Japan shows that QE works

I am getting a bit worried – it has happened again! I agree with Paul Krugman about something or rather this time around it is actually Krugman that agrees with me.

In a couple of posts (see here and here) I have argued that the Japanese deflation story is more complicated than both economists and journalists often assume.

In my latest post (“Did Japan have a productivity norm?”I argued that the deflation over the past decade has been less harmful than the deflation of the 1990s. The reason is that the deflation of the 2000s (prior to 2008) primarily was a result of positive supply shocks, while the deflation of in 1990s primarily was a result of much more damaging demand deflation. I based this conclusion on my decomposition of inflation (or rather deflation) on my Quasi-Real Price Index.

Here is Krugman:

“A number of readers have asked me for an evaluation of Eamonn Fingleton’s article about Japan. Is Japan doing as well as he says?

Well, no — but his point about the overstatement of Japan’s decline is right…

…The real Japan issue is that a lot of its slow growth has to do with demography. According to OECD numbers, in 1990 there were 86 million Japanese between the ages of 15 and 64; by 2007, that was down to 83 million. Meanwhile, the US working-age population rose from 164 million to 202 million.”

This is exactly my view. In terms of GDP per capita growth Japan has basically done as good (or maybe rather as badly) other large industrialised countries such as Germany and the US.

This is pretty simple to illustrate with a graph GDP/capita for the G7 countries since 1980 (Index 2001=100).

(UPDATE: JP Koning has a related graph here)

A clear picture emerges. Japan was a star performer in 1980s. The 1990s clearly was a lost decade, while Japan in the past decade has performed more or less in line with the other G7 countries. In fact there is only one G7 country with a “lost decade” over the paste 10 years and that is Italy.

Quantitative easing ended Japan’s lost decade

Milton Friedman famously blamed the Bank of Japan for the lost decade in 1990s and as my previous post on Japan demonstrated there is no doubt at all that monetary policy was highly deflationary in 1990s and that undoubtedly is the key reason for Japan’s lost decade (See my graph from the previous post).

In 1998 Milton Friedman argued that Japan could pull out of the crisis and deflation by easing monetary policy by expanding the money supply – that is what we today call Quantitative Easing (QE).

Here is Friedman:

“The surest road to a healthy economic recovery is to increase the rate of monetary growth, to shift from tight money to easier money, to a rate of monetary growth closer to that which prevailed in the golden 1980s but without again overdoing it. That would make much-needed financial and economic reforms far easier to achieve.

Defenders of the Bank of Japan will say, “How? The bank has already cut its discount rate to 0.5 percent. What more can it do to increase the quantity of money?”

The answer is straightforward: The Bank of Japan can buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan, what economists call high-powered money. Most of the proceeds will end up in commercial banks, adding to their reserves and enabling them to expand their liabilities by loans and open market purchases. But whether they do so or not, the money supply will increase.

There is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so. Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.”

(Yes, it sounds an awful lot like Scott Sumner…or rather Scott learned from Friedman)

In early 2001 the Bank of Japan finally decided to listen to the advise of Milton Friedman and as the graph clearly shows this is when Japan started to emerge from the lost decade and when real GDP/capita started to grow in line with the other G7 (well, Italy was falling behind…).

The actions of the Bank of Japan after 2001 are certainly not perfect and one can clearly question how the BoJ implemented QE, but I think it is pretty clearly that even BoJ’s half-hearted monetary easing did the job and pull Japan out of the depression. In that regard it should be noted that headline inflation remained negative after 2001, but as I have shown in my previous post Bank of Japan managed to end demand deflation (while supply deflation persisted).

And yes, yes the Bank of Japan of course should have introduces much clearer nominal target (preferably a NGDP level target) and yes Japan has once again gone back to demand deflation after the Bank of Japan ended QE in 2007. But that does not change that the little the BoJ actually did was enough to get Japan growing again.

The “New Normal” is a monetary – not a real – phenomenon

I think a very important conclusion can be drawn from the Japanese experience. There is no such thing as the “New Normal” where deleveraging necessitates decades of no growth. Japan only had one and not two lost decades. Once the BoJ acted to end demand deflation the economy recovered.

Unfortunately the Bank of Japan seems to have moved back to the sins of 1990s – as have the Federal Reserve and the ECB. We can avoid a global lost decade if these central banks learn the lesson from Japan – both the good and the bad.

HT JP Koning

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9 Comments

  1. Alex Salter

     /  January 10, 2012

    Bravo. Once again, the failure to differentiate between “good” and “bad” inflation/deflation leads to unfortunate policy outcomes.

    Reply
  2. Exactly Alex…and I think the Quasi-Real Price Index makes it very easy to see the difference between the two…

    Reply
  3. JP Koning

     /  January 10, 2012

    It would be interesting to see your chart with GDP per working-age resident and not GDP per capita.

    Reply
  4. JP Koning

     /  January 10, 2012

    Also, how much can the hiccup experienced by Japan in 1998 be blamed on the BoJ and how much on the Asian financial crisis?

    Reply
  5. Thank JPK, interesting graph and it seems that the recovery starts (on some of the graphs) around 1999. The is consistent with what Selgin is saying. Furthermore, it should be noted that demand deflation ease off quite a bit in 1999 – so in that sense it would not be in conflict with my my view that once demand deflation disappears Japan started to emerge from the crisis.

    I would, however, like to see your graph in levels rather than relative to other countries.

    Regarding the Asian crisis and Japanese growth there obviously is close connection. Not me, however, it still boils down to how Japanese monetary policy reacted to the crisis and the conclusion must be that Bank of Japan took far too long to ease monetary conditions after the crisis hit in 1997.

    Reply
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