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Another Lesson from Japan

Though Japan’s experience since the early 1990s provides many lessons, policymakers in the rest of the world have failed miserably in heeding them. Time and again, major central banks – especially the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England – have been quick to follow the Bank of Japan's disastrous lead.

NEW HAVEN – Yet another in a long string of negative inflation surprises is at hand. In the United States, the so-called core CPI (consumer price index) – which excludes food and energy – has headed down just when it was supposed to be going up. Over the three months ending in May, the core CPI was basically unchanged, holding, at just 1.7% above its year-earlier level. For a US economy that is widely presumed to be nearing the hallowed ground of full employment, this comes as a rude awakening – particularly for the Federal Reserve, which has pulled out all the stops to get inflation back to its 2% target.

Halfway around the world, a similar story continues to play out in Japan. But, for the deflation-prone Japanese economy, it’s a much tougher story.

Through April, Japan’s core CPI was basically flat relative to its year-earlier level, with a similar outcome evident in May for the Tokyo metropolitan area. For the Bank of Japan (BoJ), which committed an unprecedented arsenal of unconventional policy weapons to arrest a 19-year stretch of 16.5% deflation lasting from 1994 to 2013, this is more than just a rude awakening. It is an embarrassment bordering on defeat.

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