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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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