Japan’s national accounts show that non-financial business has been a net lender to other sectors of the economy at an annual rate of 7 per cent of GDP since 2009. The accounts on an income basis are published much later than those based on expenditure data and the latest we have for the former have only recently become available.

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In my last blog, I showed that the trend growth rate of the US indicated by its Incremental Capital/Output Ratio (“ICOR”) was only 1.6 per cent per annum. As the US population is likely to grow at 0.8 per cent per annum over the next ten to twenty years, this would allow gross domestic product per head to rise at 0.8 per cent per annum. As chart one shows, this is well below the post-war average and is almost identical to the growth achieved over the past ten years. Continuation of recent growth would probably disappoint most expectations.

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There is a widespread view that the financial crisis has caused growth to slow in developed countries. In earlier blog posts I have shown that this is unlikely. The crisis did not cause the change in demography, which has been a very important contributor. The other major influence has been the decline in productivity, which is partly due to a large decline in investment which started well before the financial crisis.

Not only has investment fallen, but the investment that has been taking place has become much less productive. If this is temporary, then we can reasonably hope that we will see a bounce in growth and productivity. As I recently argued, the US has moved from a situation where the growth rate of the number of working age individuals has outpaced that of the total population to the opposite situation. As a result, a rise in productivity is needed to prevent living standards falling. It is therefore important to try to understand why the efficiency of capital has fallen. Read more

Investors rightly worry about the risks they run as well as their prospects for gain. The assessment of risk is complicated because for equities it varies over time. Holding a balanced portfolio of shares becomes less risky as years go by. While there is always a possibility of bad outcomes, if equity returns were random such risks would fall over time. But in practice they fall even faster because returns are not random but show “negative serial correlation”, which means that after periods of above average returns the chance of below average ones increases and vice versa.

No one would own equities if they didn’t expect them to give positive real returns. As they have in the past it is reasonable to expect them to do so in the future. If markets fluctuated in a random way, the most likely return in the future would be their long term past return which in real terms has been around six per cent per annum. Read more

Bad policies breed even worse ones. The disillusionment of voters provides the link. Disappointment with the economy is reinforced by the conviction that “‘They’ don’t know what they are doing.” Voters want new policies and new people. Sadly, this does not usually produce sound policies advocated by those who have correctly analysed the faults of the past. Realism seldom offers the instant gratification sought by the disgruntled, and populist policies thus usually represent a retreat from reason rather than a rise in analytical rigour. When countries have embraced populism, the resulting policies have habitually made matters worse.

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Financial crises commonly arise when there is too much debt and asset prices fall from excessive levels. Examples are to be found in 1929 in the US, 1999 in Japan and 2008 worldwide. Hyman Minsky, in his famous book Stabilising the Unstable Economy, set out the three stages in the pattern of borrowing that involve increasing risk. It starts with borrowers expecting to be able both to pay the interest and to repay the principal from the cash they expect their investment to generate. In the next stage their hopes are limited to paying the interest and refinancing the principal when the repayment falls due. In the final stage not even the interest is expected to be covered and the expected profit derives solely from the hope of being able to sell the debt financed asset at a profit. When continually rising asset prices cease to be an article of faith, the house of cards collapses.

There is then a rush to sell assets which sets off a recession, as borrowers seek to repay their debts. Companies which wish to reduce their borrowing don’t just avoid new borrowing — they seek to repay their existing debt. To do this they need to generate cash. This means spending less than they earn, and their intentions to invest then fall short of their intentions to save. The attempt to improve private sector balance sheets can therefore be described as a balance sheet recession, whose severity can be moderated as fiscal deficits cause the balance sheet of the public sector to weaken, offsetting the negative impact that comes from the strengthening of private sector balance sheets. Read more

The UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility (“OBR”) is a very professional organisation; far more so, for example, than the US Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”). The greater professionalism of the OBR is apparent in the way in which it does not just forecast future fiscal deficits, but also shows the shifts it expects in the net lending of other sectors. These must, as a matter of identity, exactly match changes in the public sector’s borrowing.

The admirable determination of the OBR, in its December report, to support its forecasts by serious economic analysis has, on this occasion, had the bizarre and presumably inadvertent result of showing that a significant reduction in the fiscal deficit is extremely unlikely unless it is accompanied by a large decline in the value of sterling. Read more

Since the financial crisis, growth has slowed in the developed world. It is often assumed that this is an example of cause and effect. I showed in my previous post that this assumption is improbable, as much of the slowdown is the result of changes in demography — changes which are themselves largely the result of birth rates, which predate the crisis by many years. The other major cause of the slowdown has been a decline in productivity. Taken together, demography and productivity appear responsible for a minimum of 79 per cent of the decline in growth among the five developed economies I focused on — the US, UK, France, Germany and Japan.

Increases in productivity usually require investment in new equipment, but the extent of any productivity improvement will depend not only on the amount of the investment, but also its effectiveness. Where investment declines, a fall in productivity is likely unless the change is offset by a rise in the efficiency of new capitalRead more

The worst postwar recession has been followed by weak growth. It is readily assumed that this is cause and effect. Such an analysis is both wrong and damaging. If the weak recovery is due to the recent recession, then its causes must be short-term rather than structural. This belief is behind the frequent calls for more fiscal or monetary easing and the resulting failure to discuss, let alone address the deeper structural problems.

Periods of slow growth can be caused by insufficient demand or insufficient supply. If demand is the problem, the resources of the economy are not being fully utilised. But, if supply is the constraint, then those resources have not been growing fast enough. Read more

Japan’s economic policy is a battle between those who want inflation, on one side, and the fiscal hawks on the other. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to hold a snap election suggests that the inflationists, of which he is one, are currently winning. The market rose on the news of the election, so it seems that investors believe that inflation would be good for both share prices and the economy.

Inflation, as measured by annual changes in the consumer price index, is currently well over 2 per cent. But according to the Bank of Japan, prices for producers are actually falling relative to three months ago, after the effects of this year’s consumption tax increase are excluded. The central bank goes on to state that this is a reflection of declining prices for international commodities, and that the annual rate of increase for consumer prices is just 1 per cent after fresh food is removed from the calculations. Read more

Japan’s gross domestic product shrank in the third quarter of 2014 at 1.6 per cent per annum over the quarter and 1 per cent over the previous 12 months. This disappointed the stock market, which fell by more than 2 per cent. It then recovered almost fully the next day on the news that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had called a snap election, designed to give him a mandate to postpone the increase in consumption tax otherwise due in October 2015.

Governments can boost demand by increasing expenditure or by cutting taxes. Disappointing GDP data do not therefore provide much reason for gloom unless the government appears unwilling to boost demand or the data reflect a problem of supply rather than demand. Read more

Japan cannot put its economy on to a sustainable path unless it reforms its corporation tax system. Fortunately, this is now under active discussion. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that the right changes will be made.

One sector of the economy cannot lend unless another borrows. The sum of the net lending and net borrowing in an economy must therefore equal zero. Japan’s government is a huge borrower and, if this is to be brought down to a sustainable level, the net lending of other sectors must come down by an equal amount. As chart one shows, it is the corporate sector which has moved into massive cash surplus since 1988, when Japan’s fiscal balance moved into a structural deficit. It is therefore the corporate sector which must take the brunt of any fall in government borrowing through a similar decline in the sector’s net lending. Current tax arrangements and regulations are the key cause of the massive cash surpluses run by companies which must be brought down if the fiscal deficit is to be reduced to manageable proportions. Read more

Hedge funds’ portfolios are often leveraged and they can be big winners or losers if this pays off. In this sense the US is also a hedge fund. In terms of its international assets, the US is long equities and short debt. This has been hugely to its advantage because equities have given much better returns, but this benefit carries large risks for the future.

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The damage done to the UK and US economies by buybacks in preference to capital investment was a central theme of my book The Road to Recovery, and it has found its way, not too often I hope, into these blogs. I have therefore been heartened by the growing interest shown by the financial press in this threat to our economies. The Economist recently devoted a major section to the issue, as did the Financial Times on October 12.

The change in the way managements are paid drives buybacks but this has yet to be widely appreciated. The US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programme was rightly underlined by my colleagues as adding the fuel of cheap debt but, without the preference for buybacks, low bond yields would have encouraged capital investment. This they markedly failed to do. An important paper, shortly to be published in the Review of Financial Studies, “Corporate Investment and Stock Market Listing: A Puzzle?” by John Asker, Joan Farre-Mensa and Alexander Ljungqvist demonstrates that a huge difference has appeared in recent years in the levels of investment by quoted and unquoted companies. Read more

The following comment on my blog post about quantitative easing and the eurozone struck a chord:

“The unaddressed and unanswered question about fiscal stimulus in the eurozone is about why it will be anything other than another short-term sugar rush?” Read more

I showed in my previous blog that the ratio of depreciation to operating profits is much higher in the published figures for Japanese non-financial companies than it is for their US counterparts and that this could not be justified in terms of either the amount of equipment that needed to be depreciated or the rate at which it should be written off. There is therefore a strong implication that Japanese profits are understated relative to US ones, but this is subject to two provisos.

First, even if the ratio of depreciation to output should be the same in both countries, the ratio of operating profits could be very different if US companies had much higher ratios of profits to output than Japanese ones. Read more

In two earlier blogs I explained why the cyclically adjusted price earnings yield (Cape) could not sensibly be applied to valuing Japanese shares. (One of several reasons is that Cape is only valid if profit margins are mean reverting over relatively short periods of time, such as 10 years or so, and this has not been the case in Japan.) This does not mean that they cannot be valued by other means. In this and the next blog I attempt one possible way to do this. Read more

The eurozone’s economy appears to have stalled. It was widely expected that growth would pick up to 1 per cent this year, but these estimates are now being toned down as the first two quarters of 2014 have been below expectations. The pattern shown in chart one (below) is, at best, one of stagnation. It is therefore agreed with near unanimity that the eurozone’s economy needs a boost.

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It is generally agreed that the stock market dislikes falling profits and rising interest rates and that the two in combination are particularly to be feared. History supports this. According to my rough calculations, the stock market has declined 29 per cent of the time since 1947, but 40 per cent when falling profits and rising interest rates have coincided. Fortunately for investors, such conditions are relatively rare, as 75 per cent of the time the impact of rising rates has been offset by higher profits.

In a recent blog I argued that the risk of a negative combination of interest rates and profits is unusually high. Profits tend to be boosted by falls in personal savings, which have now fallen to a low level and this support is now less likely. Since 1947 increases in interest rates have been accompanied by rising profits in 23 years; in all but six of these years personal savings have fallen. History, therefore, suggests that the decline in savings has been very important in reducing the risks of the damaging coincidence of rising rates and falling profits. Read more

In my previous post I showed why it seems likely that profits published by US companies are currently overstated by much more than they have been in the past. This does not necessarily mean that the degree of overvaluation of the stock market shown by cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratios is understated. The profits as published have been far more volatile than shown in the national accounts, and it is probable that published profits were heavily understated in 2008, as earnings per share in Q4 2008 were negative, while those shown in NIPA Table 1.14 remained strongly positive. Read more