Meet the new Inflation era same as the old inflation era….

by Shaun Richards

Yesterday brought news about inflation targeting but before we get to what you might think is the headline act, it has been trumped by Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Before I get to that let me wish him well with his health issues. But he also said this in his resignation speech.

JAPAN PM ABE ON ECONOMIC POLICY: WE HAVE SUCCEEDED IN BOOSTING JOBS, ENDING 20 YEARS OF DEFLATION WITH THREE ARROWS OF ABENOMICS. ( @FinancialJuice)

You might think that this is almost at a comical Ali level of denial at this point. For those unaware this was the Iraqi information minister who denied Amercan soldiers were in Baghdad when well I think you have figured the rest. Even the BBC is providing an opposite view to that of Abe san.

The Japanese economy has shrunk at its fastest rate on record as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The world’s third largest economy saw gross domestic product fall 7.8% in April-June from the previous quarter, or 27.8% on an annualised basis.

Japan was already struggling with low economic growth before the crisis.

The current situation is bad enough but even if we give him a pass on that there is that rather damning last sentence. Let me give you some context on that. You could argue the 0.6% contraction in the Japanese economy was also Covid related but you cannot argue that the 1.8% contraction at the end of last year was. Indeed the quarter before that was 0%.

So Japan had not escaped deflation and in fact the problems at the end of last year were created by an Abenomics arrow missing the target. People forget now but the economic growth that Abenomics was supposedly going to create was badged as a cure for the chronic fiscal problem faced by Japan. In fact the lack of growth and hence revenue was a factor in the Consumption Tax being raised to 10%. Which of course gave growth another knock.

Inflation

Another arrow was supposed to lead to inflation magically rising to 2% per annum. How is that going? From the Statistics Bureau this morning.

 The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in August 2020 (preliminary) was 102.1 (2015=100), up 0.3% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and down 0.4% from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

So it has taken five years and not one to hit 2%. For newer readers that was also the pre pandemic picture in Japan and it has mostly been possible to argue that there is effectively no inflation because the low levels are within any margin for error.

Also as a point of detail there is even more bad news for inflationistas which is that something which they clain cannot happen with zero inflation has. If you look in the detail food prices have risen by 7% and the cost of education has fallen by 7%, so you can have relative price changes. Looking at the national numbers it has been a rough run for fans of Salmon and carrots as prices have risen by more than 50% over the past 5 years.

The US Federal Reserve

The speech by Chair Powell opened with what may turn out to be an unfortunate historical reference.

Forty years ago, the biggest problem our economy faced was high and rising inflation. The Great Inflation demanded a clear focus on restoring the credibility of the FOMC’s commitment to price stability.

It is hard to know where to start with this bit.

Many find it counterintuitive that the Fed would want to push up inflation. After all, low and stable inflation is essential for a well-functioning economy. And we are certainly mindful that higher prices for essential items, such as food, gasoline, and shelter, add to the burdens faced by many families, especially those struggling with lost jobs and incomes.

I will simply point out that I am pleased to see a recognition that what are usually described by central bankers as “non-core” such as food and energy are suddenly essential. Perhaps the threats ( from The Donald) about him losing his job have focused his mind, although he would remain an extremely wealthy man.

He then got himself into quite a mess.

 Our statement emphasizes that our actions to achieve both sides of our dual mandate will be most effective if longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. However, if inflation runs below 2 percent following economic downturns but never moves above 2 percent even when the economy is strong, then, over time, inflation will average less than 2 percent. Households and businesses will come to expect this result, meaning that inflation expectations would tend to move below our inflation goal and pull realized inflation down.

This really does come from the highest of Ivory Towers where the air is thinnest. Many households and businesses will not even know who he and his colleagues are! Let alone plan ahead on the basis of what they might do especially after the flip-flopping of the last couple of years. Even worse the 2% per annum target which was pretty much pulled out of thin air has become a Holy Grail.

This next bit was frankly not a little embarrassing.

In seeking to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time, we are not tying ourselves to a particular mathematical formula that defines the average. Thus, our approach could be viewed as a flexible form of average inflation targeting.

So it is an average but without the average bit?

Canada

This week the Bank of Canada inadvertently highlighted a major problem. It starts with this.

Deputy Governor Lawrence Schembri discusses the difference between how Canadians perceive inflation and the actual measured rate.

You see we are back to you ( and I mean us by this) do not know what you are paying and we ( central bankers know better). Except it all went wrong in a predictable area.

Over the last two decades, the price of houses has risen on average more than twice as fast as the price of housing, at a rate of 6 percent versus 2.5 percent.

There is the issue in a nutshell. Your average Canadian has to shell out an extra 6% each year for a house but according to Lawrence and his calculations it is only 2.5%. Someone should give him a pot of money based on his calculations and tell him to go and buy one.

The Euro area

We looked at variations in the price of Nutella recently well according to The Economist there are other issues.

 Three enormous boxes of Pampers come to €168 ($198) on Amazon’s Spanish website. By contrast, the same order from Amazon’s British website costs only €74. (Even after an exorbitant delivery fee is added, the saving is still €42.)

This happens even inside the Euro area.

The swankiest Nespresso model will set them back €460 on Amazon’s French website, but can be snapped up for €301 on the German version. They could then boast about their canny shopping on Samsung’s newest phone, which varies in price by up to €300 depending on which domain is used.

I point this out because official inflation measurement relies on “substitution” where if the price rises you switch to something similar which is cheaper. But if people do not do this for the same thing inn the real world we are back in our Ivory Towers again.

Comment

Firstly we can award ourselves a small slap on the back as we were expecting this. From the movements in the Gold price ( down) and bond yields (up) far from everybody was. If we note the latter there are two serious problems for Chair Powell. The first is that if there is a body of people on this earth who follow his every word it is bond traders and they were to some extent off the pace. Thus all exposition about expectations above is exposed as this.

Every man has a place, in his heart there’s a space,
And the world can’t erase his fantasies
Take a ride in the sky, on our ship fantasii
All your dreams will come true, right away ( Earth,Wind & Fire )

Next is that if you take the policy at face value bond yields should have risen by far more than the 0.1% the long bond did. They did not rise by the 0.5% to 1% you might expect for two possible reasons.

  1. Nobody expected the Fed to raise interest-rates for years anyway so what is the difference?
  2. If there is a policy change it is mostly likely to be more QE treasury bond purchases which will depress bond yields.

So back to the expectations we see that the Fed is responding to expectations it has created. What could go wrong? Putting it another way it is living a combination of Goodhart’s Law and the Lucas Critique.

I brought in the Japanese experience because it has made an extraordinary effort in monetary policy terms but the economy was shrinking before Covid-19 and there was essentially no inflation.

However the stock market ( Nikkei 225) has nearly trebled since Abenomics was seen as likely. Oh and the Bank of Japan has essentially financed the government borrowing.