The Deflationary Threat

23/01/2015 at 4:42 pm

Much like last year, 2015 has got off to an exciting start. This blog identified interest rates as an important market theme, and though the Fed (and to a lesser extent the Bank of England) have been positioning expectations for a tightening of policy at some point it has been the new emergency monetary measures in Europe which have dominated attention thus far. Mr Draghi can take much of the credit for turning around sentiment on the sovereign debt malady in 2012, attracted further limelight last year by introducing negative deposit rates among other things and yesterday, of course, officially announced the start of quantitative easing in the eurozone. As with his other announcements this one has been taken well: the Stoxx 50 has risen by more than 10% over the last couple of weeks, bonds in Greece and elsewhere in the eurozone periphery have found some support and he will not mind that the euro, which has fallen by 3% against the dollar in the last two days alone, now stands at levels last reached in the summer of 2003.

Fears over the prospects for Europe are nowhere near as powerful as they were in the days of the Bond Market Terror when Draghi took the helm in November 2011. Today the fear is that the Continent will follow the “deflationary spiral” which sucked the Japanese economy under the waves for so many years, as people defer spending decisions, companies delay production, activity thus contracts (exacerbating the price effect) and the bells of doom generally begin to toll.

Or so the story goes. The Japanese experience was / is not actually like that. After the collapse of the 1980s economic and investment boom the stock market crashed in 1990, growth began to slow, and the Bank of Japan cut rates accordingly. The yen, however, was allowed to appreciate by over 50% on a trade weighted basis at the same time, more than compensating for this effect and ensuring a recession which saw growth move sideways for two years. Annual inflation, on the other hand, didn’t turn negative until 1994 – and in 1995-6 the economy motored along just fine. The first bout of Japanese deflation was therefore a symptom of the malaise, not its cause.

Then came the 1997 collapse of the Asian tiger economies, the Japanese banking crisis and another unwelcome period of massive yen appreciation. It was at this point that the zero-interest rate policy, “ZIRP”, came along. Then of course there followed the collapse of the TMT boom. So the level of Japanese real GDP moved sideways for five years this time (1997-2002). Although deflation did not begin in earnest until the 2000s, its association with Japan’s “lost decade” had become intractable, and the idea of deflation as a cause of her problems, rather than a symptom of them, an established part of the market narrative.

Looking at this another way, Japan is not the only economy to have experienced deflation in the recent past. Did you know that Switzerland, for example, saw a pronounced deflationary period from 2011 to 2013? Or that Singapore officially entered deflation a month before the eurozone? Nor is it only countries beginning with “S”: Israel has been deflating quite cheerfully since the autumn, joined last month by neighbouring Lebanon. None of these places are forecast to suffer Armageddon as a result.

One could also mention that “core” inflation in Europe remains positive … but by this stage the point ought to be well made.

Of course, a lot of market narratives can become self-fulfilling. For this, if for no other reason, it should come as a relief to see the latest round of “open mouth operations” at the ECB enjoying a positive reception.

As a last word on this subject – for now! – it also salutary to observe what happened to Japanese asset pricing during the first decade of this century. Ten year bond yields did not tend to trade at 0.4%, for example, even with deflation all around, QE in train and the policy rate at or near zero. Nor did equities experience a terminal spiral of death, or the yen perpetually depreciate. But all of that is a much longer story.


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