Prices Keep Falling

Suga-san’s ascent
Has not altered the landscape
Prices keep falling

The distance between stated economic goals and actual economic outcomes remains wide as the economic impact of the many pandemic inspired government ordered lockdowns continues to be felt around the world.  The latest example comes from Japan, where August’s CPI readings fell, as expected, to 0.2% Y/Y at the headline level while the ex-fresh food measure (the one the BOJ prefers) fell to -0.4%.  Although pundits in the US have become fond of ridiculing the Fed’s efforts at raising inflation to 2.0%, especially given their inability to do so since defining that level as stable prices in 2012, to see real ineptitude, one must turn east and look at the BOJ’s track record on inflation.  In the land of the rising sun, the favored measure of CPI ex-fresh food has averaged 0.5% for the last 35 years!  The point is the Fed is not the first, nor only, central bank to fail in its mission to generate inflation via monetary policy.

(As an aside, it is an entirely different argument to discuss the merits of seeking to drive inflation higher to begin with, as there is a strong case to be made that limited inflation is a necessary condition for economic success at the national level.)  But 2.0% inflation has become the global central banking mantra. And though the favored inflation measure across nations often differs, the one key similarity is that every G10 nation, as well as many in the emerging markets, has been unable to achieve their goal.  The few exceptions are those nations like Venezuela, Argentina and Turkey that have the opposite problem, soaring inflation and no ability to control that.

But back to Japan, where decades of futility on the inflation front have put paid to the idea that printing money is all that is needed to generate rising prices.  The missing ingredient for all central banks is that they need to pump money into places that result in lending and spending, not simply asset purchases, or those excess funds will simply sit on bank balance sheets with no impact.

Remember, GDP growth, in the long run, comes from a combination of population growth and productivity growth.  Japan has the misfortune, in this case, of being one of the few nations on earth where the population is actually shrinking.  It is also the oldest nation, meaning the average and median age is higher there than any other country on earth (except Monaco which really doesn’t matter in this context).  The point here is that as people age, they tend to consume less stuff, spending less money and therefore driving less growth in the economy.  It is these two factors that will prevent Japan from achieving a much higher rate of inflation until such time as the country’s demographics change.  A new Prime Minister will not solve this problem, regardless of what policies he supports and implements.

Keeping this in mind, the idea that Japan is far more likely to cope with ongoing deflation rather than rising inflation, if we turn our attention to how that impacts the Japanese yen, we quickly realize that the currency is likely to appreciate over time.  Dusting off your Finance 101 textbooks, you will see that inflation has the side effect of weakening a nation’s currency, which quickly feeds into driving further inflation.  Adding to this impact is if the nation runs a current account deficit, which is generally the case when inflation is high and rising.  Harking back to Argentina and Venezuela, this is exactly the behavior we see in those economies.  The flip side of that, though, is that deflation should lead to a nation’s currency appreciating.  This is especially so when that nation runs a current account surplus.  And of course, you cannot find a nation that fits that bill better than Japan (well maybe Switzerland).  The upshot of this is, further JPY appreciation seems to be an extremely likely outcome.  Therefore, as long as prices cease to rise in Japan, there will be upward pressure on the currency.  We have seen this for years, and there is no reason for it to stop now.

Of course, as I always remind everyone, FX is a relative game, so it matters a great deal what is happening in both nations on a relative basis.  And in this case, when comparing the US, where prices are rising and the current account has been in deficit for the past two decades, and Japan, where prices are falling and the current account has been in surplus for the past four decades, the outcome seems clear.  However, the market is already aware of that situation and so the current level of USDJPY reflects that information.  However, as we look ahead, either negative surprises in Japanese prices or positive surprises in the US are going to be important drivers in the FX market.  This is likely to be seen in interest rate spreads, which have narrowed significantly since March when the Fed cut rates aggressively but have stabilized lately.  If the Fed is, in fact, going to put forth the easiest monetary policy around, then a further narrowing of this spread is quite possible, if not likely, and further JPY appreciation will ultimately be the result.  This is what we have seen broadly since the middle of 2015, a steady trend lower in USDJPY, and there is no reason to believe that is going to change.

Whew!  That turned out to be more involved than I expected at the start.  So let me quickly survey the situation today.  Risk is under modest pressure generally, although there were several equity markets that put in a good performance overnight.  After a weak US session, Asia saw modest gains in most places (Nikkei +0.2%, Hang Seng +0.5%) although Shanghai (+2.1%) was quite strong.  European markets are far less convinced of the positives with the DAX (+0.4%) and CAC (-0.1%) not showing much movement, and some of the fringe markets (Spain -1.3%) having a bit more difficulty.  US futures are mixed, although the top performer is the NASDAQ (+0.4%).

Bond markets continue to trade in a tight range, as central bank purchases offset ongoing issuance by governments, and we are going to need some new news or policies to change this story.  Something like an increase in the ECB’s PEPP program, or the BOE increasing its purchases will be necessary to change this, as the Fed is already purchasing a huge amount of paper each month.

And finally, the rest of the FX market shows that the dollar is broadly, but not universally under pressure.  G10 activity shows that NZD (+0.4%) is the leader, although JPY (+0.3%) is having another good day, while NOK (-0.25%) is the laggard.  But as can be seen by the modest movements, and given the fact it is Friday, this is likely position adjustments rather than data driven.

In the EMG space, KRW (+1.2%) was the biggest gainer overnight, which was hard to explain based on outside influences.  The KOSPI rose 0.25%, hardly a huge rally, and interest rates were unchanged.  The best estimate here is that ongoing strength in China is seen as a distinct positive for the won, as South Korea remains highly dependent on the mainland for economic activity.  Beyond the won, though, while there were more gainers than losers, the size of movement was not that significant.

On the data front, speaking of the current account, we see the Q2 reading this morning (exp -$160.0B), as well as Leading Indicators (1.3%) and Michigan Sentiment (75.0).  We also hear from three Fed speakers (Bullard, Bostic and Kashkari) but having just heard from Powell on Wednesday, it seems unlikely they will give us any new information. Rather, today appears to be a consolidation day, with marginal movements as weak positions get unwound into the weekend.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe