How many central banks will end up buying equities?

Sometimes we can combine one of our themes with the news flow and today is an example of that. We can start with the role of central banks where what was considered extraordinary policy is now ordinary and frankly sometimes mundane. We have seen interest-rate cuts, then QE bond buying, then credit easing and of course negative interest-rates. Overnight even the home of the All Blacks has joined the latter party.

Some New Zealand wholesale rates fell below zero for the first time on Wednesday as investors increased bets on a negative policy rate. Two and three-year swap rates sank to minus 0.005%, as did the yield on the benchmark three-year bond. ( Bloomberg)

So we have negative bond yields somewhere else as the contagion spreads. Whilst it is only marginal the track record so far is that it will sing along with Madonna.

Deeper and deeper, and deeper, and deeper

Bloomberg thinks it is driven by this.

Most economists expect the RBNZ to cut its cash rate from 0.25% to minus 0.25% or minus 0.5% in April next year, and some see the chance of an earlier move.

However they seem to have missed the elephant in the room.

The Monetary Policy Committee agreed to expand the Large Scale Asset Purchase (LSAP) programme up to $100 billion so as to further lower retail interest rates in order to achieve its remit. The eligible assets remain the same and the Official Cash Rate (OCR) is being held at 0.25 percent in accordance with the guidance issued on 16 March. ( Reserve Bank of New Zealand 12 August)

So we are on the road to nowhere except according to Bloomberg it was a triumph in Sweden.

Negative rates were successful in Sweden because they achieved the aim of returning inflation to target without causing any significant distortions in the economy, said Lars Svensson, an economics professor in Stockholm and a former deputy governor at the Riksbank.

Only a few paragraphs later they contradict themselves.

Swedish mortgage rates dropped below 2%, causing house prices to surge to double-digit annual gains, but unemployment fell and the economy grew. Crucially, headline inflation rose steadily from minus 0.4% in mid-2015 to meet the central bank’s 2% target two years later. Inflation expectations also rose.

And again.

The Riksbank sent its policy rate into negative territory in early 2015, reaching a low of minus 0.5% before raising it back to zero late last year.

It worked so well they raised interest-rates in last year’s trade war and they have not deployed them in this pandemic in spite of GDP falling by 8%!

Oh and there is the issue of pensions.

In Sweden, the subzero-regime was advantageous for borrowers but brutal for the country’s pension industry, which struggled to generate the returns needed when bond yields turned negative.

So in summary we arrive at a situation where in fact even the Riksbank of Sweden has gone rogue on the subject of negative interest-rates. Going rogue as a central bank is very serious because they are by nature pack animals and the very idea of independent thought is simply terrifying to them.

Also the Riksbank of Sweden is well within the orbit of the supermassive black hole for negativity which is the European Central Bank or ECB. We learn much I think by the fact that in spite of economic activity being in a depression no-one is expecting an interest-rate cut from the present -0.5%. When we did have some expectations for that it was only to -0.6% so even the believers have lost the faith. This is an important point as whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has hit economies many were slowing anyway.

Policy Shifts

We are seeing central banks start to hint at ch-ch-changes.

Purchases of foreign assets also remain an option.

The Governor of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has also been on the case and the emphasis is mine.

But one conclusion is that it could be preferable, and consistent with setting monetary conditions
consistent with the inflation target, to seek to ensure there is sufficient headroom for more potent expansion
in central bank balance sheets when needed in the future – to “go big” and “go fast” decisively.

He then went further.

That begs questions about when does the need for headroom become an issue? What are the limits? One
way of looking at these questions is in terms of the stock of assets available for purchase.

He refers to UK Gilts ( bonds) but he is plainly hinting at wider purchases.

Swiss National Bank

This has become something of a hedge fund via its overseas equity purchases. For newer readers this all started with a surge in the Swiss Franc mostly driven by the impact of the unwinding of the “Carry Trade” where investors had borrowed Swiss Francs. The SNB promised “unlimited intervention” before retreating and now as of the end of June had 863.3 billion Swiss Francs of foreign currency assets. It did not want to hold foreign currency on its own so it bought bonds. But it ended up distorting bond markets especially some Euro area ones so it looked for something else to buy. It settled on putting some 20% of its assets in equities.

Much of that went to the US so we see this being reported.

Swiss National Bank is one of the leading tech investors in the world. 28% of SNB’s Equity portfolio is allocated to tech stocks. Swiss CenBank has 17.4mln Apple shares worth $6.3bn or 538k Tesla shares worth $630mln. ( @Schuldenshelder )

So this is a complex journey on which we now note an issue with so-called passive investing. The SNB buys relative to market position but that means if shares have surges you have more of them each time you rebalance. So far with Apple that has been a large success as it has surged above US $2 trillion in market capitalisation as the recent tech falls are minor in comparison.But the 20% fall in Tesla yesterday maybe a sign of problems with this sort of plan. It of course has surged previously but it seems to lack any real business model.

The Tokyo Whale

The Bank of Japan bought another 80.1 billion Yen of Japanese equities earlier today as it made its second such purchase so far this month. As of the end of last month the total was 33,993,587,890,000 Yen. Hence its nickname of The Tokyo Whale.

Quite what good this does ( apart from providing a profit for equity investors) is a moot point? After all the Japanese economy was shrinking again pre pandemic and there was no sign of an end to the lost decades.

Comment

We find ourselves in familiar territory as central bankers proclaim the success of their polices but are always expanding them. If they worked it would not be necessary would it? For example the US Federal Reserve moving to average inflation targeting would not be necessary if all the things they previously told us would work, had. I expect the power grab and central planning to continue as they move further into fiscal policy via the sort of subsidies for banks provided by having a separate interest-rate for banks ( The Precious! The Precious!) like the -1% provided by the ECB. Another version of this sort of thing is to buy equities as they can create money and use it to support the market.

The catch of this is that they support a particular group be it banks or holders of assets. So not only does the promised economic growth always seem to be just around the corner they favour one group ( the rich) over another ( the poor). They have got away with it partly by excluding asset prices from inflation measures, but also partly because people do not fully understand what is taking place. But the direction of travel is easy because as I explained earlier central bankers are pack animals and herd like sheep. They will be along…..

GDP in Japan goes back to 2010 in another lost decade

Today we get to look East to the land of the rising sun or Nihon as we note its latest economic output figures. According to the Japanese owned Financial Times we should look at them like this.

Japan’s GDP decline less severe than US and Europe

Of course as we are looking at a country where the concept of the “Lost Decade” began in 1990 and is now heading into number 4 of them we need to be careful about which period we are looking at.

Japan’s economy shrank by a record 7.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 as it outperformed the US and Europe but lagged behind neighbouring South Korea and Taiwan in its response to coronavirus.

Okay so better than us in the West but not as good as its eastern competitors. Also I note that it relies quite a bit on seasonal adjustment when we have just had an economic season unlike any other as without it GDP fell by 9.9%.

Returning to the seasonally adjusted data we see a consequence of being an exporter at a time like this.

A fall in private consumption accounted for 4.8 percentage points of the decline in Japan’s GDP as the state of emergency reduced spending in shops and restaurants, while a large drop in exports accounted for the remaining 3 percentage points.

This is because exports fell by 18.5% with imports barely affected ( -0.5%) so there was a plunge in exports on a scale large enough to reduce GDP by 3%. Actually let me correct the FT here as it was domestic demand which fell by 4.8% with private consumption accounting for 4.5% and investment for 0.2% and the government sector not doing much at all. You may be pleased to read that Imputed Rent had only a minor impact on the quarterly change.

A cautionary note is that Japanese GDP data is particularly prone to revision or as the FT puts it.

Business investment was surprisingly strong, however, and contributed just 0.2 percentage points to the overall decline in output. That figure is often revised in updates to the data, but if confirmed, it would suggest resilience in the underlying economy and potential for a strong rebound.

International Comparison

Regular readers will know that due to the extraordinary move in the UK GDP Deflator ( the inflation measure for this area) of 6.2% in a single quarter our GDP fall may well have been more like 15%. Somehow the FT which is often very enthusiatic about combing through UK data has missed this.

The second-quarter decline in Japan’s GDP was comparable to a 9.5 per cent fall in the US during the same period, or a 10.1 per cent drop in Germany. It was less severe than the drop of more than 20 per cent in the UK, which was late to act but then imposed a severe lockdown. However, Japan did worse than neighbouring South Korea, where output fell 3.3 per cent in the second quarter, or Taiwan, where GDP was down just 0.7 per cent. Both countries managed to control the virus without extensive lockdowns, allowing their economies to function more normally.

It is typical of a Japanese owned publication to trumpet a form of national superiority though.

Japan’s performance relative to other advanced countries highlights how the effectiveness of a country’s coronavirus response affects the economy, with Japan forced to close schools but able to avoid the strict lockdowns used in Europe.

However, only time will tell whether that was more of a tactical than a strategic success.

Japan is suffering an increase in infections, with new cases running at more than 1,000 a day, but it has not imposed a fresh state of emergency.

Let me wish anyone who is ill a speedy recovery.

Context

The initial one is the economic output has now fallen in the last 3 quarters. Following the rise in Consumption Tax from 8% to 10% a decline was expected but now.of course, it looks really badly timed. Although in the period of the Lost Decade there is a bit of a shortage of good times to do such a thing.

Japan has if we look at the seasonally adjusted series gone back the beginning of 2010 and the middle of 2011 which was the same level.It has never achieved the “escape velocity” talked about by former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney.

Bank of Japan

The problem for it is that it was already doing so much or as the Red Queen put it.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

I noted Bloomberg reporting that it owns so 44% of the Japanese Government Bond market these days. Although there is an element of Alice In Wonderland here as via its stimulus programmes the Japanese government will be issuing ever more of them.

In May, the Japanese government approved a second large-scale ¥117tn ($1.1n or 21% of Japan’s GDP) economic rescue package, matching the size of the first stimulus introduced in April. ( OMFIF).

So there will be plenty more to buy so we can expect full employment to be maintained for the bond buyers at the Bank of Japan.

On a gross basis, the government plans to issue close to ¥253tn ($2.3tn) in government bonds and treasury bills in fiscal year 2020 (ending March 2021). This amount combines issues under all three budgetary plans. Excluding refinancing bonds, the net issuance of government bonds is reduced to almost ¥145tn (about 27% of GDP). This includes close to 4% of front-loaded bond issues from future fiscal years and is the largest net issuance in the post-world war II era.

Next there is its role as The Tokyo Whale to consider.

This phase saw the Bank of Japan buy on up as well as down days and the index it looks to match is the Nikkei 400.

There is also the negative interest-rate of -0.1% which I do not think the Bank of Japan has ever been especially keen on which is why it is only -0.1%. After all the years of propping up the banks we can’t have them failing again can we.

The latest move as is so often the case has echoes of the past so let me hand you over to Governor Kuroda.

The first is the Special Program to support corporate financing. The total size of this program is about 120 trillion yen. It consists of purchases of CP and corporate bonds with the upper limit of about 20 trillion yen and the Special Funds-Supplying Operations, which can amount to 100 trillion yen. Through this operation, the Bank provides funds on favorable terms to financial institutions that make loans in response to COVID-19. This operation also includes a scheme in which the government takes the credit risk while the Bank provides liquidity, thereby supporting financing together.

Comment

Japan is a mass of contradictions as we note that annual GDP was higher in the mid 1990s than it is now. The first switch is that the position per head is much better although that is partly because the population is in decline. Of course in terms of demand for resources that is a good thing for a country which has so few of them. That is not so hot when you have an enormous national debt which will be getting a lot larger via the stimulus effort. There are roads where it will reach 300% of GDP quite soon.

So why have things not collapsed under the weight of debt? One reason is the size of the Bank of Japan purchases in what is mostly (90% or so) a domestic market. Then we also need to note that in spite of it being official policy to weaken the Yen ( one of the arrows of Abenomics) it is at 106.4 versus the US Dollar looking strong in spite of all of the above. This is because even if the foreign investors started to leave the Japanese have large savings abroad and large reserves. As we stand they have had little success in pushing the Yen lower even with all the efforts of the Bank of Japan.

What is needed is some sustained economic growth but if Japan could do that the concept of the Lost Decade would have been consigned to the history books and it hasn’t. So we left with this thought by Graham Parker.

And there’s nothing to hold on to when gravity betrays you ( Discovering Japan)

Podcast on GDP measures

The first business surveys about this economic depression appear

This morning has seen the first actual signals of the scale of the economic slow down going on. One of the problems with official economic data is the  time lag before we get it and this has been exacerbated by the fact that this has been an economic contraction on speed ( LSD). By the time they tell us how bad it has been we may be in quite a different world! It is always a battle between accuracy and timeliness for economic data. Thus eyes will have turned to the business surveys released this morning.

Do ya do ya do ya do ya
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues
Ooh I’m looking for clues ( Robert Palmer)

Japan

The main series began in Japan earlier and brace yourselves.

#Japan‘s economic downturn deepens drastically in March, dragged down by a sharp contraction in the service sector, according to #PMI data as #coronavirus outbreak led to plummeting tourism, event cancellations and supply chain disruptions. ( IHS Markit )

The composite output index was at 35.8 which indicates an annualised fall in GDP ( Gross Domestic Product) approaching 8% should it continue. There was a split between manufacturing ( 44.8) and services ( 32.7) but not the way we have got used to. The manufacturing number was the worst since April 2009 and the services one was the worst since the series began in 2007.

France

Next in the series came La Belle France and we needed to brace ourselves even more.

March Flash France PMI suggest GDP is collapsing at an annualised rate approaching double digits, with the Composite Output PMI at an all-time low of 30.2 (51.9 – Feb). Both services and manufacturers recorded extreme drops in output on the month.

There was more to come.

French private sector activity contracted at the
sharpest rate in nearly 22 years of data collection
during March, amid widespread business closures
due to the coronavirus outbreak.

There are obvious fears about employment and hence unemployment.

Amid falling new orders, private sector firms cut
their staff numbers for the first time in nearly threeand-a-half years during March. Moreover, the rate
of reduction was the quickest since April 2013.

I also noted this as I have my concerns about inflation as the Ivory Towers work themselves into deflation mode one more time.

Despite weaker demand conditions, supply
shortages drove input prices higher in March…….with
manufacturers raising output prices for the first time
in three months

We could see disinflation in some areas with sharp inflation in others.

Germany

Next up was Germany and by now investors were in the brace position.

The headline Flash Germany
Composite PMI Output Index plunged from 50.7 in
February to 37.2, its lowest since February 2009.
The preliminary data were based on responses
collected between March 12-23.

This led to this analysis.

“The unprecedented collapse in the PMI
underscores how Germany is headed for recession,
and a steep one at that. The March data are
indicative of GDP falling at a quarterly rate of
around 2%, and the escalation of measures to
contain the virus outbreak mean we should be
braced for the downturn to further intensify in the
second quarter.”

You may be thinking that this is better than the ones above but there is a catch. Regular readers will recall that due to a problem in the way it looks at supply this series has inflated the German manufacturing data. This has happened again.

The headline Flash Germany
Manufacturing PMI sank to 45.7, though it was
supported somewhat by a further increase in
supplier delivery times – the most marked since
July 2018 – and a noticeably slower fall in stocks of
purchases, both linked to supply-side disruption

So the truth is that the German numbers are closer to France once we allow for this. We also see the first signals of trouble in the labour markets.

After increasing – albeit marginally – in each of the
previous four months, employment across
Germany’s private sector returned to contraction in
March. The decline was the steepest since May
2009 and was underpinned by similarly sharp drops
in workforce numbers across both manufacturing
and services.

Also we note a continuing pattern where services are being hit much harder than manufacturing, Of course manufacturing had seen a rough 2019 but services have essentially plunged at a rapid rate.

The Euro Area

We do not get much individual detail but you can see that the other Euro area nations are doing even worse.

The rest of the euro area reported an even
steeper decline than seen in both France and
Germany, led by comfortably the sharpest fall in
service sector activity ever recorded, though
manufacturing output also shrank at the steepest
rate for almost 11 years.

I am trying hard to think of PMI numbers in the 20s I have seen before.

Flash Eurozone Services PMI Activity Index(2)
at 28.4 (52.6 in February). Record low (since
July 1998)

Putting it all together we get this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

The UK

Our numbers turned up to a similar drum beat and bass line.

At 37.1 in March, down from 53.0 in February, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit / CIPS Flash UK Composite Output Index – which is based on approximately 85% of usual monthly replies – signalled the fastest downturn in private sector business activity since the series began in January 1998. The prior low of 38.1 was seen in November 2008.

This was supported by the manufacturing PMI being at 48 but it looks as though we have at least some of the issues at play in the German number too.

Longer suppliers’ delivery times are typically seen as an
advance indicator of rising demand for raw materials and
therefore have a positive influence on the Manufacturing PMI index.

The numbers added to the household finances one from IHS Markit yesterday.

UK consumers are already feeling the financial pinch of
coronavirus, according to the IHS Markit UK Household Finance Index. With the country on the brink of lockdown during the survey collection dates (12-17 March), surveyed households reported the largest degree of pessimism towards job security in over eight years,
with those employed in entertainment and manufacturing sectors deeming their jobs to be at the most risk.

Comment

So we have the first inklings of what is taking place in the world economy and we can add it to the 40.7 released by Australia yesterday. However we need a note of caution as these numbers have had troubles before and the issue over the treatment of suppliers delivery times is an issue right now. Also it does not appear to matter if your PMI is 30 or 37 we seem to get told this.

The March PMI is indicative of GDP slumping at a
quarterly rate of around 2%,

Now I am slightly exaggerating because they have said 1.5% to 2% for the UK but if we are there then France and the Euro area must be more like 3% and maybe worse if the series is to be consistent.

Next I thought I would give you some number-crunching from Japan.

TOKYO (Reuters) – The Bank of Japan on Tuesday acknowledged unrealized losses of 2-3 trillion yen ($18-$27 billion) on its holdings of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) after a rout in Japanese stock prices, raising the prospect it could post an annual loss this year.

Our To Infinity! And Beyond! Theme has been in play for The Tokyo Whale and the emphasis is mine.

Its stock purchase started at a pace of one trillion yen per year in 2013 when the Nikkei was around 12,000. The buying expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and to 6 trillion yen in 2016, ostensibly to boost economic growth and lift inflation, but many investors view the policy as direct intervention to prop up share prices.

Surely not! But the taxpayer may be about to get a warning of sorts.

The unrealized loss of 2-3 trillion yen would wipe out about 1.7 trillion yen of recurring profits the BOJ is estimated to make this year from interest payments on its massive bond holdings, said Hiroshi Ugai, senior economist at J.P. Morgan.

For today that will be on the back burner as the Nikkei 225 equity index rose 7% to just above 18,000 which means that its purchases of over 200 billion Yen yesterday will be onside at least as we note the “clip size” has nearly trebled for The Tokyo Whale.

 

 

The ECB could be the next central bank to start buying equities

It feels like quite a week already and yet it is only Monday morning! As rumours circulated and fears grew after some pretty shocking data out of China on Sunday the Bank of Japan was limbering up for some open mouth action. Below is the statement from Governor Kuroda.

Global financial and capital markets have been unstable recently with growing uncertainties about the outlook for economic activity due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Bank of Japan will closely monitor future developments, and will strive to provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets through appropriate market operations and asset purchases.

Actually most people were becoming much clearer about the economic impact of the Corona Virus which I will come to in a moment. You see in the language of central bankers “uncertainties” means exactly the reverse of the common usage and means they now fear a sharp downturn too. This will be a particular issue for Japan which saw its economy shrink by 1.6% in the final quarter of last year.

But there was a chaser to this cocktail which is the clear hint of what in foreign exchange markets the Bank of Japan calls “bold action” or intervention. This not only added to this from Chair Powell of the US Federal Reserve on Friday but came with more.

The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.

As an aside if the fundamentals of the US economy were strong the statement would not be required would it?

The Kuroda Put Option

The problem for the Bank of Japan is that it was providing so much liquidity anyway as Reuters summarises.

Under a policy dubbed yield curve control, the BOJ guides short-term rates at -0.1% and pledges to cap long-term borrowing costs around zero. It also buys government bonds and risky assets, such as ETFs, as part of its massive stimulus program.

The Reuters journalist is a bit shy at the end because the Bank of Japan has been buying equity ETFs for some time as well as smaller commercial property purchases. I have been watching and all last week apart from the public holiday on Monday they bought 70.4 billion Yen each day.

Regular readers will be aware that the Bank of Japan buys on down days in the equity market and that the clip size is as above. Or if you prefer Japan actually has an explicit Plunge Protection Team or PPT and it was active last week. This morning though Governor Kuroda went beyond open mouth operations.

BoJ Bought Japan Stock ETFs On Monday – RTRS Market Sources BoJ Normally Does Not Buy ETFs On Day TOPIX Index Is Up In Morning ( @LiveSquawk )

As you can see they have changed tactics from buying on falls to singing along with Endor.

Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up
Don’t you know pump it up
You’ve got to pump it up

Also there was this.

BANK OF JAPAN BOUGHT RECORD TOTAL 101.4B YEN OF ETFS TODAY ( @russian_market )

Actually about a billion was commercial property but the principle is that the Bank of Japan has increased its operations considerably as well as buying on an up day. So the Nikkei 225 index ended up 201 points at 21,344 as The Tokyo Whale felt hungry.

Coordinated action

The Bank of England has also been indulging in some open mouth operations today.

“The Bank continues to monitor developments and is assessing its potential impacts on the global and UK economies and financial systems.

The Bank is working closely with HM Treasury and the FCA – as well as our international partners – to ensure all necessary steps are taken to protect financial and monetary stability.” ( The Guardian)

The rumours are that interest-rate cuts will vary from 1% from the Federal Reserve to 0.5% at places like the Bank of England to 0.1% at the ECB and Swiss National Bank. The latter are more constrained because they already have negative interest-rates and frankly cutting by 0.1% just seems silly ( which I guess means that they might….)

There have already been market responses to this. For example the US ten-year Treasury Bond yield has fallen below 1.1%. The ten-year at 0.75% is a full percent below the upper end of the official US interest-rate. So the hints of interest-rate cuts are in full flow as we see Treasuries go to places we were assured by some they could not go. Oh and you can have some full number-crunching as you get your head around reports that expectations of an interest-rate cut in Australia are now over 100%

The Real Economy

China

If we switch now to hat got this central banking party started it was this. From the South China Morning Post on Saturday.

Chinese manufacturing activity plunged to an all-time low in February, with the first official data published amid the coronavirus outbreak confirming fears over the impact on the Chinese economy.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) slowed to 35.7, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Saturday, having slipped to 50.0 in January when the full impact of the corona virus was not yet evident.

The only brief flicker of humour came from this.

Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 45.0.

Although you might think that manufacturing would be affected the most there was worse to come.

China’s non-manufacturing PMI – a gauge of sentiment in the services and construction sectors – also dropped, to 29.6 from 54.1 in January. This was also the lowest on record, below the previous low of 49.7 in November 2011, according to the NBS. Analysts polled by Bloomberg had expected the February reading to come in at 50.5.

To give you an idea of scale Greece saw its PMI ( it only has a manufacturing one) fell into the mid-30s as its economic depression began. So we are now facing not only a decline in economic growth in China but actual falls. This is reinforced by stories that factories are being asked to keep machines running even if there are no workers to properly operate them to conceal the size of the slow down.

Comment

The problem for central banks is that they are already so heavily deployed on what is called extraordinary monetary policy measures. Thus their ammunition locker is depleted and in truth what they have does not work well with a supply shock anyway as I explain in the podcast below. So we can expect them to act anyway but look for new tools and the next one is already being deployed by two central banks. I have covered the Bank of Japan so step forwards the Swiss National Bank.

Total sight deposits at the SNB rose by CHF3.51bn last week… ( @nghrbi)

Adding that to last weeks foreign exchange intervention suggests it has another 1 billion Swiss Francs to invest in (mostly US) equities.

Who might be next? Well the Euro is being strong in this phase partly I think because of the fact it has less scope for interest-rate cuts and partly because of its trade surplus. Could it copy the Swiss and intervene to weaken the Euro and investing some of the Euros into equities? It would be a “soft” way of joining the party. Once the principle is established then it can expand its activities following the model it has established with other policies.

As for other central banks they will be waiting for interest-rates to hit 0% I think. After all then the money created to buy the shares will be “free money” and what can go wrong?

Podcast

 

Japan sees quite a GDP contraction in spite of the Bank of Japan buying 8% of the equity market

Overnight the agenda for today was set by news out of the land of the rising sun or Nihon. Oh and I do not mean the effort to reproduce the plot line of the film Alien ( Gaijin) for those poor passengers on that quarantined cruise ship. It was this reported by the Asahi Shimbun.

Gross domestic product declined by a seasonally adjusted 1.6 percent in the quarter from the previous three months, or an annualized 6.3 percent, the Cabinet Office figures showed.

The contraction of 6.3 percent was far worse than expectations of many private-sector economists, who predicted a shrinkage of 4 percent or so.

Just to clarify the quarterly fall was 1.6% or using the Japanese style 6.3% in annualised terms. What they do not tell us is that this means that the Japanese economy was 0.4% smaller at the end of 2019 than it was at the end of 2018. So quite a reverse on the previous trend in 2019 which was for the annual rate of growth to pock up.

The Cause

Let me take you back to October 7th last year.

After twice being postponed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the consumption tax on Tuesday will rise to 10 percent from 8 percent, with the government maintaining that the increased burden on consumers is essential to boost social welfare programs and reduce the swelling national debt. ( The Japan Times )

I pointed out back then that I feared what the impact of this would be.

This is an odd move when we note the current malaise in the world economy which just gets worse as we note the fact that the Pacific region in particular is suffering. We looked at one facet of this last week as Australia cut interest-rates for the third time since the beginning of the summer.

As you can see this was a risky move and it came with something of an official denial of the economic impact.

 about a quarter of the ¥8 trillion cost of the 2014 hike, according to the government and the Bank of Japan.

The 2014 rise in the Consumption Tax ( in rough terms the equivalent of VAT in the UK and Europe) had hit the Japanese economy hard, so the official claim of that the new impact would be a quarter was something I doubted. Now let us return to the Asahi Shimbun this morning.

Japan’s economy shrank in the October-December period for the first time in five quarters, as the sales tax hike and natural disasters pummeled personal consumption, according to preliminary figures released on Feb. 17.

The exact numbers are below.

Personal consumption, which accounts for more than half of Japan’s GDP, grew by 0.5 percent in the July-September period.

But the figure plunged to minus 2.9 percent for the three months from October, when the government raised the consumption tax rate to 10 percent from 8 percent.

We had previously looked at the boost to consumption before the tax rise as electrical appliances in particular were purchased. This will have flattered the economic data for the third quarter of last year and raised the GDP growth rate. But as you can see the party has had quite a hangover. On its own this would have led to a 2.2% decline in quarterly GDP.

The spinning has continued apace.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, gave a positive outlook for personal consumption in a statement released on Feb. 17.

“The margin of decline in personal consumption is likely to shrink,” he said.

As John Lennon points out in the song Getting Better.

It can’t get no worse

As ever there is a familiar scapegoat which is the weather.

Destructive typhoons that hit eastern Japan and the warmer winter also fueled the slowdown in personal spending, such as purchases of winter clothes.

Although as @Priapus has pointed out there was an impact on the Rugby World Cup and the Japanese Grand Prix.

Investment and Exports

These will be on people’s minds as we try to look forwards. According to the Asahi Shimbun the situation for investment is also poor.

Investment in equipment by businesses, for example, shrank by 3.7 percent, a sharp decline from a rise of 0.5 percent in the preceding quarter, while housing investment tumbled 3.7 percent from an increase of 1.2 percent.

New housing starts have also been waning since the tax hike.

Many companies’ business performances are deteriorating, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

The business investment fall was presumably in response to the trade war and the deteriorating conditions in the Pacific economy we looked at in the latter part of 2019 and of course predates the Corona Virus. By contrast the Bank of Japan like all central banks will be more concerned about the housing market.

Switching to trade itself the position appears brighter.

In contrast, external demand pushed up GDP by 0.5 percentage point.

But in fact this was due to imports falling by 2.6% so a negative and exports fell too albeit by a mere 0.1%. That pattern was repeated for the annual comparison as exports were 2.2% lower than a year before and imports 4.3% lower. It is one of the quirks of the way GDP is calculated that a fall in imports larger than a fall in exports boosts GDP in this instance by 0.4%. Thus the annual comparison would have been -0.8% without it.

Comment

Sometimes the numbers are eloquent in themselves. If we look at the pattern for private consumption in Japan we see that it fell from 306.2 trillion Yen to 291.6 trillion in the first half of 2014 as the first tax rise hit. Well on the same seasonally adjusted basis and 2011 basis it was 294 trillion Yen in the last quarter of 2019. If we allow for the fact that 2014 saw a tax based boost then decline then consumption in 2019 had barely exceeded what it was before the first tax rise before being knocked on the head again. Or if you prefer it has been groundhog day for consumption in Japan since 2013. That is awkward on two counts. Firstly the Japanese trade surplus was one of the economic world’s imbalances pre credit crunch and expanding consumption so that it imported more was the positive way out of it. Instead we are doing the reverse. Also one of the “lost decade” issues for Japan was weak consumption growth which has just got weaker.

This leaves the Japanese establishment in quite a pickle. The government has already announced one stimulus programme and is suggesting it may begin another. The catch is that you are then throwing away the gains to the fiscal position from the Consumption Tax rise. This poses a challenge to the whole Abenomics programme which intended to improve the fiscal position by fiscal stimulus leading to economic growth. I am sure you have spotted the problem here.

Next comes the Bank of Japan which may want to respond but how? For newer readers it has already introduced negative interest-rates ( -0.1%) and bought Japanese Government Bonds like it is a powered up Pac-Man to quote the Kaiser Chiefs, But the extent of its monetary expansionism is best highlighted by this from Etf Stream earlier.

According to the BoJ funds flow report for Q3 2019, the bank now owns some 8% of the entire Japanese equity market, mostly through the current ETF-buying programme.

Hence the nickname of The Tokyo Whale.They think the rate of buying has slowed but I think that’s an illusion because it buys on down days and as The Donald so regularly tweets equity markets are rallying. Just this morning the German Dax index has hit another all-time high. But what do they do next? They cannot buy that many more ETFs because they have bought so many already. As you can see they are already a material player in the equity market and they run the Japanese Government Bond market as that is what Yield Curve Control means. Ironically the latter has seen higher yields at times in an example of how water could run uphill rather than down if the Bank of Japan was in charge of it. It will be wondering how the Japanese Yen has pretty much ignored today’s news.

Also as a final point. More and more countries are finding it hard to raise taxes aren’t they?

Podcast

 

 

 

Where next for the Japanese Yen and the Bank of Japan?

As the third most traded currency the Japanese Yen is one of the bedrocks of the world economy. In spite of the size and strength of the Japanese economy the currency tail can wag the economy dog as we saw on the period of the “Carry Trade” and its consequences. For newer readers I looked at the initial impact back on the 19th of September 2016.

 Ironically if done on a large-scale as happened back in the day with the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen it lowers the currency and so not only is the interest cheaper but you have a capital gain. What could go wrong? Well we will come to that. But this same effect turned out to make things uncomfortable for both Japan and Switzerland as their currencies were pushed lower and lower.

At that point borrowers were having a party as the got a cheaper borrowing rate and a currency gain but the Japanese ( and Swiss) saw their currency being depressed. However the credit crunch ended that party as currency traders saw the risk and that people might buy Yen to cover the risk. Thus there was a combination of speculative and actual buying which saw the Yen strengthen from over 120 Yen to the US Dollar to below 80.

There were various impacts from this and starting in Japan life became difficult for its exporters and some sent production abroad as the mulled an exchange rate of around 78 to the US Dollar. For example some shifted production to Thailand. Looking wider the investors who remained in the carry trade shifted from profit to loss. On this road in generic terms the typical Japanese investor often described as Mrs. Watanabe was having a rough patch as in Yen terms their investments went being hit. Actually that is something of a generic over my career for Mrs Watanabe as timing of investments in say UK Gilts or Australian property has often been poor. Of course as it turns out property in Oz did work but you would have needed plenty of patience.

Enter the Bank of Japan

The next phase was a type of enter the dragon as the Bank of Japan in 2013 embarked on an extraordinary monetary stimulus programme. Under the banner of Abenomics that was designed to weaken the Yen although it was not officially one of the 3 arrows it was supposed to fire. For a while this worked as the Yen fell towards 125 to the US Dollar. But just as economics 101 felt it could celebrate a rare triumph the Yen then strengthened again and actually rallied to 101 in spite of negative interest-rates being deployed  leading to yet another new effort called QQE and Yield Curve Control in September 2016.

So we see that Japan had some success in weakening the Yen but that then ended and even with negative interest-rates and the purchases by the Bank of Japan below there was a fizzling out of any impact.

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

But you see these things have unintended consequences as Brad Setser points out below.

Japanese investors have been big buyers of foreign bonds—and U.S. bonds in particular. The lifers, the Japanese government through the government pension fund (GPIF), the Japanese government through Post Bank (which takes in deposits and cannot make loans so it buys foreign bonds since it cannot make money buying JGBs), and Norinchukin*

So a policy to weaken the Yen has a side-effect of strengthening it and even worse makes the global financial system more risky. Back to Brad.

In broad terms, a number of Japanese financial institutions have become, in part, dollar based intermediaries. They borrow dollars from U.S. money market funds, U.S. banks, and increasingly the world’s large reserve managers (all of whom want to hold short-term dollar claims for liquidity reasons) and invest in longer dated U.S. bonds.

What about now?

Things are rather different to this time last year when we were trying to figure out what had caused this?

The Japanese yen soared in early Asian trading on Thursday as the break of key technical levels triggered massive stop-loss sales of the U.S. and Australian dollars in very thin markets. The dollar collapsed to as low as 105.25 yen on Reuters dealing JPY=D3, a drop of 3.2 percent from the opening 108.76 and the lowest reading since March 2018. It was last trading around 107.50 yen………. ( Reuters )

That was from January 3rd whereas overnight we see this.

The major was trading 0.1 percent up at 110.09, having hit a high of 110.21 earlier, its highest since May 23.  ( EconoTimes )

On its own this may seen the Governor of the Bank of Japan have a quiet smile and a celebratory glass of sake. But falls in the Yen are associated with something else which will please the head of The Tokyo Whale.

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Tokyo stocks rose Tuesday, with the benchmark Nikkei index ending above 24,000 for the first time since mid-December, as investor sentiment improved on expectations for further easing of U.S.-China trade tensions. ( The Mainichi)

The Mainichi seems to have missed the currency connection with this but no doubt Governor Kuroda   will be pointing out both thresholds to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Has something changed?

On Monday JP Morgan thought so. Via Forex Flow.

But because in recent years the yen is no longer being sold off in the first place, it is not acting as much like a safe-haven currency as in the past.

Okay so why?

if interest rates increase in other countries (opening a wider gap with rates in Japan)

Well good luck with that one! Maybe some day but the credit crunch era has seen 733 interest-rate cuts. However the Financial Times has joined in.

First, Japan is running trade deficits, which would imply a weaker currency. Second, domestic asset managers are busy buying higher-yielding foreign assets. Third, Japanese companies, confronting a chronic shortage of decent ways to deploy their capital at home, are increasingly spending it on deals overseas.

The last point is a really rather devastating critique of the six years of Abenomics as one of the stated Arrows was for exactly the opposite. Also there us more trouble for economics 101 as a lower Yen has seen a trade surplus switch to a deficit. Actually I think that responses to exchange rate moves can be very slow and measured in years so with all the ch-ch-changes it is hard to know what move is in play.

Comment

There is much to reflect on here. For example today may be one to raise a smile at the Bank of Japan as it calculates the value of its large equity holdings and sees the Yen weaken across a threshold. But it is also true that exactly the same policies saw the “flash rally” of over a year ago. In addition we see that the enormous effort in play to weaken the Yen has seen compensating side-effects which raise the risk level in the international finance system. Really rather like the Carry Trade did.

A warning is required because in the short-term crossing a threshold like 110 Yen sees a reversal but we could see the Yen weaken for a while. This is problematic with so many others wanting to devalue their currency as well with the Bank of England currently in the van. From a Japanese perspective this will be see as a gain against a nation they have all sorts of issues with.

“China has made enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation, while promoting transparency and accountability,” US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of allowing the value of the yuan to fall, making Chinese goods cheaper.

But, on Monday, the US said that the value of the yuan had appreciated since August, at the height of the trade war. ( BBC )

How will that play out?

 

 

 

2019 and all that….

As we arrive at Christmas and reach the end of the blogging year there is a lot to consider and review. Markets have thinned out to such an extent I noted a news service mentioning a rally in Japan earlier. Well I suppose 9 points up to 23,830 is indeed a rally but you get the idea. It also gives us a opening perspective as that level means it has been a successful year for The Tokyo Whale. As it progresses on its journey to buy all the ETFs listed in Japan the buying on down days strategy has been a winner on two counts. Firstly it provides a type of put option for an equity market already bolstered by a negative interest-rate and other forms of QE or rather QQE as the former name got rather debased in Japan by all the failures. Secondly it can declare a marked to market profit although of course there is the issue of how you would ever take it?

Below from this morning’s Bank of Japan balance sheet update are its holding so far.

28,199,294,050,000 Yen

The Plunge Protection Team indeed.

As Governor Kuroda enjoys his glass of celebratory sake there is the issue of the economy though which this was supposed to boost. This morning’s release of the minutes of the October meeting suggest little real progress has been made here.

A different member pointed out that, taking into account the current situation in which downside risks to economic activity and prices were significant, the Bank should continue to examine whether additional monetary easing would be necessary.

Then there was this,

In response to this, some members pointed out that, while it was appropriate for the Bank to maintain the current monetary easing policy at this meeting, it was necessary for the Bank not to hesitate to take additional easing measures if there was a greater possibility that the momentum toward achieving the price stability target would be lost.

This really is fantasy stuff as the inflation rate below indicates.

  The consumer price index for Japan in Novbember 2019 was 102.3 (2015=100), up 0.5% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and up 0.2% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

More significant is the index level showing a total of 2.3% inflation since 2015 or in spite of the Abenomics effort there pretty much isn’t any. The Consumption Tax rise will bump it up for a bit and then it will presumably go back down just like last time.

Tesla

As you can see there was quite an event yesterday,

New York (CNN Business)Tesla CEO Elon Musk once said he had a buyer that would take Tesla private at $420 a share. That never happened — but the stock just got there on its own.

Musk tweeted in August last year that he is “considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” At the time, the share price was $379.57 — nowhere near $420. Speculation about the identity of the mystery buyer was rife, and many investors thought Musk might be making a joke: 420 has become synonymous with cannabis culture.

This provokes all sorts of thoughts starting with Elon Musk should in my opinion have been punished much harder for that tweet. Next comes the fact that the share price fell to US $180 in June when there were lots of doubts about the company. One of the amazing parts of the rally has been that they have not gone away. In fact in some ways they are reinforced by this sort of thing,

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) and a group of China banks have agreed a new 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion), five-year loan facility for the automaker’s Shanghai car plant, three sources familiar with the matter said, part of which will be used to roll over an existing loan.

Also I guess it has benefited to some extent by the stock market ramping of President Trump. A development which we noted late last year carried on where he is essence got at least some of the policy moves from the US Federal Reserve he wanted and the equity market has flown.

The S&P 500 climbed 0.09, hitting another all-time high of 3,224.01. The Nasdaq Composite advanced 0.23% to 8,945.65. The S&P 500 is up more than 28% for 2019 through Friday, about 1 percentage point away from 2013′s gain of 29.6%. ( CNBC)

Merry Christmas Mr.President….

Bond Markets

This is a slightly different story from the one above. Yes we saw some extraordinary highs for bond markets this year and out of them the most extraordinary was seen In Germany.  A ten-year yield that went below -0.7% for a while in late summer which begged all sorts of questions. In compound terms you would be expecting to lose more than 7% if you bought and held to maturity which poses the question why would you buy at all? Beyond that there is the issue of the impact on pensions and other forms of long-term saving as who would invest 100 Euros to get around 92 back?

That to my mind is one of the reasons why QE has not worked. The impact on what Keynes called “animal spirits” of the fact that we always seemed to need more monetary “help” and easing unsettled things as well as, ironically in the circumstances, torpedoing the banking business model.

But back to bond markets we saw the futures contract in Germany head near to 180 which to any does not mean much but these things were designed to be between say 80 and 120. The QE era put a light under that.

Now though things have quietened down with some longer-date German bonds in positive yield territory and the ten-year now -0.25%. Still negative in the latter case but less so. It has turned out to be a case of buy the rumour and sell the fact as bond prices have fallen and yields risen since the ECB restarted its QE bond purchases in November. Some were obviously punting on the amount being higher than 20 billion a month which is curious as for some countries ( Germany and the Netherlands for example) there are not so many left to buy.

Meanwhile back home in the UK the ten-year Gilt yield has for now anchored itself around the Bank Rate of 0.75%. There is a tug of war going on between chances of an interest-rate cut and more fiscal expansionism. But there are two themes as the fiscal policy chance to have really low borrowing yields has to some extant passed and as a final point real yields are still strongly negative.

Comment

I intend to take a break until the New Year. So let me wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I will return in the next decade.

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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monetary Policy

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

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

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

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

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

Japan 10Y yields collapse further into negative territory

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

Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently
Apparently nothing
Nothing apparently

The Yen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

Also something which we figured out some months back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now today.

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

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

Weekly Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tokyo Whale will need to get its buying boots on again

Let us begin the week with some good news for the central bank from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. That is that the Nikkei 225 equity index rallied strongly this morning and its 2.44% surge saw it regain the 20,000 level and close at 20,038. The Bank of Japan will be pleased on two counts, of which the first is the wealth effects it will expect from a higher equity market. The second is that it will improve its own position as what we have labelled the Tokyo Whale.

The Bank of Japan’s purchases of exchange-traded funds since the start of 2018 exceeded 6 trillion yen ($53 billion) on Tuesday, reaching a record high on a yearly basis and signaling the central bank has been increasingly exposed to riskier assets. ( The Mainichi).

For newer readers the Bank of Japan has been buying Japanese equities for around 5 years and has been doing so on an increasing scale.

Under Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, the BOJ announced aggressive monetary stimulus in 2013 aimed at breaking Japan’s economy out of its deflationary malaise.

The measures included increasing the central bank’s holdings of ETFs by an annual 1 trillion yen, which it expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and again to 6 trillion yen in 2016.

The name “Tokyo Whale” came about because as you can see it found the need to keep increasing the size of the purchases as the expect results did not materialise. This meant that it cannot keep this going for much longer as it will run out of equity ETFs to buy. Why does it buy them? Well the bit below hints at it.

ETFs allow investors to buy and sell exposure to a basket of equities or an index without owning the underlying shares.

So the Bank of Japan can avoid claims it is explicitly investing in the companies concerned or if you like is a passive fund manager. Those of you who recall the media claims last autumn that the Bank of Japan was in the process of conducting a “tapering” of its purchases will find the bit below familiar.

The purchases have been criticized by some as artificially buoying stock prices, leading the BOJ in July this year to give itself more flexibility by saying it “may increase or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.”

The Tokyo Whale bought more and not less as the 24,000 or so of late summer was replaced by the current level.

Purchases of the investment funds swelled as the BOJ stepped in to underpin the stock market, which in October suffered huge losses amid concerns over heightened trade tensions between the United States and China.

If we step back and wonder what influence this has been then this from the Tokyo Whale itself hardly provides much support.

a challenge lies in the household sector in that the mechanism of the virtuous cycle from
income to consumption expenditure has been operating weakly.

Money Supply

We have been observing for some months now that many countries have had lower money supply growth which has then led to lower economic growth. So as you can imagine I was waiting for the monetary base data released today. What we see is that the monetary base in Japan grew by 17% in 2017 but by a much lower 7.3% in 2018 and the annual rate in the month of December was only 4.8%. Quite remarkably there were spells in December when the monetary base actually fell. That begs a question about this.

The Bank of Japan will conduct money market operations so that the monetary base will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

As ever in Japan picking one’s way through this is complex as we arrive at what I think is the largest number we have noted on here. You see the Japanese monetary base which is some 504.2 trillion Ten has been pumped up so much by the Bank of Japan the annual rate of growth could not be kept up. For a start there was the issue of how many bonds and the like have already been bought.

The BOJ’s balance sheet, after all, reached a dubious milestone in 2018, when it topped Japan’s $4.87 trillion of annual gross domestic product. ( Nikkei Asian Review)

Rather oddly the NAR then tells us this.

The BOJ could easily buy more government debt and ETFs.

Actually there are not many ETFs left to buy and the Bank of Japan itself is seeing dissent against the current level of purchases. That is not to say that the Bank of Japan could not use other methods as it has shown itself willing to buy pretty much anything.

If we move to the wider liquidity measure of the Bank of Japan we see that the rate of growth was 3.5% in November 2017 but only 1.8% this November. Thus both the bass line and the drumbeat from the monetary system are not only the same but they are a 2018 theme. Because of the different nature of the Japanese system it is hard to be precise about any likely effect because all the expansion seemed to have only a minor upwards effect but one would expect that to now disappear.

Oh and my largest number did not last long as Japanese liquidity is 1788.5 trillion Yen.

The Yen

It was only last week that we were mulling the “flash rally” in the Yen as yet another weak period for equity markets saw a yen for Yen. A combination of thin markets and a Japanese bank holiday saw the Yen strengthen into the high 104s versus the US Dollar. I am told that exited some of the hedges placed by Japanese exporters but there was no sign of the “bold action” often promised by the Bank of Japan. Things are now calmer and the Yen is at 108 but even that is higher over time and that has been against a relatively strong US Dollar.

As the NAR points out this will not be welcomed by the Japanese authorities.

The central problem is that Japan’s economic growth relies largely a weak yen and its capacity to boost exports. Though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked grandly about structural reform, the yen’s 30% drop beginning in late 2012 was the fuel behind the 12-quarter run of growth Japan experienced until its July-September stumble.

Comment

The Tokyo Whale faces quite a few problems right now. For example the third quarter of 2018 showed something it has claimed was temporary.

Quarter-on-quarter, GDP shrank a real 0.6 percent, downgraded from the earlier reading of a 0.3 percent contraction. ( The Japan Times)

According to the Markit business survey there was a bounce back. From earlier today.

“Positive survey data from the manufacturing sector
were not mirrored by Japan’s dominant service providing industry in December, where business
activity increased at the weakest pace since May if
the natural-disaster-hit September is discounted.
The survey also pointed to abating demand
pressures, as private sector sales increased only
mildly on the month.”

But then we will expect to see the impact of slowing money supply growth. So 2019 may see the Tokyo Whale do this as we wait to see how those who have presented Abenomics as a triumph deal with Elvis Costello being number one again.

She’s been a bad girl, she’s like a chemical
Though you try to stop it, she’s like a narcotic
You want to torture her, you want to talk to her
All the things you bought for her, putting up your temperature
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it

Meanwhile here is my podcast from last week with covers my thoughts on how Japan has survived the “lost decade(s)”.