As I am currently writing an update on Japan current situation, with a brief introduction to helicopter money [a name that has been running around the street for the couple of weeks now], I would like to share the piece I wrote last month which will give you an overview of the country’s current situation.
Japan: A Loss of faith in Abenomics (June 13th, 2016)
I. Quick Japanese recap story
A. Japan and the two lost decades
Since the private sector debt bubble burst in the early 1990s, Japan had been stuck in an ‘ugly deflationary deleveraging’ (also called the ‘Lost Two Decades’). For the past two decades, real growth has averaged 1.1% with a persistent deflation of -0.5%. This situation has led to an exponential expansion of the government debt which crossed the one quadrillion yen mark in August 2013 and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 230% (according to Bloomberg index GDDBJAPN Index), the highest in the developed world. To give you an idea, Japan’s debt is larger than the economies of Germany, UK and France combined.
Moreover, if you add in private and corporate debt, total Japanese debt stands at 500% as a share of GDP (vs. 350% in the US).
B. What is Abenomics?
With 10 different FinMin and 7 PrimeMin since 2006, the Japanese economy was desperately in need of a grand strategy. Therefore, the re-elected PM Shinzo Abe announced in December 2012 a suite of measures called Abenomics. His goal was to revive the Japanese economy with the so-called ‘three arrows’:
- Massive fiscal stimulus : the government announced in January 2013 that it will spend 10.3tr Yen in order to generate some growth, create about 600,000 jobs and increase the inflation rate.
- Quantitative easing : On April 4, the BoJ introduced its QQME ‘quantitative, qualitative monetary easing’ program in order to reach a 2-percent inflation, a program where the central bank will double the size of its monetary base from 138 to 270 trillion years over the next two fiscal years (fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31 in Japan).
- Structural reforms : This is more a LT projects where PM Abe wants to increase Japan’s real economic growth rate to 3% by 2020 (compare to the 1%+ of the last two decades). The LDP party has several targets such as to foster trade, provide excellent education, raise women’s labour participation rate, improve infrastructure exports, reconstruct the Tohoku region. This arrow is more subjective and is not still understood by most of the people.
C. Consequences on the Japanese economy
Most of the effect of this massive stimulus program was reflected in the currency, with USDJPY soaring from the mid 70 range to 125.85 (Green line) in June last year, sending stock (Nikkei 225 – candlesticks) from 8,500 to 21,000, therefore raising hope of a Japanese recovery.
The massive stimulus program generated some growth and inflation for the first year; as you can see it on the chart below, the inflation rate (Nationwide CPI YoY) hit a high of 3.7% in May 2014 and the economy grew by 1.4% in 2013.
(Source: Trading Economics)
However, this fairy-Abe story came to an end very quickly and was first reflected in the economy and the inflation, then in the Yen strength and equity since June last year. It is hard to believe that after all Abe/Kuroda efforts (i.e. expanding the BoJ balance sheet), we are now back in the same situation with an annual inflation rate at -0.3% and an economy close to entering into its fifth recession since the Great Financial Crisis.
II. What are the issues in Japan?
A. The vicious debt spiral
When it comes to Japan, the first thing to analyse is the country’s debt and fiscal situations. As we can see it on the chart below, Japan has constantly be running large amount of fiscal deficits (7-8% as a share of GDP) since GFC and obviously led to a ballooning debt-to-GDP ratio, which grew from 162% in 2007 to 230% in 2015. In their book This time is different, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff claimed that rising levels of government debt are associated with much weaker rates of economic growth, indeed negative ones. If debt reaches 90% of GDP or more, the risks of a large negative impact on long term growth become largely significant.
(Source: Trading Economics)
The fact that Japan has never experienced market ‘attacks’ is because most of its debt (95%) is owned internally by major institutional investors (GPIF, Japan Post Bank and more recently the Bank of Japan). However, with now more than one quadrillion yen of public debt, Japan spends 17.6% of its tax and stamp revenues in interest payments (9.9tr Yen of the 57.6tr Yen revenues) as the ministry of finance reported it in their last highlights of the Budget for FY 2016 (see picture 1).
Studies (Moody’s) have shown that countries’ sustainability start to decline sharply if governments use more than 10% of their revenues from tax (and stamp) to cover the interest payments. In addition, the low-yield environment imposed by easy monetary policy run by the BoJ (negative interest rate and QQME purchases at a record high of 80tr Yen of Japanese Government Bonds) have allowed Japan to borrow at a negligible rate: the 5-year yield currently trades at -23bps, the 10-year at -11bps and the 30-year yield is at 33bps (June 1st 2016). In other words, it is free for the Japanese government to borrow in the market.
However, if yields start to rise in the future based on a lack of confidence from Japanese investors and institutions, and consequently Japan starts rolling their bonds with nominal rates of 2 or 3% on the 10Y / 30Y, the default rate will start to rise dramatically. In economics, this is known as the Keynesian debt-end point, when a country starts to spend a major cut of its revenues in debt interest payments.
Picture 1. Japan’s Expenditures and Revenues – FY 2016
Lower taxes, lower revenues: what is the model?
In order to restore a fiscal stability, the government decided to raise its VAT tax from 5%to 8% in April 2014 for the first time in years, with a plan to raise it again in October 2015 (ambitious plan). The result were catastrophic on the economy and Japan entered straight into a recession two quarters after the hike. As a result, officials decided to postpone the second raise (from 8 to 10%) to January 2017.
In recent news, PM Abe mentioned at the G-7 summit in Shima (i.e. hinted) that the second VAT rate hike was potentially going to postponed, perhaps as much as three years, in order to avoid another recession.
More importantly, Abe also pledged several times to follow through with a corporate-tax cut in order to ramp up domestic investment. The current tax rate stands at 32.11%, and the government plans to lower the effective tax rate below 30 percent ‘next year’ (precisely at 29.74%). This view will potentially ‘force’ the companies to use their cash piles for investment on plants and equipment.
It is true that the Japanese rate on corporations is one of the highest in the industrialized countries, however the question is: Can Japan afford to lower its corporate tax rate? With PM Abe postponing the VAT rate hike as well, the consequence is that we could see higher debt interest payments as a share of revenues, rising the fear of a potentially technical default.
B. Demographics, the shrinking country…
In a recent study, the IMF showed that the population could drop below 100 million by 2048 from 127 million today, and as low as 61 million by 2085. As you can see it in the chart below, Japan population peaked at 128 million and is expected to shrink to 124 million by 2020.
The country’s fertility rate declined from 4.0 post World War II to 1.38 today, below replacement level, making it difficult for the government to come up with primary surpluses in the next decade. The number of Japanese aged 65 or older has reached a new record of 26.7 percent (of the population); in addition, a third of the population is above 60. This situation has broad and severe implications as fewer workers and less labour will reduce the potential output of the country, making it difficult for Abe to reach a total 20% growth in the next five years. As a reminder, PM Abe announced in September 25th last year that his intention was to raise Japan’s GDP by 100tr Yen by 2021 (i.e. from 500tr to 600tr Yen).
The rising number of retirees will increase the government spending over the years, downgrading the sustainability of the country. Moreover, with less people entering the workforce than the ones leaving (see picture 2), and with the sovereign yield curve negative up to 15Y (i.e. killing pension funds and mutual funds revenues), pensions reforms will be implemented in the medium term, shrinking the consumption rate and therefore also impacting the country’s GDP. The $1.3-trillion GPIF fund (Government Pension Investment Fund), the world’s largest pension funds, saw a 6tr Yen ($54 bn) decline for the fiscal year ending in March, its biggest losses since the Great Financial crisis. Negative interest rate policy run by the BoJ in addition to the massive monetary stimulus program have pushed Japanese institutional investors to increase their exposure to equities. The problem as we saw is that these pension funds (such as the GPIF or Japan Post Bank) are now very sensitive to the recent moves we saw in equity. Since the Nikkei 225 index peaked in the end of June last year (20,952), the Japanese equities are now trading below 17,000, down 20% in almost a year. With these pension funds being very (or over) exposed to equities, it seems that Abe cannot lose his battle versus the Nikkei Index.
Picture 2. Japan demographics change (The Economist)
C. Poor fundamentals (real wages conundrum, savings, manufacturing PMI)
- Real wages conundrum: Despite a low unemployment rate at 3.2% (vs. 4.5% back in 2012), real wages (base wages adjusted from inflation) in Japan are sluggish and have been falling constantly since 2010 (see chart below), undermining the purchasing power of households. The optimistic plan to push companies to raise their wages has been constantly delayed or slowed down by the private sector, therefore making it difficult for the economy to sustain inflation, consumption and growth. Even though a lot of people see Japan as an exporter, the main contributor of the country’s GDP comes from consumption (60.7% as a share of GDP).
- Savings: After all these years of unlimited money printing (and negative interest rates), we now start to understand that the central bank’s goal is to force also individuals to put their savings into equities as holding cash in the bank doesn’t earn any interest. Despite Japanese banks not passing on the negative carry to their clients, we would have thought that the non-interest bearing account would drive savings down. However, Bank of America ML proved that NIRP policy doesn’t necessarily push savings rate down; with almost €2.6 trillion in negative-yielding debt in Europe, they discovered that savings were going up and not down. Economics studies have told us that negative rates should force people into higher yielding funds or vehicles (stocks for instance) with agents anticipating inflation in the near futures. In reality, BofA claim that ‘ultra-low rates may perversely be driving a greater propensity for consumers to save as retirement income becomes more uncertain’, therefore implying that in period of great uncertainty, nervous people don’t tend to spend but are more keen on saving.
Japan used to have one of the world’s highest savings rates, but it has constantly been falling from a high of 23.1% (of disposable income) in 1975 and has been oscillating around 0 percent since the turn of the century. However, most of this decline is due to the shrinking number of people in the workforce, however the new generation of workers (willing to take more risk) may be willing in building savings in case of a sluggish growth and the threat of a potential bond crisis.
- Manufacturing sector is declining: we saw recently that the Nikkei Japan Manufacturing PMI plunged to a 40-month low in April at 47.7 (below its expansion level at 50), its weakest level since the start of Abenomics (See chart below). Economic weakness overseas (mainly coming from China’s slowdown) crashed exports and capital spending; in consequence, the end of the commodity super-cycle decreased demand for mining equipment. Moreover, according to Goldman Sachs research, companies in the western world have been using most of their earnings into dividends and stock buybacks instead of capital expenditure and research and development. Historically, it has been an important driver of long-term growth as capital investment make workers and companies more productive. Japanese companies today have the oldest equipment of the western economies due to the lost decades after the bubble burst in 1989.
(Source: Japan FinMin)
D. International Trade are collapsing
We saw recently in a report from Bloomberg that global trade with Japan has been collapsing over the past three years. As you can see it on the chart below, exports are down 10.1% YoY and imports plummeted by 23.3% YoY (posting their 16th straight YoY drop). Therefore, the result is Japan have been showing trade surplus over the past couple of years (+7.5bn USD in April); looking at the trade balance ‘only’ isn’t enough to determine if the international trade activity is doing. We have the same situation that peripheral countries of the Euro Zone have experienced after the Great Financial Crisis, a recovering trade balance due to a collapse in imports.
In addition, with a Yen 14% stronger versus the US Dollar since June high, it is not going to help exports grow in the next few quarters, and may potentially increase the risk of another recession coming ahead.
III. Consequence of such measures
A. The BoJ’s hidden shadow
Based on the several issues we mentioned before, it is clear that Japan needed a weaker currency to reboost its economy after more than twenty years of sluggish growth and almost no inflation. Moreover, the fact that the country is located in an area where most of the countries have had an undervalued currency and cheap labour costs has had a major impact on Japanese international trade. However, the problem with running a sort of unlimited money printing strategy has a major dark side. Japan was the first developed economy to cut rates below 1% in January 1996 (chart below) and the first country to try QE in order to stimulate the economy and generate some growth and inflation. According to the BoJ, the total notes and coins in issue have reached 100 trillion Yen, with a 6tr Yen YoY increase in the last year. It is the highest rate in physical notes and coins since 2002, a year when fifty two banks went bankrupt in Japan.
(Source: Horseman Capital Management)
At the end of May 31 2016, the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet totalled 425.7 trillion Yen in assets (red line); government securities accounted for 370.5 trillion Yen. For an economy of roughly 500 trillion Yen, the central balance sheet total-asset-to-GDP ratio stands at 85%, an outstanding number compare to the major economies where the ratio stands between 20 and 30 percent.
In addition, by purchasing 80 trillion of JGBs every year, the BoJ is now the major holder the country’s government bonds with 35%. This ratio is expect to reach 50% by the end of 2017.
(Source: Japan Macro Advisors)
The central bank is also purchasing 3.3tr Yen if ETFs and now owns 55% of the country’s ETF according to Bloomberg (see chart below). As the plan doesn’t seem big enough to stimulate Nikkei stocks, market participants speculate that the BoJ will eventually more than double the plan to 7 to 8 trillion Yen. As Bloomberg reported in April, the BoJ is now a ranked as a top 10 holder in more than 200 companies of the Nikkei 225. If the central bank increases its ETF purchases to 7 trillion Yen, Goldman Sachs reported that the BoJ could become the number 1 shareholders in 40 companies, and potentially the top owner in 90 companies with a 13-trillion program.
By purchasing and holding the Exchange-traded stock, the BoJ becomes the holder of the underlying stock; the central bank’s holdings amount to about 1.6% of the total capitalization of all the companies listed in Japan.
This situation cannot last for too long, otherwise the companies’ valuation will start to be completely detached from the fundamentals. And what happens when the Bank of Japan starts exiting, will those valuations fall? It seems that in Japan, today, only BoJ matters…
B. Distorting the market
First of all, the consequence of running this long period of zero (now negative) interest rate policy in addition to all these QE rounds for the past 20 years have completely crashed the Japanese yield curve. Government bond yields are now negative up to 15Y, the 30Y yield trades at 31bps and the 6-month T-Bills reached a low of -0.31%. This low yield curve is destructive not only for pensions and mutual funds, but also for the bank earnings. It was reported by Moody’s that Japanese regional banks generated a mere 0.28% return on assets in FY2015. In their paper The influence of monetary policy on bank profitability, Borio & al. found that low interest rates and flat term structure tend to erode bank profitability.
In addition, as the Bank of International Settlements noted, extreme monetary policy divergence between US and Japan rises the costs for Japanese financial institutions to get dollar loans. Historically, cross currency basis swap spreads has been zero but started to fluctuate since the global financial crisis. As you can see it on the chart below, the US dollar premium in FX swap markets widened substantially and reached a record of -120bps in early March. At the moment, it would cost 0.9% a year for a Japanese banks to hold a perfectly hedge (currency and duration risk) 5-year US Treasury Bond.
(Source: Horseman Capital Management)
Fixed income investors are starting to front run Kuroda and are purchasing bonds not based on the creditworthiness of the companies but on pure speculation that the BoJ will purchase them. With investors today in desperate need for yields, inflows in the high-yield (i.e. risky) market has been rising over the past few years. The problem those high-yield companies could face in the next few years is if interest rates start to rise, a run on those yield funds could push a lot of companies into bankruptcies.
Moreover, bond market functionality has been deteriorating as many investors are kind of forced to look elsewhere for bonds that are easy to trade (it takes longer to make a given trade). This lack of liquidity creates these sudden risk in volatility as we saw in the beginning of this year. The JPX JGB VIX Index measures the implied volatility of the 10-year JGB futures contract. At the moment, the index trades at 2.2 pts, which means that the market’s estimation of the price fluctuation of 10-year JGB futures over the next 30 days is expected to be 2.2% per annum. In the chart below, we can see that the vol index surged to almost 6 pts in the beginning of the year as a post-reaction of the Negative interest rate policy announced by Kuroda on January 29th. The last time we saw such a move was in April 2013 after the QQME announcement.
IV. My view for the next five years
We strongly believe that the Japanese economy will continue to stagnate in the medium term, pushing or forcing Japanese policymakers to act even more. The nation citizens and the external investors will start to lose faith in Abenomics and therefore the macro tourists (investors that is looking at a short term opportunity) will withdraw their money from the equity market, potentially causing the Yen to appreciate in the beginning. However, in our view, Japan will face the so-called turning point between a currency devaluation and a currency crisis as the BoJ and the government will try all their best to protect the currency from appreciating.
Even though we think that we will sharp moves in the equity or bond markets, we are convinced that the best opportunity relies on the currency. If we look at the USDJPY chart below, despite a 36% depreciation that pushed the pair to 108 from the mid 70 levels, we stand far away from the 360 Yen per Dollar during the Bretton Woods area. We think that Japan needs another 50 to 100 percent currency depreciation to regain more competitiveness, which correspond to levels we saw back in the 1990s.
Since its return to the premiership in December 2012, Shinzo Abe has already become now Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers. However, his second term comes to an end in 2018 and the situation may start to deteriorate, gradually first then suddenly.
Consequently, sluggish growth in addition to a high debt burden and a shrinking population will not tend to push equities or real estate investments higher, raising the probability of a surge in non-performing loans. This is an episode that we already saw in the 90s after the bubble collapsed. We just think this time is different as the currency will not appreciate but depreciate.
Extreme monetary policy divergence to continue in the coming year…
We are conscious that the emergence of a potential crisis in the Japanese bond market will definitely shake the world’s economy as well. However, the depreciation will gradually be driven by an extreme monetary policy divergence coming in the next few quarters. The Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen expresses her views that the FOMC committee was ready to hike interest rates in the following months. A first hike was established in December last year after seven years of ZIRP policy run in the US as a response of the global financial crisis. Persistent QE in Japan (versus no money printing in the US since October 2014) in addition to short term interest rate differentials will constantly tend to push the currency USDJPY to higher levels.
In my opinion, there is no structural bids for the Yen anymore; each Yen appreciation that we experience since the announcement of QQME in April 2013 was a reaction to a sudden new risk emerging from the market followed by an investors’ response to ‘What is weak and what is cheap? The Yen’. To that extent, I strongly believe that each time there is an increase in the Yen’s value, it could be a good entry points for the new ones or a good to increase your long position on USDJPY, targeting 150 as a first level.