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Japan Embraced Debt As a Way Out of Its Budget Crisis. It’s Not Working.

The sudden resignation of Japans Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led to evaluations of his so-called Abenomics. Many have praised Abe’s aggressive monetary policy because the long shopping list of the Bank of Japan (government bonds, corporate bonds, ETFs and real estate investment trusts) has inflated stock and real estate prices (Shirai 2020Financial Times 2020). Concerns remain on the fiscal side since Abe’s consumption tax hikes from 5 percent to 8 percent in 2014 and to 10 percent in 2019 are widely seen as a failure (The Economist 2020). Indeed, Abe resolved Japan’s deep-seated fiscal problems only superficially.

Figure 1: Tax Revenues of Japan’s Central Government


Source: Ministry of Finance, Japan.

The core of the problem is cheap money issued by the Bank of Japan, which had caused a stock and real estate bubble in the second half of the 1980s. While the bubble had inflated tax revenues, its bursting was followed by an unprecedented economic slump during which the corporate and income tax revenues collapsed from 43 trillion yen (approx. 390 billion dollars) in 1990 to 23 trillion yen (approx. 185 billion dollars) in 2012 (Figure 1), when Abe took office.

Figure 2: Social Security Expenditure and Local Allocation Tax as Share of Total Tax Revenues


Source: Ministry of Finance, Japan. Central Government.

At the same time Japan’s aging population ballooned the government contributions to the public pension and health insurance system, from 12 trillion yen (approx. 110 billion dollars) in 1990 to 36 trillion yen (approx. 327 billion dollars) in 2019. In addition, the so-called local allocation tax grants of around 16 trillion yen per year (approx. 145 billion dollars) to the economically exhausted Japanese periphery continued to constitute a heavy burden for the central government. In the wake of the global financial crisis, both together had increased far beyond the central governments’ tax revenues (Figure 2).

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The Lessons From Japan’s Monetary Experiment

The Lessons From Japan’s Monetary Experiment

A recent article in the Financial Times, “Abenomics provides a lesson for the rich world“, mentioned that the experiment started by prime minister Shinzo Abe in the early 2010s should serve as an important warning for rich countries. Unfortunately, the article’s “lessons” were rather disappointing. These were mainly that the central bank can do a lot more than the ECB and the Fed are doing, and that Japan is not doing so badly. I disagree.

The failure of Abenomics has been phenomenal. The balance sheet of the central bank of Japan has ballooned to more than 100% of the country’s GDP, the central bank owns almost 70% of the country’s ETFs and is one of the top 10 shareholders in the majority of the largest companies of the Nikkei index. Government debt to GDP has swelled to 236%, and despite the record-low cost of debt, the government spends almost 22% of the budget on interest expenses. All of this to achieve what?

None of the results that were expected from the massive monetary experiment, inventively called QQE (quantitative and qualitative easing) have been achieved, even remotely. Growth is expected to be one of the weakest in the world in 2020, according to the IMF, and the country has consistently missed both its inflation and economic growth targets, while the balance sheet of the central banks and the country’s debt soared.

Real wages have been stagnant for years, and economic activity continues to be as poor as it was in the previous two decades of constant stimulus.

The main lessons that global economies should learn from Japan are the following:

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Japan Gives Up On Inflation, Now Wants Deflation (Sort Of) to Offset Tax Hikes

Today seems straight from the Twilight Zone: First the PPT and now Abenomics in full reverse.

Japan has virtually given up on reaching 2% inflation after nearly six years of trying. An argument gaining ground in Tokyo holds that the inflation goal, once seen as paramount, doesn’t matter so much after all. Inflation excluding volatile fresh food and energy prices was just 0.3% in November, and it has barely budged all year.

Mr. Abe has largely stopped discussing the dangers of deflation, and his government is actually trying to push some prices down ahead of a tax increase set to take effect in October 2019. Mr. Abe’s de facto No. 2, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has called on mobile-phone carriers to lower fees by about 40%—a move that could knock a full percentage point off inflation, according to government estimates.

“There is no change to our stance of seeking the 2% price goal as soon as possible by patiently continuing powerful easing,” Mr. Kuroda said at a November press conference. At the same time, he has started talking more about the potential downsides of aggressive monetary easing,

Still, BOJ officials are hesitant to abandon the target altogether out of fear it could damage expectations and push the country back into deflation, said people familiar with the BOJ’s thinking.

Raising Prices

Torikizoku (Chicken Nobility), raised prices for the first time in 30 years last year, by the equivalent of 16 cents.

“Once prices went up, it wasn’t just the chickens that got skewered. Same-store sales at the chain have fallen more than 5% every month since May and profit fell 76% compared with a year earlier in the most recent quarter.”

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Will Japan Be the First to Test the Limits of Quantitative Easing?

The Japanese stock market peaked in December 1989, marking the end of a period of economic expansion which briefly saw Japan eclipse the USA to become the world’s largest economy. Since its zenith, Japan has struggled. I wrote about this topic, in relation to the economic reform package dubbed Abenomics, in my first Macro Letter – Japan: the coming rise back in December 2013:-

As the US withdrew from Japan the political landscape became dominated by the LDP who were elected in 1955 and remained in power until 1993; they remain the incumbent and most powerful party in the Diet to this day. Under the LDP a virtuous triangle emerged between the Kieretsu (big business) the bureaucracy and the LDP. Brian Reading (Lombard Street Research) wrote an excellent, and impeccably timed, book entitled Japan: The Coming Collapse in 1989. By this time the virtuous triangle had become, what he coined the “Iron Triangle”.

Nearly twenty five years after the publication of Brian’s book, the” Iron Triangle” is weaker but alas unbroken. However, the election of Shinzo Abe, with his plan for competitive devaluation, fiscal stimulus and structural reform has given the electorate hope. 

In the last two years Abenomics has delivered some transitory benefits but, as this Japan Forum on International Relations – No. 101: Has Abenomics Lost Its Initial Objective?describes, it may have lost its way:-

The key objective of Abenomics is a departure from 20 year deflation. For this purpose, the Bank of Japan supplied a huge amount of base money to cause inflation, and carried out quantitative and qualitative monetary easing so that consumers and businesses have inflationary mindsets. 

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Turning Stones Into Bread – The Japanese Miracle

Our friend Ramsey Su just asked what Haruhiko Kuroda and Shinzo Abe are going to do now in light of the strong yen (aside from perhaps doing the honorable thing). Isn’t it time to just “wipe out some debt with the stroke of a pen”?

Samuarai FutonThe modern Samurai futon!

We will return to that question further below, but first a few words on the new Samurai futon. Apparently the Japanese are becoming more than a little antsy about Kuroda-san’s negative interest rate policy (and the threats of more of the same coming down the pike). Bloomberg informs us of the latest developments in this saga: “Manga Worker Stuffs Cash in Futon to Flee Japan’s Negative Rates”:

When the Bank of Japan unexpectedly announced negative interest-rate policies in January, the first thing Tomomi Sato did was withdraw a 10th of the money in her bank account and stash it at home.

“It made me think of bank runs and shutdowns like I’ve heard there were in the past,” said the 30-something assistant to manga comic artists, who commutes for two hours from a small apartment in Tokyo’s suburbs. “Eventually, I feel like they’ll start charging me to keep my money there. When I think about that, I begin to worry.”

Sato is emblematic of a challenge facing the central bank that rates below zero only deepened: average Japanese aren’t feeling the benefits of more than three years of extraordinary monetary stimulus, and cash withdrawals suggest they are losing faith. About 40 trillion yen ($360 billion) has piled up in homes across Japan, according to a Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimate — equivalent to about 8 percent of gross domestic product. That’s money banks could be lending on or using to buy bonds. 

(emphasis added)


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Failure of Abenomics

Abe Prime Minister Shinzo

Abenomics (アベノミクス Abenomikusu ?) in Japan are the economic policies advocated by Shinzō Abe since the December 2012 general election, which elected Abe to his second term as Prime Minister of Japan. Abenomics is based upon “three arrows” of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. This has been a complete failure as the economy continue to implode. The Bank of Japan hinted possible proposals to take rates even further negative and the likelihood banks passing these levels on to the general public.

IBJYVJ-Y 4-23-2016

The dollar rallied against the yen right on target for 43 months (8.6 / 2), and has declined about 8.6 months from the high in June of 2015. It appears to be on target and the latest suggestion of further negative rates being passed on by the banks will most likely cause a flight from the yen besides admitting Abenomics has failed. This has also contributed to the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising and holding last year’s low distinct from the S&P500 and NASDAQ.

Krugman Goes To Japan, Scolds Abe For Worrying About Quadrillion Yen Debt Pile, Leaves

Krugman Goes To Japan, Scolds Abe For Worrying About Quadrillion Yen Debt Pile, Leaves 

Much like BoJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda, Paul Krugman thinks that the key for Japan when it comes to overcoming decades of deflation is a positive outlook.

“Japan needs to reach a point where everyone believes that it has pulled out of deflation. And then if that can be believed, then it may be able to stay out of trouble thereafter,” he told an audience in Tokyo last September.

That rather ridiculous pronouncement is reminiscent of something Kuroda said last summer: “I trust that many of you are familiar with the story of Peter Pan, in which it says, ‘the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.’ Yes, what we need is a positive attitude and conviction.”

In other words, Krugman and Kuroda believe that Japan can wish its way out of deflation. Krugman’s comments in Tokyo came around 10 months after he visited Japan in 2014. On that trip, he’s said to have helped convince PM Shinzo Abe to delay a planned sales tax hike. “That nailed Abe’s decision — Krugman was Krugman, he was so powerful,” Japanese economist Etsuro Honda said, recounting a meeting between the economist and the premier.

Well, 16 months has passed since that fateful visit and virtually nothing has changed in Japan. In fact, the Japanese have since taken a further plunge down the Keynesian rabbit hole by taking interest rates negative and not only is inflation still languishing at essentially zero, stocks are some 20% off their highs and this month the yen actually hit its highest levels since Kuroda announced the second round of QE two Octobers ago.

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Playing Around With Prices Is a Bad Idea

Call me old fashioned, but I still think prices matter. I vividly recall the first time I studied those simple supply-and-demand graphs as a college freshman, and today, far too many years later, their basic logic remains undeniable. When prices are right, money flows to the most productive endeavors and economies work efficiently. When prices are wrong, crazy things eventually happen, with potentially dire consequences.

That’s why we should be very worried about Japan, where things are getting crazy. On March 1, the Japanese government sold benchmark, 10-year bonds at a negative yield for the first time ever. Think about that for a minute. The investors who bought these bonds not only loaned the Japanese government their money. They’re paying for the privilege of doing so.


Why would any sane person do such a thing? A government with debt equivalent to more than 240 percent of national output — the largest load in the developed world — should surely have to pay investors a tidy sum to convince them to part with their money, not the other way around. But the bond market in Japan has become so distorted that investors believe it’s in their interests to lend money at a cost to themselves. The only explanation is that prices in Japan have gone horribly, horribly awry, and that has made the illogical logical.

The culprit is the Bank of Japan. The entire purpose of its unorthodox stimulus programs — quantitative easing, negative interest rates — is, in effect, to get prices wrong: to press down interest rates below where they would normally go and force banks to lend money in ways they normally wouldn’t. The BOJ, in other words, is trying to alter prices to change the incentive structure in the economy in order to engineer certain results — to increase inflation, encourage investment and spark growth.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How Italy will fail and drag down the European Project

How Italy will fail and drag down the European Project

Greece, Portugal and Ireland were mere test subjects for what will come. Spain would have been a challenge, but were narrowly avoided. Italy will drag the whole structure down if it continues on its current trajectory, and there is nothing to suggest it will change course.

The main problem for Italy is its stagnating level of nominal GDP, which we refer to as “Japanificaton” of the economy. While people usually think of deflation when they hear “Japan”, that is not an entirely correct observation. It is true that nominal GDP flat lined after the crisis in the 1990s which dragged down revenue. However, if it was truly a deflationary period, expenditures should fall also as prices paid for services rendered would drop concomitantly. This has not been the case and it is more correct to say Japan has been trapped in a revenue / NGDP deflation, hence the perceived need for Abenomics, or in plain English, the creation of a helluva lot of currency units to boost NGDP and revenue and thus reduce the need for bond issuance. As our first chart show, so far it has been modestly successful. Please note that Abenomics have nothing to do with creating real prosperity (no one can be that ignorant), but all about getting the spiraling debt problem under control by jacking up the inflation tax.Italy 1

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Are Asian Central Bankers Even Crazier Than Our Own?

Are Asian Central Bankers Even Crazier Than Our Own?

That the world’s central bankers get a lot of things wrong, deliberately or not, and have done so for years now, is nothing new. But that they do things that result in the exact opposite of what they ostensibly aim for, and predictably so, perhaps is. And it’s something that seems to be catching on, especially in Asia.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing first: central bankers have taken on roles and hubris and ‘importance’, that they should never have been allowed to get their fat little greedy fingers on. Central bankers in their 2016 disguise have no place in a functioning economy, let alone society, playing around with trillions of dollars in taxpayer money which they throw around to allegedly save an economy.

They engage solely, since 2008 at the latest, in practices for which there are no historical precedents and for which no empirical research has been done. They literally make it up as they go along. And one might be forgiven for thinking that our societies deserve something better than what amounts to no more than basic crap-shooting by a bunch of economy bookworms. Couldn’t we at least have gotten professional gamblers?

Central bankers who moreover, as I have repeatedly quoted my friend Steve Keen as saying, even have little to no understanding at all of the field they’ve been studying all their adult lives.

They don’t understand their field, plus they have no idea what consequences their next little inventions will have, but they get to execute them anyway and put gargantuan amounts of someone else’s money at risk, money which should really be used to keep economies at least as stable as possible.

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Japanese Trade Data Collapses, Crushes “Devalue Our Way To Prosperity” Dreams

Japanese Trade Data Collapses, Crushes “Devalue Our Way To Prosperity” Dreams

Japanese trade data was just unleashed on the world… and it is abysmal.


Notably worse than the expected 10.9% drop and the biggest YoY plunge since October 2009.

Proving once and for all that the devaluation of the JPY did less-than-nothing to improve Japan’s competitiveness…

And then there is Imports – reflecting the “modest” improvement in the domestic economy…


Nope – complete carnage!! The biggest YoY drop since october 2009…

Is it any wonder Abe says no more stimulus and Kuroda did not unleash anymore QE – they know it’s over and now it’s desperation.

We leave it to Alhambra’s Jeff Snider to sum up… Japan is the very definition of insanity…

GDP fell 1.4% in Q4 2015, marking the fifth contraction out of the past nine quarters and yet the word “stimulus” remains attached to QQE, the Bank of Japan and Abenomics in general. At this point, how much more time and sample size is necessary before calling it a failure? In about six weeks, Kuroda’s massive “stimulus” will mark its third anniversary and the best that can be said of it is that GDP has gone nowhere. Two and three quarters years later, real GDP (SAAR) in the last three months of 2015 was the slightest bit higher than Q2 2013 when everyone was so sure “stimulus” was all so sure.

ABOOK Feb 2016 Japan GDP Real SAAR

The media provides all the evidence necessary as to why everything is so “unexpected.”

The data suggest Japan’s economy is still plagued by the weakness of domestic demand as it enters a fourth year of record monetary stimulus, with wages not rising fast enough to persuade consumers to spend.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Peter Pan Is Dead – Japanese Economy Stalls For 6th Time In 6 Years

Peter Pan Is Dead – Japanese Economy Stalls For 6th Time In 6 Years 

We just cannot wait for the next time either Abe or Kuroda utter the following string of words “[stimulus – insert any combination of equity buying, bond buying, money printing, and NIRP] is having the desired effect.” For the sixth time in the last 6 years, GDP growth has once again turned negative and while the BoJ balance sheet continues to balloon, so the nation’s economy (as measure by GDP) is now shrinking as Peter Pan policy is officially dead.

With 3 of the top 4 forecasters already suggesting Japanese GDP growth would be worse than the median estimate of -0.2% growth, fairy-tales were all they had left… Nearly a year ago, Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda described the unlikely inspiration behind Japan’s unprecedented monetary stimulus: Peter Pan.

I trust that many of you are familiar with the story of Peter Pan, in which it says, ‘the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it’. 

Yes, what we need is a positive attitude and conviction. Indeed, each time central banks have been confronted with a wide range of problems, they have overcome the problems by conceiving new solutions.

And now, Pan is dead… this is the 6th negative GDP growth period since 2010… printing a 0.4% QoQ drop against the -0.2% growth expectation…

This is the biggest SAAR GDP drop (down 1.4%) since Q2 2014 – right before Kuroda unleashed QQE2 once The Fed had left the money-printing business.

And in case anyone wanted it made any clearer just what an utter farce Abenomics has been…

But it gets much worse…

Private Consumption tumbled more than expected…


The biggest drop since Q2 2014.

Of course – if you are an “enabler” or “central planner” this is great news – just a little more NIRP and just a little more QQE and everything will be fine… what a joke!

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Abenomics Is Dead – Japanese Data Collapses Across The Board

Abenomics Is Dead – Japanese Data Collapses Across The Board

With recent JPY strength not helping, last week ended on a down-note for Japan as its jobless rate ticked up from 3.1% to 3.3% (the biggest rise since January) and Household spending collapsed. However, as the last week of the year begins, things have not improved as a double whammy of awfulness just hit the shores of Abe’s nation with retail sales (worst since the tsunami) and industrial production ugly and missing across the board. We are sure, of course, that just one more dose of faith-based QE will fix this.

Household Spending has been a disaster…

And Retail Sales is therefore terrible… (away from the effects of the pre- and post-tax hike moves, this is the worst monthtly drop in Retail Sales since The 2011 Tsunami!!!)

And so Industrial Production is lagging…


So to summarize – with JPY strength amid carry unwinds, Kuroda worriedly stuck on the sidelines, and global economic collapse, Japan’s Abenomics ‘program’ just created the following disaster trhee years later:

  • Household Spending plunges 2.9% YoY – worst since March (post-tax-hike)
  • Jobless Rate jumps to 3.3% (from 3.1%)
  • Industrial Production drops 1.0% MoM – worst in 3 months
  • Retail Trade tumbles 1.0% YoY – biggest drop since March (post-tax-hike)
  • Retail Sales plunges 2.5% MoM – Worst drop since Fukushima Tsunami (absent tax-hike)

But apart from that – everything is awesome.

*  *  *

Finally, in the interests of keeping things light over the holiday period, we note that when asked if this means trouble ahead for President Shinzo Abe, he allegedly replied “Depends.”

“We Should Have Known Something Was Wrong”

“We Should Have Known Something Was Wrong”

Remember when stuff such as the following was written exclusively on “conspiracy” tin-foil blogs by deranged lunatics who could not appreciate the brilliance of the neo-Keynesian system and central-planning by academics, in all its glory? Good times.

Here is Bank of America’s Athanasios Vamvakidis channeling Tyler Durden circa 2009

The real cost of QE

QE was not a free lunch after all

If only it was that easy to print our way out of a global crisis. Eight years after the crisis, we are still debating about whether the recovery has gained enough of a momentum to allow exit from crisis-driven policies and start hiking rates from zero. The world economy has actually lost momentum this year (Chart 1), deflation risks have increased (Chart 2), and EM indicators and overall market volatility have reached crisis levels (see Chart 3). All this is despite unprecedented expansion of central bank balance sheets (Chart 4). Things may have been worse otherwise, but in hindsight we believe relying too much on unconventional monetary policies was not a free lunch after all.

We should have known something was wrong

The Fed “taper tantrum” could have been the first warning that QE had gone too far. The Fed’s announcement in June 2013 that they would consider tapering QE, contingent upon continued positive data, triggered a sharp market sell-off, particularly in EM. The aggressive search for yield, which intensified after the Fed announced QE3—or QE infinity as markets called it—came to a sudden stop. QE was not for infinity after all. The Fed tried to reassure markets that QE tapering was still policy easing and that its end would not imply rate hikes immediately, but the markets apparently thought otherwise. A key takeaway was not that QE had already gone too far, but that announcing its tapering may have been a mistake. The Fed waited until December to start tapering, although the market had already priced its beginning in September.

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S&P Downgrades Japan From AA- To A+ On Doubts Abenomics Will Work – Full Text

S&P Downgrades Japan From AA- To A+ On Doubts Abenomics Will Work – Full Text

Who would have thought that decades of ZIRP, an aborted attempt to hike rates over a decade ago, and the annual monetization of well over 10% of sovereign debt would lead to a toxic debt spiral, regardless of how many “Abenomics” arrows one throws at it? Apparently Standard and Poors just had its a-ha subprime flashbulb moment and moments ago, a little over 4 years after it downgraded the US from its legendary AAA-rating which led to angry phone calls from Tim Geithner and a painful US government lawsuit, downgraded Japan from AA- to A+.  The reason: rising doubt Abenomics is working.

Apparently S&P has never heard of the Magic Money Tree theory concocted by economists who have never traded an asset in their lives, in which “countries that print their own currency” have nothing to fear about a 250% debt/GDP ratio. In fact, the only fear is that it is not big enough.

Expect the market’s reaction to be that since Abenomics has not worked yet, some nearly three years after it was launched then Japan will be forced to do even more of it, simply because it has no choice – it is now all in, the problem of course being that the BOJ is simply running out of stuff to monetize as even the IMF warned two weeks ago…

Here is the S&P’s full downgrade.

Japan Ratings Lowered To ‘A+/A-1’; Outlook Is Stable


  • Economic support for Japan’s sovereign creditworthiness has continued to  weaken in the past three to four years. Despite showing initial promise,  the government’s strategy to revive economic growth and end deflation appears unlikely to reverse this deterioration in the next two to three  years.
  • We are lowering our sovereign credit ratings on Japan to ‘A+/A-1’ from  ‘AA-/A-1+’.
  • The outlook on the long-term rating is stable.


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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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