Japan’s new economic religion, lovingly dubbed Abenomics, relies mostly on a money-printing binge that monetizes the entire government deficit plus a chunk of its public debt, month after month. Printing yourself out of trouble and to wealth works every time. For the elite. This is a lesson learned from the Fed. But how are workers and consumers faring? And by implication the real economy?
We keep getting juicy morsels of data on this phenomenon. Abenomics is accomplishing its two major goals – watering down the yen and stirring up inflation – pretty well. Over the last 12 months, the yen has been devalued by 20% against the dollar that the Fed is trying to devalue as well. So this is quite a feat! It’s been devalued by 28% against the euro. And inflation is heating up.
The consumer price index, released today, rose 0.1% in October and is now up 1.1% for the 12-month period. Less “imputed rent,” inflation rose 1.4% year over year. Service prices were up 0.4%, but goods prices jumped 1.9%. At this rate, Abenomics will have no problems meeting or exceeding by March, 2015, its “2% price stability” target, as the Bank of Japan has come to call it with bitter cynicism.
What isn’t happening: wage increases!
The Japanese Statistics Bureau just reported incomes and expenditures of households with two or more persons. This is by far the largest category of households in Japan. Due to the cost of housing in large urban areas – and due to remnants of tradition – a large number of singles live with their parents. This category is further divided into “workers’ households,” “no occupation” households, and “other” households.
Incomes of the all-important “workers’ households” rose a measly 0.1% from a year ago to ¥482,684. In nominal terms. But adjusted for inflation – yes, here is where the benefits of Abenomics are kicking in – incomes fell 1.3%. Disposable incomes fell 1.4%. The details were ugly: “Current income” (salaries and wages) dropped 1.2% and “temporary bonuses” plunged 19.5%. Income from self-employment and piecework plummeted 20.8%.
So these strung-out workers’ households whose belts are being tightened by Abenomics and whose real incomes are being whittled away by inflation, how can they spend more to perk up the economy? Turns out, they don’t. Spending rose a scant 0.4% in nominal terms from a year ago – but adjusted for inflation, spending fell 1.0%.
And this despite rampant frontloading of big-ticket purchases. The consumption-tax hike from 5% to 8%, to take effect on April 1, is motivating households to buy big-ticket items now and save 3%. It has turned into a frenzy. Durable goods purchases, the primary target of frontloading, jumped 40.4% in October from a year ago. While it’s goosing the economy now, it will create a hole starting next spring. Japan has been through this before.
When the consumption tax hike from 3% to 5% was passed in 1996, Japanese consumers went out on a buying binge of big-ticket items to avoid paying the extra 2% in taxes, and the economy boomed. The hangover came around April 1, 1997, when the tax hike became effective. The economy skittered into a recession that lasted a year and a half. Now Japanese households are frontloading to avoid an additional 3% in consumption tax. The hangover next year is going to be painful.
But frontloading of a few big-ticket items is hitting day-to-day expenditures. These households spent 1.8% less on non-durable goods and 2.0% less on services, compared to prior year. Hence, the drop of 1% in overall spending by these households, despite their splurging on a few big items.
This is the benefit of inflation without compensation! A process that ever so slowly hollows out the middle class and pushes the lower classes deeper in the quagmire. It’s hurting workers and consumers. It’s constraining the real economy. Yet, holders of assets that the central bank inflates into the stratosphere benefit. Japan isn’t the only country that is practicing this large-scale redistribution of wealth from workers to holders of inflated assets. Abenomics is following the playbook of the Fed. But it’s pushing it further to the extreme.
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