"Boldly They Rode And Well", Or Why Japan Is Not America
Submitted by Daniel Cloud
Boldly They Rode And Well
I believe that Shinzo Abe has made a very serious strategic miscalculation. I used to be confused in much the same way he now seems to be, but I was cured of my confusion by thinking about Chinese inflation.
For a long time, I was puzzled by the fact that America’s endless multi-stage QE program seemed to have no effect on measured inflation, on the CPI and the PPI. But then I realized that by only looking at the United States and their three hundred million-plus people, I was missing the big picture, missing the most important part of its aggregate impact on the Earth’s seven billion inhabitants.
QE may never have much of an effect on the inflation rate in the fifty states of the United States of America, because it is workers in the developing world, and in particular, in China, who are the marginal hires in our still-globalizing, still-offshoring world economy. There is no distinct American economy, now, there is no Chinese economy, there is only the world economy, and the Fed makes policy for large parts of it. China has the kinds of structural rigidities in its labor, goods, information, and asset markets that make inflationary psychology very probable. It already had an ongoing and stubborn problem with inflation before QE started, so the required psychology already existed. And, perhaps most importantly, much of the money the Fed is printing doesn’t actually end up in the United States. It ends up being added to the reserves, and therefore the domestic money supply, of countries like China, who want to keep their currencies pegged, or quasi-pegged, to the dollar.
Why? Simply letting their currency appreciate would do to the Chinese what it did to Japan in the late ‘80’s. But to keep the yuan from appreciating against the dollar as a result of the increased supply of dollars from QE, the government of China must buy all the dollars anyone shows up with, at the pegged exchange rate. To pay for them, China must issue yuan, and pay them out to the holders of those dollars. That makes the supply of yuan in circulation increase by the same amount – as the dollars are added to the country’s reserves, the domestic money supply has a matching increase. The authorities can try to “sterilize” this hot money, by selling treasury bills, but experience has shown that the flows are simply too large and long term for this to be very effective.
Since this means the money supply in China is constantly increasing at what would otherwise be an undesirably rapid rate, the result, as readers of Zero Hedge already know, is a persistent problem with inflation. Inflation is a form of taxation; by printing money, the State funds itself by taking a little bit of wealth away from each holder of the currency. (Or in the case of the dollar, of all the various currencies pegged to it…)
In 2012, according to a recent post on ZH, citing the WSJ, nominal private sector wages in China were up 17.1 percent. This means wages are compounding at a rate much, much higher than GDP growth, and the process shows no signs of stopping. That endless increase feeds through into product prices – not the prices of exported products, since it’s necessary to stay competitive in dollar terms, but the prices of ones sold into the domestic market. The same effect is echoed all through the developing world, in any country that wants to participate in dollar-based world trade, and feels it has to keep its currency in a stable relationship with the dollar to do so without undue disruption. That increase in the cost of the goods and services available to them makes the middle class, and the many people who are still poor in those countries, worse off than they otherwise would have been. (It was rising food prices, tied to Chinese demand, that were the straw that finally broke the camels’ back in Egypt and Syria.) On the other hand, the American policy that ultimately causes it helps the Fed’s main constituency, developed-country banks, and helps developed-country governments keep spending, and allows developed-country political actors to maintain their patronage networks.
QE works, politically, because it is mostly a tax on consumers in the developing world. It keeps the banking system in Europe, and therefore the rest of the world, from collapsing, for the time being, it maintains the existing set of political arrangements, and the costs fall mainly on people who will never have a chance to vote in an OECD election. Ben Bernanke’s great triumph, as an ideologue, is to have come up with a Rawlsian, distributive justice argument in favor of what really amounts to taxing the poor to protect the assets of the rich. (To add insult to injury, in a country like China, where nobody ever gets to vote on anything, it’s taxation without any hint or whisper of representation. Egypt showed us what that can lead to, though as Americans we shouldn’t need reminding.) Given the actual goal, which is to maintain the status quo in world affairs as long as possible, it isn’t clear what other policy could have been chosen, but the justification offered in public is, of necessity, somewhat ironic.
The risk to world markets, at the moment, comes from the fact that the people who run the Fed and Treasury may actually be sincere in offering that justification, that the irony may be unintended. Their somewhat myopic focus on the developed world – which is, after all, where all the relevant political constituencies live – means that they may not actually understand that robbing the poor to pay the rich is what they’ve been doing. All they know, perhaps, is that the policy didn’t cause anyone who mattered to them any pain – so it seems possible that they have perceived it as actually costless, as a free lunch. It’s easy to be incurious about how migrant workers in Wuhan are doing, when the Chinese press can’t really cover their situation, and you never meet or talk to such people yourself. (Somehow they don’t get invited to G7 meetings…)
Certainly, the Japanese don’t seem to have been let in on the joke. We’ve been doing QE for years. It hasn’t had any of the predicted catastrophic effects. We kept obnoxiously pointing this out to everyone, and voicing our exasperation at their failure to emulate us. Eventually the political pressure for adopting such an apparently costless, and riskless, and kind-hearted policy became irresistible, and there was a coup at the Bank of Japan.
The mistake Abe is making, though, is to think the same trick that worked for the US will work for them. The problem, as Shirakawa no doubt realizes, is that the two country’s situations are not at all analogous, because the yen isn’t really a reserve currency in the same way the dollar is. There is no population of natural sovereign buyers who will be forced to print their own currency to mop up excess yen, as there is for the dollar. No sovereign is going to want to dramatically increase the allocations of their country’s reserves to the yen, not when it’s in the middle of being deliberately devalued, or really ever. Russia and China and Saudi Arabia don’t need any more yen, they have plenty. Oil isn’t priced in yen. Japan isn’t the world’s largest economy, or even its second largest. World trade isn’t conducted in yen. The emerging economies will just let it collapse. There is no natural sovereign sink for yen to drain into, as there is for the dollar, no group of buyers of last resort with bottomless pockets and no choice but to buy.
But that means nobody else is going to want to hold yen either. Why own a currency when the issuer publicly plans to make it worth less, and to raise the inflation rate well above the current long-bond yield at the same time? That isn’t a store of value; it’s a live grenade. People in the private sector, wishing to survive, will fling the grenade away. There is nothing to stop them, no natural buyer the other side, because the only player who could possibly defend the yen – the BoJ – is publicly committed, in a politically irrevocable way, to the opposite path. Because of the relative success of QE in the United States, policy-makers will be complacent about the risks.
The mistake Abe is making is to generalize from the experience of the central bank of the world’s primary reserve currency to his own very different situation. Japan can’t tax its allies to support its insolvent State by printing money, because (aside from the US, which is also broke) it has no allies. Any liquidity it squirts at them will simply splash off. What will really happen is, therefore, exactly what you would expect to happen to a country with a convertible currency and a very large national debt which credibly announces that it plans to abruptly double its money supply – there will be a scramble to get out, and the yen will decline, or Japanese bond yields will rise, until one or the other reaches a level that offers some prospect of a positive return. Though of course, there will be overshooting.
That means a much, much lower yen, and/or much higher JGB yields, which would of course be instantly fatal. So, as George Soros has already warned, what we may actually get (unless Abe flinches, and reverses course, which is hard for him to do now he’s actually pulled his sword out, yelled “Banzai!”, and started the cavalry charge) is an uncontrolled devaluation of the yen, to some level that would seem wildly unrealistic to us now, with incalculable risks for the stability of world markets. And it’s all based on a mistake, an incorrect analogy with America’s situation. “Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell…” The nobility of failure may, I suppose, be some consolation, for Abe, personally, at least.
The only really unusual thing about this particular case is the fact that the uncontrolled devaluation has been publicly announced, in advance, in a way that’s extremely credible. That makes it an unprecedented experiment – which could easily turn out to be the recipe for an unprecedented disaster.