Combating Deflation – The Japanese Experience

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The recent announcement by Japan’s new central bank governor Haruhiko Kuroda to engage in a new round of quantitative easing and combat deflation has been met with a rather positive response. This round will increase the monetary base by around 60 to 70 trillion yen a year. The monetary base will increase from the current 29 per cent of GDP to 55 per cent by the end of 2014,  but such a policy does not come without risks.

Firstly we must ask why deflation is such a problem. In the scheme of things a falling price level is good for everyone, right? Well unfortunately deflation can lead to a spiral of reduced demand, production and prices, known as an deflationary spiral. If prices are falling one might ask themselves, “why should I buy now when next week or even next year the price of the item will be lower?” This may lead consumers to withhold demand, lower demand in effect leads to lower prices and at lower prices businesses will be willing to produce less. This in turn leads to lower wages and again decreased demand and the process continues…

Policy makers further fear deflation because it typically renders traditional fiscal policy ineffective. To boost the aggregate demand and prices, central banks will lower nominal interest rates to stimulate investment and make saving less attractive. However if deflation is present the real rate of interest, that is the nominal rate minus the level of inflation, may become negative. This is because the central bank can only lower interest rates to a floor of 0% and not beyond. Doing so would mean that banks would be effectively paying borrowers to borrow from them. Consequently traditional methods of monetary policy become ineffective when interest rates reach 0% in the face of deflation.

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Japan’s experience with deflation began in the 1990s after it the collapse of the real estate and stock asset bubble in 1990. During the 1980s the Japanese economy had been booming and this had led to a substantial increase in the amount of available credit. As a result assets such as stocks and real estate inflated well above their intrinsic values whilst banks continued to lend to investors. When the prices collapsed in 1990 triggered by the an interest rate hike, many banks were left with a large proportion of bad loans. The economic slump meant many firms could not repay their loans and furthermore the the banks could not retrieve the full value of their loans because the price of the collateral (real estate) had declined sharply. Instead of accepting these losses and liquidating these malinvestments the banks were propped up by the government in the hope that asset prices would recover. This in effect tied up essential economic resources and led to a marked decrease in domestic investment. This is the beginning of what most commentators have began to call the lost decade.

Since this crisis Japan has been marred by further crises which have hit aggregate demand and thus put deflationary pressure upon prices. Such crises include the Japanese financial crisis and Asian financial crisis in the latter half of the 1990s; the collapse of the US dot com bubble in the early 2000s and most recently the 2008 global financial crisis. All of which have damaged the Japanese financial system and its ability to provide capital.

In addition to this other factors have hurt demand whilst supply has increased. For instance, the rising cost of imports for many Japanese firms has meant that they have been forced to streamline operations and cut costs. This has meant many job losses despite increases in labour productivity. As the graph below shows, taken from Musha research, wages have fallen significant since 1990 despite increased productivity which goes strictly against micro economic theory.

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Japanese firms have realised that they can cut investments in labour because productivity has increased. The result is an excess supply of labour which has driven down wages and ultimately consumption. The above factors have all contributed to the deflationary output gap, meaning aggregate supply is outpacing aggregate demand.

To deal with deflation the Japanese have resorted to a unconventional form of monetary policy named quantitative easing. Quantitative easing works through the central bank purchasing financial assets such as bonds, in an effort to increase the reserves of the banks and hence the money supply. The main difference from traditional open market operations is that the purchases made are long-term rather than short-term bonds and that it has a money supply target rather than an interest rate target in mind.

The Japanese government’s goal here is to stimulate investment and spending in the economy. Furthermore it hopes by increasing the money supply the value of the Yen will decrease thus making Japanese exports more competitive. However as noted earlier the policy has risks both for Japan and the wider global economy.

Firstly if the inflation generated by quantitative easing rises more steeply than wages this could reduce both Japanese living standards and consumption. Devaluing the currency by increasing the money supply could push up the price of Japan’s principle imports – oil and gas. As a result the cost of heating, transportation and lighting would increase thus damaging consumption of other goods. In the worst case scenario the policy of quantitative might  lead to higher than expected inflation or even hyperinflation if too much money is created. Furthermore there little is known about how to stop the process once it does begin to work.

Secondly the such inflationary pressure could increase potentially lead to an increase in interest rates. If this were to happen the cost of servicing Japanese debt could increase considerably making the fiscal position unsustainable. This is extremely relevant for an economy such as Japan with gross national debt sitting at 229.773% of GDP .

However on a more fundamental and global level the policy could lead to a race to the bottom or currency war as other countries rush to devalue their currencies. Japan has now joined both the US and UK in delivering such a policy and other members of the international community have already begun to expressed their concern. Currency wars as seen from history lead to no winners as such crises cause uncertainty and therefore reduce international trade.

In conclusion, it seems that this policy is a short-medium term remedy for Japan’s longer term problems. The country must look at the structural causes of it’s economic stagnation, for instance the “demographic time bomb”, policy mismanagement and issues of accountability and transparency. Japanese business is renown for investing in long term solutions perhaps its time the government took the same approach.

 

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