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?

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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.

 

 

 

How does Abenomics solve low wage growth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also see something familiar from QE supporters.

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

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

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

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

Economic growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wages

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

Me on Core Finance TV

 

 

 

What is going on at the Bank of Japan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bond Markets

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

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

The real economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Euro

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

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

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

Turning Japanese

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

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

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

South Korea and the Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not. Anyway the Won has been strong.

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

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

China

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

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

Hedge Fund Alert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

 

It is party and sake time at The Tokyo Whale as the Nikkei 225 hits highs

This week has brought a succession of news which will be welcomed by supporters of what has become called Abenomics and the Bank of Japan in particular. In fact the Bank of Japan will be pleased in two ways, one as an ordinary central bank and the other in its hedge fund style role as the Tokyo Whale. From The Japan Times.

The benchmark Nikkei average rose further and marked another 21-year closing high on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Thursday, boosted by Wall Street’s overnight advance. The Nikkei 225 average gained 73.45 points, or 0.35 percent, to end at 20,954.72 — the best finish since Nov. 29, 1996.

Today this has gone one step further or for Madness fans one step beyond,

Let us start with the most recent period from when Abenomics was first likely to be applied to now. In that time the Nikkei 225 equity index has risen from around 8000 to 21000. As this was one of the policy objectives as according to the mantra it leads to positive wealth effects for the economy it will be regarded as a success. It may also help oil the wheels in the ongoing Japanese election. But you see there is another reason for the Bank of Japan to be happy about this because since a trial effort back in 2010 it has been buying Japanese shares via Exchange Traded Funds. A more regular programme started in 2012 and this was boosted in size and scale over time and here is the current position from the September monetary policy statement.

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.

So the Bank of Japan will have some considerable paper profits right now especially in the light of a clear behavioural pattern which I looked at on the 6th of June.

The bank apparently buys frequently on days when the stock market dips in the morning, serving to stabilize share prices.

The Nikkei Asian Review analysed this development like this.

“The BOJ’s ETF purchases help provide resistance to selling pressure against Japanese stocks,” says Rieko Otsuka of the Mizuho Research Institute.

There have been various rumours over the years about central banks providing something of a “put option” for equity markets leading to talk of a “plunge protection team”, well here is one literally in action. The Japanese taxpayer may reasonably wonder why it is supporting equity investors in yet another example of a policy which the 0.01% will welcome in particular. But for now let is move on with the Governor of the Bank of Japan enjoying a celebratory glass of sake as he looks at the wealth effects of the equity market high and the paper profits in the Bank’s coffers.

The “Put Option” in practice

A paper had been written by Toby Nangle and Tony Yates on this. You may well recall Tony Yates as the person I had a debate with on BBC Radio 4’s Moneybox programme and that events since have not been kind to his views. Anyway they tell us this.

 the cumulative purchases by the Bank of Japanese equities are becoming substantial. We estimate the market value to have been just below ¥20 trillion at the end of July 2017, or around 3.2% of the total Japanese stock market, making the central bank the second largest owner of Japanese stocks after the Government Pension Investment Fund.

Indeed they find themselves producing analysis along the lines of my “To Infinity! And Beyond!” theme.

Without further adjusting the pace of ETF purchases, we project that the central bank will own 10% of the market sometime between 2022-2026, depending on the interim market performance.

First they look for an announcement effect.

We control for this by examining the excess returns of Japanese stocks versus global stocks two business days post-announcement in common currency (last column in Table 1). The relationship between the scale of purchases and the price change is positive in each episode, although the confidence we have in the relationship is not strong given such few data points.

Personally I would also be looking at the days ahead of the announcement as many of these type of events are anticipated and if you like “front-run” these days. Next we see they look for an execution effect and they struggle to find one as the Japanese market underperformed in the period they looked at compared to other equity markets. However we do get a confirmation of the put option in operation.

 we find that the Bank of Japan has timed the execution of its ETF purchase programme to coincide with episodes of market weakness, potentially with the aim of dampening price volatility.

Oh and “dampening price volatility” is the new reduce and/or stop market falls as otherwise it would also sell on days of market strength.

Will it spread?

This is slightly dubious depending on how you regard the actions of the Swiss National Bank which of course buys equities abroad which I presume they regard as the difference.

Japan has been alone in purchasing equities as part of its monetary easing programme, and the question of whether the purchase of equity securities is the next step along this path is of wider interest.

But I agree with the conclusion.

 Even if central banks in the US/Eurozone/UK achieve a lasting lift-off from the zero bound, and are able to shed asset purchases from their balance sheet, low central bank rates are discounted by markets to be a fact of life for the next decade or two, and the chance of needing to have recourse to unconventional measures appears very large.

Comment

Thank you to Tony and Toby for their paper but they use very neutral language and avoid any opinion on whether this is a good idea which tends to suggest a form of approval. Yet there are a myriad of problems.

The ordinary Japanese taxpayer is very unlikely to be aware of this and what is being done both in their name and with their backing. This is especially important if we consider the exit door as in how does this end?

There is a moral hazard problem in both backing and financing a market which disproportionately benefits the already well off. This gets added to by the latest scandal in Japan as the company below has been ( indirectly) backed by the Bank of Japan.

DJ KOBE STEEL SAYS FOUND MORE INSTANCES OF SHIPPED PRODUCTS WITH QUALITY PROBLEMS ( h/t @DeltaOne )

There are real problems here and is one of the arguments against central banks buying risky assets of this form and the clue of course is in the use of the word risky.

Next we have the issue of what good does it do? Yes some get an increase in their paper wealth and some will take profits. In a sense good luck to them, but as we note that this will be disproportionately in favour of the wealthy this is in my opinion a perversion of the role of a central bank.

On the other side of the coin is the current media cheerleading for equity markets of which this from Bloomberg this morning is an especially disturbing example.

To put this year’s gains in perspective, the value of global equities is now 3 1/2 times that at the financial crisis bottom in March 2009. Aided by an 8 percent drop in the U.S. currency, the dollar-denominated capitalization of worldwide shares appreciated in 2017 by an amount — $20 trillion — that is comparable to the total value of all equities nine years ago……… And yet skeptics still abound, pointing to stretched valuations or policy uncertainty from Washington to Brussels. Those concerns are nothing new, but heeding to them is proving an especially costly mistake.

You see congratulating people on doing well out of equity investments is very different to saying you should buy now at what are higher prices. Unless of course Bloomberg thinks they are more attractive at higher prices in which case perhaps it should be buying Bitcoin. Let me leave you with this which feels like something out of a dystopian science fiction piece.

Big companies are becoming huge, from Apple Inc. to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

The land of the rising sun sees rising GDP too

Today starts with good news from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. I do not mean the sporting sphere although there was success as a bronze medal in the men’s 4 by 100m relay was followed by silver and bronze in the men’s 50 km walk at the world athletics championships. There was also a near miss as Hideki Matsuyama faded at the US PGA  and did not become the first Japanese man to win a golf major. But the major good news came from the Cabinet Office as this from The Mainichi tells us.

Japan’s economy grew an annualized real 4.0 percent in the April-June period for a sixth straight quarter of expansion, marking the longest growth run since 2006, as private consumption and corporate spending showed signs of vigor, government data showed Monday.

If we convert to the terms we use there was 1% economic growth from the previous quarter which was quite a surge. Actually that is way beyond what the Bank of Japan thinks is the potential growth rate for Japan but let us park that for now and move on to the detail.  Reuters points out that consumption was strong.

Private consumption, which accounts for about two-thirds of GDP, rose 0.9 percent from the previous quarter, more than the median estimate of 0.5 percent growth.

That marked the fastest expansion in more than three years as shoppers splashed out on durable goods, an encouraging sign that consumer spending is no longer the weak spot in Japan’s economic outlook.

In fact so was investment.

Capital expenditure jumped by 2.4 percent in April-June from the previous quarter, versus the median estimate for a 1.2 percent increase. That was the fastest growth in business investment since January-March 2014.

The combination is interesting as this is something that Japan has wanted for a long time as its “lost decade(s)” of economic malaise have seen domestic demand and consumption in particular struggle. Some countries would be especially troubled by the trade figures below but of course Japan has seen many years of surpluses as this from the Nikkei Asian Review indicates.

 Japan’s current account surplus expanded in the January-June period to the highest level since 2007 as earnings from foreign investments moved further into the black, despite rising energy prices pushing up the overall value of the country’s imports, government data showed Tuesday.

 

Thus it is likely to see this as another welcome sign of strong domestic demand.

External demand subtracted 0.3 percentage point from GDP growth in April-June in part due to an increase in imports.

Those who look at the world economy will be pleased to see a “surplus” economy importing more.

Where does this leave Abenomics?

There are various ways of looking at this and the Japanese owned Financial Times leads the cheers.

‘Not a fluke’: Japan on course to record best GDP growth streak since 2000

“Not a fluke” is an odd thing to write because if you look at the GDP chart they provide we see several spikes like this one which imply it may well be er not only a fluke but another one. They are less keen to credit another form of Abenomics which is the way that the latest stimulus programme impacted with a 5.1% (21.9% annualised) rise in public investment causing a 0.2% rise in GDP on its own. Perhaps this is because of the dichotomy in this part of Abenomics where on the one hand fiscal expansionism is proclaimed and on the other so is a lower deficit! Also there are memories of past stimulus projects where pork barrel politics led to both bridges and roads to nowhere.

Actually the FT does then give us a bit of perspective.

 

Japan’s economy, as measured by real GDP, is now 7 per cent larger than when prime minister Shinzo Abe took office in late 2012, notes Emily Nicol at Daiwa Capital Markets.

That is a long way short of the original promises which is one of the reasons why the Japanese government page on the subject introduces Abenomics 2.0.  If we look at the longer-term chart below is there a clear change.

On such a basis one might think it was the US or UK that had seen Abenomics as opposed to Japan. Of course the figures are muddied by the recession created by the consumption tax rise in 2014 but the performance otherwise even with this quarter’s boost is far from relatively stellar.

Bank of Japan

It will of course be pleased to see the economic news although it also provides plenty of food for thought as details like this provide backing for my analysis that ~0% inflation is far from the demon it is presented as and can provide economic benefits. From Bloomberg.

The GDP deflator, a broad measure of price changes, fell 0.4 percent from a year earlier.

Board Member Funo confirmed this in a speech earlier this month.

The rate of increase for all items less fresh food and energy had remained on a decelerating trend, following the peak of 1.2 percent in winter 2015; recently, the rate of change has been at around 0 percent.

He of course followed this with the usual rhetoric.

The rate will likely reach around 2 percent in around fiscal 2019.

It is always just around the corner in not entirely dissimilar fashion to a fiscal surplus in the UK. As to the official view it is going rather well apparently.

Taking this into consideration, the Bank decided to adopt a commitment that allows inflation to overshoot the price stability target so as to strengthen the forward-looking mechanism in the formation of inflation expectations, enhance the credibility of achieving the price stability target among the public, and raise inflation expectations in a more forceful manner.

Make of that what you will. The reality is that the QQE programme did weaken the Yen but that effect wore off and inflation is now ~0% as is wage growth.

Comment

This growth figures are good news and let me add something that appears to have been missed in the reports I have read. Back to Board Member Funo.

In an economy with a declining population.

Thus the per capita or per person GDP numbers are likely to be even better than the headline. I would say that this would benefit the ordinary Japanese worker and consumer but we know that real wage growth has dipped into negative territory again. This provides a problem for Prime Minister Abe as when he came to power the criticisms were based around his past history of being part of the Japanese establishment. What we see nearly 5 years down the road is a lack of real wage growth combined with good times for Japanese corporate profitability. As to the reform programme there is not a lot to be seen and maybe this is why Board Member Funo was so downbeat.

In an economy with a declining population, as is the case in Japan, demand is expected to decrease for many goods and services; therefore, it will be important to adequately adjust supply capacity; that is, employees and production capacity to meet such a decreasing trend.

I do not know about you but trying to raise prices when you expect both demand and supply to fall seems extremely reckless to me.

As to the GDP numbers themselves we need a cautionary note as Japan has had particular problems with them and they are revised more and by larger amounts than elsewhere.