to their objective. Of course they think inflation at 2% per annum is a good thing whereas I do not. After all even the recent better wage data would leave real wages flat in such a scenario.

We will have to see if oil prices remain here but for now the news just coming through that Saudi Arabia has intercepted two ballistic missiles seems set to support it.

Comment

Let me start with some good news for Japan which is that on what used to be called the Misery Index it is doing very well. It used to add the unemployment rate ( 2.5%) to the inflation rate ( 1%) and as you can see it is rather low. Very different to the double-digit numbers from the UK when it was a popular measure.

But for economic theory and for the Phillips Curve in particular this is much less satisfactory.  This comes partly from asking where has it been? Let me hand you over to the Bank of Japan.

(1) the actual unemployment rate had been substantially below 3.5 percent, which had formerly been regarded as the structural unemployment rate,

So wage growth should have been surging for ages and it has not. Now we face a situation which may be more like a cliff-edge that the smooth Phillips Curve. This is because on every measure Japan has been approaching full employment and in the mad world of economics 101 has in fact passed it.

(2) the recruitment rate of new graduates and the employment rate of women had risen
considerably.

In fact if you look at the demographic situation full employment seems set to be lower than it was due to the aging population as so far rising participation has offset it. But here is the rub if participation had not changed then unemployment would be below 2% now as we are left wondering what level would generate some real wages growth?

Meanwhile if we look back at the US participation data there were some chilling responses as to the cause. They looked at something which has troubled us before on here.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09yfqsy#play

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tokyo Whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this are suggested last November, from Reuters.

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

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

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

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

Yen

This is something that fits the famous Churchillian phrase.

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is happening with fiscal policy?

A feature of the credit crunch era has been the way that monetary policy has taken so much of the strain of the active response. I say active because there was a passive fiscal response as deficits soared caused on one side by lower tax revenues as recession hit and on the other by higher social payments and bank bailout costs. Once this was over the general response was what has been badged as austerity where governments raised taxes and cut spending to reduce fiscal deficits. Some care is needed with this as the language has shifted and often ignores the fact that there was a stimulus via ongoing deficits albeit smaller ones.

Cheap debt

Something then happened which manages to be both an intended and unintended consequence. What I mean by that is that the continued expansion of monetary policy via interest-rate reductions and bond buying or QE was something which governments were happy to sign off because it was likely to make funding their spending promises less expensive. Just for clarity national treasuries need to approve QE type policies because of the large financial risk. But I do not think that it was appreciated what would happen next in the way that bond yields dropped like a stone. So much so that whilst many countries were able to issue debt at historically low-levels some were in fact paid to issue debt as we entered an era of negative interest-rate.

This era peaked with around US $13 trillion of negative yielding bonds around the world with particular areas of negativity if I may put it like that to be found in Germany and Switzerland. At one point it looked like every Swiss sovereign bond might have a negative yield. So what did they do with it?

Germany

This morning has brought us solid economic growth data out of Germany with its economy growing by 0.6% in the last quarter of 2017. But it has also brought us this.

Net lending of general government amounted to 36.6 billion euros in 2017 according to updated results of the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). In absolute terms, this was the highest surplus achieved by general government since German reunification. When measured as a percentage of gross domestic product at current prices (3,263.4 billion euros), the surplus ratio of general government was +1.1%.

So Germany chose to take advantage of being paid to issue debt to bring its public finances into surplus which might be considered a very Germanic thing to do. There is of course effects from one to the other because their economic behaviour is one of the reasons why their bonds saw so much demand.

But one day they may regret not taking more advantage of an extraordinary opportunity which was to be able to be paid to borrow. There must be worthy projects in Germany that could have used the cash. Also one of the key arguments of the credit crunch was that surplus countries like Germany needed to trim them whereas we see it running a budget surplus and ever larger trade surpluses.

In the detail there is a section which we might highlight as “Thanks Mario”

 Due to the continuing very low-interest rates and lower debt, interest payments decreased again (–6.4%).

Switzerland

The Swiss situation has been similar but more extreme. Membership of the Euro protected Germany to some extent as the Swiss Franc soared leading to an interest-rate of -0.75% and “unlimited” – for a time anyway – currency intervention. This led to the Swiss National Bank becoming an international hedge fund as it bought equities with its new foreign currency reserves and Switzerland becoming a country that was paid to borrow. What did it do with it? From its Finance Ministry.

A deficit of approximately 13 million is expected in the ordinary budget for 2018.

So fiscal neutrality in all but name and the national debt will decline.

 It is expected that gross debt will post a year-on-year decline of 3.3 billion to 100.8 billion in 2018 (estimate for 2017). This reduction will be driven primarily by the redemption of a 6.8 billion bond maturing combined with a low-level of new issues of only 4 billion.

The UK

Briefly even the UK had some negative yielding Gilts ( bonds) in what was for those who have followed it quite a change on the days of say 15% long yields. This was caused by Mark Carney instructing the Bank of England’s bond buyers to rush like headless chickens into the market to spend his £60 billion of QE and make all-time highs for prices as existing Gilt owners saw a free lunch arriving. Perhaps the Governor’s legacy will be to have set records for the Gilt market that generations to come will marvel at.

Yet the path of fiscal policy changed little as indicated by this.

Or at least it would do if something like “on an annual basis” was added. Oh and to complete the problems we are still borrowing which increases the burden on future generations. The advice should be do not get a job involving numbers! Which of course are likely to be in short supply at a treasury………..

But the principle reinforces this from our public finances report on Wednesday.

Public sector net borrowing (excluding public sector banks) decreased by £7.2 billion to £37.7 billion in the current financial year-to-date (April 2017 to January 2018), compared with the same period in the previous financial year; this is the lowest year-to-date net borrowing since the financial year-to-date ending January 2008.

So we too have pretty much turned our blind eye to a period where we could have borrowed very cheaply. If there was a change in UK fiscal policy it was around 2012 which preceded the main yield falls.

Bond yields

There have been one or two false dawns on this front, partly at least created by the enthusiasm of the Bank of Japan and ECB to in bond-buying terms sing along with the Kaiser Chiefs.

Knock me down I’ll get right back up again
I’ll come back stronger than a powered up Pac-Man

This may not be entirely over as this suggests.

“Under the BOJ law, the finance ministry holds jurisdiction over currency policy. But I hope Kuroda would consider having the BOJ buy foreign bonds,” Koichi Hamada, an emeritus professor of economics at Yale University, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

However we have heard this before and unless they act on it rises in US interest-rates are feeding albeit slowly into bond yields. This has been symbolised this week by the attention on the US ten-year yield approaching 3% although typically it has dipped away to 2.9% as the attention peaked. But the underlying trend has been for rises even in places like Germany.

Comment

Will we one day regret a once in a lifetime opportunity to borrow to invest? This is a complex issue as there is a problem with giving politicians money to spend which was highlighted in Japan as “pork barrel politics” during the first term of Prime Minister Abe. In the UK it is highlighted by the frankly woeful state of our efforts on the infrastructure front. We are spending a lot of money for very few people to be able to travel North by train, £7 billion or so on Smart Meters to achieve what exactly? That is before we get to the Hinkley Point nuclear power plans that seem to only achieve an extraordinarily high price for the electricity.

One example of fiscal pump priming is currently coming from the US where Donald Trump seems to be applying a similar business model to that he has used personally. Or the early days of Abenomics. Next comes the issue of monetary policy where we could of course in the future see news waves of QE style bond buying to drive yields lower but as so much has been bought has limits. This in a way is highlighted by the Japanese proposal to buy foreign bonds which will have as one of its triggers the way that the number of Japanese ones available is shrinking.