I shot an Arrow into the air
It fell to earth I know not where….
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As kids, not knowing that we were being politically incorrect on so many levels, we would shout “Geronimo!” when we were playing war or getting ready to do something reckless. (For those not familiar, Geronimo was a rather fearsome Apache chief who plagued Mexico and the American cavalry.) Sam Houston and his fellows cried, “Remember the Alamo!” as they rode down upon Santa Ana at San Jacinto. The British went to battle with “God Save the Queen [or King]!” Confederate soldiers took up the rebel yell as they charged live bullets and fixed bayonets. Every good war movie has its own memorable moment of the battle charge.
In Japan, the term Banzai! literally means “ten thousand years” and can be used to wish someone long life and happiness. But during World War II, “Banzai!” was shouted in battle. It was the Japanese equivalent of “Long live the king!” – but to soldiers on the other side it came to mean a suicidal, hell-for-leather attack.
If the central bankers of the world think they’re hearing a battle cry of “Banzai!” from the lips of their Japanese brethren, they may not be far from wrong, because the Japanese are indeed on a mad charge to fight deflation at all costs. As with all good suicidal charges, at least in legend and lore, once the cry has gone up and the thundering charge has begun, there can be no turning back.
For the last three weeks, I have been making what I personally think is a rather strong case that the Japanese have embarked on what may be simultaneously the most outrageous, intriguing, and desperate monetary policy experiment by a major economic power in history. (Those letters are here, here, and here). The Japanese are rapidly coming to their own Endgame, the end of their ability to borrow money at interest rates that are economically rational. If interest rates on Japanese bonds rise to a mere 2.2%, 80% of tax revenues will go just to pay the interest on their debt. At a 245% debt-to-GDP ratio, they are in desperate straits, and they know it. And desperate times call for desperate measures.
To get to where they want to go, to grow their way out of their deflationary problem, the Japanese need both inflation and real growth. Real growth can come from massively increased exports, and inflation can even come from an increase in export prices. Both results can be obtained by weakening the yen. As I have shown, they need to devalue the yen by 15-20% a year for many years in order to break through to the other side.
That should be easy, at least in theory. Inflation, Milton Friedman famously said, is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” If you want to create inflation and devalue your currency, just print more money. A second shift in the print shop is in order, and if that doesn’t produce the desired results a third shift can be arranged, and then you can run full tilt on weekends. And soon maybe it will be time to build another print shop.
But that is the theory. In practice it may be harder for Japan to grow and generate inflation than it might be for other major nations. Today we’ll focus on Japanese demographics. While the letter is full of graphs and charts, it does not paint a pretty picture. The forces of deflation will not go gently into that good night.
And now, let’s shout “Banzai!” together as we dive right into Japanese demographics.
Creating inflation is the goal, but Prime Minister Abe and Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda face a very difficult task. Unlike in Zimbabwe, Argentina, and a host of other countries with defunct fiat currencies, in Japan it is not simply a matter of racking up untenable amounts of debt and then printing tons of money. If it were that simple, inflation would be rampant in Japan, for the Japanese have borrowed more than any country in modern history (relative to their size). And while their efforts to create inflation have been futile, it is not for lack of trying: the Japanese have been actively pursuing quantitative easing for many years. Carl Weinberg of High Frequency Economics, writing in the Globe and Mail, gives us a very succinct summary of the Japanese dilemma:
The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projects that Japan’s working-age population will decline over the next 17 years, to 67.7 million people by 2030 from 81.7 million in 2010. We select 2030 as the endpoint of today’s discussion because almost all the people who will be in the working-age population by 2030, 17 years from now, have been born already. Immigration and emigration are trivial. The 17-per-cent decline in the working-age population is a certainty, not a forecast. It averages out to a decline of 0.9 per cent a year. In addition, these official projections show a rise in the population aged over 64 to 36.9 million in 2030 from 29.5 million in 2010. If the labour-force participation rate stays constant, we estimate the number of people seeking work in the economy will fall to 56.5 million by 2030 from 65.5 million today and 66 million in 2010.
What happens when a nation’s population declines and the proportion of working-age people decreases? In the first, simplest, level of analysis, the production potential of the economy declines: Fewer workers can produce fewer goods. This does not mean GDP must decline; productivity gains could offset a decline in the labour force. Also, an increase in the labour-force participation rate could mute the effect of a declining working-age population. However, even if the labour force participation rate were to rise to 100 per cent by 2030 from 81 per cent today (which it cannot, because some people have to care for the old and the young, and some are disabled or lack adequate skills or education), there would be fewer workers available in 2030 than there are today.
With fewer people working, the burden of servicing the public-sector debt will be higher for each individual worker. We project that the debt-to-GDP ratio and the debt-per-worker ratio will grow unabated over the next 17 years and beyond. Also, the rise of the ratio of retired workers to 32 per cent of the population from 23 per cent means that people who are still working in 2030 will have to give up a rising share of their income to support retirees. The disposable income of the declining number of workers will fall faster than the decline of production and employment. Overall demand of workers will decrease – with their disposable income – faster than output for the next 17 years at least. Demand will also fall as new retirees spend less than in their earning years.
Based on demographic factors alone, the decline of aggregate demand between now and 2030 will exceed the decline of output, creating persistent and widening excess capacity in the economy. Prices must fall in an economy where slack is steadily increasing. In addition, advancing technology will likely increase output per worker in the future. With overall demand and output falling, productivity gains will lower labour costs and add to downward pressure on prices. Disinflation and deflation are the companions of demographic decline.
Andrew Cates, an economist for UBS, based in Singapore, published a penetrating study on the relationship between inflation and demographics this week. He notes that countries with older populations tend to have lower inflation. That is not what the textbooks suggest, but it’s what the data reveals:
Since ageing demographics will now start to feature more prominently in the outlook for many major developed and developing countries this is clearly of some significance for how inflation might evolve from here. By extension it could be of greater significance for monetary policy settings and the broader outlook for global growth and financial markets as well.
Let’s first look at the evidence. In the chart below we show average inflation levels over the last 5 years plotted against the 5-year change in the dependency ratio. The latter is the ratio of the very old and the very young to the population of working age. A shift down in that ratio implies that the population in a given country is getting younger (and vice versa). The chart therefore shows that those countries that have been getting older in recent years have typically faced very low inflation rates and, in the case of Japan, deflation. In the meantime those countries that have been getting younger in recent years, such as India, Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil, have faced relatively high inflation rates.
Cates looks not just at Japan but takes a more global view. However, Japan does stand out in this chart. (I do not have a link, as this work is just available from UBS for now.) I added the red box to highlight Japan:
And while correlation is not causation, the following graph of inflation vs. population growth in Japan does make you think.
And let’s throw in one more chart from Mr. Cates. He notes that textbook economics suggests that a falling workforce tends to put upward pressure on wages (labor is just an input resource on the supply side), and thus one ends up with cost-push inflation:
This, though, ignores other factors that are arguably of some relevance in the domestic inflation-generating process. Demographic influences for example will influence an economy’s natural demand for consumer durables, its housing stock and broader credit aggregates. The latter is certainly borne out by the reasonably close correlation that exists between credit and ageing in the chart below.
As negative as all of the above sounds, you can find those who think the Japanese economy can turn itself around, that inflation can be drummed up, and that Japanese interest rates – even given the amount of monetization they are contemplating – will not rise. Seriously.
To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.