Japan is top of the table in accumulating government debt and with a record stimulus to cushion the impact of COVID-19 it is approaching debt levels of 250% of GDP. So how does Japan manage to keep its government bond yields so low (see graph below) and investor confidence high that it can avoid default?
To finance this debt, the Japanese government issues bonds known as JGBs. These are snapped up in enormous volumes by the Bank of Japan (BoJ), the country’s central bank that is officially independent but in practice closely co-ordinates economic policy with the government.
Bond Prices vs Yield
Like any investment the buyer of the bond wants to get the greatest return. Bond prices and interest rates (yield) move in opposite directions and an easy way to consider this is zero-coupon bonds. Here the interest is derived by the difference between the purchase price of the bond and the value of the bond on maturity. Bond price $920 – Maturity value $1000. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-80 ÷ 920) x 100 = 8.7% return. However a lot depends on what else is happening in the bond market. If interest were to increase and newly issued bonds were giving a return of 10% the 8.7% return is no longer attractive. To match the 10% the original bond price would have to decrease to $909. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-909 ÷ 909) x 100 = 10% return
Reasons for low rates on JGB’s
Japanese Government Bond (JGB) is a bond issued by the government of Japan. The government pays interest on the bond until the maturity date. At the maturity date, the full price of the bond is returned to the bondholder. Japanese government bonds play a key role in the financial securities market in Japan.
The BoJ has recently been buying up billions dollars of Japanese government bonds keeping interest rates around 0% in the hope of increasing the inflation rate to its 2% target. Therefore any rise in bond yields triggers a buy action from the BoJ. As of 2019, the central bank owns over 40% of Japanese government bonds. The BOJ’s government bond holdings rose 3.4% from a year ago to 486 trillion yen ($4.5 trillion) as of March 2020, roughly 90% the size of the country’s economy, according to the central bank’s earnings report for the previous fiscal year.
Today central banks have a limited toolkit and the powers to deal with the savings glut (see image below), lack of investment, climate change and income inequality. There is a lot of money in the system but the velocity of circulation is slow – MV=PT – and this is one reason why we have little inflation.
Velocity of circulation of money is part of the the Monetarist explanation of inflation operates through the Fisher equation:
M x V = P x T
M = Stock of money V = Income Velocity of Circulation P = Average Price level T = Volume of Transactions or Output
Add to this COVID-19 and the impact it has had on especially developing economies and we have economic stagnation.
Some economists have suggested the need for more expansionary fiscal policy as well as structural reform to achieve economic growth. The latter being a long-term policy can take the form of price controls, management of public finances, financial sector reforms. labour market reforms etc. Although the US Federal Reserve is adopting a flexible average inflation target to avoid a disinflationary environment it will not be enough to deal with secular stagnation.
Secular stagnation Since the GFC in 2008 it is evident that low interest rates are the new normal and according to Larry Summers (former Treasury Secretary) we are in an era of secular stagnation. This refers to the fact that on average the ‘natural interest rate’ – the rate consistent with full employment – is very low. There can be periods of full employment but even with 0% interest rates private demand is insufficient to eliminate the output gap. The US was in a liquidity trap for eight of the past 12 years; Europe and Japan are still there, and the market now appears to believe that something like this is another the new normal.
Paul Krugman suggests that there are real doubts about unconventional monetary policy and that the stimulus for an economy should take the form of permanent public investment spending on both physical and human capital – infrastructure and health of the population. This spending would take the form of deficit-financed public investment. There has been the suggestion that deficit-financed public investment might lead to ‘crowding out’ private investment and also how is the debt repaid? Krugman came up with three offsetting factors
When the economy is in a liquidity trap, which now seems likely to be a large fraction of the time, the extra public investment will have a multiplier effect, raising GDP relative to what it would otherwise be. Based on the experience of the past decade, the multiplier would probably be around 1.5, meaning 3% higher GDP in bad times — and considerable additional revenue from that higher level of GDP. Permanent fiscal stimulus wouldn’t pay for itself, but it would pay for part of itself.
If the investment is productive, it will expand the economy’s productive capacity in the long run.This is obviously true for physical infrastructure and R&D, but there is also strong evidence that safety-net programmes for children make them healthier, more productive adults, which also helps offset their direct fiscal cost (Hoynes and Whitmore Schanzenbach 2018).
There’s fairly strong evidence of hysteresis — temporary downturns permanently or semi-permanently depress future output (Fatás and Summers 2015).
Source: “The Case for a permanent stimulus”. Paul Krugman cited in “Mitigating the COVID Economic Crisis: Act Fast and Do Whatever It Takes” Edited by Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro
Below is a useful flow diagram from the ANZ bank which adds Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) and Funding for Lending Programme (FLP) to the Official Cash Rate (OCR – Base Rate)
LSAP – this is the buying of up $100 billion of government bonds – quantitative easing FLP – this gives banks cheap lending based on the Official Cash Rate – could be about $28 billion based on take up OCR – wholesale interest rate currently at 0.25%. Commercial banks borrow at 0.5% above OCR and can save at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) at 1% below OCR.
With FLP and more LSAP this will mean lower lending rates and deposit rates. This should provide more stimulus in the economy and allay fears of future funding constraints making banks more confident about lending. Add to this a third stimulus – an OCR of 0.25%. The flow chart shows the impact that these three stimulus policies have on a variety of variables including – exchange rates – inflation -unemployment – consumer spending – investment – GDP. Very useful for a class discussion on the monetary policy mechanism.
This is a very good introductory video on inflation from Economics Explained. It explains Inflation, Hyperinflation, Stagflation, Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy etc. Material covered is part of NCEA Level 2 – Inflation and CIE AS Level Unit 4.
Here is a really funny video by the students of Columbia Business School (CBS) – you may have seen it before but I find it very useful when you start teaching monetary policy and interest rates.
Back in 2006 Alan Greenspan vacated the role of chairman of the US Federal Reserve and the two main candidates for the job were Ben Bernanke and Glenn Hubbard. Glen Hubbard was (and still is) the Dean at Columbia Business School and was no doubt disappointed about losing out to Ben Bernanke. His students obviously felt a certain amount of sympathy for him and used the song “Every Breath You Take” by The Police to voice their opinion as to who should have got the job. They have altered the lyrics and the lead singer plays Glenn Hubbard.
Some significant economic words in it are: – interest rates, stagflate, inflate, bps, jobs, growth etc.
From the Economist – good video on government bonds and debt through the ages with some great graphics.
It asks the question is government debt a concern today? They state that as long as a country’s GDP is growing faster than the country’s debt accumulating in interest then it grow its way out of debt with no fiscal cost. It also questions why interest rates today are low? Central banks such as the RBNZ and the US Federal Reserve set the interest rates and will keep them low until the economy starts some sort of recovery. They are able to do this as there is little to no inflationary pressure in the economy – remember most central banks have an inflationary target. This does mean that savers lose out as the return they get is very low. Furthermore implementing a programme of quantitative easing floods the market with cash which in turn leads to a lower cost of borrowing.
Part of the CIE A2 macro syllabus focuses on the wage price spiral which relates to the Phillips Curve. Here are some excellent notes that I picked up from Russell Tillson in my early days teaching at Epsom College in London. As from previous posts, the Phillips Curve analysed data for money wages against the rate of unemployment over the period 1862-1958. Money wages and prices were seen to be strongly correlated, mainly because the former are the most significant costs of production. Hence the resulting curve purported to provide a “trade-off’ between inflation and unemployment – i.e. the government could ‘select’ its desired position on the curve. During the 1970’s higher rates of inflation than previously were associated with any given level of unemployment. It was generally considered that the whole curve had shifted right – i.e. to achieve full employment a higher rate of inflation than previously had to be accepted. Milton Friedman’s expectations-augmented Phillips Curve denies the existence of any long-run trade off between inflation and unemployment. In short, attempts to reduce unemployment below its natural rate by fiscal reflation will succeed only at the cost of generating a wage-price spiral, as wages are quickly cancelled out by increases in prices.
Central banks have found that inflation has been the pest it has been in the past – most countries inflation rates have been short of its target rate. After the GFC the level of unemployment rose and inflation was quite subdues. However, with the post GFC recovery unemployment began to fall whilst the inflation rate was still showing no signs of accelerating which went against the original Phillips Curve. A further problem was that imported goods and services in one country have little relevance on the wages in another and the low levels of unemployment tempted people back into the labour force who hadn’t been counted as unemployed. This is particularly the case in Japan.
When there is an increase in job numbers, with a boom period, inflation may also be slow to rise. Although firms tend to be reluctant to lower wages when the economic climate slows as it is harmful to staff morale. The same could be said in good times as wages tend not to rise that quickly.
For many businesses changing the price of their goods or services can be costly especially for a small increase in price. Therefore the change in the business cycle tends not to be reflected in price changes as there needs to be major swings before prices will move at all. Central bank policy tends to manipulate interest rates to maintain a stable inflation causing unemployment to move up or down – unemployment is what changes not inflation.
The problem that central banks face today is that to keep the phillips curve flat they need to be able to cut interest rates to stimulate growth when inflation threatens to become deflation. However there is little room for further easing with rates so low. Central banks will need to work with the government’s fiscal policy to stimulate growth and spend the money that the central bank’s create.
Physicists and mathematicians have puzzled over the three-body problem – the question of how three objects orbit one another according to Newton’s laws. No single equation can predict how three bodies will move in relation to one another and whether their orbits will repeat or devolve into chaos.
John Mauldin of Mauldin Economics wrote about the eight-body problem in economics in which we cannot predict how the economy will react when eight variables change. He lists the following:
What is certain is that as government fiscal intervention starts to lose its effectiveness it will be inevitable that monetary policy will continue to remain very accommodating with bond buybacks and record low interest rates. COVID-19 has turned conventional economic thinking upside down.
I have blogged on this area before but thought it useful with the current discussion around macroeconomic policy. How does Modern Monetary Theory differ from more mainstream monetary policy – see table below.
The Economist ‘Briefing’ recently looked at what now for macroeconomic policy in the global economy. The GFC of 2008 and outbreak of COVID-19 has got policymakers scratching their head as what can be done to stimulate aggregate demand.
Keynes’ ideas of government involvement in managing the economy in the business cycle – spend in recessions and pay of debt in booms – was flavour of the month in the post-war period. However by the1970’s this policy was in trouble which the spectre of stagflation – high inflation accompanied by high unemployment. According to Keynes the two variables should move in opposite directions. In 1976 the UK Prime Minister James Callaghan in his speech at the Labour Party Conference said:
We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. Higher inflation followed by higher unemployment.
The 1980’s saw monetarist ideas enter the scene with a focus on the control of inflation though constraining the money supply. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker knew that in order the get inflation down that the economy would have to go through a recession and very higher unemployment in the short-run. However once inflation started to drop the Central Bank could relax monetary policy (interest rates) and then encourage more economic activity in the economy and thereby reducing unemployment. Previously policy had focused on equality of incomes which had a large impact of economic efficiency. Price stability was now the primary focus of a central bank and it was in New Zealand with the 1989 Reserve Bank Act that the first central bank became independent from government. Gone were the days where the Minister of Finance could get on the phone to the Reserve Bank Governor to change interest rates. Central banks had inflationary targets whilst fiscal policy was to keep government debts low and to redistribute income as the government saw fit.
This policy came unstuck after the GFC as central banks dropped interest rates to record levels and implemented a series of quantitative easing (QE) measures to no avail. Growth was stagnant for a long time but eventually demand for labour picked up. This would have normally been accompanied by higher inflation but it wasn’t the case. Just like in the 1970’s inflation and unemployment were not behaving according to the theory but at this time both were favourable – low inflation and low unemployment. However inequality was now gripping the attention of economists and there was concern about the monopoly position of some firms. The rich have a higher tendency to save rather than spend, so if their share of income rises then overall saving goes up and lower interest rates and QE were driving up inequality by increasing house and equity prices.
Once COVID-19 hit it was government’s fiscal policy which has been used to try and stabilise the economy and boost growth. Fiscal stimulus – government spending with running up large deficits might be required for a long period of time in order to support the economy. This is more acceptable amongst economists as low interest rates enable the government to service much larger debts and with such low inflation it is unlikely that rates will increase anytime soon. This resembles Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – the situation where the government can create its own money therefore:
Cannot default on debt denominated in its own currency;
Can pay for goods, services, and financial assets without a need to collect money in the form of taxes or debt issuance in advance of such purchases;
Is limited in its money creation and purchases by inflation, which accelerates once the economic resources (i.e., labor and capital) of the economy are utilised at full employment;
Can control inflation by taxation and bond issuance, which remove excess money from circulation, although the political will to do so may not always exist;
Does not need to compete with the private sector for scarce savings by issuing bonds. Within this model the only constraint on spending is inflation, which can break out if the public and private sectors spend too much at the same time. As long as there are enough workers and equipment to meet growing demand without igniting inflation, the government can spend what it needs to maintain employment and achieve goals such as halting climate change.
Negative interest rates
Some governments have gone the way of negative interest rates (see graphic) to try and stimulate more aggregate demand. This would discourage saving and see a potential withdrawal of cash from the banking system leaving less money to lend out. Avoiding this scenario might involve abolishing high-denomination bank notes and making the holding of large amount of cash expensive and unfeasible. However in order to keep money in the banks might renege on interest rate cuts as customers might move their money to rival banks therefore high negative interest rates would severely dent banks’ profits.
The current economic environment may make negative interest more plausible as:
Cash is in decline.
Banks are becoming less important to finance.
Central bankers are looking at creating their own digital currencies
Greater government intervention is what the majority of economists want but it does carry with it risks of significant debt and high inflation. There is an opportunity to rethink the economics discipline and as stated in The Economist:
A level-headed reassessment of public debt could lead to the green public investment necessary to fight climate change. And governments could unleash a new era of finance, involving more innovation, cheaper financial intermediation and, perhaps, a monetary policy that is not constrained by the presence of physical cash. What is clear is that the old economic paradigm is looking tired. One way or another, change is coming
Sources: The Economist – A new era of economics – July 25th 2020 http://www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=174