While Nobody Was Paying Attention, The Bank Of Japan Took A Surprise Step That Could Change The Future Of Central Banks
Over the past few weeks, there’s been a growing buzz about central banks playing a greater role in explicitly serving as funders of government.
The idea that people (journalists and Wall Streeters, mostly) have been talking about is the notion that central banks could buy government debt (as they do in quantitative easing) but then just rip up those bonds, and cancel the debt, with few consequences, except perhaps some inflation (which central banks wants, anyway).
This kind of blatant monetization seems unlikely (especially in countries like the UK and the US, which are borrowing at super-low rates) but the idea of central banks working more closely with their government to stimulate the economy may be on the road to happening.
While the US was distracted by all of the Sandy and election news this week, the Bank of Japan took a shocking step in this direction, according to David Zervos of Jefferies, who notes that the latest easing announcement was a joint production between the Bank of Japan and the Ministry of Finance, amove that never happens:
BoJ policies, by virtually any measure, have been an abject failure. The institution has consistently remained too tight in the face of worsening economic conditions for over 2 decades. And while the economy has had to pay a horrible price for these errors, the tables look like they are about to turn in a nasty way on the institution itself.
Accompanying the depressing standard BoJ statement on 30-Oct was this very curious additional release – http://www.boj.or.jp/en/announcements/release_2012/k121030b.pdf. Here we have the BoJ governor, the Minister of Finance and the Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy jointly issuing a press release on the BoJ website entitled – “Measures Aimed at Overcoming Deflation”. A press release of this kind is completely unprecedented. And it was published in the “Monetary Policy Releases” section of the BoJ website.
So here we have two executive branch government ministers issuing declarations on the monetary policy portion of the BoJ website regarding price stability. Can anyone imagine if Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Hillary Clinton were to issue a joint statement on fighting deflation that was in turn prominently displayed under in the monetary policy section of the Fed’s website? It would be mutiny!
The executive branch politicians in Japan have, for the first time ever, infiltrated the mother ship. BoJ independence is now under explicit political attack. This should be a warning to all central bankers with “sound money” religion – if you don’t let the inflation dogs out and crank up the printing presses as the economy deteriorates, the politicians will come and shut you down. What we are witnessing is the beginning of the end for independent Japanese monetary policy.
Zervos was far from the only analyst to notice the big news.
Japan’s failure to emerge from its deflationary mire has been both a tragedy and testament to the hazards of asset price booms; but it has also encouraged an entertaining verbal interplay between successive governments (yearning a constant drip of palliative policy easing) and central bank (keen to enforce its own independence.) The interplay, at MOF’s instigation, has ranged from mild insinuation (per the need for more policy easing) to outright threats to the Bank’s independence; but today’s policy decision perhaps shows that the BOJ board’s current incumbents are keen to keep the peace.
The question that inevitably arises in the wake of today’s asset-purchase top-up therefore is to what extent government pressure, and the presence of economy minister Maehara, influenced the decision? In view of the unwavering emphasis that Shirakawa has placed upon reform (as recently as last week in fact) and upon the impotence of monetary easing in its absence, it is very difficult to believe that politics was not a factor. Yet if keeping the peace was an element in today’s decision, then Maehara and co may be forgiven for looking to leverage this ‘susceptibility’ between here and the as yet undeclared date for the next general election. Indeed, note that when Seiji Maehara emerged from today’s meeting, he said, “We have confirmed that we will make the utmost efforts to achieve the common goal with a strong sense of responsibility.” ‘Will’, ‘common goal’, ‘strong sense of responsibility’? The BOJ’s next meeting on November 19th and its aftermath could well be very interesting.
So it’s possible that this presages a change in central bank policy around the world, but it’s worth noting the idea that it’s pressure from the Ministry of Finance that’s pushing the BoJ to act, whereas in the US, the current winds prevail in the opposite direction, towards less easing.
Still, for a country that’s been mired in deflation, it will be fascinating to watch whether there’s any beneficial impact from this kind joint Ministry Of Finance/BoJ action.