The Japanese economy has been on life support since their stock market peaked in late 1989. This is also when they began to lose their productivity gains in manufacturing and technology against their neighbors. Their immigration policy and small family sizes have shrunken the labor pool to a point that even with consistent per capita GDP growth, they continue to fall behind fiscally. Their new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe is attacking deflation in Japan in a way that makes Ben Bernanke look like a spendthrift. The obvious objective of deflating the currency is to make Japanese exports cheaper on the open market. This will grow GDP and spur new hiring thus, improving the domestic Japanese economy. The big questions are, how long can currency depreciation boost their economy, what are the side effects and lastly, will it work?
Japan is an interesting country in that they are a manufacturing country with very little in the way of raw materials or commodities to use in the production process. Therefore, Japan must import virtually, all of the raw materials they use. They’re becoming a high tech assembly country as opposed to their classic vertical production model. Their days of making the steel that goes into the car is over and so are many of the old jobs. It has become cheaper to import Chinese steel than to make it their selves. Currency depreciation will provide an initial rise in Japanese exports, as the inventory that has already been produced will be cheaper on the open market. However, these gains will be offset by newly purchased production inputs paid for in depreciated Yen.
The export market has been the key to Japan’s post WW2 growth. In fact, Japan’s balance of trade (exports-imports) had been mostly positive for 25 years before the tsunami hit in March of 2011. Prior to the Tsunami, Japan generated about 30% of its energy from nuclear power. They are currently running only 3 nuclear reactors out of 54. Manufacturing countries require large energy inputs and Japan uses more than 25% of their gross revenues to import energy and they are third in global crude oil consumption and imports. Depreciating the Yen will severely impact their energy costs. For example, the Yen has declined by 30% since November. That would be the equivalent of paying around $5.00 per gallon of gasoline, right now. This is what Japan will be paying to fuel their manufacturing centers.
This leads us to the effects of a depreciating currency on the local population. The Japanese private citizens are the ones bearing the brunt of this policy in two ways. First of all, Japanese citizens will be forced to pay more for everything that isn’t locally sourced and produced. This will trim their discretionary spending and put a crimp in local small businesses and service providers. Getting less for your money is never enjoyable. Secondly, the individual Japanese citizens are paying for the currency depreciation because the there is no international market for Japanese bonds selling at artificially low rates. The Japanese government is forcing their citizens with historically high savings to use it to buy underpriced Japanese Government Bonds. This transfers the debt from the government to the taxpayer.
I have no idea why the Japanese people haven’t revolted. I’m sure much of it has to do with culture. We tend to speak out in protest while they tend to tow the party line. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out as pensions go unfunded and taxes rise to pay for the massive social programs Prime Minister Abe has in store. Japan’s total debt (public + private) is now more than 500% of GDP according to The Economist (9/19/2012). The U.S. total debt to GDP ratio ranks 7th in the world at just under 300%.
The massive devaluation that is taking place will allow Japan to gain market share in the short term, especially against high quality German manufacturers. Continuation of this policy will put the European Union in a very uncomfortable spot. Germany is their economic leader and the country that would be hurt most in a competitive devaluation campaign. This may finally force the European Union to ease further in an attempt to remain competitive outside the Euro Zone. Easing euro Zone monetary policy may be the next link in the chain as the race to the currency bottom heats up. Finally, the pundits have coined a new phrase to help the guy on the street differentiate currency wars from fiscal policy. Welcome to, “coordinated global easing.”
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