The Wrong Growth Strategy for Japan

Martin Feldstein

Jan. 17, 2013

This illustration is by Chris Van Es and comes from <a href=""></a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.
         Illustration by Chris Van Es

CAMBRIDGEJapan’s new government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, could be about to shoot itself in the foot. Seeking to boost economic growth, the authorities may soon destroy their one great advantage: the low rate of interest on government debt and private borrowing. If that happens, Japanese conditions will most likely be worse at the end of Abe’s term than they are today.
The interest rate on Japan’s ten-year government bonds is now less than 1% – the lowest in the world, despite a very high level of government debt and annual budget deficits. Indeed, Japan’s debt is now roughly 230% of GDP, higher than that of Greece (175% of GDP) and nearly twice that of Italy (125% of GDP). The annual budget deficit is nearly 10% of GDP, higher than any of the eurozone countries. With nominal GDP stagnating, that deficit is causing the debt/GDP ratio to rise by 10% annually.
Japan’s government is able to pay such a low rate of interest because domestic prices have been falling for more than a decade, while the yen has been strengthening against other major currencies. Domestic deflation means that the real interest rate on Japanese bonds is higher than the nominal rate. The yen’s rising value raises the yield on Japanese bonds relative to the yield on bonds denominated in other currencies.
That may be about to come to an end. Abe has demanded that the Bank of Japan pursue a quantitative-easing strategy that will deliver an inflation rate of 2-3% and weaken the yen. He will soon appoint a new BOJ governor and two deputy governors, who will, one presumes, be committed to this goal.
The financial markets are taking Abe’s strategy seriously. The yen’s value against the US dollar has declined by more than 7% in the last month. With the euro rising relative to the dollar, the yen’s fall relative to the euro has been even greater.
The yen’s weakening will mean higher import costs, and therefore a higher rate of inflation. An aggressive BOJ policy of money creation could cause further weakening of the yen’s exchange rate – and a rise in domestic prices that is more rapid than what Abe wants.
With Japanese prices rising and the yen falling relative to other currencies, investors will be willing to hold Japanese government bonds (JGBs) only if their nominal yield is significantly higher than it has been in the past. A direct effect of the higher interest rate would be to increase the budget deficit and the rate of growth of government debt. With a debt/GDP ratio of 230%, a four-percentage-point rise in borrowing costs would cause the annual deficit to double, to 20% of GDP.
The government might be tempted to rely on rapid inflation to try to reduce the real value of its debt. Fear of that strategy could cause investors to demand even higher real interest rates.
The combination of exploding debt and rising interest rates is a recipe for economic disaster. The BOJ’s widely respected governor, Masaaki Shirakawa, whose term expires in April, summarized the situation in his usual restrained way, saying that “long-term interest rates may spike and have a negative effect on the economy.”
A spike in long-term rates would lower the price of JGBs, destroying household wealth and, in turn, reducing consumer spending. The higher interest rates would also apply to corporate bonds and bank loans, weakening business investment.
Even without the prospect of faster inflation and a declining yen, fundamental conditions in Japan point to higher interest rates. The Japanese government has been able to sell its bonds to domestic buyers because of the high rate of domestic saving. The excess of saving over investment has given Japan a current-account surplus, allowing the country to finance all of the government borrowing domestically, with enough left over to invest in dollar-denominated bonds and other foreign securities. But that is coming to an end.
The household saving rate has collapsed in recent years, falling to less than 2%. The combination of high corporate saving and low business investment has sustained the current-account surplus, allowing Japan to fund its budget deficit domestically. But the surplus has fallen sharply in the past five years, from roughly 6% of GDP in 2007 to only 1% now. With a falling rate of household saving and the prospect of new fiscal deficits, the current account will soon be negative, forcing Japan to sell its debt to foreign buyers.
Abe plans to supplement the easy-money strategy with an increase in government spending of some $120 billion, or 2% of GDP. It is not clear why Abe and his advisers believe that this will deliver sustained real GDP growth of 2% a year. Although the $120 billion is presumably just for the current year (if the spending can be made to happen that quickly), he also spoke during his campaign about a ten-year rise in government spending of ¥200 trillion yen, substantially more than the $120 billion annual rate. The impact of all of this on the national debt and on Japan’s interest rates could be staggering.
Abe is right about one thing: Japan needs to get out of its no-growth and deflationary trap. But the policies that he favors are not the way to do it.

Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and President Emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, chaired President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984. In 2006, he was appointed to President Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and, in 2009, was appointed to President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Currently, he is on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Group of 30, a non-profit, international body that seeks greater understanding of global economic issues.

Inflation Propaganda Exposed

by: Peter Schiff

January 16, 2013

Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used.

However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.

Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistic's (BLS) "Newspaper and Magazine Index" (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS' stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.

Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point.

Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It's also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.

Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their "Health Insurance Index" increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012. Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn't have made much of a difference in the CPI itself.

Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.

If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI's components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!

Even more egregious than the manner in which prices are currently reported is the way that CPI methods have been changed over the years to insure that most increases are factored out. Since the 1970's, the CPI formula has changed so thoroughly that it bears scant resemblance to the one used during the "malaise days" of the Carter years. Mainstream economists dismiss criticism of the changes as tin hat conspiracy theories. But given the huge stakes involved, it's hard to believe that institutional bias plays no role. Government statisticians are responsible for coming up with the formulas, and their bosses catch huge breaks if the inflation numbers come in low. Human behavior is always influenced by such incentives.

The newer CPI methodologies are designed to report not just on price movements, but on spending patterns, consumer choices, substitution bias, and product changes. In other words, the metrics have been altered to track not so much the cost of things, but the cost of living (or more accurately, the cost of surviving). But if you simply focus on price, especially on those staple commodity goods and services that haven't radically changed in quality over the years, the under reporting of inflation becomes more apparent.

As reported in our "Global Investor Newsletter," we selected BLS price changes for twenty everyday goods and services over two separate ten-year periods, and then compared those changes to the reported changes in the Consumer Price Index over the same period. (The twenty items we selected are: eggs, new cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent of primary residence, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store bought beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs.)

We know that people do not spend equal amounts on the above items, and we know their share of income devoted to them has changed over the decades. But as we are only interested in how these prices have changed relative to the CPI, those issues don't really matter.

We chose to look at the period between 1970 and 1980 and then again between 2002 and 2012, because these time frames both had big deficits and loose monetary policy, and they straddle the time in which the most significant changes to the CPI methodology took effect. And while the CPI rose much faster in the 1970's, the degree to which the prices of our 20 items outpaced the CPI was much higher more recently.

Between 1970 and 1980 the officially reported CPI rose a whopping 112%, and prices of our basket of goods and services rose by 117%, just 5% faster. In contrast between 2002 and 2012 the CPI rose just 27.5%, but our basket increased by 44.3%, a rate that was 61% faster. And remember, this is using the BLS' own price data, which we have already shown can grossly under-estimate the true rate of increase. The difference can be explained by how CPI is weighted and mixed. The formula used in the 1970's effectively captured the price movements of our twenty everyday products. But in the last ten years it has been quite a different story.

If these price changes in our experiments had been fully captured, CPI could currently be high enough to severely restrict Fed action to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed is operating as if inflation is extremely low. As a result, they are making a huge policy mistake that will come back to haunt us

During the last decade the Fed spent many years denying the existence of a housing bubble, even as a mountain of evidence piled up to the contrary. That error caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, blowing more air into the bubble and imposing enormous negative consequences on the economy. The Fed, now similarly blind to the inflation threat, is repeating its mistake, only this time the negative consequences will be even more dire.

Apart from the statistical problems that hide inflation, there are also macroeconomic factors that have helped keep prices down despite the quantitative easing. Massive U.S. trade deficits and foreign central bank dollar accumulation mean that much of the printed money winds up in foreign bank vaults, not U.S. shopping centers. As foreign consumer goods flow in, and dollars flow out, a lid is kept on domestic prices. In effect, our inflation is exported as foreign central banks monetize our deficits and recycle their surpluses into U.S. Treasuries.

The demand has pushed down bond yields which has allowed the U.S. government to borrow inexpensively. Of course, when the flows reverse, bond prices will fall, yields will climb, and a tidal wave of dollars will wash up on American shores, drowning consumers in a sea of inflation.

Unlike Krugman and the Keynesians, I would argue that it is impossible to create something from nothing. I believe that printing a dollar diminishes the value of all existing dollars by an aggregate amount equal to the purchasing power of the new dollar. The other side takes the position that the new money creates tangible economic growth and that real economic value can therefore be created by putting zeroes onto a piece of paper. I think that those making such absurd claims should bear the burden of proof. For more on the interesting topic of hidden inflation, see my video that I just posted.

A new Gold Standard is being born

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Last updated: January 17th, 2013

The world is moving step by step towards a de facto Gold Standard, without any meetings of G20 leaders to announce the idea or bless the project.

Some readers will already have seen the GFMS Gold Survey for 2012 which reported that central banks around the world bought more bullion last year in terms of tonnage than at any time in almost half a century.

They added a net 536 tonnes in 2012 as they diversified fresh reserves away from the four fiat suspects: dollar, euro, sterling, and yen.

The Washington Accord, where Britain, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, and others sold a chunk of their gold each year, already seems another era – the Gordon Brown era, you might call it.

That was the illusionary period when investors thought the euro would take its place as the twin pillar of a new G2 condominium alongside the dollar. That hope has faded. Central bank holdings of euro bonds have fallen back to 26pc, where they were almost a decade ago.

Neither the euro nor the dollar can inspire full confidence, although for different reasons. EMU is a dysfunctional construct, covering two incompatible economies, prone to lurching from crisis to crisis, without a unified treasury to back it up.

The dollar stands on a pyramid of debt. We all know that this debt will be inflated away over time – for better or worse. The only real disagreement is over the speed.

The central bank buyers are of course the rising powers of Asia and the commodity bloc, now holders of two thirds of the world’s $11 trillion foreign reserves, and all its incremental reserves.

It is no secret that China is buying the dips, seeking to raise the gold share of its reserves well above 2pc. Russia has openly targeted a 10pc share. Variants of this are occurring from the Pacific region to the Gulf and Latin America. And now the Bundesbank has chosen to pull part of its gold from New York and Paris.

Personally, I doubt that Buba had any secret agenda, or knows something hidden from the rest of us. It responded to massive popular pressure and prodding from lawmakers in the Bundestag to bring home Germany’s gold. Yet that is not the end of the story.

The fact that this popular pressure exists – and is well-organised reflects a breakdown in trust between the major democracies and economic powers. It is a new political fact in the global system.

Pimco’s Mohammed El Erian said this may have a knock-on effect:

“In the first instance, it could translate into pressures on other countries to also repatriate part of their gold holdings. After all, if you can safely store your gold at home — a big if for some countriesno government would wish to be seen as one of the last to outsource all of this activity to foreign central banks.

If developments are limited to this problem, there would be no material impact on the functioning and well-being of the global economy. If, however, perceptions of growing mutual mistrusts translate into larger multilateral tensions, then the world would find itself facing even greater difficulties resolving payments imbalances and resisting beggar-thy-neighbour national policies.

“The most likely outcome right now is for Germany’s decision to have minimum systemic impact. But should this be wrong and the decision fuel greater suspicion – a risk scenario rather than the baseline – the resulting hit to what remains in multilateral policy co-operation would be problematic for virtually everybody.

As I reported on Tuesday, gold veteran Jim Sinclair thinks it is an earthquake, comparing it to Charles de Gaulle’s decision to pull French gold from New York in the late 1960s – the precursor to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system three years later when Nixon suspended gold conversion.

Mr Sinclair predicts that the Bundesbank’s action will prove the death knell of dollar power. I do not really see where this argument leads. Currencies were fixed in de Gaulle’s time. They float today.

It is within the EMU fixed-exchange system – ie between Germany and Spain – that we see an (old) Gold Standard dynamic at work with all its destructive power, and the risk of sudden ruptures always present. The global system is supple. It bends to pressures.

My guess is that any new Gold Standard will be sui generis, and better for it. Let gold will take its place as a third reserve currency, one that cannot be devalued, and one that holds the others to account, but not so dominant that it hitches our collective destinies to the inflationary ups (yes, gold was highly inflationary after the Conquista) and the deflationary downs of global mine supply. That would indeed be a return to a barbarous relic.

Hopefully, it will be nothing like the interwar system. That was a dollar peg that transmitted US deflation to the whole world when the Fed tightened too hard in 1928 and went berserk in 1930.

A third reserve currency is just what America needs. As Prof Micheal Pettis from Beijing University has argued, holding the world’s reserve currency is an “exorbitant burden” that the US could do without.

The Triffin Dilemmaadvanced by the Belgian economist Robert Triffin in the 1960s – suggests that the holder of the paramount currency faces an inherent contradiction. It must run a structural trade deficit over time to keep the system afloat, but this will undermine its own economy. The system self-destructs.

A partial Gold Standardcreated by the global market, and beholden to nobody – is the best of all worlds. It offers a store of value (though no yield). It acts a balancing force. It is not dominant enough to smother the system.

Let us have three world currencies, a tripod with a golden leg. It might even be stable.

January 17, 2013

The Dwindling Deficit


It’s hard to turn on your TV or read an editorial page these days without encountering someone declaring, with an air of great seriousness, that excessive spending and the resulting budget deficit is our biggest problem. Such declarations are rarely accompanied by any argument about why we should believe this; it’s supposed to be part of what everyone knows.
This is, however, a case in which what everyone knows just ain’t so. The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot.

Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.
It’s true that right now we have a large federal budget deficit. But that deficit is mainly the result of a depressed economy — and you’re actually supposed to run deficits in a depressed economy to help support overall demand. The deficit will come down as the economy recovers: Revenue will rise while some categories of spending, such as unemployment benefits, will fall. Indeed, that’s already happening. (And similar things are happening at the state and local levels — for example, California appears to be back in budget surplus.)
Still, will economic recovery be enough to stabilize the fiscal outlook? The answer is, pretty much. 

Recently the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities took Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade and updated them to take account of two major deficit-reduction actions: the spending cuts agreed to in 2011, amounting to almost $1.5 trillion over the next decade; and the roughly $600 billion in tax increases on the affluent agreed to at the beginning of this year.
What the center finds is a budget outlook that, as I said, isn’t great but isn’t terrible: It projects that the ratio of debt to G.D.P., the standard measure of America’s debt position, will be only modestly higher in 2022 than it is now.
The center calls for another $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, which would completely stabilize the debt ratio; President Obama has called for roughly the same amount. Even without such actions, however, the budget outlook for the next 10 years doesn’t look at all alarming.
Now, projections that run further into the future do suggest trouble, as an aging population and rising health care costs continue to push federal spending higher. But here’s a question you almost never see seriously addressed: Why, exactly, should we believe that it’s necessary, or even possible, to decide right now how we will eventually address the budget issues of the 2030s?
Consider, for example, the case of Social Security. There was a case for paying down debt before the baby boomers began to retire, making it easier to pay full benefits later. But George W. Bush squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and wars, and that window has closed. At this point, “reformproposals are all about things like raising the retirement age or changing the inflation adjustment, moves that would gradually reduce benefits relative to current law. What problem is this supposed to solve?
Well, it’s probable (although not certain) that, within two or three decades, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, leaving the system unable to pay the full benefits specified by current law. So the plan is to avoid cuts in future benefits by committing right now to ... cuts in future benefits. Huh?
O.K., you can argue that the adjustment to an aging population would be smoother if we commit to a glide path of benefit cuts now. On the other hand, by moving too soon we might lock in benefit cuts that turn out not to have been necessary. And much the same logic applies to Medicare. So there’s a reasonable argument for leaving the question of how to deal with future problems up to future politicians.
The point is that the case for urgent action now to reduce spending decades in the future is far weaker than conventional rhetoric might lead you to suspect. And, no, it’s nothing like the case for urgent action on climate change.
So, no big problem in the medium term, no strong case for worrying now about long-run budget issues.
The deficit scolds dominating policy debate will, of course, fiercely resist any attempt to downgrade their favorite issue. They love living in an atmosphere of fiscal crisis: It lets them stroke their chins and sound serious, and it also provides an excuse for slashing social programs, which often seems to be their real objective.
But neither the current deficit nor projected future spending deserve to be anywhere near the top of our political agenda. It’s time to focus on other stufflike the still-depressed state of the economy and the still-terrible problem of long-term unemployment.