Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shinzo Abe’s Monetary-Policy Delusions

NEW HAVEN – The politicization of central banking continues unabated. The resurrection of Shinzo Abe and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party – pillars of the political system that has left the Japanese economy mired in two lost decades and counting – is just the latest case in point.

Japan’s recent election hinged critically on Abe’s views of the Bank of Japan’s monetary policy stance. He argued that a timid BOJ should learn from its more aggressive counterparts, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank. Just as the Fed and the ECB have apparently saved the day through their unconventional and aggressive quantitative easing (QE), goes the argument, Abe believes it is now time for the BOJ to do the same.

It certainly looks as if he will get his way. With BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa’s term ending in April, Abe will be able to select a successor – and two deputy governors as well – to do his bidding.

But will it work? While experimental monetary policy is now widely accepted as standard operating procedure in today’s post-crisis era, its efficacy is dubious. Nearly four years after the world hit bottom in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, QE’s impact has been strikingly asymmetric. While massive liquidity injections were effective in unfreezing credit markets and arrested the worst of the crisis – witness the role of the Fed’s first round of QE in 2009-2010 – subsequent efforts have not sparked anything close to a normal cyclical recovery.

The reason is not hard to fathom. Hobbled by severe damage to private and public-sector balance sheets, and with policy interest rates at or near zero, post-bubble economies have been mired in a classic “liquidity trap.” They are more focused on paying down massive debt overhangs built up before the crisis than on assuming new debt and boosting aggregate demand.

The sad case of the American consumer is a classic example of how this plays out. In the years leading up to the crisis, two bubbles – property and credit – fueled a record-high personal-consumption binge. When the bubbles burst, households understandably became fixated on balance-sheet repair – namely, paying down debt and rebuilding personal savings, rather than resuming excessive spending habits.

Indeed, notwithstanding an unprecedented post-crisis tripling of Fed assets to roughly $3 trillion – probably on their way to $4 trillion over the next year – US consumers have pulled back as never before. In the 19 quarters since the start of 2008, annualized growth of inflation-adjusted consumer spending has averaged just 0.7% – almost three percentage points below the 3.6% trend increases recorded in the 11 years ending in 2006.

Nor does the ECB have reason to be gratified with its strain of quantitative easing. Despite a doubling of its balance sheet, to a little more than €3 trillion ($4 trillion), Europe has slipped back into recession for the second time in four years.

Not only is QE’s ability to jumpstart crisis-torn, balance-sheet-constrained economies limited; it also runs the important risk of blurring the distinction between monetary and fiscal policy. Central banks that buy sovereign debt issued by fiscal authorities offset market-imposed discipline on borrowing costs, effectively subsidizing public-sector profligacy.

Unfortunately, it appears that Japan has forgotten many of its own lessons – especially the BOJ’s disappointing experience with zero interest rates and QE in the early 2000’s. But it has also lost sight of the 1990’s – the first of its so-called lost decades – when the authorities did all they could to prolong the life of insolvent banks and many nonfinancial corporations. Zombie-like companies were kept on artificial life-support in the false hope that time alone would revive them. It was not until late in the decade, when the banking sector was reorganized and corporate restructuring was encouraged, that Japan made progress on the long, arduous road of balance-sheet repair and structural transformation.

US authorities have succumbed to the same Japanese-like temptations. From quantitative easing to record-high federal budget deficits to unprecedented bailouts, they have done everything in their power to mask the pain of balance-sheet repair and structural adjustment. As a result, America has created its own generation of zombies – in this case, zombie consumers.

Like Japan, America’s post-bubble healing has been limited – even in the face of the Fed’s outsize liquidity injections. Household debt stood at 112% of income in the third quarter of 2012 – down from record highs in 2006, but still nearly 40 percentage points above the 75% norm of the last three decades of the twentieth century. Similarly, the personal-saving rate, at just 3.5% in the four months ending in November 2012, was less than half the 7.9% average of 1970-99.

The same is true of Europe. The ECB’s über-aggressive actions have achieved little in the way of bringing about long-awaited structural transformation in the region. Crisis-torn peripheral European economies still suffer from unsustainable debt loads and serious productivity and competitiveness problems. And a fragmented European banking system remains one of the weakest links in the regional daisy chain.

Is this the “cure” that Abe really wants for Japan? The last thing that the Japanese economy needs at this point is backsliding on structural reforms. Yet, by forcing the BOJ to follow in the misdirected footsteps of the Fed and the ECB, that is precisely the risk that Abe and Japan are facing.

Massive liquidity injections carried out by the world’s major central banks – the Fed, the ECB, and the BOJ – are neither achieving traction in their respective real economies, nor facilitating balance-sheet repair and structural change. That leaves a huge sum of excess liquidity sloshing around in global asset markets. Where it goes, the next crisis is inevitably doomed to follow.

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    1. Commentedlaurie gravelines

      In the absence of aggressive fiscal policy, monetary authorities are experimenting with ever increasingly 'exotic' instruments. frankly they have pushed monetary policy to unexpected levels. They are to be complemented. But it can only be pushed so far, the ultimate dangers are well documented, yet governments refuse all but the most timid fiscal levers. Indeed some move fiscal policy pro-cyclical and amplify the recession. I find it difficult to criticize aggressive central banks, when governments have abandoned the challenge. And I do agree, a great future price may be paid.

    2. CommentedMerijn Knibbe

      It seems that there is more to Shinzo Abe than meets the eye. Deflation in Japan in the fourth quarter of 2012 was as high (low?) as -4% (GDP deflator) which must be rated as a massive failure of central bank policy:

    3. Commentedpieter jongejan

      Central banks are no longer serving the general interests, but the short term interests of the financial sector, the political sector and the criminal sector. In the short run these sectors are benefitting most from almost zero interest rates. In the long run low interst rates will lead to a low profit rate (due to high real estate prices) and low investment an thus low economic growth and high unemployment. The winners in the long run are in my opinion the criminal sector and the populists.
      They benefit from increased poverty due to stagnant economic growth.

    4. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

      The Japanese QE may well be compared to the US policies whereas it is farther than the EU sterilized and not expanding their balance sheet, and very much conditional on austerity measures and strict EU policies.
      Both ways there is need of structural micro and macro economic changes to improve liquidity transmission-ability if these policies to be affective indeed..
      How Globalization affects Market Economy

      If a Market Economy is considered the balance between Demand-to-Supply (in the currently used Economics it is Supply-to-Demand) for goods, services, resources and employment, the most recent changes of ongoing Globalization and rising Productivity have prompted, boosted and accelerated its role to some new levels never experienced through history. By including some huge marketplaces such as China, India, Brazil, Vietnam, and the expanding EU and by the rapid industrialization some of these countries are succeeding. High technologies in manufacturing and communications, the Internet and the open boarders trade, the open employment policies in EU, the high level education in India that give medical doctors and software specialists knowledge and skills to compete in US, and many more make the Global marketplace a common ground for competition well beyond any imagination in the past. However, these processes show the incredible vitality of the supply founded economics of Capitalism to fill any demand wherever and however such occurs elsewhere in the world. Hence, Market Economy is in its apogee, perhaps, only under the increasing sustained pace of economic development.

      Many economists associate Market Economy and Market Economics with the Supply-to-Demand trickle down economics of the Capitalism, and almost no one can even imagine major changes in the system. Regional and global lending founded on relatively high interest rate and relatively short term payoff could well help individuals and businesses live through short term economic turbulences, which approaches work very well when the term of such turbulence as long as economic activities returns to normal then the borrowers might payback and swim through. The supply founded Market Economy in theory self adjust economic turbulences and thus even improves the over all social and business environment by cutting off dead branches of over production, excessive financing, “artificial businesses”, crowded administration, and thus improves economies and marketplaces. This is the magic of the self-adjusting Market Economy of the Capitalism.

      However, many countries discovered that Market Economy, as explained by trickle-down economics, does not maintain best development and many business regulations and laws, and tax brakes and social programs are added to the powers of the Market Economy to distribute and redistribute wealth, to create jobs, and to balance demand-to-supply. Powerful socialization and governmental involvement into financial and business market operations prompted by the last Great Recession had more governments more involved into the Market Economy trying to save their economies from collapse. By pouring massive capital into financial institutions, or by taking over large corporations, or by implementing more social and employment generating programs the governments interfered with market forces and replacing such with vengeance.

      Market Economy is associated with a few indicators:
      • free flow of goods and services;
      • flow of free capital and trickle-down concentration of capital
      • return on invested capital;
      • free relocation and outsourcing of manufacturing that grew up into services and financial sectors;
      • large intercontinental corporations a main source for employment and the following fiscal reserves;
      • free employment marketplace based on demand and supply;
      Thus, the goods and services in a marketplace under the pressure of demand and supply balance prompt employment, whereas financing and capital being private or public, or both accelerate the spirals of economic growth and development.

      In the modern day Global Marketplace, the Market Economy is global too, where forces of demand-to-supply work globally and goods and services from one side and demand for such from another should prompt employment and supported by crediting, financing should accelerate growth and development.

      In a pro supply marketplace currently used instruments of economics it would be nothing wrong with this picture, however the conditions in the global marketplace of China’s and constantly rising Productivity prompted substantially different motors to maintain global balance. In case the pro supply-to-demand marketplace is in a progress to a pro demand-to-supply such, the distribution of wealth which always has been a minor problem for economic growth even in the opposite prompted by trickling-down such growth is becoming very contra-productive. Under these new economic conditions, such “stoppers” growth and development as Social and Infrastructural expenses that prompted inflations and market instability, in the past, are becoming more like a balance to rising unemployment and lack of growth of the present. In addition, the “shady” business practices of the past that prompted rapid growth are becoming more like a burden of the present, which instead of helping SME are making them not lend-able, while SME (small and medium enterprises) are the main still in place employer. Same with the financial system of speculative banks, exchanges and financial institutions, that use to help the trickle-down capital to concentrate and such boost business, in the past, now these are becoming more like additional burden to the small and medium investors and the middle class. By taking away 401s and 501s and not providing them with so much needed ROI (return on investment) that could be one of the free economic vehicles for wealth distribution and redistribution of the present.

      The industrialization of the past that built-up the most aggressive economic growth and development with prosperous middle class of the very developed economies of North Americas, Japan and Western Europe may not be successful anymore to perform. The high technologies are limiting needed manpower in manufacturing, China is becoming increasingly industrial super power able to fill any demand for industrial goods, whereas industrial production is either outsourced or moved already elsewhere. However, under the currently used economics industrial production adds the most to any country’s GDP (general domestic product); thus when some highly industrialized economies as the US are losing their abilities to maintain industrial growth the rest of the world of underdeveloped or developing countries with very few exceptions are losing any probability to startup such industrial production, indeed.

      Environmental changes caused by industrial pollution and the exhausting Earth resources are becoming more of pressing issues with which all countries must promptly deal. These are becoming more of economic issues than even the rest, because it is obvious that these issues affect any economy and the global market place directly. E.g., the high technologies for renewable energies are quite expensive, changing old polluting autos is expensive too, i.e. the Earth pollution, the deforestation going on in any poverty rotten country of Eastern Europe, Africa, South America are affecting the global environment in a progressive harmful overall.

      Thus, if the changing market environment brings new issues and developments than the modern world must deal with appropriately. The economics should change too, to accommodate all of the above new developments. An economics of Marketism being able to abstract all the best from the Capitalism should be implemented promptly, because under the arising conditions only another alternative is a massive socialization and governmental take over, and such for sure would not bring prosperity to no one. Bureaucracy, diminishing liberties, dependence on social security could not balance properly market demand-to-supply, as the history has shown, but free entrepreneurships and personal freedoms must be saved then the appointed new arriving economics issues must be dealt promptly and properly with.

      New market economics is about low interest lending and subsidizing, because under the new conditions the recessions are not self-adjusting and short in time, therefore any high interest lending is not feasible instead financial instrument (law interest loans and subsidies) should prompt employment and SME activities for which as written above should be supported by higher “security” (by enhanced business laws, regulations, financial market regulations, risk management personal liability). Hence, financial instruments should prompt growth by using monetary and fiscal initiatives on a lower interest rate and subsidies the “old” system of national and global lending must be moderated to these new conditions. The World Bank, IMF, and WTO should promote growth on a global scale by using these new instruments and by changing their role of general lenders into general controllers. The main issue under these new conditions is for these institutions to use monetary and fiscal quantities to balance the global market demand-to-supply “as it comes: as it goes” approach of Quantum Factor. The market agents and tools are more as “parameters” in attempt of preventing economic turbulence, than setup of chaotic self-adjusting instruments to prompt productivity.

      The market economy of the 21st Century is a vivid fluctuating development dealt on a practical operational basis. Market economics is statistically formulated way for using economic agents and tools as parameters balancing market demand-to-supply and dispersing negative economic buildups.

      Hence, the Globalization affects Market Economy by establishing new conditions of demand-to-supply marketplace that require changing the ways economic instruments are used from the ideological approaches of the Capitalism to practical approaches of the Marketism.
      © Joshua Konov, 2010

    5. CommentedMukesh Adenwala

      Insufficiency of Monetary Policy in changing the perceptions of economic agents, enabling them to see a rosier picture is perhaps the cause of its failure. Perhaps direct measures at repairing major parts of balance sheets of financial institutions could go a long way in mending such insufficiency. The key could be as under:
      If economies decide to offer foreclosed assets for `winning' through lottery, rather than for `buying' - draw to be held only after enough amount has been collected through sale of lottery tickets so that financial institutions would cover book value of their assets - the size of market for such assets would increase manifold. If such assets change hands for cash, the banks would be free of toxic assets several times over because derivatives created on the basis of such assets would regain their value, and the insurance companies like AIG that had insured single asset many times over, would recover their losses. This would repair the balance sheets of major financial institutions to a large extent and restore the confidence in the markets and agents.
      Yes, there would be moral implications of such measures and also question of equity would need to be closely examined before such a scheme can be implemented.

    6. CommentedDanny Cooper

      Central banking is inherently political. They conduct monetary policy. They have to sell their policy to their constituent.

    7. CommentedSean Slater

      Wasn't the Fed's injection of liquidity a reaction to the need for liquidity in the failing financial sector not to create an increase in consumption?

    8. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      My memory may be short, but I don't remember having read a more important article at Project Syndicate. In a nutshell Stephen S. Roach captures the present predicament caused by monetary crankery and procrastination over structural reform.

    9. CommentedPaul Jefferson

      ECB quantitative easing? What about Europe's widely hated austerity programs? And what about the weak EU members being deprived of currency flexibility, as they are constrained by the common euro currency they have adopted? These factors make Europe an inappropriate example for comparison with Japan.

      As for the USA, QE seems to have at last jump-started the real estate market, which should make a huge difference for US banks, and the economy as a whole.

      Also, if QE has sustained the economy while US consumers de-leveraged, all the better. Anyway, American consumers need to spend less on Chinese imports.

      Sustained American QE should eventually force the Chinese to value the yuan more fairly against the US dollar, which should reduce Chinese imports, and support US domestic job growth. Hence, QE is good for the USA. So how would it be bad for Japan?

      Abe's QE will devalue the yen, and thus he will have won the biggest battle. The high yen has been the root of Japan's economic problems for years. A lower yen will make Japan's products competitive again, and will boost domestic employment. Clearly, Abe is on the right track.

    10. Portrait of Pingfan Hong

      CommentedPingfan Hong

      In fact, BOJ has never been more timid than its counterparts in Europe and the US: BOJ was the first to use quantitive easing among major central banks. Measured by the ratio of assets purchased by the central bank to GDP, BOJ is leading ECB and the Fed in the scale of the QE so far: 30%, 27%, and 20% respectively for these three central banks.

      The only thing BOJ could not match its counterparts is that both ECB and the Fed have recently made their open ended: undefined total amount and duration of the new round QE for ECB and the Fed. BOJ is expected to follow the suit soon.

      However, as the author of this article pointed out correctly, all these QEs cannot substitute for painstaking balance sheet adjustment and restructuring of the real economy, as attested by the decade-long experience of QE by BOJ.

        CommentedAndrew Purdy

        Abe is going to do something that the USA has not yet done - outright monetization of deficits. When the CB buys up government debt, the Treasury still has to pay interest. If the deficit is covered with pure seigniorage, no interest is ever paid.