Last Thursday night, I dashed off a post in response to accusations being made by Chinese and South Korean critics of Abenomics that Japan is now engaging in currency manipulation. When I started writing, I thought that I was going to dismiss such accusations, because Prime Minister Abe has made an increased inflation target an explicit goal of his monetary policy, and instructed the newly installed Governor of the Bank of Japan to meet that target. However, despite the 25% depreciation of the yen against the dollar since it became clear last fall that Mr. Abe, running on a platform of monetary stimulation, would be elected Prime Minister, prices in Japan have not risen.
It was also disturbing that there were news reports last week that some members of the Board of Governors of the Bank of Japan voiced doubts that the 2% inflation target would be met.
Some of the members of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) board were doubtful about achieving the 2% inflation target projected by the bank within the two-year time frame, according to the latest minutes of the policy meeting.
Why a 25% decline in the value of the yen in six months would not be enough to raise the rate of inflation to at least 2% is not immediately obvious to me. In 1933 when FDR devalued the dollar by 40%, the producer price index quickly jumped 10-15% in three months.
Moreover, the practice of currency manipulation, i.e., maintaining an undervalued exchange rate while operating a tight monetary policy to induce a chronic current-account surplus and a rapid buildup of foreign-exchange reserves, was a key element of the Japanese growth strategy in the 1950s and 1960s, later copied by South Korea and Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers, before being perfected by China over the past decade. So despite wanting to defend the new Japanese monetary policy as a model for the rest of the world, I couldn’t conclude, admittedly based on pretty incomplete information, that Japan had not reverted back to its old currency-manipulating habits.
My expression of agnosticism invited some pushback from Scott Sumner who quickly fired off a comment saying:
I don’t follow this. Why aren’t you looking at the Japanese CA balance?
To which I responded:
Scott, Answer 1, CA depends on many things; FX reserves depends on what the CB wants. Answer 2, I’m lazy. Answer 3, also sleep deprived.
Well, I’m sticking with answer 1, but as I am somewhat less sleep deprived than I was last Thursday, I will just add this tidbit from Bloomberg.com
The excess in the widest measure of trade was 1.25 trillion yen ($12.4 billion), the Ministry of Finance said in Tokyo today. That exceeded the 1.22 trillion yen median estimate of 23 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s revamp of Japan’s central bank to focus on ending deflation paid off when the yen today slid past 101 for the first time since 2009, helping exporters such as Toyota Motor Corp. (7203), which now sees its highest annual profit in six years. Sustaining a current-account surplus may help to maintain confidence in the nation’s finances as Abe wrestles with a debt burden more than twice the size of the economy.
“The currency’s depreciation is buoying Japan’s income from overseas investment at a pretty solid pace,” said Long Hanhua Wang, an economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in Tokyo. “A weaker yen provides support for Japanese exports.”
The cost of a weaker yen is higher import costs, reflected in a ninth straight trade deficit in March. The current-account surplus was 4 percent lower than the same month last year and the income surplus widened to 1.7 trillion yen, the highest level since March 2010, the ministry said.
So contrary to what one would expect if the depreciation of the yen were the result of an inflationary monetary policy causing increased domestic spending, thereby increasing imports and reducing exports, Japan’s current account surplus is approaching its highest level in a year.
Travis, I had trouble following David’s post. What exactly is he worried about? I don’t think the Japanese are manipulating their currency, but so what if they were?
OK, Scott, here is what I am worried about. The reason that currency debasement is a good and virtuous and praiseworthy thing to do in a depression is that by debasing your currency you cause private economic agents to increase their spending. But under currency manipulation, the desirable depreciation of the exchange rate is counteracted by tight monetary policy designed to curtail, not to increase, spending, the point of currency manipulation being to divert spending by domestic and foreign consumers from the rest of the world to the tradable-goods producers of the currency-manipulating country. Unlike straightforward currency debasement, currency manipulation involves no aggregate change in spending, but shifts spending from the rest of the world to the currency manipulator. I don’t think that that is a good thing. And if that is what Japan is doing – I am not saying, based on one month’s worth of data, that they are, but I am afradi that they may be reverting to their old habits – then I think you should be worried as well.