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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR