Japan: "We'd never buy foreign bonds (we might buy foreign bonds)"

Abe puts the squeeze on the BoJ.

Even Japan has limits to what it will do in a currency war. The country's finance minister, Taro Aso, has confirmed that the nation has no plans to buy foreign bonds through the Bank of Japan.

The denial is a slight walking-back of the words of the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last night, who noted — without saying what he actually thought on the subject — that "there are views calling for foreign-bond purchases".

Abe had been discussing the recently revised inflation mandate for the Bank of Japan in parliament when opposition MPs asked him what the bank is actually planning to do to back up its target. Without confirming any particular policy route, Abe named a number of potential unconventional measures, saying that "I hope the BoJ will take effective policy steps that would contribute to overcoming deflation."

The BoJ has every motivation to fight deflation; in the same debate, Abe threatened it with a change in law, saying:

It would be necessary to proceed with revising the BOJ law if the central bank cannot produce results under its own mandate.

While Abe has, for the most part, been content to let the Bank pick its own methods so long as it results in reflation, Aso's comments this morning imply there are limits. Bloomberg's Mayumi Otsuma puts the talking-back in context:

Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters today that Abe’s comments referred to buying foreign bonds as a general policy idea that is available to any country.

It seems likely that the skittishness of the Japanese cabinet is related to the G20's stand on currency manipulation, which was finally clarified after last week's mild confusion. The group is definitely (maybe) against currency manipulation. And while much of what Japan is doing is clearly aimed at affecting the Yen in international markets, it's also capable of being viewed as simple unconventional monetary policy aimed at having a domestic effect. Buying foreign bonds would render that charade a lot harder to pull off, and could lead to some awkward conversations in Moscow this weekend.

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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.