I was already having a hard enough time trying to figure out whether to focus this morning on three big data releases or on some of the other economic and non-economic developments crowding the headlines – and then the Japanese government rocked the economic world with two mega-announcements.
So the Labor Department’s Employment Cost Index, the Commerce Department’s survey of personal incomes and saving, and the Chicago purchasing managers‘ new monthly sounding all will have to take a back seat to the Japanese central bank’s unveiling of a massive new stimulus program, and the Japanese government pension fund’s announcement that it’s going to start investing considerably more in stocks both in Japan and around the world.
There’s no need to review the most obvious implications of this news. Just Google “Bank of Japan” and “GPIF” (Government Pension Investment Fund). You’ll quickly see that the former’s decision to buy many more Japanese government bonds, along with stocks and other financial assets, is expected to boost the prices of the such assets all around the world, further weaken Japan’s yen, and fend off another bout of deflation — with all the damage that would do to the Japanese and global economies. Financial assets will also get a major lift – all else equal of course! – from the Japanese government employee pension fund (the world’s biggest public sector investor) shifting its strategy to buying more stocks in Japan and abroad.
To me, the less obvious implications matter more, especially these two:
First, one of the biggest long run dangers of the unprecedented central bank stimulus programs adopted to contain the financial crisis is that investment capital around the world will be spent badly. The idea is that if investors know that the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank or the Bank of Japan will ride to their rescue with yet more credit if they make mistakes in allocating funds, the discipline that’s supposed to be one of the main virtues of free markets and capitalism will be badly eroded and possibly destroyed.
The crisis itself clearly was fueled in the first place by the glut of credit provided by the Fed in particular during the bubble decade. Super-easy money encouraged both Wall Street and homeowners to bid up the price of fundamentally unproductive assets like houses wildly beyond sensible levels. Government housing subsidies and implicit guarantees didn’t hurt, either.
The Fed doesn’t buy stocks but its Japanese counterpart has invested in exchange-traded funds and real estate investment trusts. Now the Bank of Japan will triple those purchases, along with boosting its bond buys. Is it remotely possible that this step will increase the efficiency of capital allocation in Japan, the United States, or anywhere?
In addition, the $1 trillion-plus Japan government pension fund, the world’s largest public investor, will more than double its holdings of Japanese and foreign stocks to 25 percent each. Of course, public pension funds have long been major players in financial markets. But U.S. funds hire private sector investment professionals to manage their portfolios. That hardly makes them perfect, but at least they have a history of responding in standard ways to market (and more recently, government and central bank) signals.
The GPIF’s portfolio, by contrast, is run by government bureaucrats. Moreover, they’re bureaucrats from the Japanese government, whose devotion to free markets has been historically difficult to spot. I’m someone who actually thinks that Tokyo has a good record of intervening in the economy, especially in manufacturing. But that doesn’t mean I have much confidence in it as a stock- or sector-picker – which of course is a different animal altogether from identifying approaches to nurture the long-term development of industries. Moreover, why would anyone hewing to the conventional wisdom about Japan’s allegedly disastrous penchant for “picking losers” believe that its leaders will now suddenly start making decisions that improve the efficiency of their own economy, let alone economies anywhere else?
The second less-than-obvious set of implications of Japan’s new policies concerns trade flows and trade policy. As widely recognized, the extra BOJ bond-buying has already brought the yen to roughly seven-year lows versus the U.S. dollar. The question Washington needs to ask is why it’s still pursuing a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal when the biggest economy involved in the talks so far outside the United States, which already has a strong record of protectionism, has just moved to cheapen the price of its exports and raise the price of its imports – and all for reasons having nothing to do with market forces?
Further, this latest instance of Japanese currency manipulation will likely affect trade flows more than Fed easing ever could – even if ZIRP and QE haven’t been accompanied by a stronger, not weaker dollar. For as defenders of this Japanese exchange-protectionism keep ignoring, the BOJ isn’t simply mimicking the Fed because monetary easing policies in a mercantile, production and export-led economy like Japan’s will always have fundamentally different – and inevitably more protectionist – effects than easing policies in a consumption- and import-focused economy like America’s.
Finally, even though Washington reportedly is more determined than ever to ignore foreign currency devaluations in the mistaken belief that its leading, and slow-growing, trade partners deserve such help, the much weaker yen is likeliest to spur similar moves – or the introduction of other beggar-thy-neighbor measures – in other mercantile, export-led economies in Asia, notably Korea and China.
Without a meaningful U.S. response – meaning a sharp turnabout in import- and deficit-friendly American trade policies – the inevitable results will be an even bigger U.S. trade shortfall, a consequently weaker American recovery, and reflation of the global imbalances that played such a prominent role in triggering the financial crisis to begin with. Unless, finally, this time, for reasons no one has yet identified, it really is different?