March 2016: Abenomics again

Japan’s monetary stance, long the subject of fascination for western observers, is becoming increasingly relevant for European Central Bank policy-makers and followers. Not least for this reason, we put Japanese monetary policies, and more generally the long-running ‘Abenomics’ juggling act orchestrated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under the spotlight in the March edition of the Bulletin. Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of the Bank of Japan, in January breached a taboo by extending interest rates into negative territory, introducing a set of exemptions to try to prevent the move impinging over-negatively on banking profits. This is part of a macroeconomic remodelling – dubbed ‘Abenomics 2.0’ – because the first version plainly was not working as planned. Some form of Japan-style ‘tiering’ of negative interest rates appears high on the agenda of the ECB’s decision-making council when it deliberates fresh monetary easing on 10 March – in the face of widespread doubts over the efficacy of further asset purchases and cuts in the ECB’s deposit rate, already at minus 0.3%. Japanese monetary policy can excite strong emotions. As pointed out by Masaaki Shirakawa, Kuroda’s predecessor, the pinnacle of bitter experience of BoJ underwriting of government bonds came with 1930s Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi. At first successfully, he initiated the practice, but was eventually assassinated in 1936 by militarists when he was trying to stop ever-growing demand for military spending, which eventually led to rampant inflation.

Events in 2016 are more low key, but do not lack drama, as explained by a variety of Japanese writers. Shumpei Takemori chastises the Japanese authorities for having lulled foreign investors into thinking that Japanese assets are safe. He praises OMFIF Chairman John Plender for telling purchasers of Japanese government bonds to beware the BoJ’s increased governmental dependence. Akinari Horii says that the rise in asset prices thus far has not led to unsustainable bubbles – but he voices scepticism about negative rates. Chris Scicluna and Grant Lewis are more sanguine, pointing out how exemptions will shield retail depositors and bank profits. Sahoko Kaji writes that demographics is the weak link in Abenomics. John West emphasises the need for more migrants and expounds the benefits of ‘Womenomics’. Darrell Delamaide describes the change of mood at the Federal Reserve on interest rate increases, emphasising that the watchword for monetary policy in coming months is ‘dead slow ahead’. Ben Robinson outlines the better growth climate in Spain, expounded by Luis Maria
Linde, governor of the Banco de España, at an OMFIF meeting in London on 9 February. Ernst Welteke explains his scepticism about the ECB’s rotating voting system. In emerging markets, John Adams highlights the political frustration leading to the birth of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Haihong Gao describes the phasing out of China’s hukou system of residence registration that has impeded economic development. David Smith says Argentina’s landmark deal with creditors should allow newly-elected President Mauricio Macri to ‘take his agenda to the capital markets’. Nick Butler analyses the effects on sovereign funds of the oil price fall. Gus O’Donnell says that collaboration between the private and public sectors will be key to fulfilling pledges made at December’s COP21 climate conference in Paris. George Hoguet reviews a timely analysis of global recessions and recoveries. We round off with poll findings showing most members of the OMFIF advisory board expect China rather than Japan will better master its economic challenges in the next three years.

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