This blog has been updated to incorporate the Japan GDP data published on Monday.
Japan, it seems, is still stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rather shocking gross domestic product figures just published for the third quarter show that the economy has fallen into yet another technical recession since the sales tax was increased in April. On this evidence, it will be hard to achieve fiscal sustainability without abandoning the economic recovery. Abenomics, which was supposed to resolve this longstanding dilemma, is in trouble.
Although Japanese GDP data are notoriously volatile from quarter to quarter, and this batch was depressed by a temporary burst of inventory shedding, underlying consumer and corporate spending is very weak. Aggressive monetary easing and a huge devaluation have not been enough, as yet anyway, to overcome the effects of even a modest fiscal tightening.
In the next few days, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is widely expected to react to the GDP figures by announcing that the second leg of a sales tax increase, scheduled for October 2015, has been postponed until 2017. Since this delay would be supported by two-thirds of the Japanese electorate, it may be the prelude to a snap general election in December.
In itself, the postponement of the sales tax increase will have a negligible effect on fiscal sustainability, and it will help restore the economic recovery next year. But the fact that it needs to be considered at all raises wider questions about the longer term success of Abenomics. Read more
The month just ended was the fourth worst month for government bond returns in the past two decades. This abrupt response to Ben Bernanke’s warning that the Fed might think about tapering QE at some point in the next few meetings has naturally raised fears that the great bull market in fixed income, which started in 1982, might now be threatened by a sharp reversal.
Some analysts regard this as the inevitable bursting of a bubble which has been created by the actions of the central banks (see this earlier blog). Others, like Jim O’Neill, regard the rise in bond yields as the start of a return to economic normality, and argue that would be a very good thing as long as it occurs in an environment of recovering economic confidence. Paul Krugman also points out that the pattern of behaviour in the major markets – bonds down, dollar up and equities up – is consistent with greater optimism about the US economy, rather than worries about the Fed or the onset of a debt crisis. Read more
The package of quantitative easing announced today by the new regime at the Bank of Japan is one of the largest monetary injections ever announced by the central bank of a major developed economy. The only rival for that crown is the emergency easing in monetary policy which took place in most economies in late 2008. But today’s BoJ action has not been driven by any short-term emergency. It represents a deliberate change in philosophy, and a complete abandonment of everything that the Bank of Japan has said about monetary policy in the past two decades. Those who believe in quantitative easing certainly have their experiment, writ large in Tokyo.
In effect the new governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, has imported into Japan the whole of the Federal Reserve’s post-Lehman balance sheet strategy, and he will implement it in under two years, instead of the five years or more taken by the Fed. The doubling in the Japanese monetary base over a period of 21 months is in itself remarkable. Taken together with the extension of the duration of bonds purchased from less than 3 years to an average of 7 years, the injection becomes of historic proportions.
The new strategy brings, for the first time, a real prospect of breaking the deflationary psyche which has plagued Japan for so long. But it also brings risks that the strategy might work too well, with inflation expectations unhinging the bond market. Mr Kuroda is trying to pull off a difficult trick, which is “to drastically change the expectations of markets and economic entities”, and to do so in a very particular way. Read more