Japan’s bankers celebrated the end of the 1980s with raucous parties and an all-time high of 38,957 on the Nikkei stock index. It had been a magnificent decade and they all looked forward to another one.
The economy had grown by an average of 4 per cent a year and seemed well set to continue on a similar path. By 1995, forecast Nomura Securities, the Nikkei index would hit 63,700. It was a thrilling, golden era. Foreign officials, financiers and journalists rushed to Tokyo. Everyone wanted to learn the lessons of Japan.
They still do. Thirty years on, Japan’s economy has not lost its fascination. But rather than the secrets to miraculous economic growth, today’s students of Japan want to know how to respond when the good times stop.
“What had been regarded as Japanese problems are now faced more or less by Europeans,” says Hiroshi Nakaso, the former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan. “I’m not saying I’m convinced Europe will follow Japan’s path but Japan’s experience certainly offers hints.”
Economically, those lessons include the vital importance of maintaining public confidence in central bank policy, and the need for a strategy to generate economic growth. More broadly, Japan’s decades of experience offer a template for how a society can live with low interest rates. Large parts of the developed world are likely emerge from the coronavirus crisis with economies in that same position.
That prospect is unsettling to some because of the stagnation that Japan has seen over the last the three decades. Since 1990, Japan has recorded average real growth of 0.8 per cent and inflation of 0.4 per cent. The Nikkei index never again came close to that December 1989 peak. Today it stands at 25,907. In dollars, per capita incomes in Japan are a third lower than in the US.
FT Series: Lessons from Japan
As the world’s developed economies struggle to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, they face ultra-low interest rates and low growth. What lessons can be learnt from Japan, which has been battling these trends for several decades?
November 23: As Japan’s economy boomed in the 1980s, everyone wanted to know its secret. Today’s students also want to learn from Japan: how do you respond when the good times stop?
November 24: Adam Posen: ‘When Japanese policy turned round, so did the economy’
November 25: Can a Japan-style public investment boom save the global economy?
November 26: What Mrs Watanabe can tell investors about how to cope with low returns
November 27: Living with low growth — how western kids can learn from Japanese youth
While the rest of the world enjoyed booming growth in the 1990s and 2000s, Japan’s problems seemed unique, and foreign economists lined up to propose radical solutions. But then their own economies began to show an eerie similarity. In the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, interest rates fell to zero in Europe and the US, and during the recovery inflation did not bounce back.
No longer an odd economic twilight zone, Japan is now the best case study of what happens in an environment of persistent low inflation and interest rates — a situation much of the developed world may face in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To extract any lessons, however, it is important to understand what actually happened in Japan over the past 30 years. Although the outcomes of low growth, low inflation and low interest rates look similar throughout the period, the economic forces at work changed a lot. There was no single process of “Japanification”.
Instead, there were three distinct but mutually reinforcing chapters: financial crisis in the 1990s; persistent, mild deflation in the 2000s; and then, in the 2010s, an attempt to fight back against Japan’s ageing demographics. With three chapters in Japan’s post bubble era, the lessons for the rest of the world are inevitably nuanced.
The 1990s — a banking crisis
In the early years of the 1990s it slowly dawned on people that the heady peak in stock and land markets had been a bubble — one backed by trillions of yen in bank loans, which speculators and property developers had no way to pay back. Rather than foreclose on bad loans, however, corporate Japan and its bankers pretended the assets were still solid and the debts were still good.
Minoru Masubuchi took over the Bank of Japan’s financial system department in 1994. “I think we knew quite early that it was an extremely severe problem — that was the understanding I had when I took the post,” he says. “However, for the world at large — especially in politics and the media — there wasn’t such a realisation.”
The technocrats wanted to recapitalise the banks with public money, but they could not persuade the politicians. The banking crisis ground on until the “Dark November” of 1997. “[Hokkaido] Takushoku Bank and Yamaichi Securities went under and there was an atmosphere of confusion,” says Mr Masubuchi. “The worst time was that period from November until the end of 1997.”
Initial attempts to fix the banks made matters worse. At the start of 1997, the finance ministry said it would step in if capital ratios fell below a certain level, but that prompted banks to slash their lending in an effort to survive. “Many small and medium-sized firms failed,” says Hiroshi Yoshikawa, a member of the government’s economic council from 2001-06. “1997-98 was truly one of the worst years for postwar Japanese society.”
A widespread credit crunch hammered the economy. Scarred by the bubble, the BoJ was slow to cut interest rates, and repeated rounds of fiscal stimulus had little effect. Inflation declined steadily and by 1999 it was below zero. But the underlying cause was not peculiar to Japan or even historically unusual — it was an unresolved banking crisis.
Watching from the other side of the Pacific, US policymakers learnt this lesson thoroughly. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008-09, they were quick to slash interest rates and force public capital on banks through the troubled asset relief programme. “The bad loan problem and financial trouble was ended by 2003,” says Mr Yoshikawa. “If we had any trouble after 2003 we must have a different explanation.”
After a great struggle, Japan had resolved the banking crisis and everyone thought things would now go back to normal. “Personally, I thought we’d go back to a regular business cycle. I didn’t expect this stagnation scenario to continue for a long time,” says Mr Masubuchi.
The 2000s — stagnation
The weakness of the economy was obvious and the Bank of Japan needed to do something. The question was what. All the textbooks assumed positive interest rates. “There were no papers we could consult. I guess what we had was very basic financial theory,” says Nobuo Inaba, who was the BoJ’s section chief for monetary policy in the mid-1990s and went on to become one of its executive directors.
The resulting period of experimentation wrote the manual for central banks around the world. First, the BoJ cut interest rates to zero. (At the time it did not think negative rates were possible, says Mr Masubuchi.)
Meanwhile, a former businessman on the BoJ’s policy board called Nobuyuki Nakahara began to promote the ideas of Bennett McCallum, an American economist. Mr McCallum proposed a rule for how the central bank should increase the money supply when the economy fell short of full employment. The BoJ could not cut interest rates any further, but it could increase the quantity of bank reserves. Mr Nakahara called this “quantitative easing”.
Quantitative easing brought down long-term interest rates and had a calming effect on financial markets, but it did not transform inflation or growth, which recovered slowly through the 2000s. The central problem, it slowly became clear, was that the public no longer expected prices or wages to go up, and no matter what the central bank did, their expectations were self-fulfilling.
“In terms of monetary policy, our experience tells us that anchoring inflation expectations is important. In Japan, under the prolonged period of deflation, inflation expectations came to be anchored around zero,” says Mr Nakaso.
One of the primary lessons of Japan’s experience is the need for aggressive action to pre-empt any fall in inflation expectations — and the limited power of monetary policy if that is not achieved.
But the lesson about expectations has hit home in central banks across developed economies. Jay Powell, Federal Reserve chairman, has pledged to raise inflation to moderately exceed its 2 per cent target “for some time”, expressing “determination” to succeed in ensuring inflation expectations do not fall to zero in the wake of the pandemic.
The European Central Bank and Bank of England have both this autumn revised their guidance to commit to keeping monetary policy as loose or looser than it is now until inflation rises back to target and shows no signs of falling again.
The 2010s — fighting demographics
As the period of low inflation dragged on, however, and other advanced countries adopted zero interest rates after 2008, economists began to consider deeper causes. Towards the end of the decade, then BoJ governor began to argue that the root cause of Japan’s low inflation was weak economic growth, and that was linked to the country’s demographics.
“Nowadays everybody says the Japanese economy has poor future prospects because of population decline. But that kind of view is actually quite new,” says Mr Yoshikawa. During the 2000s, when companies were cutting jobs, he says, the debate was about Japan’s surplus of workers, not a shortage.
Japan’s fertility rate has been low since the 1970s and the working age population peaked in the 1990s. With ageing workers wanting to save, and little motivation for businesses to invest in a declining economy, the logical result is a low natural interest rate. The US economist Lawrence Summers crystallised this line of thinking in 2014 when he revived the concept of “secular stagnation”.
If demographics are the root of Japan’s problems, then there is a mixed message for the rest of the world. Fertility rates are higher in Europe and the US and they both have meaningful immigration. Although their populations are ageing, that suggests they have a better chance of escaping persistent zero inflation and interest rates. But other east Asian economies such as China, South Korea and Taiwan are closely following Japan’s demographic track.
Many economists think the theory of demographic destiny is oversold, however, and either does not explain the trend towards zero inflation and interest rates or is framed incorrectly.
Mr Yoshikawa is not a fan of the demographic thesis. “A declining population is of course a negative factor for growth. But at least historically, the importance of innovation dominates it by far,” he says.
For Charles Goodhart, former BoE chief economist, an ageing population holds the promise of escape from the Japanese trap, since the elderly spend more than they earn in the labour market, diminishing the excess savings that brought the world zero interest rates and problematic low inflation.
If this theory is correct, however, it is yet to manifest itself in Japan. Rather than wait for an improvement, the 2010s in Japan brought the most determined effort yet to shake the nation out of its stagnation: the stimulus known as Abenomics.
The performance of the economy under former PM Shinzo Abe improved significantly and public debt stabilised for the first time in years, but the fundamentals of interest rates and inflation were ultimately little changed. Inflation remained low and interest rates were still pinned to the floor, providing little scope to act as a cushion when downturns such as the Covid-19 crisis hit.
Thirty years on from the bursting of the bubble, a common reaction to Japan’s predicament is to ask whether there is really a problem at all. The country is stable and prosperous. Per capita growth in output has not been too bad. For many, especially the elderly, low inflation is a good thing, and a large public debt is less daunting when it carries an interest rate of zero.
Such optimism, however, belies difficult problems of economic management. For much of the past three decades, Japan’s economy has operated below full capacity, ruining the life chances of millions of people who graduated into a weak labour market. The country’s only option when a crisis such as Covid-19 strikes is to run up ever more public debt.
What are the lessons from Japan’s experience? One is that the route to zero interest rates and zero inflation does not matter. The crucial requirement is to find a way to stop a temporary plunge to zero interest rates from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, the US and UK have avoided falling into the trap of zero inflation expectations, but the ECB is perilously close.
The demographics of Europe and the US are different to Japan, but all advanced countries have ageing populations — which may bring caution in spending — while technological progress is a global and not a national phenomenon.
Most important is the need to look past the specifics of Japan’s experience and recognise that whatever the difficulties, countries must not give up on the quest for growth, and do whatever is necessary to raise it to levels that keep employment high, wages rising and inflation from sinking to zero.
“There were two things that we recognised over time. One is how important financial stability is and the second is the importance of a growth strategy,” says Mr Nakaso. “Policies to address both the demand and the supply side of the economy are important. Raising Japan’s potential growth rate remains essential.”
Square’s $29bn bet on Afterpay heralds future for ‘buy now, pay later’ trend
Jack Dorsey’s biggest gamble to date has sent ripples around the fintech and banking world, with investors betting that Square’s $29bn all-stock deal to acquire Afterpay signals the “buy now, pay later” trend has staying power.
BNPL relies on an emerging thesis that millennials and Gen Z consumers distrust traditional credit, but still want to borrow money to buy goods. Afterpay allows shoppers to split the cost of goods into four instalments with no interest — but a late fee if payments are missed.
“We think we’re in the early days of the opportunity facing us,” said Square’s chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja, speaking to the Financial Times. “From a buy now, pay later perspective, we see, with online payments alone, a large and growing opportunity representing $10tn in payments volume by 2024.”
The deal sees Square join an increasingly crowded space, alongside big players such as Sweden’s Klarna, Silicon Valley-based Affirm and PayPal, with Apple also exploring the market. The sector also faces a brewing regulatory battle, as legislators question an industry that lends money in an instant, often without a traditional credit check to ensure a consumer will be able to pay off their debt.
“This decade is going to be the upheaval of the banking industry,” Klarna’s chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski, said on CNBC on Monday. “I’m a little bit surprised to see consolidation happening this early, at this level, but at the same point in time I think this is directionally what we’re going to see.”
BNPL has exploded in popularity over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, but industry executives said it had shown strong growth well before the pandemic, alongside a broader trend for more flexible financing among traditional lenders.
Leading into 2020, banks including JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Citigroup each launched flexible payment options tied to existing credit cards as an answer to point-of-sale financing.
The past 18 months have seen a meaningful uptick in the number of retailers willing to adopt the extra financing option. “There’s a little bit of FOMO setting in,” said Brendan Coughlin from Citizens Financial Group.
Afterpay was among the pioneers in BNPL. It was founded by Sydney neighbours Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen in 2014, and today facilitates global annual sales of $15.6bn.
The company went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2016 at a valuation of A$165m (US$122m). In May 2020, Chinese tech giant Tencent paid about A$300m for a 5 per cent stake in the Australian group, which was by then worth about A$8bn.
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The Afterpay tie-up will enable Square to offer BNPL services to its millions of merchants, who processed payments worth $38.8bn in its most recent quarter, while also tapping into Afterpay’s clients, which include Amazon and Target.
The company will also integrate Afterpay into its Cash App, which has about 70m users and is slowly being built out as a one-stop financial services shop for payments, cryptocurrency, saving and investing.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got probably the most compelling super app outside of China,” said DA Davidson’s Chris Brendler, who is an investor in both companies.
Investors appear convinced. Despite the deal coming at a 30 per cent premium to Afterpay’s most recent stock price, the news sent Square’s share price up 10 per cent by Monday’s close.
“This is certainly a bull market deal,” said Andrew Atherton, managing director at Union Square Advisors. “People are rewarding Jack Dorsey for being bold and for making a big bet.”
Square’s entry into BNPL comes as the sector is becoming increasingly competitive.
Klarna increased its valuation from $11bn in September 2020 to $46bn in June of this year, making it the most valuable standalone company in the industry.
Shares in Affirm, the US online lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, rose 15 per cent on Monday following news of the Afterpay deal. Affirm, which went public in January and is now valued at $17bn, recently expanded its partnership with Shopify to offer BNPL services to the ecommerce platform’s US merchants.
PayPal first moved into BNPL back in 2008 when its then-parent eBay bought Bill Me Later. A year ago, PayPal launched Pay in 4, a six-week instalment offering that is free for both consumers and merchants, alongside its longer-term PayPal Credit service.
Earlier this year, Apple was recruiting staff for its payments division with experience in BNPL, as it looks to expand Apple Pay and its Wallet app. Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker was working with Goldman Sachs to develop an Apple Pay Later service.
Industry executives warn, however, that the more crowded market could erode the businesses’ margins, while flustered consumers may also be put off by the rapidly growing number of checkout options.
“The current state of affairs, where you have seven buttons when you go to checkout, I don’t think is a sustainable state of affairs,” said one consumer finance executive at a top US bank. “I think we are in an interim period.”
A bigger threat still is the sector’s immature and inconsistent regulatory environment.
“It’s what everyone is calling the Wild West,” said Alyson Clarke, an analyst at Forrester. “There is no onus on them to make sure that you are of financial health to be able to repay that loan.”
Some companies do a “soft” credit check that briefly examines a person’s position but “not as much as they should be doing if they are lending you money”, Clarke said. “Afterpay doesn’t do any of that.”
A survey of Australian consumers, compiled by the country’s financial regulator in 2020, suggested 21 per cent of BNPL users missed a payment in the previous 12 months. Almost half of them were aged 18 to 29. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated Afterpay makes about $70m a year on late fees.
The UK’s financial regulator has said BNPL players should be forced to adhere to its credit rules as a “matter of urgency”. In the US, a government consumer protection agency issued guidance urging caution around “tempting” BNPL deals.
In a hint at further possible tensions, Capital One in December became the first major credit card company to block its customers from using its cards to pay off BNPL purchases, calling the practice “risky for customers and the banks that serve them”, according to Reuters.
Afterpay board member Dana Stalder said the company welcomed regulation. “Buy now, pay later is just a friendlier consumer product,” he said. “Consumers understand that, they’re not dumb. This is why they are voting with their feet.”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne
UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets
In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.
Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.
Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.
Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.
Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.
Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.
The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.
Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.
WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.
Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.
Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.
“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.
Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.
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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.
Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers.
The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.
The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.
But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.
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China tech crackdown claims ETF victims
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Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on some of its biggest companies in technology and education has delivered a bruising blow to highly specialised China-focused exchange traded funds.
Broad-based tech ETFs have sailed through virtually unscathed, but some narrowly focused thematic instruments have taken a beating. Among those most affected, the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF (KWEB) has nearly halved in value since its peak in February.
Some ETF buyers are hunting specifically for targeted strategies, despite the risks. But Kenneth Lamont, senior fund analyst at Morningstar, said this highlights the potential drawbacks of tracking a narrow theme without the flexibility to shift tactics.
“The [passive thematic] strategy has no way to quickly react to bad news and will hold the stock until the next rebalance. The small number of fund holdings also means that overall returns can be influenced by the performance of handful of stocks,” Lamont said.
He noted that for the KraneShares ETF, one Chinese education group alone — TAL Education Group — was responsible for knocking 2.8 percentage points off performance from the end of June.
Global X Education ETF (EDUT), which has a large exposure to the Chinese online education sector, was also badly affected.
Actively managed ETFs, such as Ark Invest’s ARKK flagship Innovation fund, can react more quickly. After voicing her optimism for the prospects for China’s tech disrupters earlier this year, Cathie Wood, Ark’s chief executive, shed millions of dollars worth of shares in four China-domiciled companies.
Investors in ARKK have not been rewarded as well as those who simply put their money in broadest based funds such as the Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund ETF (VT), but they have still managed to ride out the China tech storm far better than more exposed counterparts.
Some investors insist Chinese investments can bounce back. Mark Martyrossian, chief executive of UK-based Aubrey Capital Management, said he believed many of the affected tech companies would maintain their market leadership.
“The gravy train may have slowed but you disembark at your peril,’ Martyrossian said.
Lamont said badly hit funds had suffered such losses because they were doing exactly what they had promised to do — provide narrow exposure.
More nimble active investment strategies also face their own challenges, said Elisabeth Kashner, director of global fund analytics at FactSet. “Active managers may successfully anticipate market reversals, but they can also miss them, sometimes seriously tanking returns,” she said. “Some people can be skilful and some people can be lucky and if you’re lucky and skilful in one period you might be lucky and skilful in the next, but you might not.”
Additional reporting by Steve Johnson
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