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


Did Japan have a “productivity norm”?

A couple of days ago I stumbled on a comment from George Selgin that made me think of deflation in Japan. Here is George’s comment (from 2009):

“From roughly 1999 through 2005, on the other hand, Japan’s deflation rate did more-or-less match its rate of productivity growth. But by then the Japanese economy was growing again, if only modestly. This happened in part precisely because the Japanese government had at last turned to quantitative easing: had it not done so Japan’s deflation might well have proceeded well beyond productivity-norm bounds. In short, Japan’s case suggests that deflation (insofar as it doesn’t exceed the bounds of productivity growth) and zero interest rates are each of them red-herrings: Japan’s economy tanked when its NGDP growth rate fell dramatically, and it began to recover when the rate stabilized again, even though it stabilized at a very low value. (It has since slumped badly again.)”

So what George is saying is effectively saying is that at least for a period Japan did de facto have a “productivity norm”. I was unaware that George had that view when I sometime ago commented on Japanese deflation. In my comment “Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story” I argued that “obviously, Japan has deflation because money demand growth consistently outpaces money supply growth. That’s pretty simple. That, however, does not necessarily have to be a problem in the long run if expectations have adjusted accordingly. The best indication that this has happened is that Japanese unemployment in fact is relatively low. So maybe what we are seeing in Japan is a version of George Selgin’s “productivity norm”. I am not saying Japanese monetary policy is fantastic, but it might not be worse than what we are seeing in the US and Europe.”

I have to admit that I wrote that without having a real good look at the Japanese data and before I had written about decomposition of inflation between demand inflation and supply inflation. So when I read George’s comment  I decided to have a look at the Japanese data once again and do a Quasi-Real Price Index for Japan.

The graph below tells the Japanese deflation story.

The graph shows that George is a bit too “optimistic” about how long Japan have had a productivity norm – while George claims that this (unintended!) policy started in 1999 that is not what my decomposition of Japanese inflation shows. In fact Japan saw significant demand deflation until 2003. That said, the period 1999 until 2008 was clearly less deflationary than was the case in the 1990s when monetary policy was strongly deflationary and we saw significant demand deflation. However, it is clear that George to some extent is right and there was clearly a period over the past decade where monetary policy looked liked it followed a productivity norm, but it is also clear – as George states – that from 2007/8 monetary policy turned strongly deflationary once again.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by the numbers as it very clearly illustrates the shifts in monetary policy in Japan over the past 30 years. First, it is very clear how Japanese monetary policy was tightened in 1992-93 and remained strongly deflationary until 2002-3, In that regard it is hardly surprisingly that the 1990s is called Japan’s “lost decade”. The fault no doubt is with Bank of Japan – it kept monetary policy in a deflationary mode for nearly a decade.

However, in March 2001 the Bank of Japan announced a policy of quantitative easing. For those who believe that QE does not work they should have a look at my graph. It is very clear indeed that it does work – and from 2002 demand deflation eased off. This by the way coincided with a relatively strong rebound in Japanese growth and the Japanese economy kept on growing nicely until the Bank of Japan reversed its QE policy in 2007. Since then deflation has returned – and once again the Bank of Japan is to blame.

But once again George Selgin is correct – yes, we continued to have headline deflation in the period 2001-2007, but from 2003 this deflation was primarily a result of a positive productivity shock. In that sense the Bank of Japan had a period where it followed a productivity norm. The problem was that this was never a stated policy and as a result Japan was once allowed fall back to demand deflation from 2007.

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