Japan: Inflation Expectations and Real Interest Rates

There is evidence that inflation expectations are firmly moving into positive territory after languishing below zero following the onset of the global financial crisis. The 7y breakeven has stabilized at around 0.53% over the past couple of weeks, after averaging -1.1% from December 2008 to December 2011. This jump has helped move the 7y real JGB yield sharply lower: It crossed the negative threshold for the first time in five years on May 1, and has been fluctuating in the -0.1 to -0.2% range since mid-May.

Can monetary policy be credited? Inflation expectations had been rising in H1 2011 before abruptly reversing course in July, after the Bank of Japan (BoJ) left policy unchanged just as the Fed intimated more QE (driving the yen higher), suggesting a strong monetary policy influence. But the breakeven began rising rapidly again in mid-January, several weeks before the BoJ’s pivotal 1% inflation goal announcement on February 8. Indeed, inflation expectations actually stabilized after the February 8 announcement for about a week before jumping thereafter.

The apparent catalyst for the sudden increase in the breakeven was a very strong rebound in machinery orders, the largest in four years, announced in mid-January, which rekindled expectations of a turnaround in the Japanese economy. The BoJ’s policy moves thereafter added momentum by not only pushing inflation expectations higher but also lowering nominal yields on government bonds, bringing long-term real rates down sharply.

It would seem these lower medium-term real rates are enticing borrowers back into the lending market, at least in the household sector. The latest Senior Loan Officers Survey out of the BoJ, conducted between June 11 and July 9 and released last week, showed an improvement in household demand for credit, pulling the four-quarter moving average (4qma) for consumer credit demand into positive territory for the first time since mid-2008.

Of course, there are plenty of pitfalls in assuming such a causal link. There has been a substantial improvement in consumer confidence across the board recently, driven by improving income and employment conditions (or at least the perception thereof), which is probably having the biggest impact on borrowing behavior. Furthermore, business credit demand worsened in the latest survey, particularly for small firms, which suggests that the real interest rate channel has not changed firm behavior, at least not yet.

We also have to be careful about putting too much stock in breakevens. Inflation-indexed bonds have a much smaller market volume than JGBs, such that a few large buyers may be able to affect prices more easily than in the regular government bond market. Thus, breakevens may not be as reflective of economy-wide expectations as the JGB market. That said, consumer price expectations are also demonstrating some positive momentum, albeit much less pronounced than what breakevens are showing. In the end, it seems monetary policy is at best amplifying underlying macroeconomic dynamics, but not particularly driving them.

3 Responses to "Japan: Inflation Expectations and Real Interest Rates"

  1. Naomi Fink   July 23, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    There is almost certainly a causal link between the rise in the inflation expectation implied by inflation-linked Japanese government bonds and monetary policy. This is because the BOJ buys and holds inflation indexed bonds… http://www.boj.or.jp/en/statistics/boj/other/mei/

    But whether the rise in the breakeven reflects private sector inflation expectations is another question!

    • Michael_Manetta   July 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      Good point! Indeed, the more important point is whether any of this is actually transmitting to private expectations and the real economy. There's no denying that household credit demand is stronger than it has been in years, which I think is a very interesting development. If that is at least partially driven by cheap(er) credit, then it would be fair to say that monetary policy is providing some tailwind, and can continue to do so going forward. But the current consumer bonanza seems like pent-up demand after more than a year of crisis and volatility, facilitated by a fiscal policy encouraging new auto purchases. I don't think low real rates are making the difference in any meaningful way. If that's the case, the bonanza will putter out (by the end of this year, IMO), which means the BoJ isn't likely to achieve its 1% inflation goal under its current approach, further undermining the central bank's ability to influence expectations.

  2. Car Title Loans   September 18, 2013 at 7:17 am

    i dont believe in the healthy inflation mindset because there was a time in our country when money was backed with collateral, gold. I dont see HOW they would ever do this again because of the annihilating of our finances by ourselves and our governments. purposely causing inflation to spark a healthier mindsets among investing individuals is not the right way to steer the economy thew way you want it.