Tag Archives: japan

For Japan there is no road but to an economic recovery

Summary: the most contrarian thing you’ll read today.

Japan was a big story in 2014. The hopes for its rise — quickly crushed — created ripples around the world. Today’s post features an article by an expert asking if a new phase in its recovery story will unfold in 2015. A recovery in Japan would give the world economy another locomotive. The data looks provocative and the reasoning seems profound. (This is the 2nd of today’s two posts.)

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
— Herbert Stein’s Law (US economist, 1916-1999)

Japan: setting sun

A setting or rising sun?

Keiki Kaifuku, Kono Michi Shika Nai
“Economic Recovery,
There Is No Road But This”
—  LDP Campaign Slogan, December 2014

By Peter Karmin of Fort Sheridan Advisors

From the Drobny Global Monitor, 11 December 2014

Posted with the generous permission of the author and Drobny Global Advisors.


For years – if not decades – Japan’s shrinking demographics have been a primary cause for that country’s lackluster economic growth. However, Japan is now reaching a point in its cycle where the population shortage — combined with a scarcity in natural resources and the effects of “Abenomics” – will cause stagflation rather than deflation. This is a structural rather than cyclical change resulting from a shortage in labor and natural resources. The former is a result of declining population/workforce along with stringent immigration laws and the latter is a result of the closing of nuclear power plants following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

During the past few years, Japan’s unemployment rate has gradually dropped and is now at 3.5% which is the lowest since 1997.

Japan's unemployment rate

Drobny Global Advisors, 11 December 2014

Additional signs of improvement within the labor sector are seen in other surveys. For example, the “Jobs-To-Applicants Ratio” is now at a level (1.1 job openings/applicants) not seen since June 1992 when 10-year Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) yielded 5% (we have only had to move the decimal over to the left one place during the past 22 years):

Japan: job to applicants ratio

Drobny Global Advisors, 11 December 2014

Recent Bank of Japan Tankan Surveys show that both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors are finding a shortage of available workers {DI: diffusion index}:

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What might the failure of Abenomics mean for Japan? Big, unpredictable changes, perhaps with a happy ending.

Summary:  Japan has remained in economic stagnation for so long we have come to consider that as normal. It’s not. Slow decay of a nation eventually ends in reform (as expected in Japan by experts for 2 decades) or regime change. Abenomics aroused excitement as the start of powerful reforms, as Japan’s last chance. The past few months’ data suggest that failure lies ahead. If so, after that will come exciting and unexpected events (but not necessarily beneficial or pleasant events). They will affect the world (especially if Japan walks a path on which America and Europe follow). Let’s review the evidence, and look ahead to the possible happy ending.

“GDP figures for July-September turned out not so encouraging.”
— Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, 17 November 2014 (source: Reuters)

”The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage …”
— Emperor Hirohito of Japan in his first radio broadcast, 15 August 1945

Japan: setting sun


  1. Dark day for Abenomics
  2. Implications
  3. What’s the problem with Japan
  4. The bad news, and the possibility of a happy ending
  5. For More Information


(1)  Dark day for Abenomics

In the dark days before Abenomics, as Japan neared the quarter-century milestone for stagnation despite massive economic stimulus (running the government’s debt up to incredible levels), experts wrote that “Something is wrong with Japanese politics“, and about the necessity of “Restoring Political Stability“.

Abe has been prime minster since 26 December 2012. His political strength came from the desperation of his people after almost a quarter-century of the hopes of recovery he aroused, and his bold measures to revitalized Japan (“Abenomics”). Now that Japan enters a triple-dip recession, let’s turn from Wall Street’s happy outlook to ask about the effects should Abenomics fail? And it is failing, despite strong corporate profits and massive stock market gains, as described in this report by Alhambra Investment Partners: “The Inevitable End“.


Japan: real GDP, QoQ, SAAR

Real GDP, from Alhambra Investment Partners, 17 November 2014


Perhaps even worse, Abenomics has lowered the value of the yen. While wonderful for corporate exporters and good for their workers, this has proven horrific for everybody else as the cost of imports rises faster than wages (and faster than fixed incomes, such as pensions) — without the promised economic acceleration. Another recession will further increase stress on people, as the yen drops even more — with even less offsetting job and wage growth. This trend cannot continue without ugly consequences.

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Listen to the slowing US economy, hear echoes of Japan

Summary: Now in its sixth year, this sorry excuse for an expansion is ready to boom — accelerating to “escape velocity” — according to many economists. Or perhaps the boom grows old, even sclerotic, so we should start watching for the next recession. The consensus of economists never sees a recession until it begins, so we’ll have to find other ways to look ahead. This post describes one such: the economy slowing to its “stall speed”. This alarm might be flashing yellow, or even red, now.


A warning. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan



  1. Echoes of Japan
  2. What is “stall speed”?
  3. One reason we don’t grow
  4. For More Information


(1) Echoes of Japan

Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), 22 September 2014 — Opening:

In 2011 the Fed published a study aimed at identifying “particular values for output growth and other variables, such that when these values are reached during an expansion, the economy has tended to move into a recession within a fairly short time span.”

The study concluded that Gross Domestic Income (GDI) – which, while income-based, is theoretically identical to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – “provides a better measure of output growth than GDP,” and identified a two-quarter annualized real GDI growth rate of 2% to be the “stall speed” threshold.

… this GDI growth measure (see chart) has now stayed below the 2% “stall speed” threshold for three straight quarters starting in Q4 2013, which is much longer than the duration of the harsh winter weather. …

Real GDI crashed below 2% SAAR in Q2 2006. Before this cycle, since 1947 real GDI had fallen below 2% only once in a period not associated with a recession – in Q1 1993. Real GDI is now below 2% YoY. For the past 3 quarters (and 4 of past 5 quarters) it’s been below 2% SAAR on a QoQ basis.

(2)  What is stall speed?

The concept of a “stall speed” is that the economy slows in the year before falling into a recession, and there is a critical speed below which the economy is likely to fall into recession.

The idea of a “stall speed” became know after a 2011 Fed paper by Jeremy J. Nalewaik, who showed that it predicted recessions better than other methods — and better than the Blue Chip Economists’ Forecast.  It appears seldom in Fed research after several other articles in 2011, such as these by the Cleveland Fed and the Atlanta Fed).

On the other hand, several studies have been skeptical about the concept, such as this 2012 BIS working paper which questioned even the aeronautical analogy.

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The easy way to understand unconventional monetary policy

Summary:  It’s difficult to describe the magnitude of the monetary policy experiments now running around the world, most especially in China, USA, and Japan. At the end are links to a dozen posts attempting to do so with words and numbers. Today we do it with pictures.

Money world


The monetary stimulus programs running around the world are in effect leaps into the future, leaps of a scale never before attempted, leaps beyond theory. Should they work the world will changed, for these tools — massive quantitative easing and extended periods of zero interest rates (ZIRP) — will be used again. And again.

How can I show you the fantastic nature of these experiments? How they move far beyond what’s been considered possible — even prudent — in the past. How their success would create a new world? And, most difficult, how the programs of each nation differ in scope and daring?

Let’s use picture to show this, as metaphors.

First, the below picture shows America’s monetary policy: five years of ZIRP and three rounds of quantitative easing — designed by the four hundred economists of the Federal Reserve System, using unconventional means to press conventional theory beyond its limits — to rekindle the power of the American economy.


Fusion and Dr Octavius


Second, we see Japan. They’ve had zero or near-zero interest rates since February 1999 (with intermissions), and several rounds of quantitative easing since March 2001 — attempts to re-ignite their economy since it flamed out in 1998. The latest is the three arrows of Abenomics (often described in different ways), announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December 2012.

  1. More fiscal stimulus, increasing the government’s deficit by 2% of GDP (to 13%).
  2. More monetary stimulus: doubling the money supply in 2 years to create 2% inflation.
  3. Structural reform — broad, deep, powerful (so far missing in action).

Abenomics is the desperate action of leaders who have tried everything in the playbook, and now tap unimaginable energies to unleash arcane regenerative forces that can revitalize Japan’s economy. They go beyond theory, a leap combining faith and science.

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Must our population always grow to ensure prosperity?

Summary: Economists are often criticized for excessive focus on monetary measures for a nation’s prosperity, and too narrow and backwards-looking vision of trends in society. Today we look at example of both: recommendations that Japan increase immigration. These matters affect not just Japan, but much of the world.

UN Fertility Graph

Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom

— From Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” (1974)


  1. Japan leads us to the future
  2. A crowded Japan faces the robot revolution
  3. Why recommend more immigration?
  4. For More Information

(1)  Japan leads us to the future

Fewer people is good news for Japan! (source)

Japan's population

Many economists look at this data and conclude that Japan needs more immigration, otherwise their national income (GDP) will fall along with their population.

Economists prescriptions for Japan show the limits of economics as a guide to public policy. GDP is not the only measure of a nation’s well-being, or even the best. Worse, economists sometimes see only linear trends of the past, blind to future developments visible even today.

(2)  A crowded Japan faces the robot revolution

Japan has been crowded for over a century. Japan’s government has worried about its overpopulation since the Meiji Restoration (population ~3 million) in 1868 (their attempted solution was encouraging emigration to Korea). They had 50 million in 1910; 100 million in 1967, and 127 million today.

Excerpt during periods of great productivity improvement (e.g., during an industrial revolution), growth in total GDP requires a growing population. More housing, more public infrastructure, more consumption. A shrinking population not only requires less of these things, but also a rising dependency ratio (i.e., the labor force falls as a share of the population). All bad things. Hence economists’ advice to maintain or even grow Japan’s population.

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Larry Summers gives us the bad news. Worse, the only solution is more of the same.

Summary: Larry Summers speech last week was, IMO, a pivotal moment. It forced economists to look at the US from a new perspective, considering things that had been heretical. The previous post, Are we following Japan into an era of slow growth, even stagnation? sketched out his bold speech. Today we look at the text, with the good news (better definition of our problem) and the bad (no new solutions). This post ends with a bang (or warns of a bang, depending on your point of view).



  1. Prelude: the missing “V” recovery
  2. Larry Summers warns of the great stagnation
  3. We fight a crisis with the theories we have
  4. Bubbles to the rescue
  5. More economists jump into the debate
  6. For More Information

(1)  Prelude: the missing “V” recovery

Despite the great economic events of the past five years, economic policy and theory debates have largely run in circles. Pro and con fiscal stimulus. Pro and con monetary stimulus. Forecasts of the “V’ recovery each year; forecasts of slow growth (include me on that team).

One quiet theme has been a few of us warning that we have fallen into a situation like, in its essentials, that of Japan in the quarter-century since their 1989 bust. That’s been declared daft by mainstream economists. Until now. It’s a shattering idea, because Japan shows the intractable nature of this trap. They might have found a solution in “three arrows” of Abenomics (massive monetary AND fiscal stimulus, drastic structural reforms) — but the solution might prove ruinous. Or ineffective Or both.

The speech changed the debate. It deserves your attention.

(2)  Larry Summers warns of the great stagnation

Excerpt (lightly edited for clarity) from the transcript of Larry Summers’ speech at the IMF Economic Forum on 8 November 2013, prepared by Randy Fellmy, posted at his Facebook page. Red emphasis added.

It is a central pillar of both classical models and Keynesian models that it is all about fluctuations: fluctuations around the given mean, and that what you need to do is have less volatility. I wonder if a set of older ideas firmly rejected in {graduate monetary economics courses} — that went under the phrase “secular stagnation” — are not profoundly important in understanding Japan’s experience, and {might be relevant} to America’s experience.

… If you study the economy prior to the crisis, there’s something odd. Many people believe that monetary policy was too easy. Everybody agrees that there was a vast amount of imprudent lending going on. Almost everybody believes that wealth, as it was experienced by households, was in excess of its reality. Too easy money, too much borrowing, too much wealth. Was there a great boom? Capacity utilization wasn’t under any great pressure. Unemployment wasn’t under any remarkably low level. Inflation was entirely quiescent. So somehow, even a great bubble wasn’t enough to produce any excess in aggregate demand.

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Are we following Japan into an era of slow growth, even stagnation?

Summary: Understanding events requires not just see what’s happening today and guessing about the future, but also grading past expectations vs the actuals. Otherwise we live in the now, like cats, with little ability to shape our world. This is one way, perhaps the best way, to evaluate experts in fields other than our own. Doing so takes us from the warmth of their confident words, and opens us to see surprises, valuable since experts seldom confess to them. Today we’ll examine the big macroeconomic surprise in 2013, and its warning.

Japan: Help

Ask not for whom the bell rings, for it rings for thee

“Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.”
— John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions


  1. The big macroeconomic surprise of 2013
  2. The ECRI points to Japan
  3. Larry Summers points to Japan
  4. Other economists speak up
  5. For More Information

(1) The big macroeconomic surprise of 2013: falling inflation

This graph of  US inflation tells an interesting story. In 2011, as inflation rose, conservatives prepared themselves for the I-told-you-so rapture of dollar collapse and hyperinflation (this was the opening salvo, on 11/15/10). Niall Ferguson cleared a space on his mantel for a Nobel. But inflation peaked in January 2012, entering a steep decline. In the 4th quarter of 2012 everybody expected that the Fed adding a trillion dollars to its balance sheet would change that. So far it has made little difference.

This is Core Personal Consumption Expenditure Index, which provides one of the best available measures of inflation and its momentum.

FRED: PCE core

This is a shocking surprise. The Fed began the third round of quantitative easing (QE), a form of unconventional monetary policy, in September 2012 at $40B/month, and boosted it to $85B in December. Here’s what economists expected to see in 2013, as measured by the Core Personal Consumption Expenditure Index:

After a year of QE, the Fed pumping out a trillion dollars, economists have lowered their forecasts for inflation. We live in a world of wonders.

Take a moment to absorb this. For five years inflation has been below the Fed’s 2% floor, despite three rounds of QE. That’s bad. They set a floor for a good reason: deflation is lethal for a high-debt economy like ours. A steady 2% inflation does little or no harm (despite giving conservatives reason to whine about the 20th century’s drop in the US dollar (during which time the US became the world’s superpower). A 2% floor gives the Fed a cushion of time to act when it’s breached, and time for their actions to have effect.

What insights can we draw from this? Opinions differ. There is one theory, obvious for several years but seldom mentioned (too scary): we now follow Japan down a path of slow growth and deflationary tendencies. In June 2010, during the euphoria about our “V” shaped recovery, I wrote about it: We are following Japan’s path of decline. The real test comes later this year.

After three years of slow growth despite intense stimulus, now a few bold economists warn us of this danger.

(2)  The Economic Cycle Research Institute points to Japan

Becoming Japan – part 2“, ECRI, 4 November 2013:

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