What to do with a problem like Japan?

Next week on Thursday we will get the latest policy announcement from the Bank of Japan and it may well be a live meeting. With other central banks acting – and by this I mean easing policy again – there will be pressure on the Bank of Japan to maintain its relative position. But yesterday provided a catch which at the time of writing is in fact a version of Catch-22. This is because financial markets did the opposite of what Mario Draghi and the ECB wanted. At first markets went the right way and let me highlight bond markets as they digested these words from Mario Draghi at the press conference.

First of all let me start from one thing about which there was unanimous consensus, unanimity, namely that fiscal policy should become the main instrument.

This curious statement which is way beyond any central banking mandate even came with an official denial of its purpose.

they are packages not meant to finance Government deficits,

But my point is that the market move then U-Turned and bond yields rose. So for example the German bond market future fell by over 2 points from its peak. The ten-year yield rose and is now -0.51%. Next the Euro fell but then rose strongly and is now 1.108 versus the US Dollar.

Such developments will be watched closely in Tokyo with the concept of more easing leading to a stronger currency being something that would make Governor Kuroda want something a bit stronger than his morning espresso. Actually even something which is good news may have him chuntering as it reminds him of the demographics issue that Japan faces. From NHK news this morning.

Japan now has more than 70,000 centenarians, according to the health ministry. A new high has been reached every year for 49 years in a row.

The ministry says 71,238 people will be 100 or older as of September 15. That’s 1,453 more than last year………

There were only 153 centenarians when the ministry conducted its first survey in 1963. The figure surpassed 10,000 in 1998 and 50,000 in 2012.

Officials attribute the rapid rise to medical advances and campaigns to stay fit.

The ministry says it will provide support to enable elderly people to maintain their well being.

In this area economics lives up or rather down to its reputation as the dismal science as the good news above reminds us of Japan’s shrinking and ageing population.

The Banks

We rarely here these mentioned as of course the Japanese banks passed into the zombie zone some years and indeed decades ago. But The Japan Times is on the case today.

Since negative rates were introduced in 2016, Japanese bank shares have languished as their lending profitability dwindles. Nishihara estimates another rate reduction could wipe out as much as ¥500 billion ($4.6 billion) of bank profits, though lenders could make up ¥300 billion if they charge ¥1,000 per account annually.

They do not specify but they seem to be assuming Japan will match the ECB ( and its last move) and cut interest-rates from -0.1% to -0.2%. As to the making money from fees this would be especially awkward in Japan for this reason.

Such levies could help to address Japan’s unusually high number of accounts, easing costs for banks, then-central bank Deputy Gov. Hiroshi Nakaso said in 2017. There are about seven accounts per adult in Japan, the most in the world, according to International Monetary Fund figures.

I mean who cares about the people when The Precious is a factor?

Smaller Banks

These are a case of “trouble,trouble,trouble” as Taylor Swift would say.

Troubled regional banks are plunging into riskier corners of the credit markets, in a battle to survive ultralow interest rates and an industry shakeout.

A clear backfire from the QE or as we are in Japan QQE era. If you are wondering why QE became QQE in Japan think of how the leaky Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant became the leak-free Sellafield. I am just trying to remember if it was 13 or 19 versions of QE before the name change but I imagine you get the idea either way.

As to the smaller banks.

The latest case came last week. Local lenders were among the buyers of samurai bonds — those denominated in yen and issued by non-Japanese companies — sold by Export-Import Bank of India with a BBB+ rating, just three steps away from junk, that may have dissuaded the financial firms in the past. In another unconventional move last month, a few regional banks also put their money in the first negative-yielding note issued by a Japanese agency.

The title of “samurai bonds” is worrying enough in itself. Then moving into negative yielding bonds, what could go wrong?

I do enjoy the description of Japan’s face culture as “taking a more lenient view”.

Even Japan’s two major rating firms, which have tended to take a more lenient view, are sounding alarms. Downgrades and outlook cuts of regional lenders have increased to 13 so far this year at Japan Credit Rating Agency and Rating & Investment Information, the most for similar periods in data compiled by Bloomberg going back to 2010.

Oh and please remember when you read the quote below that the third arrow of Abenomics was supposed to be economic reform.

The government also said earlier this year that legislation will be submitted to the Diet in 2020 that will exempt regional banks from the anti-monopoly law for 10 years to facilitate mergers.

Banks are banks

It would seem that banking behaviour is the same wherever we look.

Japan Post Bank improperly sold investment trust products to elderly customers in violation of its rules in a total of some 20,000 cases, according to informed sources.

An investigation by the Japan Post Holdings Co. unit newly discovered some 2,000 cases of improper investment trust sales at 200 post offices, the sources said. Most contracts were conducted in fiscal 2018, which ended March 31.

Bank of Japan

There is often a lot of hot air about private ownership of central banks but as today’s Bank of Japan Annual Review points out, well you can see for yourself.

The Bank is capitalized at 100 million yen in accordance
with Article 8, paragraph 1 of the Act. As of the end of
March 2019, 55,008,000 yen is subscribed by the
government, and the rest by the private sector.

Some food for thought is provided by the word gearing. Why? Well the Bank of Japan has 486,523,186,968,000 Yen of Japanese Government Securities alone on its books.

Life Insurers

A problem for Japan’s life insurers is that they cannot get any interest or yield in Japan without rocketing up the risk scale. So according to Brad Setser they have been doing this.

But that changes when insurers cannot get the returns they want (or need) at home, and they start investing abroad in a quest for yield. Japanese life insurers (and for that matter Post Bank and Nochu) have looked abroad because yields at home are zero, and Japanese firms (in aggregate) don’t need to borrow.

Ah Post Bank again. How much?

For Japan, the data above shows a broader set of institutions—but the life insurers hold around $1.6 trillion, a sum that is around a third of GDP.

Comment

As you can see there are lots of questions about the financial system in Japan. That may move the Bank of Japan to copy the ECB as it notes that shares in The Precious have risen ( Deutsche Bank if up 0.25 Euros at 7.59).

Moving to the real economy it has not had such a bad 2019 so far. Whilst economic growth was revised down from 1.8% to 1.3% in annualised terms in the second quarter that is still better than I though it would be. For Japan these days an annual GDP growth rate of 1% is about par for the course and is better in individual terms due to the shrinking population. But as we look ahead we see a Pacific Region which is in trouble economically and of course a Consumption Tax rise ( which impacted so heavily in 2014) is due soon. So over to you Governor Kuroda.

Oh and something I have not mentioned so far which is that the Yen is at 108.

 

 

 

The Bank of Japan fears no longer being the “leader of the pack”

The next two weeks look set to bring a situation you might not expect. After all Japan has built a reputation as the “leader of the pack” as the Shangri-Las would put it in terms of monetary policy easing. Except that it is now facing a situation where it looks set to be left behind. On Thursday the European Central Bank will announce its latest moves and its President Mario Draghi has been warming us up for some action. Either he will announce an interest-rate cut or he will signal one for September. So there are two perspectives here for Japan. The first is that the Euro area looks set to cut by the total amount that Japan has below zero as 0.1% is the minimum and of course 0.2% would be double it. Next is the issue that the new rate of -0.5% or -0.6% would be a considerable amount lower than in Japan.

If we now shift to the United States the US Federal Reserve looks set to cut interest-rates as well when it meets at the end of the month. There was a spell last week when financial markets switched to expecting a 0.5% cut which would put the new rate at 1.75% to 2%. Personally I am far from convinced by that and a 0.25% cut seems much more likely but nonetheless it puts the Bank of Japan under pressure.

The Yen

The factors we have looked at above will be putting some upwards pressure on the Yen as interest-rate expectations shift against it. This has been reinforced by an unintended consequence of the policy applied by the central planners at the Bank of Japan.

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). With regard
to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases more or less in line with the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding
of its JGB holdings at about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of a long-term interest rate specified by the guideline. JGBs with a wide range of maturities will continue to be eligible for purchase, while the guideline for average remaining maturity of the Bank’s JGB purchases will be abolished.

The problem here as I have pointed out before is that something which was supposed to have kept Japanese Government Bond ( JGB) yields down has ended up keeping them up. Ooops! As world bond markets have surged Japan has been left behind because its bond market is essentially run by the Bank of Japan ( 80 trillion yen a year buys you that) and it has been wrong footed completely. The recent surge began in early March and the German ten-year yield has fallen as much as by 0.6% and the US by 0.8% but Japan by only 0.16%.

So as you can see relative interest-rates and yields have moved to support the Yen since the early spring of this year. The policy of “yield curve control” aiming for bond yields of 0% to -0.1% no doubt seemed a good way of continuing the Abenomics policy of weakening the Yen at the time. However over the period that bond markets have surged the Yen has strengthened from 112 versus the US Dollar to 108 now. That is before we see any shift in the rhetoric of President Trump who as the tweet from the early part of this month below points out, wants a weaker US Dollar.

China and Europe playing big currency manipulation game and pumping money into their system in order to compete with USA. We should MATCH, or continue being the dummies who sit back and politely watch as other countries continue to play their games – as they have for many years!

That will have been viewed with horror in Tokyo because whilst The Donald is not currently putting Japan in his cross hairs they have looking to weaken the Yen since Abenomics began back in 2013. This would be quite a reverse for Japan as it would not want to get into a currency war with the United States.

Moving to other currencies we see that the Yen has been strengthening against the Euro and the UK Pound as well. Indeed we get another perspective I think from looking at Switzerland which regular readers will know I labelled as a “Currency Twin” with Japan due to the way both currencies were borrowed heavily in the pre credit crunch period. There are increasing rumours that the Swiss National Bank has been getting the equivalent of an itchy collar over the strength of the Swiss Franc and has been checking the markets as a hint that it may intervene again. It may well find itself having to match any ECB interest-rate cut and that will echo in Tokyo as well as giving us a new low for negative interest-rates.

The Pacific Trade Crisis

The stereotype of this area is of fast growing economies with the image of many of them being Pacific Tigers compared to the more sclerotic Western nations. Yet troubles are there too now so let us go to Seoul on Thursday.

The Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Korea decided today to lower the Base Rate by 25 basis points, from 1.75% to 1.50%.

Okay why?

With respect to future domestic economic growth, the Board expects that the adjustment in construction investment will continue and exports and facilities investment will recover later than originally expected,
although consumption will continue to grow. GDP is forecast to grow at the lower-2% level this year, below the April forecast (2.5%).

This morning has brought more news on that front. From Bloomberg.

South Korea’s exports, a bellwether for global trade, appear set for an eighth straight monthly decline as trade disputes take a toll on global demand. Exports during the first 20 days of July fell 14 percent from a year earlier, data from the Korea Customs Service showed Monday. Semiconductor sales plunged 30 percent, while shipments to China, the biggest buyer of South Korean goods, fell 19 percent.

Korea is a bellwether as these numbers are released very promptly and many of its companies are integrated into global supply chains, so it gives a signal for world trade. Currently it is not good and there is a direct link to Japan.

Imports from the U.S. rose 3.7 percent, while those from Japan dropped 15 percent.

Also on Thursday Bank Indonesia decided to join the party.

The BI Board of Governors agreed on 17th and 18th July 2019 to lower the BI 7-day Reverse Repo Rate by 25 bps to 5,75%,

A day earlier say troubling news for the economy of Singapore.

SINGAPORE’S exports, already in double-digit decline for three straight months, fell again in June, according to Enterprise Singapore data released on Wednesday morning.

Non-oil domestic exports (NODX) were down by 17.3 per cent on the year before – a six-year low  ( Business Times )

Comment

The Bank of Japan finds itself between a rock and a hard place on quite a few fronts. The Yen has been strengthening and other central banks are on their way to matching its policies. That is before we get to the issue of the clear trade slow down in the Pacific region. This will add to the problem hidden in what looked on the surface as solid economic growth in the first part of the year.

In the three-month period, exports dropped 2.4 percent and imports sank 4.6 percent, as in the initial reading. As a result, net exports — exports minus imports — pushed up GDP by 0.4 percentage point. ( Japan Times).

In all other circumstances the Bank of Japan would cut interest-rates in a week. But they do not like negative interest-rates much and they are buying pretty much everything ( bonds, equities and commercial property) as it is! In October another Consumption Tax rise is due as well. Perhaps Bryan Ferry was right.

Say, when you’ve been around, what’s left to do?
Don’t know? Ask Tokyo Joe
So inscrutable her reply
“Ask no question and tell me no lie”

Podcast

 

 

The Bank of Japan begins to face its failures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wages

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

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

Problems for economics

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

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual
pace of about 80 trillion yen……….The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate
investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively…….As for CP and corporate bonds, the Bank will maintain their amounts outstanding at
about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively.

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

Misfire on bond yields

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

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

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

Economic Growth

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast

Japan adds sharply falling imports to its continuing real wages problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Industrial Production

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

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

Wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Central bankers are warming us up for more inflation again

A feature of the credit crunch era is the repetition of various suggestions from governments and central banks. One example of this has been the issue of Eurobonds which invariably has a lifespan until the nearest German official spots it. Another has been the concept of central banks overshooting their inflation target for a while. It is something that is usually supported by those especially keen on ( even more) interest-rate cuts and monetary easing so let us take a look.

Last Wednesday European Central Bank President Mario Draghi appeared to join the fray and the emphasis is mine.

Well, on your second question I will answer saying exactly the same thing. We don’t tolerate too low inflation; we remain fully committed to using all necessary instruments to return inflation to 2% without undue delay. Likewise, our inflation aim doesn’t imply a ceiling of 2%. Inflation can deviate from our objective in both directions, so long as the path of inflation converges towards our medium-term objective. I believe I must have said something close to this, or something to this extent a few other times in the past few years.

Nice try Mario but not all pf us had our senses completely dulled by what was otherwise a going through the motions press conference. As what he said at the press conference last September was really rather different.

In relation to that: shouldn’t the ECB be aiming for an overshoot on inflation rather than an undershoot given that it’s been below target for so long?

Second point: our objective is an inflation rate which is below, but close to 2% over the medium term; we stay with that, that’s our objective.

As you can see back then he was clearly sign posting an inflation targeting system aiming for inflation below 2%. That was in line with the valedictory speech given by his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet which gave us a pretty exact definition by the way he was so pleased with it averaging 1.97% per annum in his term. So we have seen a shift which leads to the question, why?

The actual situation

What makes the switch look rather odd is the actual inflation situation in the Euro area. Back to Mario at the ECB press conference on Wednesday.

According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 1.4% in March 2019, after 1.5% in February, reflecting mainly a decline in food, services and non-energy industrial goods price inflation. On the basis of current futures prices for oil, headline inflation is likely to decline over the coming months.

So we find that inflation is below target and expected to fall further in 2019. This was a subject which was probed by one of the questions.

 It’s quite clear that the sliding of the five-year-to-five-year inflation expectations corresponds to a deterioration of the economic outlook. It’s also quite clear that as the economic outlook, especially the economic activity slows down, also markets expect less pressure in the labour market, but we haven’t seen that yet.

The issue of markets for inflation expectations is often misunderstood as the truth is we know so little about what inflation will be then. But such as it is again  the trend may well be lower so why have we been guided towards higher inflation being permitted.

It might have been a slip of the tongue but Mario Draghi is usually quite careful with his language. This leaves us with another thought, which is that if he is warming us up for an attitude change he is doing soon behalf of his successor as he departs to his retirement villa at the end of October.

The US

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari suggested this in his #AskNeel exercise on Twitter.

Well we officially have a symmetric target and actual inflation has averaged around 1.7%, below our 2% target, for the past several years. So if we were at 2.3% for several years that shouldn’t be concerning.

Also he reminded those observing the debate on Twitter that the US inflation target is symmetric and thus unlike the ECB.

Yes, i think we should really live the symmetric target and not tap the brakes prematurely. This is why I’ve been arguing for more accommodative monetary policy. But we are undertaking a year long review of various approaches so I am keeping an open mind.

As you can see with views like that the Donald is likely to be describing Neel Kashkari as “one of the best people”.  If we move to the detail there are various issues and my initial one is that inflation tends to feed on itself and be self-fulfilling so the idea that we can be just over the target at say 2.3% is far from telling the full picture. Usually iy would then go higher. Also if your wages were not growing or only growing at 1% you would be concerned about even that seemingly low-level of inflation.

If we consider the review the US Fed is undertaken we see from last week’s speech by Vice Chair Clarida a denial that it has any plans to change its 2% per annum target and we know what to do with those! Especially as he later points out this.

In part because of that concern, some economists have advocated “makeup” strategies under which policymakers seek to undo, in part or in whole, past inflation deviations from target. Such strategies include targeting average inflation over a multiyear period and price-level targeting, in which policymakers seek to stabilize the price level around a constant growth path.

As the credit crunch era has seen inflation generally be below target this would be quite a shift as it would allow for quite a catch-up. Which of course is exactly the point!

Comment

Central bankers fear that they are approaching something of a nexus point. They have deployed monetary policy on a scale that would not have been believed before the credit crunch hit us. Yet in spite of the negative interest-rates, QE style bond purchases and in some cases equity and property buys we see that there has been an economic slow down and inflation is generally below target. Also the country that has deployed monetary policy the most in terms of scale Japan has virtually no inflation at all ( 0.2% in February).

At each point in the crisis where central bankers face such issues they have found a way to ease policy again. We have seen various attempts at this and below is an example from Charles Evans the President of the Chicago Fed from back in March 2012.

My preferred inflation threshold is a forecast of 3 percent over the medium term.

We have seen others look for 4% per annum. What we are seeing now is another way of trying to get the same effect but this time looking backwards rather than forwards.

There are plenty of problems with this. Whilst a higher inflation target might make life easier for central bankers the ordinary worker and consumer faces what economists call “sticky” wages. Or in simple terms prices go up but wages may not and if the credit crunch is any guide will not. My country the UK suffered from that in 2010/11 when the Bank of England “looked through” consumer inflation which went above 5% with the consequence of real wages taking a sharp hit from which they have still to recover.

Next comes the issue that in the modern era 2% per annum may be too high as a target anyway. In spite of all the effort it has been mostly undershot and as 2% in itself has no reason for existence why not cut it? Then we might make progress in real wage terms or more realistically reduce the falls. That is before we get to the issue of inflation measures lacking credibility in the real world as things get more expensive but inflation is officially recorded as low.

Meanwhile central bankers sing along to Marvin Gaye.

‘Cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough

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Are negative interest-rates becoming a never ending saga?

Today brings this subject to mind and let me open with the state of play in Switzerland.

The Swiss National Bank is maintaining its expansionary
monetary policy, thereby stabilising price developments
and supporting economic activity. Interest on sight
deposits at the SNB remains at – 0.75% and the target
range for the three-month Libor is unchanged at between
– 1.25% and – 0.25%.

As you can see negative interest-rates are as Simple Minds would put it alive and kicking in Switzerland. They were introduced as part of the response to a surging Swiss Franc but as we observe so often what are introduced as emergency measures do not go away and then become something of a new normal. It was back on the 18th of December 2014 that a new negative interest-rate era began in Switzerland.

The introduction of negative interest rates makes it less attractive to hold Swiss franc investments, and thereby supports the minimum exchange rate.

Actually the -0.25% official rate lasted less than a month as on the 15th of January 2015 the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro was abandoned and the official interest-rate was cut to -0.75% where it remains.

Added to that many longer-term interest-rates in Switzerland are negative too. For example the Swiss National Bank calculates a generic bond yield which as of yesterday was -0.26%. This particular phase of Switzerland as a nation being paid to borrow began in late November last year.

The recovery

The latest monthly bulletin tells us this.

Jobless figures fell further, and in February the
unemployment rate stood at 2.4%.

There was a time when this was considered to be below even “full employment” a perspective which has been added to this morning and the tweet below is I think very revealing.

If we look at the Swiss economy through that microscope we see that in this phase the unemployment rate has fallen by 1%. Furthermore we see that not only is it the lowest rate of the credit crunch era but also for much of the preceding period as it was back around the middle of 2002.

So if we look at the Swiss internal economy it is increasingly hard to see what would lead to interest-rates rising let alone going positive again. This is added to by the present position as described by the SNB monthly bulletin.

According to an initial estimate, GDP in Switzerland grew
by 0.7% in the fourth quarter. Overall, GDP thus stagnated
in the second half of 2018, having grown strongly to
mid-year.
Leading indicators and surveys for Switzerland point to
moderately positive momentum at the beginning of 2019.

The general forecasting view seems to be for around 1.1% GDP growth this year. So having not raised interest-rates in a labour market boom it seems unlikely unless they have a moment like the Swedish Riksbank had last December that we will see one this year,

Exchange Rate

There is little sign of relief here either. There was a brief moment round about a year ago that the Swiss Franc looked like it would get back to its past 1.20 floor versus the Euro. But since then it has strengthened and is now at 1.126 versus the Euro. Frankly if you are looking for a perceived safe-haven then does a charge of 0.75% a year deter you? That seems a weak threshold and reminds me of my article on interest-rates and exchange rates from the 3rd of May last year.

However some of the moves can make things worse as for example knee-jerk interest-rate rises. Imagine you had a variable-rate mortgage in Buenos Aires! You crunch your domestic economy when the target is the overseas one.

Well events have proven me right about Argentina but whilst the scale here is much lower we have a familiar drum beat. The domestic economy has been affected but the exchange-rate policy has had over four years and is ongoing.

The Euro

Let me hand you over to the President of the ECB Mario Draghi at the last formal press conference.

First, we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged. We now expect them to remain at their present levels at least through the end of 2019……….These are decisions that have been taken following a significant downward revision of the forecasts by our staff.

For reasons only known to themselves part of the financial media persisted in suggesting that an ECB interest-rate rise was in the offing and it would be due round about now. The reality is that any prospect has been pushed further away if we note the present malaise and read this from the same presser.

negative rates have been quite successful in our monetary policy.

Although we can never rule out an attempt to continue to impose negative rates on us but exclude the precious in some form.

Sweden

Last December the Riksbank did start to move away from negative interest-rates. The problem is that they now find themselves wearing something of a central banking dunces cap. Having failed to raise rates in a boom they decided to do so in advance of events like this.

Total orders in industry decreased by 2.0 percent in February 2019 compared with January, in seasonally adjusted figures………..Among the industrial subsectors, the largest decrease was in the industry for motor vehicles, down 12.7 percent compared with January. ( Sweden Statistics yesterday)

Like elsewhere the diesel debacle is taking its toll.

The new registrations of passenger cars during 2019 decreased by 15.2 percent compared with last year. There were 27 710 diesel cars in total registered this year, a decrease of 26 percent compared with last year.

Anyway this is the official view.

As in December, the forecast for the repo rate indicates that the next increase will be during the second half of 2019, provided that the economic outlook and inflation prospects are as expected.

Japan

This is the country that has dipped its toe into the icy cold world of negative rates by the least but the -0.1% has been going for a while now.

introduced “QQE with a Negative Interest Rate” in January 2016 ( Bank of Japan)

If the speech from Bank of Japan Board Member Harida on March 6th is any guide it is going to remain with us.

I mentioned earlier that the economy currently may be weak, and the same can be said about prices.

Also he gives an alternative view on the situation.

Following the introduction of QQE, the nominal GDP growth rate, which had been negative since the global financial crisis, has turned positive………Barring the implementation of both QE and QQE, Japan’s nominal GDP growth would have remained in negative territory this whole time since 1998.

Is it all about the nominal debt of the Japanese state then? Also he seems unlikely to want an interest-rate increase.

Rather, premature policy tightening in the past caused economic deterioration, a decline in both prices and production, and lowered interest rates in the long run.

Comment

We find that there are two routes to negative interest-rates. The first is to weaken the exchange-rate such as we have seen in Switzerland and the second is to boost the economy like in the Euro area. So external in the former and internal in the latter. It can be combined as if you wish to boost your economy a lower exchange-rate is usually welcome and this pretty much defines Abenomics in Japan.

As we stand neither route seems to have worked much. Maybe a negative interest-rate helped the Euro area and Japan for a while but the current slow down suggests not for that long. So we face something of an economic oxymoron which is that it is the very fact that negative interest-rates have not worked which explains their longevity and while they seem set to be with us for a while yet.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monetary Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Japan 10Y yields collapse further into negative territory

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

Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently
Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently

The Yen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

Also something which we figured out some months back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now today.

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

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

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