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If the Fed is Looking to Inflate Away Problems, What Should Asia Do?

Posted by hkarner - 13. November 2009

 Nov 11, 2009

Andy Xie thinks the Fed is on an inflationary path.  Last month, he wrote an article in Caijing which says that ‘stagflation lite’ is the Federal Reserve’s preferred outcome. What’s interesting is his recent article about the need for China and Japan to join forces under an ASEAN umbrella, rejecting the APEC umbrella shared with the U.S.

In last month’s article, Xie said:

The bottom line is that, regardless what central banks say and do, the world will be awash in a lot more money after the crisis than before — money that will lead to inflation. Even though all central banks talk about being tough on inflation now, they are unlikely to act tough. After a debt bubble bursts, there are two effective options for deleveraging: bankruptcy or inflation. Government actions over the past year show they cannot accept the first option. The second is likely.

Hyperinflation was used in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in late 1990s to wipe slates clean. The technique was essentially mass default by debtors. But robbing savers en masse has serious political consequences. Existing governments, at least, will fall. Most governments would rather find another way out. Mild stagflation is probably the best one can hope for after a debt bubble. A benefit is that stagflation can spread the pain over many years. A downside is that the pain lingers.

If a central bank can keep real interest rates at zero, and real growth rates at 2.5 percent, leverage could be decreased 22 percent in a decade. If real interest rates can be kept at minus 1 percent, leverage could drop 30 percent in a decade. The cost is probably a 5 percent inflation rate. It works, but slowly.

If stagflation is the goal, why might central banks such as the Fed talk tough about inflation now? The purpose is to persuade bondholders to accept low bond yields. The Fed is effectively influencing mortgage interest rates by buying Fannie Mae bonds. This is the most important aspect of the Fed’s stimulus policy. It effectively limits Treasury yields, too. The Fed would be in no position to buy if all Treasury holders decide to sell, and high Treasury yields would push down the property market once again.

I certainly agree with him. You don’t have to be in the hyperinflation camp like Marc Faber to think the Fed takes Ken Rogoff’s suggestions about 6% inflation seriously. In a May post, I said:

Basically, the Fed wants to inflate our way out of this depression – that’s the dirty little secret.  There is really no other policy choice because the mountain of debt in the United States is immense.  And I think Bernanke, Geithner and Summers have proven they are willing to do anything to reflate this economy and avoid debt deflation dynamics.

And when I say anything, I mean create asset bubbles that are being given intellectual cover by the likes of Frederic Mishkin. This is a policy of economic weakness.

So what should the Asians do?  China is desperate to employ its tens of millions of countryside transplants cruising its cities in search of urban employment. That’s a major reason it keeps its exchange rate fixed to a plummeting dollar, making not just Americans but Europeans irate?  Japan has been in a modern day depression for twenty years. Its sovereign debt-to GDP is now over 200%, risking a downgrade.

Xie says the two should join forces – in part as a rejection of the U.S., which he basically calls a fading power (although the paragraph above points to serious weaknesses in China and Japan as well).

Here is an excerpt of Xie’s article:

Yet the fundamental case for Japan to increase integration with the rest of Asia and away from the United States grows stronger every day. Despite high per capita income, Japan remains an export-oriented economy, having missed an opportunity to develop a consumption-led economy in the 1980s and ’90s. In the foolish belief that rising property prices would spread wealth beyond the industrial heartland in the Tokyo-Osaka corridor, the government of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka pursued a high-price land policy, discouraging the middle class from pursuing a consumer lifestyle as they saved for property purchases…

The point is that Japan has a strong and genuine case that favors more integration with East Asia. The United States is unlikely to recover soon and with enough strength to feed Japan’s export machine again. There is no more room for fiscal stimulus. Devaluing the yen to gain market share is not an option as long as Washington pursues a weak dollar policy. Without a new source of trade, Japan’s economy is doomed. Closer integration with East Asia is the only way out…

Five years ago, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Financial Times entitled China and Japan: Natural Partners. At the time, a prevailing sentiment was that China and Japan were antithetical: Both were still manufacturing export-led economies and could only gain at the other’s expense. I saw complementary demographics and capital: Japan had a declining labor force and China needed to employ tens of millions of youths migrating to cities from the countryside. China needed capital and Japan had surplus capital. And their trade relations indeed tightened, as Japan had increased the Chinese share of its overall trade to 17.4 percent in 2008 from 10.4 percent in ‘04.

Today, the situation has changed. China has a capital surplus rather than a shortage. Demographic complementarity is still good and could last another decade. As China shifts its development model from resource intensive to environmentally friendly, a new complementarity is emerging. Japan has already made the transition, and its technologies that supported the transition need a new market such as China’s. So even without a new trade agreement, bilateral trade will continue growing.

An FTA between China and Japan would significantly accelerate their trade, resulting in an efficiency gain of more than US$ 1 trillion. Japan’s aging population lends urgency to increasing the investment returns. On the other hand, as China prepares to make a numerical commitment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions at the upcoming Copenhagen summit on global warming, heavy investment and rapid restructuring are needed for its economy. Japanese technology could come in quite handy.

An FTA involving Japan and China would be a serious threat to American economic power. You can imagine that policy makers in Washington are opposed to this idea.  Let’s watch to see what kind of rhetoric comes out of Barack Obama’s China trip to see if this issue is discussed.

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