Krugman: Can Japan pull it off?

Can Japan actually end decades of deflation?

Paul Krugman examines former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen's attempts to square the circle between his support for expansionary fiscal stimulus in Britain — where it hasn't happened — and opposition to the same in Japan — where it is apparently about to begin.

Posen wrote, in the Financial Times, that:

Mr Abe’s new fiscal stimulus initiative is therefore questionable. Not because another 2 per cent of GDP will be the proverbial tipping point on Japanese debt sustainability, for the factors protecting Japan from overt fiscal crisis remain. Nor because it will be ineffective; if anything, when combined with monetary expansion and a likely consumption tax rise in the near future, I expect its multiplier and thus short-run impact to be high.

The additional stimulus in Japan is counterproductive because it adds to the long-term costs without addressing Japan’s real problem: a return to deflation and an overvalued exchange rate.

Krugman is "a bit puzzled". He agrees that deflation is Japan's problem, because deflation forces short-term interest rates to bump against the lower bound. Since interest rates can't go below zero, that is, they are forced to remain slightly positive. That means that real interest rates — the nominal interest rate plus inflation — are forced to be significantly higher under deflation than they would be with mildly positive inflation, reducing the effectiveness of monetary policy.

So far, so macroeconomics 101. Where Krugman disagrees with Posen is how to break out of the deflation trap. Posen argues that unconventional monetary policy — quantitative easing and the like — can be enough. It's a monetary problem, so it ought to have monetary solutions. But Krugman argues that there may be a better way:

The credibility of a higher inflation target in the face of the deflationary bias of central bankers may well be best established by (a) reducing the central bank’s autonomy and (b) getting the central bank in the business of supporting — indeed, monetizing — government deficits, at least for a while. Gauti Eggertsson made this point long ago (pdf), pointing to Japan’s successful polices in the first half of the 30s as a clear example. Indeed, Gauti argued that having a large government debt can be a real advantage in such circumstances: efforts to raise expected inflation gain extra credibility if the government would clearly benefit in fiscal terms, and the central bank is sufficiently subordinated to elected officials that investors believe that it will take these fiscal benefits into account.

In other words, it all comes back to the question of central bank independence. If the government destroys that independence (even if it does it for paleo-conservative, nationalistic, reasons), and engineers a situation where inflation would make it better-off, then inflation expectations can be raised far higher than an independent central bank could ever do alone. Especially one which has so consistently failed to reverse the trend as the national bank of Japan.

Visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a joint press conference held after official talks with his Vietnamese counterpart. 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