In India we have been dealing with very high rates of consumer price inflation in excess of 10%. On the other hand Japan has been dealing with exactly the opposite thing. The country has no inflation. During 2013, the average inflation has stood at -0.45%. This scenario where prices are falling is specifically referred to as deflation.
And this is not a recent phenomenon. In 2012, the average inflation for the year was 0%, which meant that prices neither rose nor they fell. In fact, in each of the three years for the period between 2009 and 2011, prices fell on the whole.
This has had a huge impact on the economic growth in Japan. For the period of three months ending December 2012, the Japanese economy grew by a minuscule 0.5%. In three out of the four years for the period between 2008 and 2011, the Japanese economy has contracted.
To get over this Japanese politicians have been wanting to create some inflation so that people will start spending again. The Bank of Japan, the Japanese central bank, in a statement released on April 4, 2013, said “The Bank will achieve the price stability target of 2 percent in terms of the year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) at the earliest possible time, with a time horizon of about two years. It will double the monetary base.”
In simple English what the statement means is that the Bank of Japan will try and create an inflation of 2% in the earliest possible time with an overall limit of two years.
The question is how will this inflation be created? The Bank of Japan plans to print yen and double the money supply in the country. This money will be pumped into the financial system by the Bank of Japan buying various kinds of bonds including government bonds and exchange traded funds from Japanese banks and other financial institutions.
When the Bank of Japan buys bonds from banks it will pay for it in the newly printed yen. Thus newly printed yen will land up with banks. Banks can then go ahead and lend this money. As an increased amount of money chases the same amount of goods and services, the hope is that prices will rise and some inflation will be created. And this will put an end to the deflationary scenario that has prevailed over the last few years.
When prices are flat or are falling or are expected to fall, consumers generally tend to postpone consumption (i.e. buying goods and services) in the hope that they will get a better deal in the future. This impacts businesses as their earnings either remain flat or fall. This slows down economic growth.
On the other hand, if people see prices going up or expect prices to go up, they generally tend to start purchasing things to avoid paying more for them in the days to come. This helps businesses as well as the overall economy. So by trying to create some inflationary expectations in Japan the idea is to get consumption going again and help the country come out of a more than two decade old recession. With prices of things going up people are more likely to buy now than later and thus economic growth can be revived.
There is another angle to this entire idea of doubling money supply and that is to cheapen the yen against the dollar. The Japanese refer to a strong yen as Endaka. Hans Redeker, from Morgan Stanley told Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of The Daily Telegraph that the package was dramatic enough to break “Endaka” – strong yen – once and for all.
On April 3, 2013, one dollar was worth around 93 yen. As I write this piece on April 4, 2013, one dollar is now worth 95.5 yen. Hence for anyone looking to convert dollars into yen would have got more yen if he had converted on April 4 rather than April 3.
As the Bank of Japan starts printing yen to create inflation, there will be more yen in the market than before. And this will lead to a fall in the value of the yen against other currencies. That’s the theory behind the yen cheapening against the dollar.
But the market does not wait for things to happen it starts to react to things it expects to happen. Given this, the Japanese yen has been losing value against the dollar.
In early November 2012, one dollar was worth 79.4 yen and now it is worth around 95.5 yen. A cheaper yen will help Japanese exporters as it makes them more competitive in the international market.
Let us say a Japanese exporter sells a product at a price of $1million. Earlier when he converted dollars into yen he would have got 79.4 million yen. Now with the yen losing value against the dollar he will get 95.5 million yen. Since the exporter’s cost in yen remains the same, he makes a higher profit.
The exporter can also cut prices in dollar terms and thus make his product more competitive against competitors from other countries. If he cuts prices by 15% to $850,000 in the international market, he still makes around 81.2 million yen ($850,000 x 95.5 yen), which is better than the 79.4 million yen he was making when one dollar was worth 79.4 yen and the product cost $1 million. A greater price competitiveness will ensure that exports pick up and that in turn will help revive economic growth. At least that’s how things are supposed to work in theory.
In fact Germany, one of the world’s biggest exporters is already feeling the heat. One euro was worth around 101 yen in the second week of November. As I write this one euro is worth around 125 yen. This has made Japanese exports more competitive against that of Germany.
And by wanting to double money supply by printing yen, the Bank of Japan is only doing what various other central banks around the world have already been up to. The Federal Reserve of United States has expanded its balance sheet by 220% since early 2008. The Bank of England has done even better at 350%. The European Central Bank came to the party a little late and has expanded its balance sheet by around 98%. The Bank of Japan has been rather subdued in its money printing efforts and has expanded its balance sheet only by 30% over the last four years. But since late December 2012, Bank of Japan has also been getting ready to enter the money printing party. This was after Shinzo Abe took over as the Prime Minister of the country on December 26, 2012. He promised to end Japan’s more than two decade old recession by creating inflation and reviving economic growth. The new Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda is only following the path that has already been laid up by Prime Minister Abe and other central banks all around the world.
The trouble is that central banks which have tried this path have managed to create very little inflation and economic growth The reason for it is simple. The western world is still feeling the negative effects of the borrowing binge it went into between the turn of the century and 2008. So people don’t want to borrow. The money that central banks have been printing is being borrowed by large institutional investors at close to zero percent interest rates and being invested in all kinds of assets all over the world.
With the Bank of Japan expected to buy all kinds of bonds from banks and other financial institutions, it means that the financial system will be flush with money. This along with a depreciating yen is expected to unleash a massive yen carry trade. “The blast of money is expected to reignite the yen “carry trade” and flood global markets with up to $2 trillion (£1.3 trillion) of pent-up savings, giving the entire world a shot in the arm,” writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.
Investors will borrow in yen at very low interest rates and invest it in various kinds of financial assets all over the world. This is called the carry trade because investors make the carry – i.e. the difference between the returns they make on their investment (in bonds or even in stocks for that matter) and the interest they pay on their borrowings in yen. This money will be invested in all kinds of financial assets around the world. Whether it will come to India, remains to be seen. (For a more detailed argument on the yen carry trade read Why Mrs Watanabe can now drive the Sensex higher.)
As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles:
“What is apparent that central banks can print all the money they want, they can’t dictate where it goes. This time around, much of that money has flown into speculative oil futures, luxury real estate in major financial capitals, and other non productive investments…The hype has created a new industry that turns commodities into financial products that can be traded like stocks. Oil, wheat, and platinum used to be sold primarily as raw materials, and now they are sold largely as speculative investments.”
So the question is what stops all the money that will be printed in Japan from meeting the same fate, as the money that was printed by other central banks? Nothing.
The other thing that central bank governors haven’t been able to answer is what will they do once inflation does start to appear, which it eventually will. How will Haruhiko Kuroda ensure that all the money that he plans to print creates just 2% inflation and not more?
Also money printing is an idea which every country can implement. And with Japan betting big on it, other export oriented countries(like South Korea with which Japan primarily competes in automobiles and electronic exports) will also have to resort to it to protect their exports.
Central bank governors have used the excuse of money printing not leading to much inflation as an excuse for printing more and more money. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has said in the past that“those people who said that asset purchases would lead us down the path of Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe I think have been proved wrong ,” he has said. King implies that excess money printing will not lead to the kind of high inflation that it did in Germany in the early 1920s and Zimbabwe a few years back.
Just because money printing hasn’t led to inflation now, doesn’t mean that can be totally ruled out in the days to come. As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale writes in a report titled Is Mark Carney the next Alan Greenspan “King’s assertion that because the quantitative easing(another term for money printing) to date has not yet produced rapid inflation must mean that it will never produce rapid inflation is just plain wrong. He simply cannot know.”
And that is something that every central bank governor who chooses to print money is ignoring right now. They really can’t know what the future holds.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 5, 2013.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)