Let me say it again – The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports

This morning we got strong GDP numbers from Japan for Q1. The numbers show that it is primarily domestic demand – private consumption and investment – rather than exports, which drive growth.

This is from Bloomberg:

Japan’s economy grew at the fastest pace since 2011 in the first quarter as companies stepped up investment and consumers splurged before the first sales-tax rise in 17 years last month.

Gross domestic product grew an annualized 5.9 percent from the previous quarter, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo, more than a 4.2 percent median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 32 economists. Consumer spending rose at the fastest pace since the quarter before the 1997 tax increase, while capital spending jumped the most since 2011.

…Consumer spending rose 2.1 percent from the previous quarter, the highest since a 2.2 percent increase in the first three months of 1997.

So it is domestic demand, while net exports are actually a drag on the economy (also from Bloomberg):

Exports rose 6 percent from the previous quarter and imports climbed 6.3 percent.

The yen’s slide since Abe came to power in December 2012 has inflated the value of imported energy as the nation’s nuclear reactors remain shuttered after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

The numbers fits very well with the story I told about the excepted “Kuroda recovery” (it is not Abenomics but monetary policy…) a year ago.

This is what I wrote in my blog post “The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports” nearly exactly a year ago (May 10 2013):

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment is likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see is a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works.

…I think that the way we should think about the weaker yen is as an indicator for monetary easing. Hence, when we seeing the yen weaken, Japanese stock markets rallying and inflation expectations rise at the same time then it is pretty safe to assume that monetary conditions are indeed becoming easier. Of course the first we can conclude is that this shows that there is no “liquidity trap”. The central bank can always ease monetary policy – also when interest rates are zero or close to zero. The Bank of Japan is proving that at the moment.

the focus on the“competitiveness channel” is completely misplaced and the ongoing pick-up in Japanese growth is likely to be mostly about domestic demand rather than about exports.

While I am happy to acknowledge that today’s numbers likely are influenced by a number of special factors – such as increased private consumption ahead of planned sales tax hikes and likely also some distortions of the investment numbers I think it is clear that I overall have been right that what we have seen in the Japanese economy over the past year is indeed a moderate recovery led by domestic demand .

The biggest worry: Inflation targeting and a negative supply shock

That said, I am also worried about the momentum of the recovery and I am particularly concerned about the unfortunate combination of the Bank of Japan’s focus on inflation targeting – rather than nominal GDP targeting – than a negative supply shock.

This is particularly the situation where we are both going to see a sales tax hike – which will increase headline inflation – and we are seeing a significant negative supply shock due to higher energy prices. Furthermore note that the Abe administration’s misguided push to increase wage growth – to a pace faster than productivity growth – effectively also is a negative supply shock to the extent the policy is “working”.

While the BoJ has said it will ignore such effects on headline inflation it is likely to nonetheless at least confuse the picture of the Japanese economy and might make some investors speculate that the BoJ might cut short monetary easing.

This might explain three factors that have been worrying me. First, of all while broad money supply in Japan clearly has accelerated we have not see a pick-up in money-velocity. Second, the Japanese stock market has generally been underperforming this year. Third, we are not really seeing the hoped pick-up in medium-term inflation expectations.

All this indicate that the BoJ are facing some credibility problems – consumers and investors seem to fear that the BoJ might end monetary easing prematurely.

To me there is only one way to fundamentally solve these credibility problems – the BoJ should introduce a NGDP level target of lets say 3-4%. That would significantly reduce the fear among investors and consumers that the BoJ might scale back monetary easing in response to tax hikes and negative supply shocks, while at the same time maintain price stability over the longer run (around 2% inflation over the medium-term assuming that potential real GDP growth is 1-2%).

PS Q1 2014 nominal GDP grew 3.1% y/y against the prior reading of 2.2% y/y.

PPS See also my previous post where I among other things discuss the problems of inflation targeting and supply shocks.

About these ads

There is no ’fiscal cliff’ in Japan – a simple AS-AD analysis

It is now very clear that what Milton Friedman advocated the Bank of Japan should do back in the mid-1990s – to expand the money base to get Japan out of deflation – is in fact working. Nominal spending growth is accelerating and with it deflation has come to an end and real GDP growth is fairly robust.

However, some have been arguing the success of Abenomics will be short-lived and that the planned increases in the Japanese sales tax might send Japan back into recession. In other words Japan is facing a fiscal cliff.

In this post I will argue that like in the case of the 2013-US fiscal cliff the fears of the negative impact of fiscal consolidation is overblown and that the risk of recession in Japan is very small if the Bank of Japan keeps doing its job and try to get inflation expectations back to 2%. It is yet another illustration of the Sumner Critique.

All we need is the AS-AD framework

I think it is pretty easy to illustrate the impact of a sales tax increase in a world with a central bank with a credible inflation target within a simple AS-AD framework.

We start out with a Cowen-Tabarrok style AS-AD framework. We use growth rates rather levels and aggregate demand curve is given by the equation of exchange (mv=py).

The graph below is our starting point.

AS AD

We have assumed that inflation in the starting point already is at 2%. This obviously is not correct, but it does not fundamentally change the analysis of the “fiscal shock”.

Japan’s sales tax will be raised to 8 percent from 5 percent in April and to 10 percent in October 2015, but here we just assume it is one fiscal shock. Again that is not important for the conclusions.

A negative fiscal shock in a Cowen-Tabarrok style AS-AD framework is basically a negative shock to money velocity (v), which will push the AD curve to the left as nominal spending drops.

However, as it is clear from the graph this will initially push inflation below the Bank of Japan’s 2% inflation target. We are here ignoring headline inflation will increase, but we are here focusing on core inflation as is the BoJ. Core inflation will drop as illustrated in the graph below.

inflation target BoJ ASAD

If the Bank of Japan is serious about its inflation target it will respond to any demand-driven drop in inflation by counteracting that with an one-to-one increase in the money base to bring back inflation to 2%.

The consequence of BoJ’s 2% inflation is hence that there will be full monetary offset of the negative fiscal shock and as a consequence inflation should broadly speaking remain unchanged at 2% and real GDP growth will be unaffected. Hence, under a credible inflation target the fiscal multiplier is zero. As in the case of the US there will be no fiscal cliff. There will be fiscal consolidation but not a negative impact on growth.

This of course does not mean that the fiscal shock will not have any impact on the Japanese economy or markets. It very likely will. It is for example clear that if the markets expect the BoJ to step up asset purchases (increase money base growth) in response to fiscal tightening then that would likely weaken the yen further. Something Japanese exporters likely will be happy about. As a consequence the sales tax hikes will likely change the composition of growth in Japan.

Finally, it should be noted that everybody in Japan is fully aware of the miserable state of public finances and as a result it is hardly a surprise to Japanese households that the government sooner or later would have to do something to improve public finances. In fact the sales tax hike was announced long ago. Therefore, we should expect some Ricardian equivalence effects to come into play here – an increase net government saving is likely to reduce net private savings. So even with no monetary offset there is likely to be some Ricardian offset. That in my view, however, is significantly less important than the monetary policy offset.

How aggressive will the BoJ have to be to offset the fiscal shock?

A crucial question of course will be how much additional monetary easing is needed to offset the fiscal shock. Here the credibility of the BoJ’s inflation comes into play.

If the BoJ’s inflation target was 100% credible we could actually argue that the BoJ would not have to increase the money base at all. The Chuck Norris effect would take care of everything.

Hence, if everybody knows that the BoJ always will ensure that inflation (and inflation expectations) is at 2% then when a fiscal shock is announced the markets will realize that that means that the BoJ will ease monetary policy. Easier monetary policy will push up stock prices and weaken the yen. That will in itself stimulate aggregate demand. In fact stock prices will continue to rise and the yen will continue to weaken until the markets are “satisfied” that inflation expectations remain at 2%.

In fact this might exactly be what is happening. The yen has generally continued to weaken and the Japanese stock markets have been holding up quite well even through the latest round of turmoil – Fed tapering fears, Syria, Emerging Markets worries etc.

But obviously, the BoJ’s inflation target is not entirely credible and inflation expectations are still well-below 2% so my guess would be that the BoJ might have to step up quantitative easing, but it is certainly not given. In fact the Japanese recovery is showing no signs of slowing down and inflation – both headline and core – continues to inch up.

A golden opportunity for the BoJ to increase credibility

Hence, I am not really worried about the planned sales tax hikes. I don’t like taxes, but I don’t think a sales tax hike will kill the Japanese recovery. In fact I believe that the sales tax hikes are a golden opportunity for the Bank of Japan to once and for all to demonstrate that it is serious about its 2% inflation.

The easiest way to do that is basically to copy a quite interesting note from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand on “Fiscal and Monetary Coordination”. This is from the note:

“…the Reserve Bank, therefore, is required to respond to developments in the economy – including changes in fiscal policy – that have material implications for the achievement of the price stability target;”

And further it says:

“These… features mean that monetary and fiscal policy co-ordination occurs through the Reserve Bank taking fiscal policy into account as an element of the environment in which monetary policy operates. This approach is to be contrasted with approaches to co-ordination that involve joint determination of monetary policy by the monetary and fiscal policy agencies.”

And finally:

“While demand – and thus inflation – pressures may originate from a range of different sources, the task of monetary policy is to respond so as to maintain an overall level of demand consistent with keeping inflation in one to two years’ time within the target range. For example, if the government increases its net spending, all other things being equal, monetary policy needs to be tighter for a time, so as to slow growth of private demand and “make room” for the additional government spending.”

If the BoJ copied this note/statement then it basically would be an open-ended commitment to offset any fiscal shock to aggregate demand – and hence to inflation – whether positive or negative.

By telling the market this the Bank of Japan would do a lot to reduce the worries among some market participants that the BoJ might not be serious about ensuring that its 2% inflation target will be fulfilled even if fiscal policy is tightened.

So far BoJ governor Kuroda has done a good job in managing expectations and so far all indications are that his policies are working – deflation seems to have been defeated and growth is picking up.

If Kuroda keeps his commitment to the 2% inflation target and stick to his rule-based monetary policy and strengthens his communication policies further by stressing the relationship between monetary policy and fiscal policy – RBNZ style – then there is a good chance that the planed sales tax hikes will not be a fiscal cliff.

Japan’s widening trade deficit

Remember my earlier comment on monetary easing in Japan and the possible impact on the Japanese trade balance:

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment is likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see is a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works….

…When the Bank of Japan is easing monetary policy it is likely to have a much bigger positive impact on domestic demand than on Japanese exports. In fact I would not be surprised if the Japanese trade balance will worsen as a consequence of Kuroda’s heroic efforts to get Japan out of the deflationary trap.

Today we got data that seems to support my view that monetary easing in Japan is likely to widen the trade deficit. This is from AP:

Japan’s trade deficit rose nearly 10 percent in May to 993.9 billion yen (nearly $10.5 billion) as rising costs for imports due to the cheaper yen matched a rebound in exports, the Ministry of Finance reported Wednesday.

Exports rose 10.1 percent in May over a year earlier to 5.77 trillion yen ($60.7 billion) while imports also surged 10 percent, to 6.76 trillion yen ($71.1 billion), the ministry said. Japan’s trade deficit in May 2012 was 907.93 billion yen.

Hence, just looking at the trend in the trade deficit – it is widening – it would be tempting to declare victory on my hypothesis that the “Kuroda boom” mostly will be about domestic demand. However, I must admit that a lot of the reason for the increase in imports is higher energy imports. So while I do think my view is correct I don’t think that trade data in itself provides a lot support for this view.

HT Yichuan Wang

Japan badly needs structural reforms, but not more than the rest of the G7 countries

A key critique of monetary easing in Japan is that Japan’s real problem is not monetary, but rather a supply side problem. I strongly agree that the Japanese economy is facing serious structural challenges – particularly an old-age population and a declining labour force. However, I also think that there often is a tendency for commentators to overstate these problems compared to supply side problems in other developed economies.

In this post I will therefore try to compare Japan’s structural problems with the structural problems of the other G7 economies – the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France and Italy.

The conservative US think tank Heritage Foundation every year produces an Economic Freedom Index. Even though one certainly can discuss the methods used to calculate this index I overall believe that the Index gives a pretty good description of the level of economic liberalization in difference countries. And yes, I do equate the level of economic liberalization with less structural problems.

The graph below shows the ranking of the G7 countries in the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom.

Economic Freedom Index G7

The picture is pretty clear. The Anglo-Saxon countries Canada (6), USA (10) and the UK (14) are significantly more economically free than particularly the interventionist South European countries France (62) and Italy (83).

Japan (24) shares the “median” position with the other large exporter in the group – Germany (19).

So while there certainly is scope for reforms in Japan it is hard to argue that Japan in general is a lot more interventionist than the other large economies of the world.

In fact it is also hard to argue that Japan has performed worse than the other G7 countries over the past decade. As the graph below shows Japanese GDP/capita has grown more or less in line with the other G7 countries since 2001-3. The real underperformer is Italy rather than Japan, which should not be surprising given Italy’s interventionist policies and excessive regulation.

A closer look at Japan’s structural weaknesses

But lets have a closer look at the data and see what Japan’s structural problems really are.

The graph below shows Japan’s relative ranking among the G7 economies in each of the subcategories of Index of Economic Freedom. I have indexed the average G7 ranking for each category at 100. The higher a score the more “free”.

Economic Freedom Japan 2Again the story is the same – Japan falls smack in the middle among the G7 countries when it comes to economic freedom – with an average for all the categories score of 101.

The breakdown of the numbers reveals both Japan’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

For example the Japanese public sector is relative small compared to the average of the other G7 countries and the Japan’s labour market is relatively free.

However, it is also clear that there are some clear regulatory weaknesses. This is particularly the case in the areas of trade, business, investment and financial freedom.

The three first of them all really is about an overly protectionist Japanese economy – both when it comes to foreign and domestic investors and I think it is pretty obvious that this is where the reform effort in Japan should be focused.

Mr. Abe please open up the Japanese economy

I really think it is straight forward. If Prime Minister Abe seriously wants to reform his country’s economy he needs to open it up to competition – both domestic and foreign.

In the domestic economy I would like other commentators highlight the lack of competition in the retail sector where for example the  “Large Scale Retail Location Law” tend to give artificial protection to small retail outlets (mom-and-pop shops) rather than bigger and more efficient retail shops such as hypermarkets.

Similarly zoning laws are hindering competition in the retail sector while at the same time is deepening the decade long Japanese property market crisis.

Finally I would note that interventionism in the agricultural sector in Japan is at least as bad as in the EU with price controls and very high levels of subsidies. Just see these scary facts from a recent WSJ article:

“In 2010, farmers added 4.6 trillion yen ($45 billion) in value and consumed 4.6 trillion yen in subsidies, meaning the industry netted out to zero. The average Japanese farmer is 66 years old and tills 1.9 hectares of land.”

This is hardly an efficient use of economic resources. The need for retail, housing and agricultural reforms therefor for seem to be very clear and this is where the focus should be for Mr. Abe when he fires off what he has called his “Third arrow” - structural reform.

Trade and investment liberalization will could enhance global support for Abenomics

Bank of Japan’s efforts to ease monetary policy has been criticized for being a beggar-they-neighbour policy. I think is a completely misplaced critique, however, it is indisputable that the outside world increasingly think of Japan as protectionist. I believe that a good way to calm these fears would be for the Japanese government to unilaterally remove all trade barriers and trade tariffs as well as opening up the Japanese economy to foreign investments. That would be in the best interest of the Japanese economy and would significantly boost Japanese productivity, while at the same making it very hard to the outside world to argue that Japan is protectionist.

The focus on monetary reform as been right and will support structural reforms

Even though there is an urgent need for economic reforms in Japan I fundamentally don’t think that the need for economic reforms is bigger than in France or Italy or even in Germany and I therefore think that the focus on monetary reform has been correct.

Furthermore, as the new monetary policy regime is likely to pull Japan out of deflation and boost economic growth (in the next 2-3 years) the Abe government is likely to get more support for implementing less popular reforms. Furthermore, as the new monetary policy regime is very likely to increase nominal GDP growth both public finance and banking problems are likely to be reduced, which in itself is likely to support real GDP growth over the longer run.

Concluding, the Abe government has gotten it more or less right on monetary regime (even though I would have preferred NGDP targeting to inflation targeting) and it is now time for Prime Minister Abe to prepare for his Third Arrow.

Japan: It’s domestic demand, stupid

I have been reading the reports on the Japanese trade data for April, which have been published this morning. The reporting is extremely telling about how most journalists (and economists!) fail to understand what is going on in Japan (the markets understand perfectly well – Nikkei is nicely up this morning).

In nearly all the reports on the data there is a 90% focus on the fact that exports grew slower than expected (3.8% y/y) and that the Japanese trade deficit remains in place. The slightly “disappointing” numbers is then in most news stories used to speculate that Bank of Japan’s monetary easing is not working – or rather the weaker yen has failed to boost exports as much as expected. On the other hand there is nearly no focus on the import data, which grew by nearly 10% y/y.

It is really the strong import growth, which is the interesting story here. As I earlier have argued the monetary easing in Japan is likely to boost domestic demand rather than net exports. This is from my latest post on BoJ:

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment is likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see is a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works….

…When the Bank of Japan is easing monetary policy it is likely to have a much bigger positive impact on domestic demand than on Japanese exports. In fact I would not be surprised if the Japanese trade balance will worsen as a consequence of Kuroda’s heroic efforts to get Japan out of the deflationary trap.

And this of course is exactly what we are now seeing in the data. Export growth continues to accelerate, but import growth accelerates even faster and the trade data is worsening. That is very good news – monetary policy is boosting domestic demand. Mr. Kuroda please keep up the good work.

Monetary policy works just fine – Exhibit 14743: The case of Japanese earnings

The graph below shows the ratio of upward to downward revisions of equity analysts’ earnings forecasts in different countries. I stole the graph from Walter Kurtz at Sober Look. Walter himself got the data from Merrill Lynch.

Just take a look in the spike in upward earnings revisions (relative to downward revision) for Japanese companies after Haruhiko Kuroda was nominated for new Bank of Japan governor back in February and he later announced his aggressive plan for hitting the newly introduced 2% inflation target.

This is yet another very strong prove that monetary policy can be extremely powerful. The graph also shows the importance of the Chuck Norris effect – monetary policy is to a large extent about expectations or as Scott Sumner would say: Monetary Policy works with long and variable leads – or rather I believe that the leads are not very long and not very variable if the central bank gets the communication right and I believe that the BoJ is getting the communication just right so you are seeing a fairly strong and nearly imitate impact of the announced monetary easing.

PS As there tend to be a quite strong positive correlation between earning growth and nominal GDP growth I think we can safely say that the sharp increase in earnings expectations in Japan to a large extent reflects a marked upward shift in NGDP growth expectations.

15 years too late: Reviving Japan (the ECB should watch and learn)

After 15 years of deflationary policies the Bank of Japan now clearly is changing course. That should be clear to everybody after today’s policy announcement from the Bank of Japan. I don’t have a lot of writing here other than I will say this is extremely good news. Good for Japan and good for the global economy and what the BoJ is doing is nearly textbook style monetary easing. The only minus is that the BOJ is targeting inflation and not the NGDP level, but anyway I am pretty convinced this will work and work soon.

Anyway lets pay tribute to Milton Friedman. This is Uncle Milty in 1998 in his article “Reviving Japan”:

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.

This is what the BoJ announced today:

Under this guideline, the monetary base — whose amount outstanding was 138 trillion yen at end-2012 — is expected to reach 200 trillion yen at end-2013 and 270 trillion yen at end-2014.

The monthly flow of JGB (Japanese Government Bonds) purchases is expected to become 7+ trillion yen on a gross basis.

The Bank will achieve the price stability target of 2 percent in terms of the year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) at the earliest possible time, with a time horizon of about two years. In order to do so, it will enter a new phase of monetary easing both in terms of quantity and quality. It will double the monetary base and the amounts outstanding of Japanese government bonds (JGBs) as well as exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in two years, and more than double the average remaining maturity of JGB purchases.

After 15 years the BoJ is finally listening to Friedman’s advice and I am sure it will do a lot to revive the Japanese economy. In fact the BoJ is doing more than listening to Milton Friedman. The BoJ is also listening to the Market Monetarist message of using the Chuck Norris Effect by guiding market expectations. Good work Kuroda.

And finally a message to ECB boss Mario Draghi. If you want to end the euro crisis just copy-paste today’s BoJ statement. You have the same inflation target anyway. It is not really that hard to do.

I don’t care who becomes BoJ governor – I want better monetary policy rules

UPDATE: I have edited my post significantly – I misread what Scott really said. That is the result of writing blog posts very early in the morning after sleeping too little. Sorry Scott…

Scott Sumner has a blog post on who might become the next governor of Bank of Japan. Scott ends his post with the following comment:

Naturally I favor the least dovish of the three.

Note that Scott is saying “least dovish” (I missed “least” in my original post). But don’t we want a the most dovish BoJ governor? No, we want the most principled governor – or rather the governor most committed to a rule based monetary policy.

The debate over doves versus hawks is a debate among people who fundamentally think about monetary policy in a discretionary fashion. Market Monetarism is exactly the opposite. We are strongly against discretion in monetary policy (and fiscal policy for that matter).

The important thing is not who is BoJ governor – the important thing is that there are good institutions – good rules. As I have argued before – what we really want is a monetary constitution in spirit of Jim Buchanan. In that sense the BoJ governor should be replaced – as Milton Friedman suggested – by a ‘computer’ and not by the most ‘dovish’ candidate.

Market Monetarists would have been “hawks” in the 1970s in the sense that we would have argued that for example US monetary policy was far too easy and we are ‘doves’ now. But that is really a mistaken way to think about the issue. If we favour for example a 5% NGDP level target for the US today – then we would have been doves in 1974 or 1981. That would make us more or less dovish/hawkish at different times, but that debate is for people who favours discretionary monetary policies – not for Market Monetarists.

If we just want a ‘dovish’ BoJ governor then we should advocate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives Zimbabwean central bank governor Gideon Gono a call. He knows all about monetary easing – and so do the central bank governors of Venezuela and Argentina. But we all know that these people are ludicrously bad central bankers.  In similar fashion Janet Yellen would not be the Market Monetarist candidate for the Federal Reserve chairman just because she tends to favour monetary easing – in fact it seems like Yellen always favours monetary easing. In fact you should be very suspicious of the views of policy makers who will always be hawks or doves.

Gideon_Gono10

The reason that Mark Carney is a good choice for new Bank of England governor is exactly that he is not ‘dovish’ or ‘hawkish’, but that he tend to stress the need for a rule based monetary policy. That said, the important thing is not Mark Carney, but rather whether the UK government is serious about introducing NGDP level targeting or not.

Monetary policy is not primarily about having the right people for the job, but rather about having the best institutions. Obviously you want to have the best people for the job, but ultimately even Scott Sumner would be a horrible Fed governor if his mandate was wrong.

If the BoJ had a rule based monetary policy and used for example NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy then it wouldn’t matter who becomes BoJ governor – because the policy would be the same no matter what. We cannot rely on central bankers to do the ‘right thing’. Central bankers only do the right thing by chance. We need to tie their hands with a monetary constitution – with strong rules.

Related posts:

Forget about “hawks” and “doves” – what we need is a “monetary constitution”
NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

 

The exchange rate fallacy: Currency war or a race to save the global economy?

This is from CNB.com:

Faced with a stubbornly slow and uneven global economic recovery, more countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.

Japan has set the stage for a potential global currency war, announcing plans to create money and buy bonds as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks to stimulate the moribund growth pace…

Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market.

This pretty much is what I would call the ‘exchange rate fallacy’ – hence the belief that monetary easing in someway is a zero sum game where monetary easing works through an “unfair” competitiveness channel and one country’s gain is another country’s lose.

Lets take the arguments one-by-one.

“…countries are likely to resort to cutting the value of their currencies in order to gain a competitive edge.”

The perception here is that monetary policy primarily works through a “competitiveness channel” where a monetary easing leads to a weakening of the currency and this improve the competitiveness of the nation by weakening the real value of the currency. The problem with this argument is first of all that this only works if there is no increase in prices and wages. It is of course reasonable to assume that that is the case in the short-run as prices and wages tend to be sticky. However, empirically such gains are minor.

I think a good illustration of this is relative performance of Danish and Swedish exports in 2008-9. When crisis hit in 2008 the Swedish krona weakened sharply as the Riksbank moved to cut interest rates aggressive and loudly welcomed the weakening of the krona. On the other hand Denmark continued to operate it’s pegged exchange rate regime vis-a-vis the euro. In other words Sweden initially got a massive boost to it’s competitiveness position versus Denmark.

However, take a look at the export performance of the two countries in the graph below.

swedkexports
Starting in Q3 2008 both Danish and Swedish exports plummeted. Yes, Swedish dropped slightly less than Danish exports but one can hardly talk about a large difference when it is taken into account how much the Swedish krona weakened compared to the Danish krone.

And it is also obvious that such competitiveness advantage is likely to be fairly short-lived as inflation and wage growth sooner or later will pick up and erode any short-term gains from a weakening of the currency.

The important difference between Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9 was hence not the performance of exports.

The important difference on the other hand the performance of domestic demand. Just have a look at private consumption in Sweden and Denmark in the same period.

SWDKcons

It is very clear that Swedish private consumption took a much smaller hit than Danish private consumption in 2008-9 and consistently has grown stronger in the following years.

The same picture emerges if we look at investment growth – here the difference it just much bigger.

swdkinvest

The difference between the performance of the Danish economy and the Swedish economy during the Great Recession hence have very little to do with export performance and everything to do with domestic demand.

Yes, initially Sweden gained a competitive advantage over Denmark, but the major difference was that Riksbanken was not constrained in it ability to ease monetary policy by a pegged exchange rate in the same way as the Danish central bank (Nationalbanken) was.

(For more on Denmark and Sweden see my earlier post The luck of the ‘Scandies’)

Hence, we should not see the exchange rate as a measure of competitiveness, but rather as an indicator of monetary policy “tightness”.When the central bank moves to ease monetary policy the country’s currency will tend to ease, but the major impact on aggregate demand will not be stronger export performance, but rather stronger growth in domestic demand. There are of course numerous examples of this in monetary history. I have earlier discussed the case of the Argentine devaluation in 2001 that boosted domestic demand rather exports. The same happened in the US when FDR gave up the gold standard in 1931. Therefore, when journalists and commentators focus on the relationship between monetary easing, exchange rates and “competitiveness” they are totally missing the point.

The ‘foolproof’ way out of deflation

That does not mean that the exchange rate is not important, but we should not think of the exchange rate in any other way than other monetary policy instruments like interest rates. Both can lead to a change in the money base (the core monetary policy instrument) and give guidance about future changes in the money base.

With interest rates effectively stuck at zero in many developed economies central banks needs to use other instruments to escape deflation. So far the major central banks of the world has focused on “quantitative easing” – increasing in the money base by buying (domestic) financial assets such as government bonds. However, another way to increase the money base is obviously to buy foreign assets – such as foreign currency or foreign bonds. Hence, there is fundamentally no difference between the Bank of Japan buying Japanese government bonds and buying foreign bonds (or currency). It is both channels for increasing the money base to get out of deflation.

In fact on could argue that the exchange rate channel is a lot more “effective” channel of monetary expansion than “regular” QE as exchange rate intervention is a more transparent and direct way for the central bank to signal it’s intentions to ease monetary policy, but fundamentally it is just another way of monetary easing.

It therefore is somewhat odd that many commentators and particularly financial journalists don’t seem to realise that FX intervention is just another form of monetary easing and that it is no less “hostile” than other forms of monetary easing. If the Federal Reserve buys US government treasuries it will lead to a weakening of dollar in the same way it would do if the Fed had been buying Spanish government bonds. There is no difference between the two. Both will lead to an expansion of the money base and to a weaker dollar.

“Economists in turn are expecting others to follow that lead, setting off a battle that would benefit those that get out of the gate quickest but likely hamper the nascent global recovery and the relatively robust stock market”

This quote is typical of the stories about “currency war”. Monetary easing is seen as a zero sum game and only the first to move will gain, but it will be on the expense of other countries. This argument completely misses the point. Monetary easing is not a zero sum game – in fact in an quasi-deflationary world with below trend-growth a currency war is in fact a race to save the world.

Just take a look at Europe. Since September both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have moved towards a dramatically more easy monetary stance, while the ECB has continue to drag its feet. In that sense one can say that that the US and Japan have started a “currency war” against Europe and the result has been that both the yen and the dollar have been weakened against the euro. However, the question is whether Europe is better off today than prior to the “currency war”. Anybody in the financial markets would tell you that Europe is doing better today than half  a year ago and European can thank the Bank of Japan and the Fed for that.

So how did monetary easing in the US and Japan help the euro zone? Well, it is really pretty simple. Monetary easing (and the expectation of further monetary easing) in Japan and the US as push global investors to look for higher returns outside of the US and Japan. They have found the higher returns in for example the Spanish and Irish bond markets. As a result funding costs for the Spanish and Irish governments have dropped significantly and as a result greatly eased the tensions in the European financial markets. This likely is pushing up money velocity in the euro zone, which effectively is monetary easing (remember MV=PY) – this of course is paradoxically what is now making the ECB think that it should (prematurely!) “redraw accommodation”.

The ECB and European policy makers should therefore welcome the monetary easing from the Fed and the BoJ. It is not an hostile act. In fact it is very helpful in easing the European crisis.

If the more easy monetary stance in Japan and US was an hostile act then one should have expected to see the European markets take a beating. That have, however, not happened. In fact both the European fixed income and equity markets have rallied strongly on particularly the new Japanese government’s announcement that it want the Bank of Japan to step up monetary easing.

So it might be that some financial journalists and policy makers are scare about the prospects for currency war, but investors on the other hand are jubilant.

If you don’t need monetary easing – don’t import it

Concluding, I strongly believe that a global “currency war” is very good news given the quasi-deflationary state of the European economy and so far Prime Minister Abe and Fed governor Bernanke have done a lot more to get the euro zone out of the crisis than any European central banker has done and if European policy makers don’t like the strengthening of the euro the ECB can just introduce quantitative easing. That would curb the strengthening of the euro, but more importantly it would finally pull the euro zone out of the crisis.

Hence, at the moment Europe is importing monetary easing from the US and Japan despite the euro has been strengthening. That is good news for the European economy as monetary easing is badly needed. However, other countries might not need monetary easing.

As I discussed in my recent post on Mexico a country can decide to import or not to import monetary easing by allowing the currency to strengthen or not. If the Mexican central bank don’t want to import monetary easing from the US then it can simply allow the peso strengthen in response to the Fed’s monetary easing.

Currency war is not a threat to the global economy, but rather it is what could finally pull the global economy out of this crisis – now we just need the ECB to join the war.

Answering Tyler’s question on Japan with old blog post

Here is Tyler Cowen on Twitter:

Still not seeing much discussion of 4.1% unemployment rate in Japan, would love to see “jump start” defined.

What Tyler is basically saying is that there really is not an argument for “jump starting” the Japanese economy with fiscal and monetary stimulus when unemployment is this low. I many ways I share Tyler’s skepticism about “stimulus” in the case of Japan.

I have long argued that Japanese story is a lot more complicated than it is normally said to be (my first post on the topic was: “Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story” from October 2011). It is correct that Japan’s lost decade was not a story of two lost decades and in my view quantitative easing ended the “lost decade” in 2001. This is what I said in my post “Japan shows that QE works”

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.

This graph of GDP/capita in the G7 countries illustrates my point:

g7rgdpcap

As I said in my earlier post: “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.”

Hence, Japan came out of the crisis from 2001. However, it should also be noted that Japan has once again fallen into crisis and more importantly Japan’s monetary policy certainly is not based on a rule based framework so the risk that Japan will continue to fall back into crisis remains high. This in my view is a discussion about securing Japan a “Monetary constitution” rather than about stimulus. Unfortunately Prime Minister Abe’s new government do seem to be more focused on short-term stimulus rather than on real institutional reform.

There is no such thing as fiscal policy

– and that goes for Japan as well

The Abe government is not only pursuing expansionary monetary policies, but has also announced that it wants to ease fiscal policy dramatically. This obviously will scare any Market Monetarist – or anybody who are simply able to realise that there is a budget constrain that any government will have to fulfill in the long-run.

This is what I earlier have said on the fiscal issue in the case of Japan:

Furthermore, it is clear that Japan’s extremely weak fiscal position to a large extent can be explained by the fact that BoJ de facto has been targeting 0% NGDP growth rather than for example 3% or 5% NGDP growth. I basically don’t think that there is a problem with a 0% NGDP growth path target if you start out with a totally unleveraged economy – one can hardly say Japan did that. The problem is that BoJ changed its de facto NGDP target during the 1990s. As a result public debt ratios exploded. This is similar to what we see in Europe today.

So yes, it is obvious that Japan can’t not afford “fiscal stimulus” – as it today is the case for the euro zone countries. But that discussion in my view is totally irrelevant! As I recently argued, there is no such thing as fiscal policy in the sense Keynesians claim. Only monetary policy can impact nominal spending and I strongly believe that fiscal policy has very little impact on the Japanese growth pattern over the last two decades.

Above I have basically added nothing new to the discussion about Japan’s lost decade (not decades!) and fiscal and monetary policy in Japan, but since Scott brought up the issue I thought it was an opportunity to remind my readers (including Scott) that I think that the Japanese story is pretty simple, but also that it is wrong that we keep on talking about Japan’s lost decades. The Japanese story tells us basically nothing new about fiscal policy (but reminds us that debt ratios explode when NGDP drops), but the experience shows that monetary policy is terribly important.

My advise: Target an 3% NGDP growth level path and balance the budget 

My advise to the Abe government would therefore be for the Bank of Japan to introduce proper monetary policy rules and I think that an NGDP level targeting rule targeting a growth path of 3% would be suiting for Japan given the negative demographic outlook for Japan. Furthermore, if the BoJ where to provide a proper framework for nominal stability then the Japanese government should begin a gradual process of fiscal consolidation by as soon as possible to bring the Japanese budget deficit back to balance. With an NGDP growth path of 3% Japanese public debt as a share of GDP would gradually decline in an orderly fashion on such fiscal-monetary framework.

So what Japan needs is not “stimulus” – neither fiscal nor monetary – but rather strict rules both for monetary policy and fiscal policy. The Abe government has the power to ensure that, but I am not optimistic that that will happen.

Earlier posts on Japan:

There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well
The scary difference between the GDP deflator and CPI – the case of Japan
Friedman’s Japanese lessons for the ECB
There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well
Japan shows that QE works
Did Japan have a “productivity norm”?
Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story

PS even though I am skeptical about the way Shinzo Abe are going about things and I would have much preferred a rule based framework for Japan’s monetary and fiscal policy I nonetheless believe that the Abe government’s push for particularly monetary “stimulus” is likely to spur Japanese growth and is very likely to be good news for a global economy badly in need of higher growth.

Update: Scott Sumner also comments on Japan and it seems like we have more or less the same advise. Here is Scott:

“Just to be clear, my views are somewhere between those of Feldstein and the more extreme Keynesians.  I agree with Feldstein that Japan has big debt problems and big structural problems, and needs to address both.  And that fiscal stimulus is foolish (as even Adam Posen recently argued.)  Unlike Feldstein I also think they have an AD problem that calls for modestly higher inflation and NGDP growth.  At a minimum they should be shooting for 2% to 3% NGDP growth, instead of the negative NGDP growth of the past 20 years.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,624 other followers

%d bloggers like this: