Friday, 16 October 2009

Japan a Deflation Death? - Nope Stagflation

Gordon Brown this week announced what can only be described as a car boot sale of UK PLC's bric-a-brac goods, an attempt to sooth markets regarding the budget deficit. Many of the items have been for sale before, but I'm sure the government in their current desperation will be willing to accept lower offers this time around. I agree with privatisation in getting the state out of our lives, but a student loan book and a crossing in Kent are hardly big ticket items, never mind the fact that they are assets that generate money. Thatcher sold the majority of the family silver during the eighties privatisation bonanza however contrary to common belief there's plenty more the state could sell. Institutions such as the NHS, education the road infrastructure and so forth could all be sold, but these are not politically palatable areas that the public can swallow, meaning they are off limits for any politician that doesn't want to ruin their career. The Prime Minister once more began another Keynesian rant stating that the Conservatives proposals would lead to the same problems experienced by Japan for the past two decades. The title 'Prudent Chancellor' seems ever more absurd as time goes on, his emphasis on yet more needless spending in an attempt to bankrupt the nation. It doesn't matter if its Americas Great Depression or the lost decade in Japan, economists, politicians and journalists all seem to draw the wrong conclusions. What Gordon Brown in fact proposes are the very same policies that were pursued during both periods above and resulted in stagnation. Japan didn't get ravaged by the 'dangers of deflation', it was instead a good old classic stagflation.

Many Keynesian economists are still baffled by Japan. Over the years, policy after policy has been proposed by their school of thought, all of which involve some form of government action, but time and time again they all seem to fail. The classic Keynesian rebuttal whenever these policies fail is "Well, the authorities didn't do enough". Just like they apparently didn't do enough during the Great Depression. Yet put forward the question regarding Americas 1920-21 Depression and all Keynesian theory goes out of the window. Here Warren Harding, Americas president at the time, cut government spending, cut taxes and in fact did very little during a time when the economy was contracting at an alarming rate with the measure of unemployment rising faster than during the subsequent Great Depression. Yet the economy with market forces in full control, liquidated unprofitable lines of production and subsequently America during the 1920's experienced one of the greatest economic booms in history. The unemployment rate came dramatically down in no time at all, without government spending to alleviate this process as we are now all told. Herbert Hoover, who was later to become Americas President during the next depression, unsurprisingly didn't agree with Harding's polices, a pre-cursor of what was to come. Don't mention any of this to the Keynesian's though, it will give them a real headache.

What did Japan do when their bubble burst? Cut taxes? Cut Government spending? Liquidate? They of course carried out the exact opposite. Their Government debt used to be as low as the UK's before its recent exponential trajectory however Japans now stands at 200% plus and keeps growing. They propped up their infamous zombie banks, crippling the pricing mechanism that is so vital for an economy to prosper. Increases in taxes will choke the economy as rising social costs increase. In order to assess what really happened we need to deal with the aspect of deflation, or what is currently assumed as the bogeyman to economic growth. Japan never entered a downward death spiral of prices, that consistently fell year on year, in fact the lowest their CPI hit during this time was -1%. During the mid-nineties it spiked back up to 2%. There was only around 6 years of official deflation during the two decades using the Governments metrics. What gave the impression of price deflation was in fact asset price deflation. Both real estate and stock prices completely collapsed and have not returned since, instead stagnating for years. The reason why they never recovered to their previous highs was exactly what the Government did, they took over and tried the command economy approach. Roads to nowhere, propping up banks that were insolvent, not allowing private enterprise to take over the means of production. Rather than money going into the private sector, Japanese savings that were accrued during their economic miracle were funneled into Government bonds, wasteful Government consumption. It was quite simply a classic stagflation, that is still ongoing.

The UK are now pursuing similar policies and will go into a long period of stagnation unless the current direction is reversed. However it is useful to try and make further sense of Japans situation during that time, compared with our own. When the crunch came for Japan they ran budget surpluses, had high domestic saving rates for years and were a creditor nation. The UK on the other hand has the complete opposite and relies heavily on overseas investors to buy our Government bonds. Japan only began to run double digit Government deficits eight years later. They were able to sell their bonds to domestic citizens. They were still obtaining plenty of foreign currency as they exported more than they imported. The UK has already printed in excess of 10% GDP to pay for the debts, is running a huge budget deficit only two years after the current financial crunch and for the past decade its citizens have had low savings rates.

So what does all the above mean? Quite simply the UK is in a much more highly inflationary situation that Japan was. Japan's government couldn't really print money until over 10 years later as a last resort due to there being ample savings to pay for the Government debt. Japans government created their budget deficit, the UK has a structural one in which politicians are notorious for not tackling the shortfall. While Japans significant industries, electronics and car manufacture, continued to grow with global demand, the UK's key revenue streams, finance and North Sea, are in decline.

Another key factor is if the Government Bond market is in a bull or bear market. During Japan's economic disaster the bond market was in a bull market. Interest rates kept falling, people still had faith in many paper financial assets. Since 1981/82 Government Bonds have been in a bull market however these things always move in cycles, typically we should be seeing the end to this trend at some point. 25 years plus is a good run and in the near future this will turn into a long, grinding bear market, we may have already crossed that point. In a bear market, interest rates on bonds rise, which means Governments have to increasingly spend more on interest payments, diverting money away from spending such as health or education. Recently the CEBR said interest rates will stay low for the foreseeable future during the first half of the next decade, however that would mean the bond bull market lasting for over three decades, a highly improbable situation.

History is always an important guide to future trends, however it is crucial to compare given contexts in their current time frame. I have seen articles recently stating that Britain had debts in excess of 200% of GDP after the Napoleonic wars, indeed I have mentioned it myself before, however this didn't count for much when the UK went broke in 1976 with debts as meager as 48% of GDP. In the prior scenario the UK was the global superpower but a much bigger factor was that the UK didn't have a Welfare State. There was little government expenditure, with the majority of taxes just going to pay off the debt as alternative expenses didn't exist. Contrast that with current Government spending in which the interest payments are now comparatively small along with a rainbow of other Governmental expenditure, we see how context is key. Somehow, within the time frame of 150 years, Britain had transformed itself from one of the leaders of laissez faire, into a nation that was almost turning Communist in 1976. An ever expansive state, a declining currency, an economy with little productive purpose, meant investors wouldn't lend the UK any more money, despite the debt being around a quarter the level than that of the early nineteenth century.

Japan recently has around the same debt as the UK did 200 years ago and is still able to pay for it. It's dangerous to compare Britain with Japan, as Britain will not be able to sustain a public debt level that high. Japan built this debt up during a bull market in Government bonds and had savings to pay for it. The UK doesn't have either of those luxuries. It's one of the key concepts that many forecasters and economic commentators overlook, the fact that interest rates can rise over time and enter bear and bull markets. Payments for the interest are already predicted to soar as the debt increases based on the current low rates, but what about if those rates double 10 years from now? The government admits the earliest they can balance the books is around then therefore debt is almost certain to keep going up.

Do not believe predictions regarding long term interest rates and the level of debt a country can absorb, no one can forecast precise figures in these areas. Instead look at the fundamentals. Are the government balancing the books? Has the printing press been shut down? Has liquidation occurred? Until fundamentals return then stagflation looks the most likely outcome here in the UK. Just like Japan, only I fear much worse.


  1. I was in Japan on business in the early 1990s. I recall that I could get 270 yen for a dollar at that time. Then about 4 years ago I visited Japan and found that a dollar could only net me about 100 yen. I understand that now a dollar is worth only 93 or 94 yen. So where's the "flation" in Japan?

  2. Buddy,

    Not sure if you have the correct exchange rate as I know in 1990 it was around 150 Yen to the Dollar, while like you say it is around 93 now. Of course we could talk about the flaws in the US dollar for the reason that the Yen has still managed to appreciate.

    When people think of Stagflation they immediately think that inflation must be double digits based on the governments metrics. The severity of stagflation depends on the strength of an economy and how much trouble the government are in. For example the US and UK had stagflation during the 1970's but while US inflation had a rate of around 10-15% the UK had around 25% at the top. The reason being the UK economy was weaker therefore had what could be perceived as higher inflation (that's why I mention the UK's stagflation will be worse than Japans, its economy is weaker).

    Therefore to just look at the low CPI rate Japan had is misleading and a lot of economists simply look at this and conclude that Japan didn't have stagflation. But what would the rate be if the government didn't intervene? A lot lower as Japan had a very strong economy, ran surpluses, had ample savings. The government was in a bind from this as they didn't really need to inflate as there was no justification, they were never stretched. Of course this may well change going forward and their stagflation will probably intensify, with inflation being more prominent in the governments metrics.

    Unemployment also kept rising during this period. It kept rising for over ten years, peaked around 2002, then they went down the QE route. With a new bout of inflation unemployment came down marginally but with the recent global recession it is back at its highs again. 20 years and it is still historically high unemployment. If a recession runs its course unemployment should start recovering a year or two after the recession and shouldn't linger.

    So hopefully this answers your question. It's important not to get too caught up in the governments CPI/RPI measures. These are always to the downside and can be manipulated. They are also not an accurate measure of inflation (as many of previous posts explain).

  3. The reason being the UK economy was weaker therefore had what could be perceived as higher inflation (that's why I mention the UK's stagflation will be worse than Japans, its economy is weaker).

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  4. Larry Summers recently said that the U.S. is like Japan with the stagflation.