Japan is about to walk the plank again when it follows through on a previous government decision to increase the consumption tax by a further 2 per cent on October 1, 2019. That means it rises from 8 per cent to 10 per cent. The latest fiscal documents suggest the government is hyper-sensitive to the historical experience, which tells us that each time they have fallen prey to the deficit terrorists who have bullied them into believing that their fiscal position is about to collapse, consumption expenditure falls sharply and the government has to respond by increasing the deficit even further to compensate. But, notwithstanding their caution (as evidenced by some permanent and temporary spending measures to offset the significant loss of non-government purchasing power that will follow the consumption tax hike, the fact remains that the policy shift will be undermine non-government spending and growth and is totally unnecessary. Moreover, the main problem in Japan at present is the lack of spending overall – non-government consumption expenditure has not yet recovered from the last consumption tax hike in April 2014. So far from raising taxes, the data on the ground is telling us that they should be increasing the fiscal deficit. This is another example of a few conservative politicians, being told by unaccountable mainstream economists to introduce policies that will damage the material prosperity of the ordinary Japanese worker and their families. And when we consider that the time is approaching when the debt-servicing burden for the government is approaching negative territory, then the consumption tax hike looks even more ridiculous.
It is my Wednesday blog post and my relative ‘blog day off’. But there has been an issue I want to write briefly about that has come up recently and has become a recurring theme. I am writing today to put the matter on the public record so that spurious claims that arise elsewhere have no traction. As our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) work gains popularity, all manner of critics have started coming out of the woodwork. There is now, quite a diversity of these characters, reflecting both ends of the ideological spectrum and places in-between. The mainstream economists and those who profess to be ‘free marketeers’ bring out their big guns pretty quickly – inflation and socialism/Stalinism. Standard stuff that any progressive proposal to use government fiscal policy gets bombarded with since time immemorial. Easily dismissed. More recently, those who claim to be on the ‘progressive’ side of the debate have become more vociferous in their attacks, sensing, I suspect, that MMT have supplanted their relevance as the defenders of the anti-neoliberal wisdom. These characters resort to all sorts of snide-type attacks ranging from accusations of anti-Semitism (which I have covered previously), siding with Wall Street, ‘America-first corporatist sycophants’ (latest ridiculous book from G. Epstein as an example), giving succour to fascists and the Alt-Right, and that sort of stuff. Today, I want to address that last claim, which recently has been raised by a number of so-called progressive critics.
It is Wednesday and a quite blog writing day for me. I have to catch a flight a bit later and finish some other things before I do that. But I receive a lot of E-mails from readers puzzled by the fact that the low-interest rate environment (even negative) has not stimulated economic activity to the point of accelerating inflation. As part of the paradigm shift that is now, finally, occurring in macroeconomic policy-making, the RBA governor Phillip Lowe continued his theme that monetary policy has basically exhausted its counter-stabilisation potential, when he made his – Remarks at Jackson Hole Symposium (August 25, 2019). He talked about the “the elevated expectations that monetary policy can deliver economic prosperity” against the reality that central banks do not have “the best lever” to manage the economy. This theme has been expressed by many central bankers now. And there is emerging research to show that the low-interest rate environment is actually achieving the opposite – reducing the inflationary pressures. This is no surprise to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists. Our basic presumption is that monetary policy is an ineffective tool for modifying aggregate spending and that rising interest rates, which are designed to quell inflationary pressures, probably actually intensify those pressures through their impact on business costs. Today, I will briefly discuss a paper I read yesterday that adds to the growing research evidence on this theme.
The debates about MMT are expanding. There are weird offerings springing up each day. I read something yesterday about how MMT is really just Marxism in disguise and therefore a plot to overthrow entrepreneurship. Well in a socialist society there will still be a monetary system! Most of the critiques just get to their point quickly – MMT is about wild printing presses undermining the value of the currency! That should summarise 25 years of our work nicely. But there are also other developments on a global scale. A few weeks ago there was a lengthy debate in the Japanese parliament during a House of Representatives Committee hearing considering whether the October sales tax hikes should continue. The Finance Minister, Taro Aso was confronted by Committee members who indicated that it was useless denying that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was some abstract theory that was wrong because the Japanese are already “doing it”. The Minister told the hearing that MMT was dangerous and would undermine financial markets if anyone said otherwise. An interesting discussion took place. It highlighted some key features of MMT. It also indicates that progress is being made in the process of education aimed at giving people a better understanding of how the monetary system that we live within operates.
President Trump banned a CNN reporter only to find his position overturned by the judicial system. Well CNN is guilty of at least one thing – publishing misleading and alarmist economic reports about Japan. In a CNN Business article last week (November 13, 2018) – Japan’s economy has a $5 trillion problem – readers were told that the Bank of Japan has no “dwindling options to juice growth if a new crisis hits” because “it’s now sitting on assets worth more than the country’s entire economy”. The real story should have been that the Bank of Japan continues to demonstrate the categorical failure of mainstream macroeconomics and, conversely, ratify the core principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). That is what the Japanese experience since the early 1990s tells us. And all the stories about special cases; cultural peculiarities, closed markets, etc that the mainstream economists wheel out when another one of their predictions about how Japan is about to sink into the sea as a result of its public debt levels, or that interest rates are about to go through the roof because of the on-going and substantial fiscal deficits; or that inflation is about to accelerate because of the massive monetary injections; and more, are just smokescreens to divert our attention from the poverty of their analytical framework. The Japanese 10-year bond trade is called the ‘widow maker’ because hedge funds who try to short it lose big. The Japanese monetary system is my real-time, non-linear economic laboratory which allows all the key macroeconomic propositions to play out live. And MMT is never very far off the mark. Try juxtaposing New Keynesian theory against Japan – total dissonance.
On August 1, 2018, the 10-year Japanese government bond yield, shot through the roof (albeit a very low one). Yields shifted from 0.05 per cent on July 31 to 0.129 on August 1, which was the largest one-day rise since July 29, 2016 (when the yield rose 0.101 per cent). The Financial Times article (August 1, 2018) – Japanese bond market jolted as traders test BoJ resolve – wrote that “traders wasted no time in testing the Bank of Japan’s resolve to loosen its target range for the debt benchmark”. So what was that all about? And what key point does it demonstrate that seems to be lost on mainstream economists who continually claim that government debt is, or can become a problem once bond markets demand higher yields? The Japanese bond market has shown once again that private bond traders cannot set yields on government bonds if the central bank intervenes. 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. Japan 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 bond market over the last month or so demonstrates that the Japanese government is increasingly net spending by using credits created by the Bank of Japan, whatever else the accounting structures might lead one to believe. With inflation low and stable, these dynamics surely put paid to the various myths that a currency-issuing government can run out of money and that central bank credits to facilitate government spending lead to hyperinflation.
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!
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.
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.
The latest survey data from the Bank of Japan is interesting and supports a growing awareness among policy makers that monetary policy has run its course and will have to work more closely with active fiscal policy to stimulate economic growth. These insights have been a hallmark of ideas advanced for many years now by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents (including myself). The data shows that the negative interest rate and large-scale quantitative easing programs that the Bank of Japan has been pursuing have not had their desired effect. It was clear when they were announced that they would fail to achieve their goals. I wrote about that in 2009 and 2010. But it seems that the mainstream policy debate has to be dragged kicking and screaming through a series of policy failures before any progress is made towards actual solutions that will work. The Bank of Japan Board meets later this week and I am hoping they announce their intention to work closely with the Ministry of Finance (fiscal policy) to introduce Overt Monetary Financing (OMF) where the bank provides the monetary capacity to support much larger fiscal deficits with no further debt being issued to the non-government sector. That would finally put policy on track to do something effective and productive. It would also provide some policy leadership to guide other nations towards a more prosperous future (like Britain).
I read two articles/reports today about Japan. The first was a Fairfax article (March 21, 2016) from a journalist who invariably peddles the neoliberal economic myths. The second was from the IMF extolling the virtues of higher wages in Japan. What? Yes, you read the second point correctly. The IMF considers that an essential new policy element (a “fourth arrow”) is required in Japan in the form of real wages growth outstripping productivity growth by around 2 per cent. It wants the government to legislate to ensure that happens. In general, the IMF solution for Japan is in fact one of the key changes that nations have to do bring in to restore some sense of stability into the world economy. Governments around the world has to ensure that real wages growth, at least, keeps pace with productivity growth and that workers can fund their consumption expenditure from their earnings rather than relying on ever increasing levels of credit and indebtedness. This will of course require a fundamental change in our approach to the interaction between society and economy. It will require increased employment protection, larger public sector employment proportions, decreased casualisation, and legislative requirements imposed upon firms to pass on productivity gains. It’s no small order, but it is one of a number of essential changes that we will have to do introduce as part of the abandonment of neoliberalism.
In September 2010, The Project Syndicate, which markets itself as providing the “Smartest Op-Ed Articles from the World’s Thought Leaders” gave space to Martin Feldstein – Japan’s Savings Crisis. Like a cracked record, Feldstein rehearsed his usual idiotic claims that interest rates in Japan would rise because “of the continuing decline in Japan’s household saving rate” and that “the higher interest rate would eventually raise the government’s interest bill by about 4% of GDP. And that would push a 7%-of-GDP fiscal deficit to 11%”. Then, so the story goes, “This vicious spiral of rising deficits and debt would be likely to push interest rates even higher, causing the spiral to accelerate”. At which point, Japan sinks slowly into the sea never to be seen again. It turns out that the real world is a little different to what students read about in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks. At the risk of understatement I should have said very (completely) different. Better rephrase that to say – what appears in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks bears little or no relation to the reality we all live in. Anyway, events over the last week in Japan have once again meant that this has been just another week of humiliation for mainstream macroeconomics – one of many.
This blog is really a two-part blog which is a follow up on previous blogs I have written about Overt Monetary Financing (OMF). The former head of the British Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner has just released a new paper – The Case for Monetary Finance – An Essentially Political Issue – which he presented at the 16th Jacques Polak Annual Research Conference, hosted by the IMF in Washington on November 5-6, 2015. The paper advocated OMF but in a form that I find unacceptable. I will write about that tomorrow (which will be Part 2, although the two parts are not necessarily linked). I note that the American journalist John Cassidy writes about Turner in his latest New Yorker article (November 23, 2015 issue) – Printing Money. Just the title tells you he doesn’t appreciate the nuances of central bank operations. He also invokes the Zimbabwe-Weimar Republic hoax, which tells you that he isn’t just ignorant of the details but also part of the neo-liberal scare squad that haven’t learnt that all spending carries an inflation risk – public or private – no matter what monetary operations migh be associated with it. I will talk about that tomorrow. Today, though, as background, I will report some research I have been doing on Japanese economic policy in the period before the Second World War. It is quite instructive and bears on how we think about OMF. That is the topic for today.
The economic news yesterday from Japan that the economy had contracted in the second-quarter 2015 by 0.4 per cent (Real GDP) on the back of a sharp drop in exports (-4.4 per cent) and private consumption (-0.8 per cent). The economy is 0.7 per cent larger in real terms than this time last year but that is somewhat misleading because of the 1.9 per cent decline in the June-quarter 2014 after the Government introduced its latest sale tax hike fiasco. The only positive contributors to growth in the June-quarter 2015 were inventories and the public sector (both consumption and investment). The continuing declines in real wages and pessimistic consumer expectations are undermining the capacity of the private domestic sector to sustain growth. Without the growth in public spending the quarterly decline in real GDP growth would have been much worse. It is likely that the slowdown in China is impacting negatively on Japanese exports. But with China trying to stabilise around a mean-shift downwards in its growth rate, the future for all export-led growth strategies (that have been relying on China to sustain much higher rates of growth) doesn’t look good. In the same way that China appears to be rebalancing its total output in favour of domestic spending, the same strategy should be adopted by Japan to wean itself of its reliance on continued strong growth in exports. One thing that Japan might re-assess is its – National Pension Scheme – which is not only fairly meagre in income payments but also forces workers to contribute during their working lives. Given Japan is a currency-issuing nation, it could easily increase the pension payment and reduce or eliminate the contribution, thus providing more certainty to workers in retirement.
The Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday (May 20, 2015) that – Japan’s First-Quarter GDP Growth Is Fastest in a Year. This follows the release of the latest national accounts data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance. The WSJ was like many media commentators – quick to put the best spin on the data that they could. They converted the 0.6 per cent quarterly growth figure for March 2015 into a 2.4 per cent annualised figure and pronounced a consumer led recovery. The facts tell us a different story. The biggest contributor to growth in the March-quarter was unsold inventories. Whether this is a sign of lagging sales and overly confident producers, who won’t remain in that state for long, or expectations of strengthening consumer demand, remains to be seen. On the face of it, with real wages continuing to fall and consumer expectations weak, things may not be as rosy as the “2.4 per cent annualised growth” result would suggest.
The financial press was ‘surprised’ that Japan had slipped back into recession, which just tells you that their sources don’t know much about how monetary economies operate. Clearly they have had their heads buried in IMF literature, which tells everyone that cutting net public spending will boost growth because the private sector is scared of deficits. This prediction has never worked out in the way the theory claims. It is pure free market ideology with no empirical basis. The other problem is that cutting net public spending when private spending is weak also pushed up the deficit. Back in the real world, Japan believes the IMF myths, hikes sales taxes to reduce its fiscal deficit, and goes back into recession – night follows day, sales tax hikes moderate spending, and spending cuts undermine economic growth. Kindergarten stuff really. Eventually this cult of neo-liberal economics will disappear but in the meantime while all and sundry are partaking in the kool aid, millions will be losing their jobs, poverty rates will rise and the top 10 per cent in the income and wealth distributions will continue to steal ever more real income from the workers.
Last week, Reuters put out a story (October 30, 2014) – Special Report: Tsunami evacuees caught in $30 billion Japan money trap (thanks Scott Mc for the link) – which provides an excellent demonstration of the true limits of government spending in a currency-issuing nation. The underlying principles should be understood by all as part of their personal mission to expel all neo-liberal myths from their thinking and to help them see the nature of issues more clearly. Unfortunately, the application we will talk about is sad and has tragic human and environmental consequences, but that doesn’t reduce the relevance of the example for conceptual thinking. In a nutshell, the central Japanese government has transferred some $US50 billion worth of yen to the local government to combat the destruction caused by the tsunami in March 2011. Thirty billion is unspent despite people still living in temporary housing and suffering dramatic psychological trauma as a result. Why is this happening? Doesn’t Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) tell us that a currency-issuing government can spend what it likes? Well, not exactly. What MMT tells us is that a currency-issuing government can purchase whatever is for sale in its own currency and that propensity is limited by the availability of real resources. Here is a classic demonstration of the limits of government nominal spending.