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
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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.