I was going to write about the situation in Timor-Leste after its national elections were held on Saturday. But I will hold that over for another day as I get some more information. So today, I think we can learn a lot from an issue raised in the Bloomberg article (May 14, 2018) – Kuroda’s Stimulus Saves Japan $45 Billion, Easing Debt Pressures – which discusses the QE program in Japan and introduces several of the basic errors that mainstream financial commentators make when discussing these issues. The article traverses all the usual suspects including the misconception that numbers in official accounts are ‘costs’ to government and that smaller numbers in official accounts mean the government can put larger numbers in other accounts than it might have been able to. These articles are as pervasive as they are erroneous. Hopefully, as the precepts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) spread and are understood more journalists will endure scrutiny of the rubbish they write and the public commentary and debate will progress towards a more reasonable – realistic – appraisal of what is going on in the world of finance and money. This article is one of the worst I have read this year so far. And there have been some real terrors!
I was running late yesterday and the blog post was already rather long so I left some matters concerning central banks for today. The question we address briefly today is what is the role of central banks in all these trade transactions. Does an export surplus country face an ever increasing money supply as central banks provide the counterparty service to traders who sell in a foreign currency but want their own currency (such as a manufacturer who incurs costs in say Yen but sales revenue in $AUD – as per our example yesterday)? There appears to be confusion on that front as well. So while I am not typically going to write a detailed blog post on a Wednesday, in the interests of continuity, here is Part 2 of the series on trade and currencies.
On April 20, 1018, the IMF presented its – Asia and Pacfic Department Press Briefing – in conjunction with the release of the April 2018 World Economic Outlook and the upcoming (May 9, 2018) release of its Asia and Pacific Regional Economy Outlook. The Deputy Director of the Asia and Pacific Department, one Odd Per Brekk, told the audience that Japan should continue its Quantitative Easing (QE) program and maintain transparency in its purchase volumes so as to ensure the strategy to accelerate the inflation rate up to the 2 per cent target is achieved. Part of this strategy involves shifting inflationary expectations from their recent low levels. Critics of the program shriek that the asset base of the Bank of Japan is now approaching the nominal GDP level and given that a high proportion of those assets are comprised of Japanese Government Bonds, that reversing the strategy eventually will be difficult and risks involving the Bank is huge losses, which might render it insolvent. Insolvency has no application in the case of a central bank which can never go broke. Further, the Bank never needs to reverse the QE purchases. There is no relevance in the rising assets to GDP ratio. The problem is that QE will not achieve the desired end. The Bank has expanded its QE program significantly yet the inflation rate and inflationary expectations remain well below the 2 per cent target. They will eventually work out that the mainstream theory that predicted otherwise is erroneous.
Japan is different, right? Japan has a different culture, right? Japan has sustained low unemployment, low inflation, low interest rates, high public deficits and high gross public debt for 25 years, but that is cultural, right? Even the mainstream media is starting to see through the Japan is different narrative as we will see. Yesterday (August 14, 2017), the Cabinet Office in Japan published the preliminary – Quarterly Estimates of GDP – which showed that the Japanese economy is growing strongly and has just posted the 9th quarter of positive annual real GDP growth. Private consumption and investment is strong, the public sector continues to underpin growth with fiscal deficits and real wages are growing. The Eurozone should send a delegation to Tokyo but then all they would learn is that a currency-issuing government that doesn’t fall into the austerity obsession promoted by many economists (including those in the European Commission) can oversee strong growth and low unemployment. Simple really. The Japan experience is interesting because it demonstrates how the reversal in fiscal policy can have significant negative and positive effects in a fairly short time span, whereas monetary policy is much less effective in influencing expenditure.
I have sat through many economic seminars in my time where there is a sense of suspended reality necessary so the presenter can run through the exercise of bringing their latest research idea to the academic community. This suspended reality normally relates to the a priori assumptions made to condition the exercise and the framework within with the exercise is conducted. It typically involves ignoring the elephant in the room called reality and applicability. The ruse goes like this – assume a, b and c (where none of these assumptions capture the most important aspect of the object of study); then use these analytical tools (none of which reflect how the actual mechanisms being studied operate); and QED we show this. I no longer go to seminars like this – life is too short. An example of this sort of exercise appeared recently in summary form on VoxEu site (June 6, 2017) – Japanese frugality versus Italian profligacy? – written by an MIT academic. Perhaps the salient aspect is that the author was previously a Central Bank governor in Cyprus (2007-12) and a member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (2008-12). That experience may have led to his clouded judgement. But more so is the fact that he is a Friedmanite! One of them! That explains everything. The blindness. The failure to see the obvious. The neo-liberal ideology.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.
Regular readers will know that I have been investigating how close the US is to full employment, given that various commentators and conservative types have been trying to claim it is and that, as a result, the US government should hack into the fiscal deficit and the central bank should raise interest rates. Today, I consider some more evidence of a comparative nature to advance my understanding of the situation. The Bloomberg article (March 29, 2017) – The Jobs Statistics Trump Should Be Worried About – made some good points about the state of the US labour market. It focused on the significant decline in the US labour participation rate since 2000 and the cyclical component of that decline, which is a common trend in many advanced nations and one I have written a lot about in the past. The additional evidence presented in the Bloomberg articles demonstrates that the US economy is still nowhere near full employment. This blog adds some evidence from Australia and Japan by way of comparison.
The Japanese bond market has been very interesting in the last week proving yet again that private bond markets cannot set yields on government bonds if the government does want then too. Next time you hear some mainstream economist claiming a currency issuing government is running deficits at the will of the investors (read bond markets) politely tell them they are clueless. Japanese once again provides the real world Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) laboratory – every day it substantiates the underlying insights contained within MMT and refutes the core mainstream propositions. The financial media referred to the Bank of Japan as putting a whipsaw to the bond markets, which in context means that the BoJ is forcing the ‘markets’ into confusion (Source). The bond markets have misinterpreted recent Bank of Japan conduct in the JGB markets (less purchases than expected, and even missing a scheduled buy up) as a sign that the Bank was weakening on its QQE commitment from last September that it would hold the 10-year JGB yield to zero and thereby allow the longer investment rates to fall. Why they doubted that commitment is another matter but within a few days over the last week the Bank demonstrated that: (a) it remains committed to that target; and (b) it has all the financial clout it needs to enforce it; and (c) the bond market investors do not call the shots.
I read a report on the American news network CNBC the other day (November 15, 2016) – The bond vigilantes are back, and Trump better pay attention – which included some so-called experts in a video claiming to know something about bond markets. The report asserted that “bond vigilantes” might return to force the new US President to “tone down his spending” (as they allegedly did when Bill Clinton was in office). One expert said “we’ve got fiscal policy again and … the prospect of higher interest rates and inflation could even herald the return of the bond vigilantes”. Idiot is a polite term for him. The journalist and the commentators invoked should take time out and learn about what is happening in Japan, which remains the best Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) ‘laboratory’ there is. The Bank of Japan in now putting into operation the decision it took in September 2016 to buy unlimited amounts of Japanese government bonds at a fixed-yield. Which means? In short, it will control the yields across all bond maturities from 2-year out to 40-year and will set them at whatever level they choose. Oh, won’t the bond markets prevent that happening? How? For the bond markets it is a case of “like it or lump it”. Once again Japan demonstrates that mainstream macroeconomic theory is devoid of understanding.
In yesterday’s blog – Time for fiscal policy as we learn more about monetary policy ineffectiveness – I discussed, in part, the way that fiscal and monetary policy in Japan were working in a harmonious way, in contradistinction to the way these two major policy levers are working elsewhere (for example, Australia and the Eurozone). One of the results of that harmony is that the official unemployment rate in Japan has dropped to 3.1 per cent, the lowest since July 1995. I considered the willingness of the Japanese government to introduce and maintain large fiscal stimulus programs under its Prime Minister – Shinzō Abe – to be a major contributing factor in that reduction (down from 5.5 per cent in July 2009). However, a Bloomberg journalist asserts that – Japan’s Plunging Jobless Rate Is All About Aging, not Abenomics (published August 10, 2016). We can explore whether that assertion is true. It will certainly be partly true given the population ageing in Japan. That is what this blog is about today.