The Japan Economic Disease

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman

English: Portrait of Milton Friedman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Japanese are rapidly coming to their own Endgame, the end of their ability to borrow money at interest rates that are economically rational. If interest rates on Japanese bonds rise to a mere 2.2%, 80% of tax revenues will go just to pay the interest on their debt. At a 245% debt-to-GDP ratio, they are in desperate straits, and they know it. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

To get to where they want to go, to grow their way out of their deflationary problem, the Japanese need both inflation and real growth. Real growth can come from massively increased exports, and inflation can even come from an increase in export prices. Both results can be obtained by weakening the yen. As I have shown, they need to devalue the yen by 15-20% a year for many years in order to break through to the other side.

That should be easy, at least in theory. Inflation, Milton Friedman famously said, is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” If you want to create inflation and devalue your currency, just print more money. A second shift in the print shop is in order, and if that doesn’t produce the desired results a third shift can be arranged, and then you can run full tilt on weekends. And soon maybe it will be time to build another print shop.

But that is the theory. In practice it may be harder for Japan to grow and generate inflation than it might be for other major nations. Today we’ll focus on Japanese demographics. . The forces of deflation will not go gently into that good night.

 

The Demographics of Doom

Creating inflation is the goal, but Prime Minister Abe and Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda face a very difficult task. Unlike in Zimbabwe, Argentina, and a host of other countries with defunct fiat currencies, in Japan it is not simply a matter of racking up untenable amounts of debt and then printing tons of money. If it were that simple, inflation would be rampant in Japan, for the Japanese have borrowed more than any country in modern history (relative to their size). And while their efforts to create inflation have been futile, it is not for lack of trying: the Japanese have been actively pursuing quantitative easing for many years. Carl Weinberg of High Frequency Economicswriting in the Globe and Mail, gives us a very succinct summary of the Japanese dilemma:

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projects that Japan’s working-age population will decline over the next 17 years, to 67.7 million people by 2030 from 81.7 million in 2010. We select 2030 as the endpoint of today’s discussion because almost all the people who will be in the working-age population by 2030, 17 years from now, have been born already. Immigration and emigration are trivial. The 17-per-cent decline in the working-age population is a certainty, not a forecast. It averages out to a decline of 0.9 per cent a year. In addition, these official projections show a rise in the population aged over 64 to 36.9 million in 2030 from 29.5 million in 2010. If the labour-force participation rate stays constant, we estimate the number of people seeking work in the economy will fall to 56.5 million by 2030 from 65.5 million today and 66 million in 2010.

What happens when a nation’s population declines and the proportion of working-age people decreases? In the first, simplest, level of analysis, the production potential of the economy declines: Fewer workers can produce fewer goods. This does not mean GDP must decline; productivity gains could offset a decline in the labour force. Also, an increase in the labour-force participation rate could mute the effect of a declining working-age population. However, even if the labour force participation rate were to rise to 100 per cent by 2030 from 81 per cent today (which it cannot, because some people have to care for the old and the young, and some are disabled or lack adequate skills or education), there would be fewer workers available in 2030 than there are today.

With fewer people working, the burden of servicing the public-sector debt will be higher for each individual worker. We project that the debt-to-GDP ratio and the debt-per-worker ratio will grow unabated over the next 17 years and beyond. Also, the rise of the ratio of retired workers to 32 per cent of the population from 23 per cent means that people who are still working in 2030 will have to give up a rising share of their income to support retirees. The disposable income of the declining number of workers will fall faster than the decline of production and employment. Overall demand of workers will decrease – with their disposable income – faster than output for the next 17 years at least. Demand will also fall as new retirees spend less than in their earning years.

Based on demographic factors alone, the decline of aggregate demand between now and 2030 will exceed the decline of output, creating persistent and widening excess capacity in the economy. Prices must fall in an economy where slack is steadily increasing. In addition, advancing technology will likely increase output per worker in the future. With overall demand and output falling, productivity gains will lower labour costs and add to downward pressure on prices. Disinflation and deflation are the companions of demographic decline.

Andrew Cates, an economist for UBS, based in Singapore, published a penetrating study on the relationship between inflation and demographics this week. He notes that countries with older populations tend to have lower inflation. That is not what the textbooks suggest, but it’s what the data reveals:

Since ageing demographics will now start to feature more prominently in the outlook for many major developed and developing countries this is clearly of some significance for how inflation might evolve from here. By extension it could be of greater significance for monetary policy settings and the broader outlook for global growth and financial markets as well.

Let’s first look at the evidence. In the chart below we show average inflation levels over the last 5 years plotted against the 5-year change in the dependency ratio. The latter is the ratio of the very old and the very young to the population of working age. A shift down in that ratio implies that the population in a given country is getting younger (and vice versa). The chart therefore shows that those countries that have been getting older in recent years have typically faced very low inflation rates and, in the case of Japan, deflation. In the meantime those countries that have been getting younger in recent years, such as India, Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil, have faced relatively high inflation rates.

Abe has proposed an economic reform package comprising “three arrows”: aggressive monetary easing, labor and other structural reforms (which will be politically very difficult to achieve) intended to induce private-sector growth-promoting investment, and a flexible fiscal policy (whatever that means – I guess, since it’s “flexible,” it means whatever he decides it means).  He gave a speech this week on those reforms, and the market promptly threw up. The “reforms” he touted were more of the same old same old. At dinner on Wednesday night, Art Cashin modified the opening line from the old Longfellow poem: “I shot an arrow into the air… and it landed in my foot.”

Not that I think Abe had much choice. He has a critical election next month. Touting a policy that allows employers a freer hand in firing workers is not likely to win over many voters, but he must get serious about reform if he is to have any hope of limiting the disaster he faces.

Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

The Japanese are charging the deflationary battle lines, crying “Banzai!” This attack is all or nothing. I think the Japanese are offering us investors their flank. This week’s action in the markets showed us that this battle will not be one-sided. It will often get ugly. But I want to keep reiterating what I have been saying for a long time: shorting the Japanese government is the trade of the decade. That is the largest position in my personal portfolio, and it is going to get larger, as I intend to fully swap the mortgage I just took out this week into yen. As I said to Tom Keene this morning, it is my intention (more accurately styled as hope) to let Abe-san and Kuroda-san pay for a large chunk of my new apartment through their policy of destroying the yen. I have to admit to feeling good when the yen backs up like it has this week, since that gives me a chance to get my trade on at a better entry.

John Mauldin Predicts Earnings Decline 30 % – 40 % ( Cycle )

Stock Market

Stock Market (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

 

August 5

Who Knew ?  – Will Not Be The Excuse Of AMP Readers  ( underline your AMP Book as you read)

The stock market and earnings analysts do not expect a decline in EPS over the next few years. The forecasts too often anchor on the recent past and extrapolate (in a burst of hope) current trends well into the future.

A broader view of history tells a different story. It is a story of a frequently erratic earnings cycle. The current cycle is now extended not only in duration but also in magnitude. It’s hard to deny that EPS is vulnerable to decline over the next few years.

When the decline in earnings occurs, it will not be minimal. The decline to the historical average would be 30% to 40%. These cycles, however, rarely stop at average. More often, they move well above and below the long-term trend line.

We’ve all seen that the stock market reacts to surprises quite negatively. There is no reason why investors should walk blindly into this storm. “Who knew?” will not a reasonable excuse.

What about the duration of earnings cycles? Past EPS cycles have lasted one to six years. Over the past six decades, there have been twelve up-cycles. Six lasted one or two years (last year, 2011, was year three of the current cycle). We’re now in the second half of the game. As each upcoming year passes with an increase in EPS, the likelihood rises for the next decline in EPS … and potentially the stock market.

Conclusion #1: Reported earnings, based on history, should be expected to decline over the next two years (or they are increasingly likely to disappoint current expectations). That will put pressure on the stock market. If history is a guide, and if the blue line in Figure 8 only slightly retreats below the historical baseline, the implication is a decline in reported EPS of almost 40%! While growth could continue (as it has done in the past), it is clear that this cycle is getting a little weathered. And note that almost every downturn came as a surprise to the markets. Any analyst suggesting a downturn is labeled doom and gloom (as we can attest).

Conclusion #2: The measures of P/E that are based upon reported EPS are currently distorted by the business cycle. Whereas current reports have the market’s forward P/E near 13, a more rational measure for P/E based upon normalized baseline EPS is close to 20. P/E is not below average and is not ready to propel the market upward; it is well above average.

Of the twelve up-cycles, half of them ended after one or two years of rising earnings. None of them exceeded six years, and only one went that long. Since 2011 was the third year of earnings gains for the current cycle, the likelihood of a decline is increasing. If a decline happens to not occur during the coming two years, then we’ll make history.

A weak economy, however, adds to the pressure on earnings. The typical vulnerability at this level in the cycle is accentuated by the external forces of the economy. That makes the risks particularly worrisome.

It’s Time to Think About Absolute Returns

As described in chapter 10 of Probable Outcomes and chapters 9 and 10 of Unexpected Returns, the goal is to use absolute return-oriented “rowing” investments rather than more passive relative return “sailing” strategies. Although the stock market will provide shorter-term periods of solid returns over the next decade, it will also have offsetting periods of declines. Unlike secular bull markets, where the upswings far outweigh the downdrafts, the current environment is set for a much more modest (and likely disappointing) result. Rather than acquiesce to the mediocre returns on the horizon, investors can take action and develop their portfolios to profit regardless of the overall market direction. Although market timing may be an option for some, it is generally not a good option for most investors.

Conclusions About the Earnings Cycle

The business cycle has endured for well more than a century. It generally delivers two to five years of above-average EPS growth before experiencing a year or two of pullback. We have had a dramatic run over the past two years, and the forecast for the next two years now positions profits well above their historical relationship to the economy.

Several factors now indicate that a period of EPS decline may be upon us. It does not necessarily portend a decline in the market, although that vulnerability clearly exists. Beware nonetheless! For investors, this means that portfolios should be positioned through diversification and active risk and return management.

As an analogy, winter is not a time for gardeners to hibernate; rather it’s a time for different crops and techniques than you employ in spring or summer. And let’s be certain about this: there will be a new spring, and I will turn bullish – probably too soon! – as we begin to see signs of a thaw in the markets. But for now, investors have many tools available that let them actively “row” and invest like institutions, thereby achieving relatively consistent returns with a lot less disappointment risk.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,154 other followers