Japan responds

As we have noted in our written material several times since the Chinese authorities buckled last August under the weight of enormous domestic capital outflows, when China accounts for approximately 20% of your exports and 25% of your imports you have to respond… and respond the Bank of Japan did. Initially by suggesting the imposition of capital controls in China and now with firm action by a shift to negative interest rates.

The Bank of Japan has set itself the target of 2% inflation – despite QE amounting to 15% of GDP annually that has left them holding 26% of the stock of outstanding Japanese government debt (up from just 7% in early 2013). Japanese core inflation (Inflation excluding food and tax effects) still stands at a meagre 0.1%.

What’s going wrong?

Well, quite simply, that QE doesn’t work in Japan in the way you might argue it works elsewhere.

Here’s the picture:

Firstly, injections of monetary liquidity – through asset purchases – are offset entirely by a decline in the velocity of circulation of money – in short, more money does less, leaving you where you started.


Secondly, the liquidity injected simply ends up in the “current account” at the Bank of Japan – that is to say, banks hold the cash in the form of mountainous reserves at the central bank.

The level of current account deposits at the Bank of Japan stands at a mind-boggling Yen 253 trillion (up 42% y/y) – that is approximately half of GDP.


The Japanese system is incomparably awash with liquidity and one strong product of that has been a sharply weaker yen (the effect on equity prices and subsequent wealth effect on consumption – the transmission channel for QE in the USA – is negligible when Japanese households have just 10% of their assets in equities versus 53% in cash). The channel through which Japanese QE works – and Japanese QE is on a scale that dwarves that in any other country besides China (where state-approved bank balance sheet expansion effectively replicates QE) – is through an explicit policy to drive the yen down and thereby import some inflation whilst giving Japanese exporters a bit of a boost.

However, along come the Chinese in the middle of the largest credit bubble in history and throw a “spanner in the works” with a weaker yuan.

The yen has appreciated approximately 12% against the yuan since last August. That hurts. It hurts a lot and is a substantial headwind for Japanese QE.

The only thing to do, according to the Bank of Japan right now, is make interest rates negative and force that Yen 253 trillion of liquidity out into the economy via bank lending.

Why? Because the appreciation of the yen is pushing inflation the wrong way, if left unchallenged Japan will slip back into core deflation very quickly.

Core inflation responds with about a ten month lag to the exchange rate.


Moreover, the exchange rate impacts the output gap (gap between actual and potential output) and that also drives inflation.

An appreciating exchange rate turns the output gap negative and that pushes down on inflation.


So, easy to see why the Bank of Japan responded. They said it was to encourage banks to lend those reserves, but we know better.

It’s just the first little warning shot in an open currency fight with the Chinese.

With the yuan under severe pressure as a consequence of persistent and ongoing domestic capital flight, and a devaluation of 20%+ extremely likely, it’s just the start. The Bank of Japan will, in due course, be stepping up its bond purchases and pushing rates further into negative territory in a determined – and ultimately successful – effort to drive the yen down sharply.

More fuel to the global deflationary fire.



Deflation and the Fed… what would Greenspan say?

September 24, 2015

For those of us that have been around a while, and can remember, back in May 2003 (in the aftermath of the burst of the greatest equity market bubble since 1929) Alan Greenspan, then Federal Reserve Board Chairman said the following:

  • “We at the Federal Reserve recognize that deflation is a possibility. Even though we perceive the risks as minor, the potential consequences are very substantial and could be quite negative”  (Alan Greenspan, Congressional Testimony, May 2003)

At the time, this came as something of a bombshell, for the Chairman of the Fed even to entertain the possibility of deflation was quite a surprise to markets.

We thought it might be interesting to look at the parallels between today’s US inflation picture and that of the Spring of 2003. The comparison is quite striking.

We looked at 180 individual line items in the total Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the 106 line items that pretty much make up the Core CPI:

  • The chart shows that currently 43% of the individual core inflation items are in annual deflation, that compares to 48% in the Spring of 2003 and 45% in late 2010
  • The annual core inflation rate is currently 1.8% versus 1.5% in 2003
  • We are currently seeing the same breadth of core deflation that we saw at the bottom of the cycles post 2000 and 2009 bear market crashes


We then looked at how annual core inflation for the 106 sub-components had changed over the last 6 and 12 months to see if there was any clear trend:

  • In the Spring of 2003 about 60% of the components had seen year/year inflation decline in the previous 6 and 12 months (a clear downward trend) compared to about 50% today


Interestingly, in 2003 we saw:

  • 48% of core inflation components in deflation and 60% with a clear downward trend

In 2015 we see:

  • 43% in annual deflation and 53% with a clear downward trend

Our thought is then, “What is so different?”

Greenspan was worried about deflation and yet now Janet Yellen appears to be itching to tighten. (Growth was strongly accelerating in 2003/4 and has been stuck at 2.5 – 3.0% in the last year or more, so that can’t be the reason).

Could it be the fabled “tightness of labour markets” argument, the so-called “Phillips curve” fed to generations of economics students purporting to link labour markets to inflation? (Along the way, countless economists seem to have lost sight of the fact that A. W. Phillips’ famous 1958 paper was titled “The Relation between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wage Rates in the United Kingdom, 1861-1957” and said nothing about unemployment and consumer price inflation).

Well, here is the relationship between the US unemployment rate level and US average hourly earnings over the last 50 years:

  • Clearly, even to an untrained eye, there isn’t one. A lower unemployment rate does not push up wage inflation…
  • There is, truly, nothing in the historical data to show that a lower unemployment rate (a “tighter labour market”) implies faster wage inflation (or, for that matter, faster price inflation)
  • Look at it with lags, as changes, whatever way you like, the “tight labour market/higher inflation” thesis cannot be substantiated… another case, to paraphrase our hero Thomas Huxley, of “a beautiful theory and ugly facts colliding”



  • If Greenspan was worried about deflation in 2003, why does Yellen not share the same concern (especially with the Chinese banking system in the state it is in and a Yuan devaluation on the way)? Would Greenspan be considering another round of QE here? We are inclined to think it would be foremost in his mind if he were still Fed Chairman.
  • Tight labour markets/faster inflation concerns just cannot be substantiated by the data; that is no reason to tighten.
  • US consumer inflation is determined exogenously (outside the control of the Fed) by the vast global overhang of global supply. Inflation in assets, inflation in balance sheets and surging debt are endogenous (inside the control of the Fed). They should tighten to address the latter and lay to rest old ghosts of Phillips curves. God forbid we get more QE, the consequences will be even worse when the rebalancing and re-pricing of risk takes place…
  • Because Central bankers are raised to believe that consumer price inflation is the target variable, they completely missed the consequences of inflation in asset prices and balance sheets in the last two cycles (confusing a positive supply shock from Chinese over-investment and low shop inflation with a miraculous surge in underlying productivity growth and hence trend GDP growth) and risk making the same mistake again…



UK inflation… where?

September 15, 2015

Although Annual Core Inflation slipped to 1% in August and Headline Inflation to zero, the devil, as always, remains hidden in the detail…

Look at the diffusion index of UK inflation – It looks at 80 individual sub-components of the UK inflation headline number and looks at what proportion are inflating (and at what rate) versus what proportion are disinflating (and at what rate).

If inflation rises sharply because, let’s argue, just 3 components surge higher while 77 plunge, that is less indicative of an underlying inflation problem than a broad-based/widespread increase in prices. The breadth of inflation/disinflation is as important, if not more so, than the level:

  • 52% of the index components have actually experienced deflation in the last 12 months.


  • 66% of the index components have an annual inflation rate below 1%.


  • 77% of the index components have an inflation rate below 2%.


  • And finally, 70% of the index components have seen annual inflation decline over the last 12 months.


  1. So, UK inflation is exceptionally low. The breadth of low inflation is unprecedented and the overwhelming majority of index components have seen inflation decline in the last 12 months. Nothing particularly concerning here for the Bank of England.
  1. As we have argued many times, UK inflation has “Made in China” stamped on it. In a world of increasingly open markets, where trade grows faster than production, where investment in fixed capital as a proportion of Global GDP is at the highest level in 30 years and where the world’s largest exporter, China, is still growing its manufacturing fixed capital stock at a rate almost 6% points faster annually than demand growth in the developed world, you get disinflation. In addition, with inevitable Chinese devaluation you get deflation. In this world, UK companies are price-takers and not price-setters. The price-setter is the marginal supplier of capacity and that is unquestionably China… whose main export will soon be deflation. Any company trying to fight that tide to be a price-setter will lose market share, profitability, employment and its business.
  1. UK real economy inflation, as measured by the CPI and RPI, really is out of the control of the Bank of England. The Bank should raise interest rates to reign in monetary sector runaway inflation (houses and financial assets) to arrest the dire consequences of QE sooner rather than later. If a price has to be paid, it is better paid today than tomorrow. The same is true for the Fed in the United States. The longer the delay, the worse the consequences.



UK inflation… widespread disinflation

August 18, 2015

While people generally focus on the headline number, the more useful information, as always, is contained in the detail of the index. We look at the 80 main sub-components of the index to see if there is any uniformity in the trend for inflation seen at the headline level. Any reversal in trend will be evident at the sub-index level first:

  • Of the 80 components, 50% have deflation over the last 12 months, looking back over the last decade (and more) that is an extraordinary degree of price deflation.


  • Of the 80 components, 65% have inflation below 1% over the last 12 months and 78% have inflation below the 2% level in the last 12 months.



  • Most importantly, 70% of the sub components in the UK inflation index have seen their rate of inflation decline in the last 12 months.

There is simply no sign, at this point, of any latent inflationary pressure. Indeed, the Chinese devaluation (the beginning of a trend), persistent global oversupply (compounded by ongoing over investment in China and the Emerging Markets) and the weak global growth environment all suggest disinflation and deflation are the greatest risk.


There is little evidence here for the Bank of England to justify a rise in interest rates. However, there is more justification elsewhere should the Bank be keen to press ahead:

  1. The private sector in the UK is running a financial deficit of 1.5% of GDP (i.e. its Gross Investment > its Gross Savings) meaning that the private sector, like the public sector, is accumulating net liabilities. This is the first time we have seen this in the private sector since 2002. The economy is accumulating debt at a rapid pace.
  1. The average house price/income ratio now stands at 5.3x and is at 6.5x in the Southeast and a record 7.8x in London. In fact, of the 9 UK regions, all have a price/income ratio above 4 (and 44% above 5).
  1. The UK is running a record current account deficit of 6.2% of GDP (this is not a consequence of a peculiarly British ability to hold very low yielding foreign assets, as some have suggested). With only modest Fiscal Tightening in recent years and the private sector going into deficit, the UK has provided the deficit that, from an accounting position, is the counterpart to the improved deficits/surpluses now being run in many of its trading partners. The final chart shows the change (as a % of GDP) in the UK Current Account since mid-2009 compared with that of the major blocs/countries around the world:

Both China and Japan have seen their surpluses decline sharply as the global economy has corrected. The UK has seen its deficit widen sharply as the Eurozone and US have improved their external positions materially.

You could say the UK, and the UK consumer, has helped hold the world up in this difficult period.


All told, overvalued housing markets/large current account deficits (private and government sector deficits) have been a warning sign in many a crisis around the world and especially in the UK. The Bank of England will find more justification here than in the inflation data.

Do you tighten to have an impact on something you can influence i.e. domestic credit conditions or tighten to have an impact on something you cannot influence i.e. the massive overhang of global productive capacity and easier Chinese monetary conditions?



The IMF, Japan and the failure of Abenomics

July 31, 2015

The IMF, after playing a major role in the complete collapse of Greek activity and the exploding Greek debt burden with its insistence that fiscal austerity solves every problem from Ghana to Greece, has now turned its attention back to Japan.

“The Bank of Japan needs to stand ready to ease further, provide stronger guidance to markets through enhanced communication, and put greater emphasis on achieving the 2 percent inflation target in a stable manner”  – IMF 2015 Article IV consultation with Japan

The failure of “Abenomics” to deliver a steady and sustained 2% plus inflation rate can easily be explained by the chart below. It shows the Output Gap i.e. the gap between actual output and potential output in the economy and the inflation rate. The recent spike in inflation was a one-off impact from tax increases that is fading away. Inflation has now slipped back to where it should be.


Japanese inflation is highly correlated with the economic cycle; when activity accelerates and the Output Gap closes we see inflation follow (and vice versa).

So, what is needed to get inflation sustainably higher in Japan is sustainably higher economic growth that removes the Output Gap and turns it positive i.e. gets the economy running above its potential.

The answer from the IMF/Bank of Japan to that challenge? Quantitative Easing (QE), of course… lots of it.

  • The Bank of Japan now owns 22% of outstanding Japanese government debt versus just 7% two years ago.
  • The Bank of Japan’s balance sheet is now 60% of GDP, almost double the size two years ago.

The chart below shows the growth in Bank of Japan Assets (QE purchases of assets) dwarfing the net issuance of equity in the Non-Financial Corporates sector and net issuance of government debt. An increase in QE and Bank of Japan asset purchases would give a further significant boost to asset price inflation (stay long Japanese equities), but we very much doubt it will boost activity and shrink their Output Gap.



Well, take a look at the assets of Households and Liabilities of the corporate sector:

  1. Japanese Households hold very little of their assets in equities and bonds and so the economy gets very little benefit from any wealth effect arising from an increase in the value of these securities. They own lots and lots of cash primarily.


  1. Japanese Non-Financial Corporates have less than half their financial liabilities in equity, with almost 30% in loans and bonds where yields are near the zero level already.



  • Expect the Bank of Japan to expand QE further (from 80 trillion yen, 16% of GDP a year at present) – keep pushing that string until it budges…
  • More QE = more local asset inflation = weaker Yen (until such time as the US market heads south, at least).



Eurozone QE: Mind the output gap

  • Eurozone output gap is highly correlated with core inflation
  • Slowing money circulation means QE is “pushing on a string”
  • Eurozone consumers unlikely to benefit from wealth effect

26 January 2014, London. Paul Marson, Chief Investment Officer at MONOGRAM Investment, comments on the correlation between the output gap and Eurozone core inflation, and how the benefits of QE will be offset by slowing money circulation:

How effective will the new Eurozone QE be? Eurozone core inflation [the ECB has no control over food and energy prices] is highly correlated with the output gap [gap between actual GDP and potential GDP]. Therefore, to increase inflation (and avoid deflation), you have to increase GDP growth and close the output gap.

Graph 1: Eurozone Output Gap v Eurozone Core inflation

26.1.2015 Eurozone QE Graph 1

However, QE is unlikely to close the output gap because for every 1% increase in the Money Supply from the ECB, there is an approximate 1% decline in the velocity of circulation of that money.  Put simply, Eurozone QE puts more money into the system but it circulates more slowly.  The net effect is that nothing changes. It really is pushing on a piece of string. 

Graph 2: Correlation between % change in Eurozone monetary base and % change in monetary base velocity

26.1.2015 Eurozone QE Graph 2

So the real hope of QE seems to be that an increased monetary base will lead to higher asset prices (especially in equities), and people will feel wealthier and spend more.  The trouble is, consumers in Japan and Eurozone have low holdings of equities (unlike the US and UK) and hence are unlikely to benefit from a wealth effect.

Euro QE finally launches but likely to be “Damp Squib”

  • QE in UK and US have failed to stoke consumer demand inflation
  • China continues to export deflation into the Eurozone
  • QE not likely to translate to increased private sector loans

London, 22 January 2015. In response to the European Central Bank’s (ECB) announcement of quantitative easing today, Paul Marson, Chief Investment Officer of MONOGRAM, argues the programme is unlikely to work:

The question is why the biggest private sector credit boom in history – prior to the financial crisis – did not generate consumer price inflation: at the start of the crisis, core inflation was just 2% in Europe and the US. The answer to this is crucial, and explains why quantitative easing in the US/UK has raised asset prices – but not consumer inflation – and why euro QE is likely to be unsuccessful in achieving the ECB’s inflation objective.

Graph 1: UK core inflation and five year annualised inflation following QE

26.1.2015 Damp Squib Graph 1

“That underlying core inflation rates in the US and UK are lower today than when QE started is due to tide of disinflation originating from China. Chinese manufacturing goods supply is growing much faster than Western and Chinese demand for manufactured goods. This means a glut of supply which increasingly pushes down manufactured goods prices. Since China accounts for 17.1% of the total increase in world merchandise export (excluding the Eurozone) from 2002-2012, it is increasingly exporting deflation. Inflation is low, and getting lower, because the world is awash with supply – a “positive supply shock” is more powerful than the modest “positive demand shock” coming from QE.

Graph 2: Chinese manufacturing sector supply/Western demand mismatch

26.1.2015 Damp Squib Graph 2

“The problem confronting the ECB is that peripheral banks have substantially increased their holdings of [non-productive] government debt and substantially reduced (productive) loans to the private sector, amidst ongoing balance sheet shrinkage: the ECB hopes to take those bond holdings down and encourage private lending, a policy that is unlikely to have meaningful effects from exceptionally low current bond yield levels. It is more likely that bonds will replace the bonds they sold with more government bonds!”

Graph 3: Change in PIIGS MFI Assets from 2008

26.1.2015 Damp Squib Graph 3