Friday, 31 May 2013

Abenomics on the ragged edge

Economist around the world watch Japan with baited breath, there is much at stake for the both sides of the argument, The Keynesian wing have their fingers tightly crossed hoping that Abenomics will finally  be the solution to kick starting the world third largest economy, that has been moribund for years. Others on the monetarist wing believe that it will end in tears, and it looks like the markets are voting in favour of the monetarist.
Abenomics is in fact a sort of con-trick, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) is trying to break a deflationary cycle but massive doses of Quantitative Easing (QE) alongside a huge increase in government spending on capital projects.  It is hoped that these two levers will prize economic growth out of an economy that has been going sideways for 20 years.   What everyone knows, is that the moment inflation resurfaces and growth returns, the BoJ will return to a more prudent approach.  This highly transparent strategy has now turned into a game of cat and mouse between the BoJ and the markets.  This week bond yields rose (higher interest rates expected), stock prices fell and the yen rose a little against the dollar last week.  Paul Krugman argues that higher bond yields, a weaker stock market and a stronger exchange rate are all in response to a tighter monetary policy than the one now promised (a broken promise).  The markets don’t believe the Haruhiko Kuroda the new governor at the BoJ is going to be as mad as he says he will be!  The big questions are:

1. Will the markets believe that the policy to risk all for 2% inflation is real or just a short term con-trick 
2. Will interest rates remain lower enough to see this policy through
3. Will the fourth arrow of increase sales taxes to fund the capital spend programme actually be delivered

It’s difficult to believe that the BoJ will be utterly reckless for much longer, everyone knows that Mr Kuroda is trying a form of blind man’s bluff.  The markets will take a medium term view so this promise ‘to be reckless for a little while’ doesn’t cut much ice.  
A further difficulty is that the whole plan depends on low interest rates, to force down the value of the Yen (supporting export growth) and to drive up consumer spending in Japan.  But low interest rates are going to be dependent on the level and expectation of government debt, which already unsustainably high.  If interest rates rise then the need slash capital spending would create a very swift about turn in policy and this is what the markets believe will happen – this could become one-way bet.  
In addition to the interest rate time bomb another problem is that Abenomics has weaken the Japanese banking sector, which is now sitting on Y821tn ($8tn) of government bonds (the result of government debt and QE) and the bottom is falling out of this market.  This is making it very difficult for the Banks to lend money to new and growing businesses.   
The net result of all of this is that Shinzo Abe is on a tightrope above a shark infested river.  He needs to tread a fine line between a credible reflationary policy and need for low interest rates to manage the crippling public debt.  He might just totter across the ravine and receive a hero’s welcome but my money is on him ending up in the torrent with the short sellers enjoying a tasty lunch. 

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