Kuroda’s Monetary Policy Bazookas and the Failure of Abenomics

ADB's Kuroda Says Additional BOJ Easing Can Be Justified for '13
Haruhiko Kuroda, Governor of the Bank of Japan, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Japan, on 11 February 2016. His stimulus programmes as BoJ head have sparked international controversy and discourse but have unfortunately ended in a resounding failure.

Since Haruhiko Kuroda became Governor of the Bank of Japan in 2013, he has implemented a labyrinth of monetary expansion initiatives, including the famous quantitative easing programme of ¥‎80 trillion per year and the negative interest rate policy. As a major tenet of the Abenomics reform package, this was intended to stimulate Japan’s ailing economy.

The most pressing issue for both Kuroda and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that these reforms did not—even remotely—achieve their desired goals. Inflation is nowhere near the 2% annual target and GDP growth is lacklustre. Since the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, the Japanese economy has endured five recessions and GDP growth that is stagnant at best.

Abe’s reform package relies heavily on a weaker Yen to increase exports, raise corporate profits, and fight deflation, but this is not materialising either. Since January 2016, the Bank of Japan has improvised a -0.1% interest rate on many reserves and yet the currency has still increased 18% vis-á-vis the US dollar since the new target rate. The asset purchasing programme, which has now been implemented at the ECB as well, has resulted in the Bank of Japan holding 38% of Japanese government bonds. This astonishing figure is more than double the 14% of US government bonds held by the Federal Reserve after its quantitative easing scheme under Bernanke and Yellen.

In a desperate attempt to finally revitalise Japan’s economy, many observers are pointing to helicopter money as a means to increase aggregate demand and hopefully economic output. While this has not been implemented at the central bank level, Abe’s cabinet did approve a 13.5 trillion stimulus programme in August that focuses on public works spending. The recent appointment of Toshihiro Nikai, a long advocate of this variety of spending, as Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party signifies Abe’s commitment to this new plan.

There is one significant problem with this new plan—it isn’t new at all. Following the burst of the Japanese property bubble in the early 1990s, several administrations, notably that of SPJ PM Tomiichi Murayama, initiated massive stimulus programmes in civil projects to jumpstart the economy. In fact, the massive demise of this policy was even used in the United States to argue against the Obama administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Like many Western nations, the plight of the Japanese economy is the result of structural forces that are regulatory, tax-related, and demographic.

In their reckless aim to artificially boost the economy, Abe and Kuroda both fail to realise this. While the BoJ Governor said in late 2015 that negative rates were not an option, he proceeded to implement them in January the following year. Any denial of prospective helicopter money directly from the BoJ should likewise be viewed as a tentative hope for the future, not as an actual policy position. After the pledge of a “comprehensive review”, the BoJ has now decided to begin a new yield-curve monitoring programme during the late September meeting.

A glimmer of hope once existed for the Japanese economy: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Unfortunately, due to populist forces fuelled by demagogues such as Bernie Sanders in the Western world and the Renho-led Democratic Party’s opposition to the deal, this lifeline is unlikely to come to fruition.

As Japan’s international competitiveness continues to decline, leaders in both the BoJ and National Diet will attempt to employ any method possible to save future generations from malaise…

…except the ones that actually work.


Dodd-Frank and the Status of Financial Regulation in Post-Crisis United States

WASHINGTON - JULY 21: U.S. President Barack Obama signs the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act at the Ronald Reagan Building July 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. The bill is the strongest financial reform legislation since the Great Depression and also creates a consumer protection bureau that oversees banks on mortgage lending and credit card practices. Also pictured (L-R) are Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). Photo by OwenDB/Black Star***
Barack Obama, depicted, signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act at the Ronald Reagan Building on 21 July 2010. Since its passage five years ago, the results have ranged from “massive disappointment” to “complete disaster”.

When nations misdiagnose the causes of a particular problem, the proposed solutions often lead to negative unintended consequences. The most famous example of this is the Great Depression, when a series of government programs aimed at stimulating aggregate demand turned a sharp market correction into a 17-year downturn. One can fast forward 70 years to find the same trend presenting itself once again. Overregulation of the mortgage industry starting in 1992,  implementation of Basel II reserve ratio requirements in 2004, and expansionary monetary policy from the Federal Reserve starting in 2001 all joined to produce a housing bubble sized at $10 trillion that popped in 2008, causing a contraction in US GDP by 4.3%.

A pragmatic policy maker views these causes and seeks to mitigate them in the future.  The Consumer Protection and Regulatory Enhancement Act, introduced by Spencer Bachus III and sponsored by many Republicans, sought to change the role of the Federal Reserve to focus on price stability and revoke the federal charters of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises which underwrote many subprime mortgages to enforce the aforementioned federal regulations. The proposal rectified two of the three major issues that caused the housing bubble in the first place. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass, as left-wing politicians saw the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate power in government. They blamed the crisis on “reckless deregulation”, when the opposite actually occurred.

Two prominent Senators, Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, introduced the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on 2 December 2009, which currently serves as the largest government intervention in the financial industry since the Banking Act of 1933. The law radically changed the regulations for financial institutions and derivatives trading. While Dodd-Frank was implemented to increase market stability and minimise systemic risk, the result has been the opposite.

The most noticeable rule in the juggernaut among consumers is known as the Durbin amendment, which places price controls on the fee that retailers pay when customers utilise a debit card. This has triggered a shift in the cost to maintain payment card systems from retailers to consumers. Before the law was passed, 76% of all banking accounts were eligible for complimentary checking. Due to the rule, only 38% qualified in 2014. The Durbin amendment has contributed to a growing crisis of unbanked populations in the United States, with an estimated 10 million households resorting to costly checking cashing and payday loan facilities.

One agency created by the law is the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which claims to implement regulation to decrease systemic risk in the market. In the FSOC’s 2015 Annual Report, the majority of the major risks outlined are the result of either Dodd-Frank itself or misinformed government policy. The most prominent delineation is the lack of “housing finance reform”. In a case of disturbing cognitive dissonance, the FSOC praises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for again providing affordable housing, however it also harshly criticises an increased level of mortgage industry risk. At the very least, the report does finally admit that the liquidity support programs dispersed in the Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008 has led to a rise in moral hazard. Other than that isolated statement, however, the FSOC has only created another burden in the finance industry without providing any actual benefit.

Another mess is the regulatory environment governing systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). If a firm is found to be integral to the function of the US financial system (“too-big-to-fail”), then the FSOC will implement capital, leverage, and liquidity requirements. While originally intended for banks, the scope of the regulations has already expanded to include AIG, GE Capital, and Prudential Financial. To make matters even worse, the Council is also considering the inclusion of mutual fund firms such as BlackRock, Fidelity and PIMCO. These burdens have greatly increased inefficiency to the point that MetLife, another firm awaiting SIFI designation, has filed several lawsuits and GE Capital is in the process of a spinoff to decrease inhibiting levels of overhead.

The most important rule, and perhaps the most infamous, is the Volcker rule, which places a ban on proprietary trading by financial institutions. The rule is not just misguided. It will serve as a catalyst for the next financial crisis. Bank analysts and even some regulators have become increasingly concerned with a lack of liquidity in fixed-income asset markets, particularly that of corporate bonds. This has already resulted in a surge in market volatility, demonstrated by the upward trend of the the VIX over the past several months. This instability can quickly place global markets in a quagmire when the current US equity bubble bursts.

As stated in previous posts, the next financial crisis should be an opportunity for sound regulatory reform, not a window of cheap political gain. When it hits, regulators will first blame financial markets and demand more control over them. Based on this current set of laws, the United States will need to learn its lesson, as it clearly failed to do so after the 2000s housing bubble. The push for government consolidation of markets must be resisted and replaced with a policy that promotes long-term economic stability.

Overinflated and Bursting: Growth Prospects of the US, China, and Global Trade

The port of Singapore is the world's largest transshipment port. Global trade growth is projected to clock in at 3.2% in 2015, the worst performance since the Great Recession.
The port of Singapore, depicted, is the world’s largest transshipment port. Global trade growth is projected to clock in at 3.2% in 2015, the worst performance since the Great Recession.

The International Monetary Fund has again cut its forecast for global GDP growth in its World Economic Outlook, which is now only 3.1%, a decrease of 30 bps from 2014. This is during a time in which the vast majority of the world’s central banks have lowered their discount rate, with some even adopting NIRP. To complicate matters even more, the European Central Bank is in the process of massive quantitative easing program, while the Bank of Japan is anticipated to resume theirs towards the end of October.

This week global growth is based almost solely on asset bubbles created by the economic distortions of central banks. The Federal Reserve in the United States is perhaps the most infamous example, when it purchased $3.7 trillion in securities through open market operations in three rounds of QE from 2009 to 2014. Equity markets in the US are still in this bubble, albeit without quantitative easing, the bull market is beginning to reflect signs of subsiding.

The fundamentals of the US economy are disturbingly weak during this expansion, leaving many to wonder if the Federal Reserve will raise the federal funds rate in the next FOMC meeting. PCE is currently at 0.3% on an annualised basis, far below the level the Fed would consider optimal for raising rates. The latest BLS report was an abject disappointment with only 142,000 jobs added in September and labour force participation diving to a 38-year low of 62.4%. Considering these reports, it is unlikely that a rate hike will occur, however if it does, it will most likely be a small 25 bps, which could place this current bubble in jeopardy.

Projections from the IMF report peg US GDP growth at 2.6% in 2014. This will be strenuously difficult to achieve, as the latest data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow index nowcast third quarter growth at 0.9% annualised, combined with 0.6% in Q1 and 3.9% in Q2.

A large feature of the WEO focuses on the state of the Chinese economy. The nation recently underwent the correction of a bubble in the equity market, which quickly prompted liquidity support and trading restrictions from the People’s Bank of China and China Securities Regulatory Commission, respectively. Despite these measures, the Shanghai Composite rests at just over 3,000 at 6 October market closing, equal to the trough evident in late August. Li Keqiang stated on 10 September that the PBOC will not begin a quantitative easing program, which signifies that the Communist Party has finally obtained an elementary level of competence. Due to this burst and subsequent slowdown, the report projects Chinese GDP to grow at under 7% in 2015, the rate long regarded as a technical support.

The highlight of the WEO also the most depressing inclusion. Global trade, which is less affected by myopic actions of central banks, is predicted to grow at only 3.4% in 2015. This level is the lowest seen since the end of the financial crisis of 2008-09 and is unconventionally low during an economic expansion. Global trade has grown significantly faster than other components of the world economy due to increasing levels of globalisation. Growth rates this low reflect that GDP growth is propped up only by central banks.

Despite the plead of many economists, global central banks have continued easing their monetary policy, the only exception being the Reserve Bank of India, and have produced asset bubbles combined with economic stagnation as a result. Many problems facing the world economy, ranging from overregulation to high welfare spending to a lack of property rights, will not be rectified, as the motives for reform are greatly inhibited by the constant cycles promulgated by central banks. While another financial crisis is not the most desirable outcome, it is the only way to restore the proper function of price discovery and create a pathway for policy reform, both from central bank and government.

NASDAQ 5,000: Are We In Another Bubble?

The NASDAQ 5000 has increased exponentially since the trough of the Great Recession despite low economic growth, leading to the consensus that Fed policy has created another asset bubble.
The NASDAQ Composite has increased exponentially since the trough of the Great Recession despite low economic growth, leading to the consensus that Fed policy has created another asset bubble. Many bull market economists dispute this view, mirroring thoughts during the height of the dot-com bubble.

Given the poor economic performance of the United States in recent years, it surprises many that the NASDAQ Composite has nearly returned to its highs during the dot-com era, which was the longest economic expansion in US history. This regained milestone also poses another question: is the US economy currently experiencing a market bubble?

The March 1991 to March 2001 economic expansion was the longest and largest of any in United States history. US GDP grew at above 4% annually in 1997 (4.5%), 1998 (4.5%), 1999 (4.8%), and 2000 (4.1%). The NASDAQ Composite reached an intraday high of 5132.52 on 10 March 2000, before diving to 1108.49 on 18 October 2002. The combination of the failure of FCC-mandated CLECs, burst of the dot-com bubble, and a flurry of accounting scandals (Tyco, WorldCom, Enron) weighed heavily on the technology-dominated index.

It should not shock many that the US’s economic performance is more dismal than during the dot-com boom. GDP growth was 2.4% in 2014, and has never reached above 3% since the Great Recession. Despite this, the massive accumulation of corporate debt in recent years (especially in the technology sector) mirrors the same trend during the financial crisis. Overvaluations and high price-to-earnings ratios concern many economists.

Peter Schiff, CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, voiced that Uber’s latest $41 billion “valuation is absurd. And there’s a lot of companies like Uber that are sporting these billion-dollar market caps.”  Wild overvaluations are not the only symptom of the current bubble. There’s been a major move to more speculative investments due to low interest rates. This is evidenced by the recent rise in stock buybacks that public companies have facilitated. After accounting for inflation, many savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and Treasury securities generate negative real returns. This will later end in financial capitulation, or flight to quality, as traders will be forced to expunge riskier assets from their portfolio after the bubble bursts.

The Federal Reserve’s $3.7 trillion quantitate easing program was aimed to stimulate investment after the Great Recession by purchasing bank debt, mortgage-backed securities, and Treasury notes. QE has clearly pushed up asset prices above equilibrium levels, causing massive amounts of malinvestment in the economy. The Fed’s only option is to facilitate a discount rate increase within the next year, thus bursting the current bubble.

Economic conditions revolve less around timing of interest rate increases than Fed response to the ensuing financial crisis due to cash flow management difficulties that arise from an increase in debt service costs, among other results aforementioned. My worry is that the FOMC will use the downturn to begin QE4, creating another asset bubble. Poor policy by the Fed in recent years has made many reconsider the central bank’s role in the economy, for better or worse. Perhaps optimal monetary policy will one day set the stage for solid, real economic growth.