Japan: Flirting with Helicopter Money

As we already mentioned in a few articles, the Yen strength over the past year was going to be a problem somehow for PM Abe and the BoJ. After reaching a high of 125.86 in the beginning of June last year, USDJPY has entered into a bearish trend since last summer [2015] with the Yen constantly appreciating on the back of disappointments coming from the BoJ (i.e. no more QE expansion). The pair reached a low of 99 post-Brexit, down by 21.3% from peak to trough, sending the equities down below 15,000 (a 30% drawdown from June high of 21,000). The plunge in the stock market was directly reflected in the performance of the Japanese pension and mutual funds; for instance, the USD 1.4 trillion GPIF lost more than USD 50bn for the 12 months through March 2016 (end of the fiscal year). The Fund, as the graph shows below (Source: GPIF) , has been selling its JGBs to the BoJ over the past few years due to Abenomics (the allocation declined from 67.4% in 2011 to 37.8% in 2015) and has mainly been increasing its allocation in domestic and international stocks. With more than USD 13 trillion of sovereign bonds trading at a negative yield – the Japan Yield Curve negative up to 15 years – you clearly understand why we am always saying that Abe and the BoJ cannot lose against the equity market.

A the situation was getting even worse post-Brexit, with the Yen about to retest its key 100-level against the US Dollar, the Yen weakness halted suddenly on rumours of potential ‘Helicopter Money’ on the agenda.

It started when Reuters reported that former Fed chairman Bernanke was going to meet PM Abe and BoJ Kuroda in Tokyo to discuss Brexit and BoJ’s current negative interest rate policy. However, market participants started to price in a new move from the BoJ – i.e. Helicopter Money, a term coined by American economist Milton Friedman in 1969. In his paper ‘The Optimum Quantity of Money’, he wrote:

‘Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated.’

In short, Helicopter Money is a way of stimulate the economy and generate some inflation by directly transferring money to the nation’s citizens. This money, as a contrary of refinancing operations or QE, will never be reimbursed.

Buy the rumors, sell the fact?

The effect on the currency was immediate, and USDJPY soared from 100 to [almost] 107 in the past 12 years, levitating equities as you can see it on the chart below (SP500 in yellow line overlaid with USDJPY candlesticks). It was confirmed that on the week ending July 15th, the Yen had his biggest drop in the 21st century. The SP500 index reached its all-time high of 2,175 today and in our opinion, the Yen weakness is the best explanation to equities testing new highs in the US.

(Source: Bloomberg)

Talking with Bernanke: Conversations and Rumors

As the meeting was held in private, we don’t have any detail on the conversation. On common sense, you would first think that the discussion would be on the potential BoJ retreat from the market as its figures are starting to be really concerning (35% of JGBs ownership, 55% of the country’s ETF, 85% total-assets-to-GDP ratio). It is clear that the BoJ cannot continue the 80-trillion-yen program forever, and from what we see in Japan [markets or fundamentals], the effectiveness of monetary policy is gone.

However, it looks to me that market participants are convinced that the BoJ will act further, which is to say adopt a new measure. This was clearly reflected in the currency move we saw, and they [better] come with something in the near future if Japan officials don’t want to see a Yen at 95 against the greenback. The next monetary policy meeting is on July 29th, an event to watch.

Introducing Helicopter Money

We run into a series of really nice and interesting articles over the past couple of weeks, and we will first start by introducing this chart from Jefferies that summarizes the different schemes of Helicopter Money very well.

chopper money schematic

We were only aware of the first scheme, where the central bank directly sends money to the households or directly underwrites JGBs. However, as Goldman noted, the second popular scheme would be to convert all the JGBs purchased by the BoJ on the secondary market into zero-coupon perpetual bonds. When you think that a quarter of Japan revenues from tax (and stamps) are used to service debt with the BoJ running out of inventories (i.e. JGBs) to buy, the second scheme makes a lot of sense in fact.

The other part that Goldman covered was on the legal and historical side. As the picture below (Source: Jefferies) shows you, Article 5 of Japan’s Public Finance Law ‘prohibits the BoJ from underwriting any public bonds’. However, under special circumstances, the BoJ may act so within limits approved by a Diet resolution. In other words, the BoJ can underwrite public bonds. The only problem is once Helicopter Money is adopted, it is difficult to stop it. Japan already ‘experienced helicopter money’ in the 1930s after it abandoned the gold standard on December 13th 1931. It first devalued the Yen by 40% in 1932 and 1933, and then engaged in large government deficit spending to stimulate its economy; it was called the Takahashi fiscal expansion (Japan FinMin, Takahashi Korekiyo, also referred as the Japanese ‘Keynes’). As Mark Metzler described in Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan (2006), ‘increased government spending was funded by direct creation of money by the BoJ’.

helicopter primer 2

It was not until 1935 that inflation start rising, and the expansionary policies of Takahashi’s successor after the FinMin assassination in 1936 led the country to a balance of payments crisis and hyper-inflation.

‘Be careful what you wish for’.

In our opinion, as central banks shouldn’t be too focus on the currency, an interesting way of stimulating an economy would be by transferring money directly to citizens’ account. The BoJ could put a maturity date to the money they transfer (i.e. the citizen has one year maximum to spend the money he received), and ‘obliged’ their citizens to spend it on Japanese goods, therefore stimulating the internal demand and eventually leading to a positive feedback loop.

The announcement of additional measures from Japan in the near future should continue to weigh on the Yen, and USDJPY could easily re-reach 110 quite quickly if rumors become more and more real.

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