Bank of Japan announces massive asset-purchase programme

£90bn of government assets purchased each month starting in January 2014.

The Bank of Japan has made its much-foreshadowed move to attempt to end the years of deflation the country has faced. This morning, it announced that it was repositioning its inflation target from 1 per cent to 2 per cent, and that it would aim to achieve that rate "at the earliest possible time".

The plan involves more than just expectations management, as well. Until the end of this year, the bank will continue with its ¥101trn round of quantitative easing, but from January 2014 it will begin buying ¥13trn — over £90bn — of assets, mostly short-term government debt, each month. The hope is that the massive burst of asset purchases will act to spike inflation, but there are indications that the government also plans to use some of the revenue this monetary policy will accord to it for fiscal stimulus.

As well as being higher than it was before, the inflation target is also stronger, replacing a "vaguely-worded “goal” for price stability over the medium to long-term", according to the Financial Times. That goal was not thought to be symmetrical, either: it merely targeted a positive rate of inflation below 2 per cent. Non-symmetric targets tend to inspire a tendency to undershoot (because if 1.9 per cent is OK but 2.1 per cent is terrible, no bank will aim for 2 per cent inflation), compounding the problems.

The news is not likely to please Germany's chief banker, Jens Weidmann, who yesterday warned of the danger of a government intervening too strongly in the actions of a central bank. Weidmann said in a speech at a Deutsche Boerse event that:

Already alarming violations can be observed, for example in Hungary or Japan, where the new government is interfering massively in the business of the central bank with pressure for a more aggressive monetary policy and threatening an end to central bank autonomy. A consequence, whether intentional or unintentional, could moreover be an increased politicisation of exchange rates.

But Weidmann is complaining into dead air, at this point. Japan's popular nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is determined to restore the country to growth by any means possible. A recent tax bill, passed before his election, contains a (non-binding) target of 3 per cent nominal growth and 2 per cent real growth (implying a 1 per cent rate of inflation), which he is likely to adopt as a target for his own government. To achieve that, he needs some aid from the Bank of Japan — aid which he has secured. The question now is whether the bank will be allowed to return to independence when its job is done.

The Bank of Japan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.