Wednesday, January 6, 2010

M3 Contraction and Japanese Sovereign Bond Crisis?

I don't think so.

Amrose Evans-Pritchard of Telegraph UK is known for writing cheerful topics like global depression and deflation (he is a deflationist) and coming fiscal, economic, and social crises if not downright catastrophe. In this article from January 4, 2010, probably intended as his New Year prediction, he argues that the sovereign debt crisis will be triggered by Japan, and that will finally stop the bear market rally of the global stock markets.

I regularly follow and read his writings (as you see the box to the left that has the feeds). But I have some problems with this one.

Global bear rally will deflate as Japan leads world in sovereign bond crisis (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, 1/4/2010 Telegraph)

"The contraction of M3 money in the US and Europe over the last six months will slowly puncture economic recovery as 2010 unfolds, with the time-honoured lag of a year or so. Ben Bernanke will be caught off guard, just as he was in mid-2008 when the Fed drove straight through a red warning light with talk of imminent rate rises – the final error that triggered the implosion of Lehman, AIG, and the Western banking system. "

Right off the bat, I have a problem. He talks about M3 contraction in US and Europe. As you may know, the Federal Reserve stop publishing M3. But that's not my problem. Is M3 really contracting, as he says?

ECB (European Central Bank)'s definition of M3 is slightly different from the U.S. counterpart. It includes:

  • Currency in circulation (M1, 2, 3)
  • Overnight deposits (M1, 2, 3)
  • Deposits with an agreed maturity up to 2 years (M2, 3)
  • Deposits redeemable at a period of notice up to 3 months (M2, 3)
  • Repurchase agreements (M3)
  • Money market fund (MMF) shares/units (M3)
  • Debt securities up to 2 years (M3)
    (Source: ECB's definition of Euro area monetary aggregate)

And here's the latest Euro area M3 numbers compiled by ECB. Do you see "contraction"? It was pretty much flat all year, but to call that a "contraction" is like calling a flat day in the stock market a rally because it didn't go down.

How about M3 in the U.S.? M3 is M2 plus large time deposits, institutional money market mutual fund balances, deposits of eurodollars and repurchase agreements ( Let's take a look at M2 chart at St. Louis Fed:

In both Europe and the U.S., monetary aggregates didn't contract in the last six months at all. The rate of change may have been decreased or gone slightly negative (in case of EU), but to call that a contraction is really stretching it.

My next problem is this:

"Weak sovereigns will buckle. The shocker will be Japan, our Weimar-in-waiting. This is the year when Tokyo finds it can no longer borrow at 1pc from a captive bond market, and when it must foot the bill for all those fiscal packages that seemed such a good idea at the time. Every auction of JGBs will be a news event as the public debt punches above 225pc of GDP. Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii will become as familiar as a rock star.

"Once the dam breaks, debt service costs will tear the budget to pieces. The Bank of Japan will pull the emergency lever on QE. The country will flip from deflation to incipient hyperinflation. The yen will fall out of bed, outdoing China's yuan in the beggar-thy-neighbour race to the bottom..."

Too bad Fujii just resigned, and the post has gone to probably the worst possible person (in my opinion) in the administration: Naoto Kan. While Mr. Kan may be just the right person for Evans-Pritchard (extremely temperamental Mr. Kan wants weaker yen, more deficit spending), again that's not my problem. It's about Evans-Pritchard's contention that Japanese government cannot sell bonds at 1%.

Who buys Japanese sovereign bonds?

Unlike US Treasury notes and bonds, almost all Japanese sovereign bonds are purchased in Japan by Japanese financial institutions (banks, postal banks, insurance companies, pension funds). Overseas buyers make up less than 4%, compared to over 30% for the U.S. Treasuries. The Japanese government has been trying to push "Kokusai" (sovereign bonds) to the general public, but the reception has been cool mostly due to the super-low interest rate. The issuance of the bonds more than doubled in the past 10 years, but the rates hardly budged.

If indeed the government has to raise rates to attract more buyers, then the general public may finally start to buy. It may finally drive up the rates for bank CDs, and people may be able to save again. Inflation? What inflation? Japan's population is decreasing, and the rate of decrease will accelerate. I don't think much inflation can happen without population pressure.

In the past 20 years, much household wealth was destroyed in Japan not from ongoing recession and deflation but from super-low interest rates. In their effort to preserve and increase their wealth as best they could, ordinary people were forced to chase the high-yielding investments such as CDs in US dollar. That carry trade by numerous households has spectacularly backfired. They were also driven into mutual funds that invested in U.S. commercial real estate, as these funds were sold by neighborhood banks as "safe and high yielding".

They would welcome bonds and CDs that would yield 5%. That would absorb money in circulation, therefore non-inflationary.

For Japan to flip from deflation to hyperinflation, it would need some other disaster than the government issuing more debt or Mr. Kan becoming the finance minister.


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