Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.
This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.
The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.
So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?
The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)
Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD
- Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
- Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
- What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
- Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
- How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
It is rising inflation that typically causes problems for countries, whether it is demand-pull or cost-push. However, one country that has not been subject to problems of rising prices is Japan. Instead, this economy has been suffering from the gloom of deflation for many years and many argue that this is worse than high inflation.
Falling prices are popular among consumers. If you see a product whose price has fallen from one day to the next, you can use your income to buy more goods. What’s the problem with this? The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. When the prices of goods begin to fall over and over again, people start to form expectations about the future direction of prices. If I expect the price of a good to fall next week, then why would I buy now, if I can buy the same good next week at a lower price? But, when next week arrives and the price has fallen as expected, why would I purchase the product, if I think that the price fall is set to continue? The problem of deflation is that with continuously falling prices, consumers stop spending. Aggregate demand therefore declines and economic growth all but disappears. This is the problem that the Japanese economy has been faced with for more than 20 years.
However, the latest data from Japan shows core consumer prices growing faster than expected in December 2013, compared to the previous year. This figure was above market forecasts and was the fastest rate of growth in the past 5 years. These data, together with those on unemployment have given the economy a much needed boost.
Recent government policy has been focused on boosts in government spending, with an aim of reducing the value of the currency (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Such policies will directly target aggregate demand and this in turn should help to generate an increase in national output and push up prices. If the price trend does begin to reverse, consumers will start to spend and again aggregate demand will be stimulated.
The future of the economy remains uncertain, though the same can be said of many Western economies. However, the signs are good for Japan and if the recovery of other economies continues and gathers pace, Japan’s export market will be a big contributor to recovery. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.
Japan inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years BBC News (31/1/14)
Benchmark Japan inflation rate hits 1.3% Financial Times, Jonathan Soble (31/1/14)
Japan’s inflation accelerates as Abe seeks wage gains Bloomberg, Chikako Mogi, Masahiro Hidaka and James Mayger (31/1/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
Why Abenomics holds lessons for the West BBC News, Linda Yueh (18/12/13)
- Why is deflation a problem?
- Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
- How will a lower currency help Japan?
- What is the likely effect of a sales tax being imposed?
- Does the fact that unemployment has declined support the fact that consumer prices are beginning to rise?
- What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?
- How important are expectations in creating the problem of deflation?
The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe, which took office on 26 December 2012, has been pursuing a policy of weakening the yen. Using a combination of low interest rates, quantitative easing, expansionary fiscal policy and a declared aim of depreciation, the government has succeeded in driving down the value of the yen.
Since mid-November last year, the yen has depreciated by 28% against the dollar, 30% against the euro and 21% against sterling. The effective exchange rate index has fallen by 22% (see first diagram below: click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram).
But will this depreciation succeed in stimulating the Japanese economy and will it improve the balance of trade? The hope is that the falling yen will boost export sales by making them cheaper abroad, and will reduce the demand for imports by making them more expensive in Japan. The balance of trade will thereby improve and higher exports (an injection) and lower imports (a withdrawal) will stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth.
Traditionally Japan has run balance of trade surpluses, but since July 2012, it has been running monthly deficits – the longest run of deficits since 1980. But depreciation cannot be expected to turn this position around immediately. Indeed, theory suggests that the balance of trade is likely to deteriorate before it improves. This is known as the J-curve effect and is illustrated in the second diagram below. As page 768 of Economics, 8th edition states:
At first a devaluation or depreciation might make a current account deficit worse: the J-curve effect. The price elasticities of demand for imports and exports may be low in the short run (see Case Study 25.1 in MyEconLab). Directly after devaluation or depreciation, few extra exports may be sold, and more will have to be paid for imports that do not have immediate substitutes. There is thus an initial deterioration in the balance of trade before it eventually improves. In Figure 25.12 [the second diagram], devaluation takes place at time t1. As you can see, the diagram has a J shape.
Evidence suggests that the first part of the ‘J’ has been experienced in Japan: Japan’s balance of trade has deteriorated. But there is debate over whether the balance of trade will now start to improve. As the article by James Saft states:
But a look at the actual data shows Japanese companies, like British ones during a similar bout of currency weakness in 2008, appear to be more eager to use a newly competitive currency to pad profits through higher margins rather than higher export volumes. Thus far, Japanese exporters appear to be doing just that. Despite yen falls the price of Japanese exports in local currency has barely budged.
“Japanese companies have not actually cut the foreign currency prices of their exports. Just as with the UK exporters, the Japanese have chosen to hold foreign prices constant, maintain market share, and increase the yen value and thus the yen profit associated with yen depreciation,” UBS economist Paul Donovan writes in a note to clients.
The extra profits earned by Japanese companies from export sales may be stockpiled or paid out in dividends rather than reinvested. And what investment does take place may be abroad rather than in Japan. The net effect may be very little stimulus to the Japanese economy.
As stated by Saft above, the UK had a similar experience in the period 2007–9, when sterling depreciated some 27% (see the second diagram). The balance of trade improved very little and UK companies generally priced goods to markets abroad rather than cutting overseas prices.
But times were different then. The world was plunging into recession. Now global markets are mildly growing or static. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the upward slope of the J-curve in Japan may be pretty flat.
Weak yen a boon for investors, not Japan Reuters, James Saft (14/5/13)
Japan’s Trade Data Suggest Even Lower Yen Needed Wall Street Journal, Nick Hastings (22/5/13)
2 Misunderstandings About Japanese Trade Seeking Alpha, Marc Chandler (22/5/13)
Japanese trade deficit widens Financial Times, Ben McLannahan (22/5/13)
BIS effective exchange rate indices Bank for International Settlements
Japan’s balance of trade Trading Economics
UK Trade, March 2013 ONS
- Explain the J-curve effect.
- Why is there some doubt about whether the Japanese balance of trade will improve significantly?
- What will be the consequences for Japanese growth?
- If foreign currency prices of Japanese exports do not change, what will determine the amount that Japan exports?
- What other measures is the Japanese government taking to stimulate the economy? What will determine the size of the multiplier effects of these measures?
- Using data from the ONS plot the UK’s quarterly balance of trade figures from 2007 to the present day. Explain the pattern that emerges.
Japan’s general election on 16 December was won by the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe. It gained a two-thirds majority in the lower house. It returns to power after losing to the Democratic Party in 2009. Previously it had been in office for most of the time since 1955.
The LDP has promised to revive the flagging Japanese economy, which has been suffering from years of little or no growth and returned to recession last quarter. Economic confidence has been damaged by a dispute with China about the sovereignty over some small islands in the East China Sea. The economy, whose exports make up some 13% of GDP, has suffered from the global slowdown and a high yen. The yen has appreciated against the dollar by around 40% since 2007.
The economy has also suffered from the shutdown of all its nuclear reactors following the earthquake and tsunami last year. Nuclear power accounted for over 30% of the country’s electricity generation.
Mr Abe promises to revive the economy through fiscal and monetary policies. He plans a fiscal stimulus package in early 2013, with increased government expenditure on infrastructure and other public-works. He also wants the Bank of Japan to increase its inflation target from 1% to 3% and to achieve this through various forms of monetary easing.
The initial reactions of markets to the election result were favourable. The stock market rose and the yen fell.
However, as the following articles discuss, there are dangers associated with Mr Abe’s policies. The expansionary fiscal policy will lead to a rise in the country’s general-government debt, which, at some 240% of GDP, is by far the largest in the developed world. This could lead to a loss of confidence in Japanese debt and a fall in the price of bonds on the secondary markets and a rise in government borrowing costs. Also, a depreciation of the yen, while welcomed by exporters, would increase the price of imports, including food and raw materials.
Changing of guard in Japan as PM concedes vote CNN, Yoko Wakatsuki, Brian Walker, and Hilary Whiteman (17/12/12)
LDP Win Clears Pipes for Japan Fiscal Spigot Bloomberg Businessweek, Toru Fujioka (17/12/12)
Economic implications of Japan’s election Huffington Post (16/12/12)
Japan economy contracts again Taipei Times (11/12/12)
Japan elections: Shares rise and yen weakens on Abe win BBC News (17/12/12)
Shinzo Abe’s challenges in reviving Japan’s economy BBC News, Puneet Pal Singh (17/12/12)
Can Shinzo Abe Save Japan? Slate, Matthew Yglesias (30/11/12)
Deflation only natural when politicians refuse to fix oversupplied Japan Japan Times, Teruhiko Mano (17/12/12)
New Year messages from Japan BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (18/12/12)
Japan – Muddling On Or Growing Stronger? Seeking Alpha, Anthony Harrington (12/12/12)
Japanese government unveils £138bn stimulus package The Guardian (11/1/13)
- Using macroeconomic data from sources such as sites 6, 7 and 9 in the Economics Network’s Economic Data freely available online, describe Japan’s macroeconomic situation over the past 10 years.
- Why has the Japanese yen appreciated so much in recent years?
- What forms could monetary easing take in Japan?
- Why might it prove difficult to stimulate the Japanese economy through fiscal and monetary policies?
- What undesirable side-effects might result from expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
- What structural weaknesses are there in the Japanese economy that have hindered economic growth? What policies might the new Japanese government pursue in tackling these structural weaknesses?
For the past three years the Japanese yen has been appreciating against the US dollar and many other currencies. From the end of June 2007 to 14 September 2010, the yen appreciated from ¥100 = $0.81 to ¥100 = $1.20 (a 48% appreciation). Over the same period the yen exchange rate index rose from 113.3 to 172.4 (a 52% appreciation). The rising yen has been impeding Japan’s recovery as it has made its exports more expensive, while, at the same time, making imports cheaper and thus making it harder for domestic firms to compete.
Until 14 September 2010, the yen was freely floating. But on 15 September, the Japanese central bank decided to intervene by selling yen and buying dollars and other currencies.
But why had the yen risen so strongly? There are four main reasons.
The first is the persistent Japanese trade surpluses, partly stimulated by falling costs of production in Japan.
The second is the unwinding of the carry trade. Before the banking crisis of 2007/8, many banks and other financial institutions borrowed yen, given the low interest rates in Japan, and used the yen to purchase dollars and pounds, given the much higher interest rates in the USA and the UK. The effect of this ‘carry trade’, as it was known, was to drive up the exchange rates of the dollar and sterling and drive down the value of the yen. This encouraged further speculation as people sold yen in anticipation of further depreciation and purchased dollars and sterling in anticipation of further appreciation. With the banking crisis, however, short-term financial flows decreased and the current account became more important in determining exchange rates. The carry trade began to unwind and people began selling dollars and sterling and buying yen. What is more, towards the end of 2008, interest rates were reduced substantially in the USA and the UK in order to stimulate aggregate demand. The interest rate differential between Japan and the USA and UK virtually disappeared. This further encouraged the purchase of yen and the sale of dollars and sterling as carry trade investors began paying back their loans to Japan.The third reason for the appreciation of the yen is the actions of the Chinese who have used their surpluses to buy other currencies: originally mainly dollars, but increasingly yen.
The fourth reason is speculation. As the yen has risen, so increasingly people have bought yen in anticipation of further appreciation. But, of course, this speculation has brought about the very effect the speculators anticipated. Such speculation can be very powerful, given that some $4 trillion goes across the foreign exchange markets every day (see The inexorable growth of FOREX).
So will the intervention by the Bank of Japan be successful in causing the yen to depreciate? Or will the forces that drove up the yen prove impossible to resist? The following articles consider this question and also look at the factors that caused the yen to appreciate and its effects on the Japanese economy.
Japan’s $21b move to weaken yen may be futile Sydney Morning Herald (16/9/10)
Japan acts to weaken surging yen Guardian, Larry Elliott and Graeme Wearden (15/9/10)
Q+A: How is Japan judging success in yen intervention? Reuters, Hideyuki Sano and Charlotte Cooper (17/9/10)
Tokyo action puts brake on yen Financial Times, Peter Garnham (17/9/10)
It’s hard to keep a strong yen down CTV, Canada, Brian Milner (16/9/10)
Firm stance on yen stressed / Govt, BOJ strike decisive pose, but drastic action still required Daily Yomiuri, Japan, Tadashi Isozumi and Yomiuri Shimbun (16/9/10)
Bernanke Shadow of Easing Limits BOJ Success With Yen Weakness Bloomberg, Ron Harui and Joshua Zumbrun (17/9/10)
The Bank Of Japan Is Spitting In The Wind Wall Street Journal blogs: The Source, Nicholas Hastings (16/9/10)
Japan intervenes in markets to combat rising yen BBC News, Mariko Oi (15/9/10)
Q&A: What’s moving the Japanese yen? BBC News (15/9/10)
Currency intervention’s mixed record of success BBC News, Russell Hotten (16/9/10)
Yen intervention: Because I Kan The Economist (16/9/10)
Beggar, then sneakily enrich, thy neighbour The Economist (15/9/10)
The yen and gold The Economist, Buttonwood (15/9/10)
Dollar/yen exchange rate X-rates.com
Statistical Interactive Database – interest and exchange rates data Bank of England
Currencies BBC News
Currency converter Yahoo Finance
- Why has the Japanese yen appreciated so much over the past three years?
- What will be the effect of the Bank of Japan’s exchange market intervention on Japanese money supply? What will determine the size of this effect?
- Why might the Bank of Japan’s actions have been influenced by the anticipation of further quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve Bank?
- What factors determine the likely success of foreign exchange market intervention by central banks?
- What will determine how speculators will react to the Bank of Japan’s actions?
- Discuss the following quote from the second The Economist article above: “A bit of inflation in Japan wouldn’t just be a good thing. It would be a really, really great thing. And if other countries react to Japan’s intervention by attempting to print and sell their own currencies in order to toss the deflationary potato to someone else, well then so much the better.”
- If all countries seek to achieve export-led growth, is this a zero-sum game?
- Why has the price of gold been rising?