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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.

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Abe should repeat Roosevelt’s successes, but not his mistakes

There is more good news from Japan today as new data shows that core inflation rose to 0.8% y/y in August and I think it is now pretty clear that the Bank of Japan is succeeding in defeating 15 years’ of deflation. Good job Mr. Kuroda!

BoJ chief Kuroda has done exactly done what Ben Bernanke called for back in 1999:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end, the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take—- namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment—-in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done. Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening?

To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

So far so good and there is no doubt that governor Kuroda has exactly shown Rooseveltian resolve. However, while Roosevelt undoubtedly was right pushing for monetary easing to end deflation in 1932 he also made the crucial mistake of trying to increase wages.

One can say that Roosevelt succeed on the demand side of the economy, but failed miserably on the supply side of the economy. First, Roosevelt push through the catastrophic National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) with effectively was an attempt to create a cartel-like labour market structure in the US. After having done a lot of damage NIRA was ruled unconstitutional by the US supreme court in 1935. That helped the US recovery to get underway again, but the Roosevelt administration continued to push for increasing labour unions’ powers – for example with the Wagner Act from 1935.

While it is commonly accepted that US monetary policy was prematurely tightened in 1937 and that sent the US economy into the recession in the depression in 1937 it less well-recognized that the Roosevelt administration’s militant efforts to increase the unions’ powers led to a sharp increase in labour market conflicts in 1936-37. That in my view was nearly as important for the downturn i the US economy in 1937 as the premature monetary tightening.

Prime Minister Abe is repeating Roosevelt’s mistakes   

The “logic” behind Roosevelt’s push for higher was that if inflation was increased then that would reduce real wages, which would cut consumption growth. This is obviously the most naive form of krypto-keynesianism, but it was unfortunately a widespread view within the Roosevelt administration, which led Roosevelt to push for policies, which seriously prolonged the Great Depression in the US.

It unfortunately looks like Prime Minister Abe in Japan is now pushing for exactly the same failed wage policies as Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. That could seriously undermine the success of Abenomics.

This is from Bloomberg today:

“Abe last week began meetings with business and trade union leaders to press his case for wage increases, key to the success of his effort to spur growth under his economic policies dubbed Abenomics.”

This is exactly what Roosevelt tried to do – and unfortunately succeed doing. His policies was a massive negative supply shock to the US economy, which pushed wages up relatively what would have happened with out policies such as NIRA. The result was to prolong the depression and I am fearful that if Prime Minister Abe will be as successful in pushing for higher wage growth in Japan it will undermine the positive effective of Mr. Kuroda’s monetary easing – inflation will rise, but economic growth will stagnate.

What Prime Minister Abe is trying to do can be illustrated in a simple AS-AD framework.

Abe wage shock

Mr. Kuroda’s monetary easing is clearly increasing aggregate demand in the Japanese economy pushing the AD curve to the right (from A to B). The result is higher inflation and higher real GDP growth. This is what we are now clearly seeing.

However, Prime Minister Abe’s attempt of increasing wages can only be seen as negative supply shock, which if successful will push the AS curve to the left (from B to C). There is no doubt that the join efforts of Mr. Kuroda and Mr. Abe are pushing up inflation. However, the net result on real GDP growth and employment is uncertain.

I am hopeful that Mr. Abe is not really serious about pushing up wages – other than what is the natural and desirable consequence of higher demand growth – and I hope that he will instead push much harder to implement his “third arrow”, which of course is structural reforms.

Said, in another way Mr. Abe should try to push the AS curve to the right instead of to the left – then Abenomics will not repeat the failures of the New Deal.

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.

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