Deflation Continues in Japan

posted by Nima

June 26, 2009 · Posted in Global Economics 

The AP writes Record fall in Japan prices fuel deflation fears:

Japan’s key consumer price index tumbled at a record pace in May, the government said Friday. The core nationwide CPI, which excludes volatile fresh food prices, fell 1.1 percent from the previous year in the third straight month of decline.

With crude oil prices down dramatically from record highs a year earlier, energy and transportation prices fell sharply in May. Fuel, light and water charges were down 3 percent, and private transportation costs tumbled 9.2 percent.

Prices for household durables fell 4.9 percent, and those for clothing slipped 0.5 percent.

The core CPI for Tokyo dropped 1.3 percent in June, suggesting that prices nationwide are headed further south. Prices in the nation’s capital are considered a leading barometer of price trends across Japan.

“This is consistent with media reports that large supermarkets are marking such goods down as households turn increasingly defensive amid severe employment and income conditions,” said Kyohei Morita, chief economist at Barclays Capital in Tokyo.

Japan’s central bank predicts that prices will keep falling for at least two years. In its latest economic outlook report in May, it forecast core CPI to drop 1.5 percent this fiscal year ending March 2010 and another 1 percent the following year.

Note that in reality the price declines are probably move severe. I am not exactly sure how the numbers are measured in Japan, but in the US for example, real prices are actuall falling at a much faster pace than reported:

When we replace OER with the Case-Shiller home price index, which most recently indicated a year on year drop of 18.7%, prices overall actually fell by 6.3%.

Two fallacies in common reports in the media:

1. That there is a possibility of an impending deflation. – The truth is: Deflation is here and now, has been for a while, and will be for a while.

2. That we have to “fear” deflation. – The truth is: Deflation is a good thing, as I pointed out a couple of times:

Deflation is in essence a correction of the previous misallocations created by inflation.

What turns deflation into a bad thing? When the government tries to stave it off by spending billions and trillions of dollars, thus prolongs the correction, continues the misallocations, and increases the debt burden on the taxpayers. If you want to get an idea of the long term outlook for the US economy, look at Japan. The credit and stock bubble there burst in 1989, and has been deflating on and off since then.

As I referenced in The Long Term Outlook:

How much deleveraging?

Since the start of the U.S. recession in December 2007, household leverage has declined. It currently stands at about 130% of disposable income. How much further will the deleveraging process go? In addition to factors governing the supply and demand for debt, the answer will depend on the future growth trajectory of the U.S. economy. While it’s true that Japanese firms and U.S. households may differ in important ways regarding decisions about paying down debt, the Japanese experience provides a recent example of a significant deleveraging episode that took place in the aftermath of a major real estate bubble and is useful as a benchmark.

The Japanese stock market bubble burst in late 1989, followed soon after by the bursting of the real estate bubble in early 1991. Nearly 20 years later, stock and commercial real estate prices remain more than 70% below their peaks, while residential land prices are more than 40% below their peak.

Figure 3 compares Japan’s nonfinancial corporate sector with the U.S. household sector over 10-year periods before and after the leverage-ratio peaks. In both countries, leverage ratios rose rapidly in the years before the peak.

After Japan’s bubbles burst, private nonfinancial firms undertook a massive deleveraging, reducing their collective debt-to-GDP ratio from 125% in 1991 to 95% in 2001. By reducing spending on investment, the firms changed from being net borrowers to net savers. If U.S. households were to undertake a similar deleveraging, their collective debt-to-income ratio would need to drop to around 100% by year-end 2018, returning to the level that prevailed in 2002.

From 1989 on, the Japanese government has launched one stimulus after another to no avail, leaving Japanese taxpayers with the largest public debt to GDP ratio of all industrialized nations.

A burden that the US government seems to be more than willing to have its taxpayers shoulder over the years to come unless someone picks up a history book and tries not to feverishly repeat mistakes others made in the past.

Thus the long term outlook for the US economy is the fate Japan took: A long lasting correction supercycle with one failing “stimulus” program after another, and with on and off periods where the economy slips out of and back into recessions from time to time.

Update: I meant to say “public debt to GDP”, not ” public debt per capita”, even thought that, too, is likely to be accurate.

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