There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well

Scott Sumner has a comment on Japan’s ”lost decades” and the importance of fiscal policy in Japan. Scott acknowledges based on comments from Paul Krugman and Tim Duy that in fact Japan has not had two lost decades. Scott also discusses whether fiscal policy has been helpful in reviving growth in the past decade in Japan.

I have written a number of comments on Japan (see here, here and here).

I have two main conclusions in these comments:

1)   Japan only had one “lost decade” and not two. The 1990s obviously was a disaster, but over the past decade Japan has grown in line with other large developed economies when real GDP growth is adjust for population growth. (And yes, 2008 was a disaster in Japan as well).

2)   Monetary policy is at the centre of these developments. Once the Bank of Japan introduced Quantitative Easing Japan pulled out of the slump (Until BoJ once again in 2007 gave up QE and allowed Japan to slip back to deflation). Se especially my post “Japan shows QE works”.

This graph of GDP/capita in the G7 proves the first point.

Second my method of decomposition of demand and supply inflation – the so-called Quasi-Real Price Index – shows that once Bank of Japan in 2001 introduced QE Japanese demand deflation eased and from 2004 to 2007 the deflation in Japan only reflected supply deflation while demand inflation was slightly positive or zero. This coincided with Japanese growth being revived. The graph below illustrates this.

Obviously the Bank of Japan’s policies during the past decades have been far from optimal, but the experience clearly shows that monetary policy is very powerful and even BoJ’s meagre QE program was enough to at least bring back growth to the Japanese economy.

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.

——–

PS I feel pretty sure that if the Bank of Japan and the ECB tomorrow announced that they would target an increase in NGDP of 10 or 15% over the coming two years and thereafter would target a 4% NGDP growth path then all talk of “lost decades”, the New Normal and fiscal crisis would disappear very fast. Well, the same would of course be true for the US.

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

“Incredible Europeans” have learned nothing from history

The conservative Partido Popular won the general elections in Spain over the week and PP leader Mariano Rajoy will now become Prime Minister in Spain. That makes it three – that is the number of new Prime Ministers in Southern European countries in a couple of weeks.

So the European crisis continues and as in 1931 this is to a large extent a political crisis and policy makers seem unable to learn much from the past. Here is Scott Sumner for you:

“The events of the last few years have caused me to radically revise my views of the Great Depression.  Not in terms of the causal factors, those have been amply confirmed.  Falling NGDP does create domestic and international financial turmoil—no doubt about that.  But I used to think people were stupid back in the 1930s.  Remember Hawtrey’s famous “Crying fire, fire, in Noah’s flood”?  I used to wonder how people could have failed to see the real problem.  I thought that progress in macroeconomic analysis made similar policy errors unlikely today.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  We’re just as stupid as they are.”

I am only quoting, but find it hard to disagree. One thing is to agree with with Scott Sumner (I am used to that), but agreeing with Paul Krugman is slightly less normal for me, but here he is (and I agree):

“I had some hopes for Mario Draghi; he has just done his best to kill those hopes. In his view, it’s all about credibility, defined thusly:

Credibility implies that our monetary policy is successful in anchoring inflation expectations over the medium and longer term. This is the major contribution we can make in support of sustainable growth, employment creation and financial stability. And we are making this contribution in full independence.

Unbelievable. Right now, the ECB has too much credibility on the inflation front; the spread between German nominal and real interest rates, which is an implicit forecast of the inflation rate, is pointing to disastrously low medium-term inflation“.

Draghi also seems to suffer from a variation of the “Gold Standard mentality”. Anybody who have studied the Great Depression should find recent European events surreal. Day-by-day history repeats itself. It is tragic.

If there is any European policy makers out there reading this – you should take a look at events of 1931 – try not to repeat anymore of events from that tragic year. You could start reading my comment on 1931.

PS I wonder if Mariano Rajoy know how Spain avoided the Great Depression 80 years ago…(hint: Spain was not on the gold standard).

PPS I have been thinking – FX policy is the responsibility of EU Finance Ministers rather than of the ECB. You can draw your own conclusions.

PPPS Tyler Cown also has a comment on the European crisis.

PPPPS Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a comment on Spain that is unlikely to cheer up anybody.

Krugman’s tribute to Market Monetarism

Ok, I will be completely frank here…I have always seen myself as a anti-Keynesian and I have said terrible things about Paul Krugman’s keynesianism and especially his view of the liquidity trap has made me extremely frustrated. However, there is no coming around the fact that he is a world-class economist.

Now Krugman is paying tribute to Market Monetarism. And yes, I am pretty damn proud of having coined the term Market Monetarism, but more important the Market Monetarist bloggers like Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, Bill Woolsey, Nick Rowe and Marcus Nunes are now being heard. I believe that this is of great importance if we want to see the global economy fundamentally pull out of this horrible slump.

Take a look at Krugman’s comment on Market Monetarism here.

The open-minded Krugman

I didn’t expect this ever to happen, but I have to say something nice about Paul Krugman’s comments on his New York Times blog. Well, there is actually a lot of positive to say about Paul Krugman, but we just tend to forget it when he is giving us free market economists a hard time. However, the story today is not about what we think, but “where” we express our views and share our research.

As I have tried to argue in my paper “Market Monetarism – the second Monetarist counter-revolution” Market Monetarism is a school of economic thought basically born and shaped in the blogosphere.

Krugman has a positive view on what the blogosphere has done to open up the economic profession and haow the blogoshere is helping improve economic research.

Here is Krugman:

“What the blogs have done, in a way, is open up that process. Twenty years ago it was possible and even normal to get research into circulation and have everyone talking about it without having gone through the refereeing process – but you had to be part of a certain circle, and basically had to have graduated from a prestigious department, to be part of that game. Now you can break in from anywhere; although there’s still at any given time a sort of magic circle that’s hard to get into, it’s less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.

Since there’s some kind of conservation principle here, the fact that it’s easier for people with less formal credentials to get heard means that people who have those credentials are less guaranteed of respectful treatment. So yes, we’ve seen some famous names run into firestorms of criticism — *justified* criticism – even as some “nobodies” become players. That’s a good thing! Famous economists have been saying foolish things forever; now they get called on it.

And this process has showed what things are really like. If some famous economists seem to be showing themselves intellectually naked, it’s not really a change in their wardrobe, it’s the fact that it’s easier than it used to be for little boys to get a word in.”

So here we go again – I agree with Krugman. The blogosphere is opening up our profession and Krugman deserves credit for taking this debate serious. Have a look at Krugman’s comment here and share you views both here and on Krugman’s blog.

PS Krugman is still wrong about fiscal policy and his odd views of China – after all he is just a Keynesian, but nonetheless quite open-minded and probably more open-minded that I am…

HT Benjamin “Mr. PR” Cole

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