Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Will The Bernank Skip QE3 and Proceed Directly to GOLD REVALUATION?

Many (ourselves included) were surprised yesterday when The Bernank failed to publicly announce QE3 with his Jackson Hole FOMC statement.
While we believe that QE will continue and in fact INCREASE SUBSTANTIALLY from current levels, we also believe that at some point, The Bernank will pull the final weapon out of his deflation fighting toolbox:
Gold Revaluation.

Is it possible that The Bernank has finally concluded that QE is ineffective, and is now preparing to bypass QE3, and proceed with GOLD REVALUATION?

Again, for those who are unfamiliar with this concept, we again present a few important quotes from the chairperson's famous 1999 Princeton speech on tools to fight deflation.
Some quotes of note from the speech:

"Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in
1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end,
the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take—-
namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency
to promote monetary easing

"Among the more important monetary-policy mistakes (of Japan) were:
..the failure to ease adequately during the 1991-94 period, as asset prices, the banking system, and the economy declined precipitously."

"What more could the BOJ do? Isn’t Japan stuck in what Keynes called a “liquidity trap”?
I will argue here that, to the contrary, there is much that the
Bank of Japan, in cooperation with other government agencies, could do
to help promote economic recovery in Japan.

For those with more time on their hands, here is the full speech:

Japanese Monetary Policy: A Case of Self-Induced Paralysis?
Ben S. Bernanke (The Bernank)
Princeton University
December 1999

* For presentation at the ASSA meetings, Boston MA, January 9, 2000. I
wish to thank Refet Gurkaynak for expert research assistance.
The Japanese economy continues in a deep recession. The short-range
IMF forecast is that, as of the last quarter of 1999, Japanese
real GDP will be 4.6% below its potential. This number is itself a
mild improvement over a year earlier, when the IMF estimated Japanese
GDP at 5.6% below potential. A case can be made, however, that these
figures significantly underestimate the output losses created by the
protracted slump. From the beginning of the 1980s through 1991Q4, a
period during which Japanese real economic growth had already declined
markedly from the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, real GDP in Japan
grew by nearly 3.8% per year. In contrast, from 1991Q4 through 1999Q4
the rate of growth of real GDP was less than 0.9% per year. If growth
during the 1991-1999 period had been even 2.5% per year, Japanese real
GDP in 1999 would have been 13.6% higher than the value actually
Some perspective is in order. Although, as we will see, there
are some analogies between the policy mistakes made by Japanese
officials in recent years and the mistakes made by policymakers around
the world during the 1930s, Japan’s current economic situation is not
1 A major source of the difference in my calculation and the IMF
calculation is that the IMF bases its potential output estimate on the
actual current value of the capital stock. Relatively low investment
rates throughout the 1990s have resulted in a lower Japanese capital
stock than would have been the case if growth and investment had
followed more normal patterns. I thank Paula DeMasi of the IMF for
providing their data.
remotely comparable to that of the United States, Germany, and numerous
other countries during the Great Depression. The Japanese standard of
living remains among the highest in the world, and poverty and open
unemployment remain low. These facts, and Japan’s basic economic
strengths—-including a high saving rate, a skilled labor force, and an
advanced manufacturing sector—-should not be overlooked. Still, Japan
also faces important long-term economic problems, such as the aging of
its workforce, and the failure of the economy to achieve its full
potential during the 1990s may in some sense be more costly to the
country in the future than it is today. Japan’s weakness has also
imposed economic costs on its less affluent neighbors, who look to
Japan both as a market for their goods and as a source of investment.
The debate about the ultimate causes of the prolonged Japanese
slump has been heated. There are questions, for example, about whether
the Japanese economic model, constrained as it is by the inherent
conservatism of a society that places so much value on consensus, is
well-equipped to deal with the increasing pace of technological,
social, and economic change we see in the world today. The problems of
the Japanese banking system, for example, can be interpreted as arising
in part from the collision of a traditional, relationship-based
financial system with the forces of globalization, deregulation, and
technological innovation (Hoshi and Kashyap, forthcoming). Indeed, it
seems fairly safe to say that, in the long run, Japan’s economic
success will depend largely on whether the country can achieve a
structural transformation that increases its economic flexibility and
openness to change, without sacrificing its traditional strengths.
In the short-to-medium run, however, macroeconomic policy has
played, and will continue to play, a major role in Japan’s
macroeconomic (mis)fortunes. My focus in this essay will be on
monetary policy in particular.2 Although it is not essential to the
arguments I want to make—-which concern what monetary policy should do
now, not what it has done in the past—-I tend to agree with the
conventional wisdom that attributes much of Japan’s current dilemma to
exceptionally poor monetary policy-making over the past fifteen years
(see Bernanke and Gertler, 1999, for a formal econometric analysis).
Among the more important monetary-policy mistakes were 1) the failure
to tighten policy during 1987-89, despite evidence of growing
inflationary pressures, a failure that contributed to the development
of the “bubble economy”; 2) the apparent attempt to “prick” the stock
market bubble in 1989-91, which helped to induce an asset-price crash;
and 3) the failure to ease adequately during the 1991-94 period, as
asset prices, the banking system, and the economy declined
precipitously. Bernanke and Gertler (1999) argue that if the Japanese
monetary policy after 1985 had focused on stabilizing aggregate demand
and inflation, rather than being distracted by the exchange rate or
asset prices, the results would have been much better.
Bank of Japan officials would not necessarily deny that monetary
policy has some culpability for the current situation. But they would
also argue that now, at least, the Bank of Japan is doing all it can to
promote economic recovery. For example, in his vigorous defense of
current Bank of Japan (BOJ) policies, Okina (1999, p. 1) applauds the
“BOJ’s historically unprecedented accommodative monetary policy”. He
refers, of course, to the fact that the BOJ has for some time now
pursued a policy of setting the call rate, its instrument rate,
virtually at zero, its practical floor. Having pushed monetary ease to
2 Posen (1998) discusses the somewhat spotty record of Japanese fiscal
policy; see especially his Chapter 2.
its seeming limit, what more could the BOJ do? Isn’t Japan stuck in
what Keynes called a “liquidity trap”?
I will argue here that, to the contrary, there is much that the
Bank of Japan, in cooperation with other government agencies, could do
to help promote economic recovery in Japan. Most of my arguments will
not be new to the policy board and staff of the BOJ, which of course
has discussed these questions extensively. However, their responses,
when not confused or inconsistent, have generally relied on various
technical or legal objections—-objections which, I will argue, could be
overcome if the will to do so existed. My objective here is not to
score academic debating points. Rather it is to try in a
straightforward way to make the case that, far from being powerless,
the Bank of Japan could achieve a great deal if it were willing to
abandon its excessive caution and its defensive response to criticism.
Diagnosis: An Aggregate Demand Deficiency
Before discussing ways in which Japanese monetary policy could
become more expansionary, I will briefly discuss the evidence for the
view that a more expansionary monetary policy is needed. As already
suggested, I do not deny that important structural problems, in the
financial system and elsewhere, are helping to constrain Japanese
growth. But I also believe that there is compelling evidence that the
Japanese economy is also suffering today from an aggregate demand
deficiency. If monetary policy could deliver increased nominal
spending, some of the difficult structural problems that Japan faces
would no longer seem so difficult.
Tables 1 through 3 contain some basic macroeconomic data for the
1991-99 period that bear on the questions of the adequacy of aggregate
demand and the stance of monetary policy. The data in Table 1 provide
the strongest support for the view that aggregate demand is too low,
and that the net impact of Japanese monetary and fiscal policies has
been and continues to be deflationary. Columns (1)-(3) of the table
show standard measures of price inflation, based on the GDP deflator,
the PCE deflator, and the CPI (ex fresh food), respectively.
Considering the most comprehensive measure, the GDP deflator, we see
that inflation has been less than 1.0% in every year since 1991 and has
been negative in four of those years. Cumulative inflation, as
measured by the GDP deflator, has been effectively zero since 1991: In
Table 1. Measures of inflation in Japan, 1991-1999
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
GDP PCE CPI Nominal Monthly
Year deflator deflator deflator GDP earnings
(% change) (% change) (% change) (% change) (% change)
1991 2.89 2.43 2.30 6.36 2.84
1992 0.94 1.44 2.08 2.74 1.78
1993 0.44 0.96 0.91 0.92 1.82
1994 -0.62 0.60 0.50 0.81 2.70
1995 -0.38 -0.90 0.07 0.82 1.87
1996 -2.23 0.34 0.30 3.48 1.87
1997 0.82 1.55 2.23 1.85 0.81
1998 0.01 0.33 -0.32 -2.21 -0.10
1999 -0.66 -0.38 0.00 -0.97 NA
Notes: Columns (1)-(4): Alternative inflation rates and nominal GDP growth
are measured fourth quarter to fourth quarter, except for 1999, which (due to
data availability) is second quarter over second quarter for (1)-(2) and
third quarter over third quarter for (3)-(4). The CPI excludes fresh foods.
Column (5): The rate of change of nominal monthly earnings is measured fourth
quarter to fourth quarter. Data in all tables are from public sources.
the fourth quarter of 1991 the GDP deflator stood at 106, compared to a
value of 105 in the second quarter of 1999, the latest number I have
Inflation has been slightly higher in the consumer sector, as
measured by the rate of change of the PCE deflator and the CPI, but
even there since 1991 inflation has exceeded 1% only twice, in 1992 and
in 1997. Moreover, according to all three inflation indicators, the
rate of price increase has slowed still further since 1997. Taken
together with the anemic performance of real GDP, shown in Table 2,
column (5), the slow or even negative rate of price increase points
strongly to a diagnosis of aggregate demand deficiency. Note that if
Japan’s slow growth were due entirely to structural problems on the
supply side, inflation rather than deflation would probably be in
As always, it is important to maintain a historical perspective
and resist hyperbole. In particular, the recent Japanese experience is
in no way comparable to the brutal 10%-per-year deflation that ravaged
the United States and other economies in the early stage of the Great
Depression. Perhaps more salient, it must be admitted that there have
been many periods (for example, under the classical gold standard or
the price-level-targeting regime of interwar Sweden) in which zero
inflation or slight deflation coexisted with reasonable prosperity. I
will say more below about why, in the context of contemporary Japan,
the behavior of the price level has probably had an important adverse
effect on real activity. For now I only note that countries which
currently target inflation, either explicitly (such as the United
Kingdom or Sweden) or implicitly (the United States) have tended to set
their goals for inflation in the 2-3% range, with the floor of the
range as important a constraint as the ceiling (see Bernanke, Laubach,
Mishkin, and Posen, 1999, for a discussion.)
Alternative indicators of the growth of nominal aggregate demand
are given by the growth rates of nominal GDP (Table 1, column 4) and of
nominal monthly earnings (Table 1, column 5). Again the picture is
consistent with an economy in which nominal aggregate demand is growing
too slowly for the patient’s health. It is remarkable, for example,
that nominal GDP grew by less than 1% per annum in 1993, 1994, and
1995, and actually declined by more than two percentage points in 1998.
Again, as with the inflation measures in columns (1)-(3), there is
evidence of even greater deflationary pressure since 1997.
Table 2 provides some additional macroeconomic indicators for
Japan for the 1991-99 period. Columns (1) and (2) of the table show
the nominal yen-dollar rate and the real yen-dollar rate, respectively.
The yen has generally strengthened over the period, which is consistent
with the deflationist thesis. As I will discuss further below, even
more striking is the surge of the yen since 1998, a period that has
coincided with weak aggregate demand growth and a slumping real economy
in Japan. As column (2) shows, however, the fact that inflation in
Japan has been lower than in the United States has left the real terms
of trade relatively stable. My interpretation is that the trajectory
of the yen during the 1990s is indicative of strong deflationary
pressures in Japan, but that a too-strong yen has not itself been a
major contributor to deflation, except perhaps very recently.
Columns (3) and (4) of Table 2 shows rates of change in the prices of
two important assets, land and stocks. As is well known, the stock
market (column 4) has fallen sharply from its peak and has been quite
volatile. The behavior of land prices (column 3), which is less often
cited, is particularly striking: Since 1992 land prices have
Table 2. Additional economic indicators for Japan, 1991-1999
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Yen/$ Real Yen/$ Land prices Stock prices Real GDP
Year rate rate (% change) (% change) (% change)
1991 129.5 72.2 0.55 2.38 2.41
1992 123.0 69.4 -5.11 -32.03 0.14
1993 108.1 62.4 -5.13 16.91 0.47
1994 98.8 58.5 -3.82 0.47 0.66
1995 101.5 61.5 -4.30 -4.90 2.49
1996 112.8 71.2 -4.43 5.47 4.66
1997 125.2 79.6 -3.62 -20.85 -0.61
1998 119.8 77.0 -4.38 -15.37 -2.94
1999 113.6 78.3 -5.67 23.00 0.91
Notes: Columns (1)-(2): Exchange rates are fourth-quarter average, except for
1999, for which nominal exchange rate is for third quarter and real exchange
rate is for second quarter. Real exchange rate is relative to 1978:1 = 100.
Columns (3)-(5): Land price is nationwide index, stock prices are TOPIX
index. Percentage changes are fourth quarter over fourth quarter, except for
1999 which is third quarter over third quarter.
fallen by something between 3% and 6% in every year. To be clear, it
is most emphatically not good practice for monetary policymakers to try
to target asset prices directly (Bernanke and Gertler, 1999).
Nevertheless, the declining nominal values of these assets, like the
behavior of the yen, are also indicative of the deflationary forces
acting on the Japanese economy.
So far we have looked at broad macroeconomic indicators. Table 3
provides some measures more directly related to the stance of monetary
policy itself. The first three columns of Table 3 show fourth-quarter
values (1991-99) for three key nominal interest rates: the call rate
(the BOJ’s instrument rate), the short-term prime rate, and the long9
Table 3. Monetary indicators for Japan, 1991-1999
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Call Prime rate, Prime rate, Monetary base M2 + CDs
Year rate short-term long-term (% change) (% change)
1991 6.45 6.88 6.95 2.89 2.14
1992 3.91 4.71 5.59 1.39 -0.54
1993 2.48 3.29 4.05 3.94 1.56
1994 2.27 3.00 4.90 4.12 2.64
1995 0.46 1.63 2.80 6.20 2.93
1996 0.48 1.63 2.74 6.78 3.17
1997 0.46 1.63 2.35 8.18 3.22
1998 0.23 1.50 2.29 6.34 4.43
1999 0.03 1.38 2.20 5.61 3.51
Notes: Columns (1)-(3): Interest rates are fourth-quarter averages, thirdquarter
average for 1999. Columns (4)-(5): Percentage changes are fourth
quarter over fourth quarter, except for 1999, which is third quarter over
third quarter.
term prime rate. Prime rates are affected by conditions in the banking
market as well as monetary policy, of course, and they may not always
fully reflect actual lending rates and terms; but they are probably
more indicative of private-sector borrowing costs than are government
bill and bond rates. Columns (4) and (5) show, respectively, the
fourth-quarter-to-fourth-quarter growth rates of the monetary base and
of M2 plus CDs, the broader monetary aggregate most often used as an
indicator by the Japanese monetary authorities.
A glance at Table 3 suggests that the stance of monetary policy
has been somewhat different since 1995 than in the 1991-94 period. As
mentioned earlier, there seems to be little debate even in Japan that
monetary policy during 1991-94 was too tight, reacting too slowly to
the deflationary forces unleashed by the asset-price crash. Interest
rates came down during this period, but rather slowly, and growth of
both narrow and broad money was weak. However, one can see that there
has been an apparent change in policy since 1995: In that year the
call rate fell to under 0.5%, on its way down to effectively a zero
rate today, and lending rates fell as well. The fall in the nominal
interest rate was accompanied by noticeable increases in the rates of
money growth, particularly in the monetary base, in the past five
Monetary authorities in Japan have cited data like the 1995-99
figures in Table 3 in defense of their current policies. Two distinct
arguments have been made: First, that policy indicators show that
monetary policy in Japan is today quite expansionary in its thrust—-
“historically unprecedented accommodative monetary policy”, in the
words of Okina quoted earlier. Second, even if monetary policy is not
truly as expansionary as would be desirable, there is no feasible way
of loosening further—-the putative liquidity trap problem. I will
address each of these two arguments in turn (the second in more detail
in the next section).
The argument that current monetary policy in Japan is in fact
quite accommodative rests largely on the observation that interest
rates are at a very low level. I do hope that readers who have gotten
this far will be sufficiently familiar with monetary history not to
take seriously any such claim based on the level of the nominal
interest rate. One need only recall that nominal interest rates
remained close to zero in many countries throughout the Great
Depression, a period of massive monetary contraction and deflationary
pressure. In short, low nominal interest rates may just as well be a
sign of expected deflation and monetary tightness as of monetary ease.
A more respectable version of the argument focuses on the real
interest rate. With the rate of deflation under 1% in 1999, and the
call rate effectively at zero, the realized real call rate for 1999
will be under 1%, significantly less than, say, the real federal funds
rate in the United States for the same period. Is this not evidence
that monetary policy in Japan is in fact quite accommodative?
I will make two responses to the real-interest-rate argument.
First, I agree that the low real interest rate is evidence that
monetary policy is not the primary source of deflationary pressure in
Japan today, in the way that (for example) the policies of Fed Chairman
Paul Volcker were the primary source of disinflationary pressures in
the United States in the early 1980s (a period of high real interest
rates). But neither is the low real interest rate evidence that
Japanese monetary policy is doing all that it can to offset
deflationary pressures arising from other causes (I have in mind in
particular the effects of the collapse in asset prices and the banking
problems on consumer spending and investment spending). In textbook
IS-LM terms, sharp reductions in consumption and investment spending
have shifted the IS curve in Japan to the left, lowering the real
interest rate for any given stance of monetary policy. Although
monetary policy may not be directly responsible for the current
depressed state of aggregate demand in Japan today (leaving aside for
now its role in initiating the slump), it does not follow that it
should not be doing more to assist the recovery.
My second response to the real-interest-rate argument is to note
that today’s real interest rate may not be a sufficient statistic for
the cumulative effects of tight monetary policy on the economy. I will
illustrate by discussing a mechanism that is highly relevant in Japan
today, the so-called “balance-sheet channel of monetary policy”
(Bernanke and Gertler, 1995). Consider a hypothetical small borrower
who took out a loan in 1991 with some land as collateral. The longterm
prime rate at the end of 1991 was 6.95% (Table 1, column 3).3 Such
a borrower would have been justified, we may speculate, in expecting
inflation between 2% and 3% over the life of the loan (even in this
case, he would have been paying an expected real rate of 4-5%), as well
as increases in nominal land prices approximating the safe rate of
interest at the time, say 5% per year. Of course, as Tables 1 and 2
show, the borrower’s expectations would have been radically
To take an admittedly extreme case, suppose that the borrower’s
loan was still outstanding in 1999, and that at loan initiation he had
expected a 2.5% annual rate of increase in the GDP deflator and a 5%
annual rate of increase in land prices. Then by 1999 the real value of
his principal obligation would be 22% higher, and the real value of his
collateral some 42% lower, then he anticipated when he took out the
loan. These adverse balance-sheet effects would certainly impede the
borrower’s access to new credit and hence his ability to consume or
make new investments. The lender, faced with a non-performing loan and
the associated loss in financial capital, might also find her ability
to make new loans to be adversely affected.
This example illustrates why one might want to consider
indicators other than the current real interest rate—-for example, the
cumulative gap between the actual and the expected price level—-in
assessing the effects of monetary policy. It also illustrates why zero
inflation or mild deflation is potentially more dangerous in the modern
environment than it was, say, in the classical gold standard era. The
modern economy makes much heavier use of credit, especially longer-term
3 And note that this rate was still 4.90% at the end of 1994.
credit, than the economies of the nineteenth century. Further, unlike
the earlier period, rising prices are the norm and are reflected in
nominal-interest-rate setting to a much greater degree. Although
deflation was often associated with weak business conditions in the
nineteenth century, the evidence favors the view that deflation or even
zero inflation is far more dangerous today than it was a hundred years
The second argument that defenders of Japanese monetary policy
make, drawing on data like that in Table 3, is as follows: “Perhaps
past monetary policy is to some extent responsible for the current
state of affairs. Perhaps additional stimulus to aggregate demand
would be desirable at this time. Unfortunately, further monetary
stimulus is no longer feasible. Monetary policy is doing all that it
can do.” To support this view, its proponents could point to two
aspects of Table 3: first, the fact that the BOJ’s nominal instrument
rate (column 1) is now zero, its lowest possible value. Second, that
accelerated growth in base money since 1995 (column 4) has not led to
equivalent increases in the growth of broad money (column 5)—-a result,
it might be argued, of the willingness of commercial banks to hold
indefinite quantities of excess reserves rather than engage in new
lending or investment activity. Both of these facts seem to support
the claim that Japanese monetary policy is in an old-fashioned
Keynesian liquidity trap (Krugman, 1999).
It is true that current monetary conditions in Japan limit the
effectiveness of standard open-market operations. However, as I will
argue in the remainder of the paper, liquidity trap or no, monetary
policy retains considerable power to expand nominal aggregate demand.
Our diagnosis of what ails the Japanese economy implies that these
actions could do a great deal to end the ten-year slump.
How to Get Out of a Liquidity Trap
Contrary to the claims of at least some Japanese central bankers,
monetary policy is far from impotent today in Japan. In this section I
will discuss some options that the monetary authorities have to
stimulate the economy.4 Overall, my claim has two parts: First, that—-
despite the apparent liquidity trap—-monetary policymakers retain the
power to increase nominal aggregate demand and the price level.
Second, that increased nominal spending and rising prices will lead to
increases in real economic activity. The second of these propositions
is empirical but seems to me overwhelmingly plausible; I have already
provided some support for it in the discussion of the previous section.
The first part of my claim will be, I believe, the more contentious
one, and it is on that part that the rest of the paper will focus.
However, in my view one can make what amounts to an arbitrage argument
—-the most convincing type of argument in an economic context—-that it
must be true.
The general argument that the monetary authorities can increase
aggregate demand and prices, even if the nominal interest rate is zero,
is as follows: Money, unlike other forms of government debt, pays zero
interest and has infinite maturity. The monetary authorities can issue
as much money as they like. Hence, if the price level were truly
independent of money issuance, then the monetary authorities could use
the money they create to acquire indefinite quantities of goods and
assets. This is manifestly impossible in equilibrium. Therefore money
issuance must ultimately raise the price level, even if nominal
interest rates are bounded at zero. This is an elementary argument,
but, as we will see, it is quite corrosive of claims of monetary
Rather than discuss the issues further in the abstract, I now
consider some specific policy options of which the Japanese monetary
authorities might now avail themselves. Before beginning, I add two
more caveats: First, though I discuss a number of possible options
below, I do not believe by any means that all of them must be put into
practice to have a positive effect. Indeed, as I will discuss, I
believe that a policy of aggressive depreciation of the yen would by
itself probably suffice to get the Japanese economy moving again.
Second, I am aware that several of the proposals to be discussed are
either not purely monetary in nature, or require some cooperation by
agencies other than the Bank of Japan, including perhaps the Diet
itself. Regarding the concern that not all these proposals are “pure”
monetary policy, I will say only that I am not here concerned with fine
semantic distinctions but rather with the fundamental issue of whether
there exist feasible policies to stimulate nominal aggregate demand in
Japan. As to the need for inter-agency cooperation or even possible
legislative changes: In my view, in recent years BOJ officials have—-
to a far greater degree than is justified—-hidden behind minor
institutional or technical difficulties in order to avoid taking
action. I will discuss some of these purported barriers to effective
action as they arise, arguing that in many if not most cases they could
be overcome without excessive difficulty, given the will to do so.
4 For further discussion of monetary policy options when the nominal
interest rate is close to zero, see Clouse, Henderson, Orphanides,
Small, and Tinsley (1999).
Commitment to zero rates—-with an inflation target
In February 1999 the Bank of Japan adopted what amounts to a
zero-interest-rate policy. Further, to the BOJ’s credit, it has since
also announced that the zero rate will be maintained for some time to
come, at least “until deflationary concerns subside”, in the official
formulation. Ueda (1999) explains (p. 1), “By the commitment to
maintain the zero rate for some time to come, we have tried to minimize
the uncertainties about future short-term rates, thereby decreasing the
option value of long-term bonds, hence putting negative pressure on
long-term interest rates.” The announcement that the zero rate would
be maintained did in fact have the desired effect on the term
structure, as interest rates on government debt up to one-year maturity
or more fell nearly to zero when the policy was made public.
Government rates up to six years’ maturity also fell, with most issues
yielding under 1%.
The BOJ’s announcement that it would maintain the zero rate
policy for the indefinite future is a positive move that may well prove
helpful. For example, in a simulation study for the United States,
using the FRB/US macroeconometric model, Reifschneider and Williams
(1999) found that tactics of this type—-i.e., compensating for periods
in which the zero bound on interest rates is binding by keeping the
interest rate lower than normal in periods when the constraint is not
binding—-may significantly reduce the costs created by the zero-bound
constraint on the instrument interest rate.
A problem with the current BOJ policy, however, is its vagueness.
What precisely is meant by the phrase “until deflationary concerns
subside”? Krugman (1999) and others have suggested that the BOJ
quantify its objectives by announcing an inflation target, and further
that it be a fairly high target. I agree that this approach would be
helpful, in that it would give private decision-makers more information
about the objectives of monetary policy. In particular, a target in
the 3-4% range for inflation, to be maintained for a number of years,
would confirm not only that the BOJ is intent on moving safely away
from a deflationary regime, but also that it intends to make up some of
the “price-level gap” created by eight years of zero or negative
inflation. Further, setting a quantitative inflation target now would
ease the ultimate transition of Japanese monetary policy into a formal
inflation-targeting framework—-a framework that would have avoided many
of the current troubles, I believe, if it had been in place earlier.
BOJ officials have strongly resisted the suggestion of installing
an explicit inflation target. Their often-stated concern is that
announcing a target that they are not sure they know how to achieve
will endanger the Bank’s credibility; and they have expressed
skepticism that simple announcements can have any effects on
expectations. On the issue of announcement effects, theory and
practice suggest that “cheap talk” can in fact sometimes affect
expectations, particularly when there is no conflict between what a
“player” announces and that player’s incentives. The effect of the
announcement of a sustained zero-interest-rate policy on the term
structure in Japan is itself a perfect example of the potential power
of announcement effects.
With respect to the issue of inflation targets and BOJ
credibility, I do not see how credibility can be harmed by
straightforward and honest dialogue of policymakers with the public.
In stating an inflation target of, say, 3-4%, the BOJ would be giving
the public information about its objectives, and hence the direction in
which it will attempt to move the economy. (And, as I will argue, the
Bank does have tools to move the economy.) But if BOJ officials feel
that, for technical reasons, when and whether they will attain the
announced target is uncertain, they could explain those points to the
public as well. Better that the public knows that the BOJ is doing all
it can to reflate the economy, and that it understands why the Bank is
taking the actions it does. The alternative is that the private sector
be left to its doubts about the willingness or competence of the BOJ to
help the macroeconomic situation.
Depreciation of the yen
We saw in Table 2 that the yen has undergone a nominal
appreciation since 1991, a strange outcome for a country in deep
recession. Even more disturbing is the very strong appreciation that
has occurred since 1998Q3, from about 145 yen/dollar in August 1998 to
102 yen/dollar in December 1999, as the Japanese economy has fallen
back into recession. Since interest rates on yen assets are very low,
this appreciation suggests that speculators are anticipating even
greater rates of deflation and yen appreciation in the future.
I agree with the recommendations of Meltzer (1999) and McCallum
(1999) that the BOJ should attempt to achieve substantial depreciation
of the yen, ideally through large open-market sales of yen. Through
its effects on import-price inflation (which has been sharply negative
in recent years), on the demand for Japanese goods, and on
expectations, a significant yen depreciation would go a long way toward
jump-starting the reflationary process in Japan.
BOJ stonewalling has been particularly pronounced on this issue,
for reasons that are difficult to understand. The BOJ has argued that
it does not have the legal authority to set yen policy; that it would
be unable to reduce the value of the yen in any case; and that even if
it could reduce the value of the yen, political constraints prevent any
significant depreciation. Let’s briefly address the first and third
points, then turn to the more fundamental question of whether the BOJ
could in fact depreciate the yen if it attempted to do so.
On legal authority, it is true that technically the Ministry of
Finance (MOF) retains responsibility for exchange-rate policy. (The
same is true for the U.S., by the way, with the Treasury playing the
role of MOF. I am not aware that this has been an important constraint
on Fed policy.) The obvious solution is for BOJ and MOF to agree that
yen depreciation is needed, abstaining from their ongoing turf wars
long enough to take an action in Japan’s vital economic interest.
Alternatively, the BOJ could probably undertake yen depreciation
unilaterally; as the BOJ has a legal mandate to pursue price stability,
it certainly could make a good argument that, with interest rates at
zero, depreciation of the yen is the best available tool for achieving
its legally mandated objective.
The “political constraints” argument is that, even if
depreciation is possible, any expansion thus achieved will be at the
expense of trading partners—-a so-called “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy.
Defenders of inaction on the yen claim that a large yen depreciation
would therefore create serious international tensions. Whatever
validity this political argument may have had at various times, it is
of no relevance at the current moment, as Japan has recently been urged
by its most powerful allies and trading partners to weaken the yen—-and
refused! Moreover, the economic validity of the “beggar-thy-neighbor”
thesis is doubtful, as depreciation creates trade—-by raising homecountry
income—-as well as diverting it. Perhaps not all those who
cite the “beggar-thy-neighbor” thesis are aware that it had its origins
in the Great Depression, when it was used as an argument against the
very devaluations that ultimately proved crucial to world economic
The important question, of course, is whether a determined Bank
of Japan would be able to depreciate the yen. I am not aware of any
previous historical episode, including the periods of very low interest
rates of the 1930s, in which a central bank has been unable to devalue
its currency. Be that as it may, there are those who claim that the
BOJ is impotent to affect the exchange rate, arguing along the
following lines: Since (it is claimed) domestic monetary expansion has
been made impossible by the liquidity trap, BOJ intervention in foreign
exchange markets would amount, for all practical purposes, to a
sterilized intervention. Empirical studies have often found that
sterilized interventions cannot create sustained appreciations or
depreciations. Therefore the BOJ cannot affect the value of the yen,
except perhaps modestly and temporarily.
To rebut this view, one can apply a reductio ad absurdum
argument, based on my earlier observation that money issuance must
affect prices, else printing money will create infinite purchasing
power. Suppose the Bank of Japan prints yen and uses them to acquire
foreign assets. If the yen did not depreciate as a result, and if
there were no reciprocal demand for Japanese goods or assets (which
would drive up domestic prices), what in principle would prevent the
BOJ from acquiring infinite quantities of foreign assets, leaving
foreigners nothing to hold but idle yen balances? Obviously this will
not happen in equilibrium. One reason it will not happen is the
principle of portfolio balance: Because yen balances are not perfect
substitutes for all other types of real and financial assets,
foreigners will not greatly increase their holdings of yen unless the
yen depreciates, increasing the expected return on yen assets. It
might be objected that the necessary interventions would be large.
Although I doubt it, they might be; that is an empirical question.
However, the larger the intervention that is required, the greater the
associated increase in the BOJ’s foreign reserves, which doesn’t seem
such a bad outcome.
In short, there is a strong presumption that vigorous
intervention by the BOJ, together with appropriate announcements to
influence market expectations, could drive down the value of the yen
significantly. Further, there seems little reason not to try this
strategy. The “worst” that could happen would be that the BOJ would
greatly increase its holdings of reserve assets.
Money-financed transfers
Suppose that the yen depreciation strategy is tried but fails to
raise aggregate demand and prices sufficiently, perhaps because at some
point Japan’s trading partners do object to further falls in the yen.
An alternative strategy, which does not rely at all on trade diversion,
is money-financed transfers to domestic households—-the real-life
equivalent of that hoary thought experiment, the “helicopter drop” of
newly printed money. I think most economists would agree that a large
enough helicopter drop must raise the price level. Suppose it did not,
so that the price level remained unchanged. Then the real wealth of
the population would grow without bound, as they are flooded with gifts
of money from the government—-another variant of the arbitrage argument
made earlier. Surely at some point the public would attempt to convert
its increased real wealth into goods and services, spending that would
increase aggregate demand and prices. Conversion of the public’s money
wealth into other assets would also be beneficial, if it raised the
prices of other assets.
The only counter-argument I can imagine is that the public might
fear a future lump-sum tax on wealth equal to the per capita money
transfer, inducing them to hold rather than spend the extra balances.
But the government has no incentive to take such an action in the
future, and hence the public has no reason to expect it. The newly
circulated cash bears no interest and thus has no budgetary
implications for the government if prices remain unchanged. If instead
prices rise, as we anticipate, the government will face higher nominal
spending requirements but will also enjoy higher nominal tax receipts
and a reduction in the real value of outstanding nominal government
debt. To a first approximation then the helicopter drops will not
erode the financial position of the government and thus will not induce
a need for extraordinary future taxes.
Note that, in contrast, a helicopter drop of government bonds
would not necessarily induce significant extra spending. Even if
government bonds pay essentially zero interest, as they do today in
Japan, if they are of finite maturity then at some point the debt they
represent must be refinanced, possibly at a positive interest rate.
The usual Ricardian logic might then apply, with the public realizing
that the “gift” of government debt they have received is also
associated with higher future tax obligations. Money is in this sense
special; it is not only a zero-interest liability, it is a perpetual
liability. Money-financed transfers do have a resource cost, which is
the inflation tax. But 1) this cost comes into play only as prices
rise, which is the object the policy is trying to achieve, and 2)
again, to a first order the real cost is borne by holders of real
balances, not the government.
Of course, the BOJ has no unilateral authority to rain money on
the population. The policy being proposed—-a money-financed tax cut—-
is a combination of fiscal and monetary policies. All this means is
that some intragovernmental cooperation would be required. Indeed, the
case for a tax cut now has already been made, independent of monetary
considerations (Posen, 1998); the willingness of the BOJ to purchase
government securities equal to the cost of the tax cut would serve to
reduce the net interest cost of the tax cut to the government, possibly
increasing the tax cut’s chance of passage. By the way, I do not think
that such cooperation would in any way compromise the BOJ’s newly won
independence. In financing a tax cut, the BOJ would be taking a
voluntary action in pursuit of its legally mandated goal, the pursuit
of price stability. Cooperation with the fiscal authorities in pursuit
of a common goal is not the same as subservience.
Nonstandard open-market operations
A number of observers have suggested that the BOJ expand its openmarket
operations to a wider range of assets, such as long-term government
bonds or corporate bonds; and indeed, the BOJ has modest plans to purchase
commercial paper, corporate bonds, and asset-backed securities under
repurchase agreements, or to lend allowing these assets as collateral (Ueda,
1999, p. 3). I am not so sure that this alternative is even needed, given
the other options that the BOJ has, but I would like to make a few brief
analytical points about them.
In thinking about nonstandard open-market operations, it is useful to
separate those that have some fiscal component from those that do not. By a
fiscal component I mean some implicit subsidy, such as would arise if the BOJ
purchased nonperforming bank loans at face value, for example (this is of
course equivalent to a fiscal bailout of the banks, financed by the central
bank). This sort of money-financed “gift” to the private sector would expand
aggregate demand for the same reasons that any money-financed transfer does.
Although such operations are perfectly sensible from the standpoint of
economic theory, I doubt very much that we will see anything like this in
Japan, if only because it is more straightforward for the Diet to vote
subsidies or tax cuts directly. Nonstandard open-market operations with a
fiscal component, even if legal, would be correctly viewed as an end run
around the authority of the legislature, and so are better left in the realm
of theoretical curiosities.
A nonstandard open-market operation without a fiscal component, in
contrast, is the purchase of some asset by the central bank (long-term
government bonds, for example) at fair market value. The object of such
purchases would be to raise asset prices, which in turn would stimulate
spending (for example, by raising collateral values). I think there is
little doubt that such operations, if aggressively pursued, would indeed have
the desired effect, for essentially the same reasons that purchases of
foreign-currency assets would cause the yen to depreciate. To claim that
nonstandard open-market purchases would have no effect is to claim that the
central bank could acquire all of the real and financial assets in the
economy with no effect on prices or yields. Of course, long before that
would happen, imperfect substitutability between assets would assert itself,
and the prices of assets being acquired would rise.
As I have indicated, I doubt that extensive nonstandard operations will
be needed if the BOJ aggressively pursues reflation by other means. I would
hope, though, that the Japanese monetary authorities would not hesitate to
use this approach, if for some reason it became the most convenient. It is
quite disturbing that BOJ resistance to this idea has focused on largely
extraneous issues, such as the possible effects of nonstandard operations on
the Bank’s balance sheet. For example, BOJ officials have pointed out that
if the BOJ purchased large quantities of long-term government bonds, and
interest rates later rose, the Bank would suffer capital losses. Under
current law these losses would not be indemnified, even though they would be
precisely offset by gains by the fiscal authority. This concern has led the
BOJ to express reluctance to consider engaging in such operations in the
first place.
Perhaps the Bank of Japan Law should be reviewed, to eliminate the
possibility that such trivial considerations as the distribution of paper
gains and losses between the monetary and fiscal authorities might block
needed policy actions. An alternative arrangement that avoids the balancesheet
problem would be to put the Bank of Japan on a fixed operating
allowance, like any other government agency, leaving the fiscal authority as
the residual claimant of BOJ’s capital gains and losses.
Needed: Rooseveltian Resolve
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in
1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end,
the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take—-
namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency
to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I
think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to
experiment—-in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving
again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR
deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and
to do what needed to be done.
Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has
operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear
that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce
these losses. Why isn’t more happening? To this outsider, at least,
Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely
self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary
authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed
to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.
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