There has been a lot of focus on the fact that USD/JPY has now broken above 100 and that the slide in the yen is going to have a positive impact on Japanese exports. In fact it seems like most commentators and economists think that the easing of monetary policy we have seen in Japan is about the exchange rate and the impact on Japanese “competitiveness”. I think this focus is completely wrong.
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.
The weaker yen is an indicator of monetary easing – but not the main driver of growth
I think that the way we should think about the weaker yen is as a 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.
Two things are happening at the moment in the Japan. One, the money base is increasing dramatically. Second and maybe more important money-velocity is picking up significantly.
Velocity is of course picking up because money demand in Japan is dropping as a consequence of households, companies and institutional investors expect the value of the cash they are holding to decline as inflation is likely to pick up. The drop in the yen is a very good indicator of that.
And what do you do when you reduce the demand for money? Well, you spend it, you invest it. This is likely to be what will have happen in Japan in the coming months and quarters – private consumption growth will pick-up, business investments will go up, construction activity will accelerate. So it is no wonder that equity analysts feel more optimistic about Japanese companies’ earnings.
Hence, the Bank of Japan (and the rest of us) should celebrate the sharp drop in the yen as it is an indicator of a sharp increase in money-velocity and not because it is helping Japanese “competitiveness”.
The focus on competitiveness is completely misplaced
I have in numerous earlier posts argued that when a country is going through a “devaluation” as a consequence of monetary easing the important thing is not competitiveness, but the impact on domestic demand.
I have for example earlier demonstrated that Swedish growth outpaced Danish growth in 2009-10 not because the Swedish krona depreciated strongly against the Danish krone (which is pegged to the euro), but because the Swedish Riksbank was able to ease monetary policy, while the Danish central bank effectively tightened monetary conditions due to the Danish fixed exchange rate policy. As a consequence domestic demand did much better in Sweden in 2009-10 than in Denmark, while – surprise, surprise – Swedish and Danish exports more or less grew at the same pace in 2009-10 (See graphs below).
Similarly I have earlier shown that when Argentina gave up its currency board regime in 2002 the major boost to growth did not primarly come from exports, but rather from domestic demand. Let me repeat a quote from Mark Weisbrot’s and Luis Sandoval’s 2007-paper on “Argentina’s economic recovery”:
“However, relatively little of Argentina’s growth over the last five years (2002-2007) is a result of exports or of the favorable prices of Argentina’s exports on world markets. This must be emphasized because the contrary is widely believed, and this mistaken assumption has often been used to dismiss the success or importance of the recovery, or to cast it as an unsustainable “commodity export boom…
During this period (The first six months following the devaluation in 2002) exports grew at a 6.7 percent annual rate and accounted for 71.3 percent of GDP growth. Imports dropped by more than 28 percent and therefore accounted for 167.8 percent of GDP growth during this period. Thus net exports (exports minus imports) accounted for 239.1 percent of GDP growth during the first six months of the recovery. This was countered mainly by declining consumption, with private consumption falling at a 5.0 percent annual rate.
But exports did not play a major role in the rest of the recovery after the first six months. The next phase of the recovery, from the third quarter of 2002 to the second quarter of 2004, was driven by private consumption and investment, with investment growing at a 41.1 percent annual rate during this period. Growth during the third phase of the recovery – the three years ending with the second half of this year – was also driven mainly by private consumption and investment… However, in this phase exports did contribute more than in the previous period, accounting for about 16.2 percent of growth; although imports grew faster, resulting in a negative contribution for net exports. Over the entire recovery through the first half of this year, exports accounted for about 13.6 percent of economic growth, and net exports (exports minus imports) contributed a negative 10.9 percent.
The economy reached its pre-recession level of real GDP in the first quarter of 2005. As of the second quarter this year, GDP was 20.8 percent higher than this previous peak. Since the beginning of the recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by 50.9 percent, averaging 8.2 percent annually. All this is worth noting partly because Argentina’s rapid expansion is still sometimes dismissed as little more than a rebound from a deep recession.
…the fastest growing sectors of the economy were construction, which increased by 162.7 percent during the recovery; transport, storage and communications (73.4 percent); manufacturing (64.4 percent); and wholesale and retail trade and repair services (62.7 percent).
The impact of this rapid and sustained growth can be seen in the labor market and in household poverty rates… Unemployment fell from 21.5 percent in the first half of 2002 to 9.6 percent for the first half of 2007. The employment-to-population ratio rose from 32.8 percent to 43.4 percent during the same period. And the household poverty rate fell from 41.4 percent in the first half of 2002 to 16.3 percent in the first half of 2007. These are very large changes in unemployment, employment, and poverty rates.”
And if we want to go further back in history we can look at what happened in the US after FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933. Here the story was the same – it was domestic demand and not net exports which was the driver of the sharp recovery in growth during 1933.
These examples in my view clearly shows that 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.
Finally if anybody still worry about “currency war” they might want to rethink how they see the impact of monetary easing. 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.
HT Jonathan Cast
PS Scott Sumner also comments on Japan.
PPS An important non-competitiveness impact of the weaker yen is that it is telling consumers and investors that inflation is likely to increase. Again the important thing is the signal about monetary policy, which is rather more important than the impact on competitiveness.