Japan’s Deflation Persistence

It's deflating...

Is it all about the age of the population?

One in four people in Japan will be older than 65 in 2014, compared with 9.6 percent in China and 14.2 percent in the U.S., according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Now, because they have had longer to accrue weal the older people tend to have more savings, or have retired and live in a fixed income, and therefore benefit from deflation But correlation is not causation. Certainly, Japan’s older population loves deflation. But the issue is the love of deflation, not the age of the population, per se. More than 80 percent of respondents in a Bank of Japan (8301) survey released this month who noticed rising prices last year said it was bad. Deflation-loving Japanese voters are the main stumbling block to Abe and Kuroda’s desire to reflate the Japanese economy back to inflation (to incentivise borrowing) and growth.

One of the peculiarities of state-backed fiat money is that it is a medium of exchange that the people of a state are expected to share. Clearly, individuals existing in a state will by definition have different motivations, different time preferences, and different conceptions of what constitutes good money. Different individuals have different preferences for inflation and deflation — while deflation helps savers, younger generations without savings are hit by stagnant wages and diminished incentives for borrowing. Inflation incentivises borrowing, and deflation incentivises saving, but these things are both to a great degree two sides of the same coin — deposited savings are lent out by banks. So when a population comes to love deflation and savings soar — and about 56 percent of household assets were in cash or bank deposits in 2012, according to a Bank of Japan report — the glut of savings depresses interests rates. With the value of savings rising, savers have little incentive to spend. This, ceteris paribus, constrains spending.

Abe and Kuroda are fighting to break Japan out of the liquidity trap. They have specific growth and inflation targets — 1% inflation, and 3% income growth and have a clear plan to hit those targets. But fighting against the widely-desired status quo — that is, deflation — in a democratic state is difficult. If Japanese people love deflation, they will vote for it at the polls. If Abe and Kuroda are to succeed in reigniting inflation, they need to convince Japanese savers to change their minds about inflation, and challenge the idea that saving in Yen is a desirable thing. After all, saving is not confined solely to the state-backed fiat currency. In a more inflationary environment, savers often choose to save through ownership of assets whose prices are increasing — land, real estate, commodities and currencies other than the state-backed fiat currency. In principle, there is no reason why Japan’s ageing population may not prove capable of moving its desire for savings into different media, and letting the Yen inflate. In practice, deflation and saving in Yen is cemented as a norm. That may prove extremely difficult to overcome.

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Do Wages Benefit From A Shrinking Labour Force?

Dean Baker says yes:

The retirement of the baby boom cohorts means that the country’s labor force is likely to be growing far more slowly in the decades ahead than it did in prior decades. The United States is not alone in facing this situation. The rate of growth of the workforce has slowed or even turned negative in almost every wealthy country. Japan leads the way, with a workforce that has been shrinking in size for more than a decade.

Baker concludes:

With a stagnant or declining labor force, workers will have their choice of jobs. It is unlikely that they will want to work as custodians or dishwashers for $7.25 an hour. They will either take jobs that offer higher pay or these jobs will have to substantially increase their pay in order to compete.

This means that the people who hire low-paid workers to clean their houses, serve their meals, or tend their lawns and gardens will likely have to pay higher wages. That prospect may sound like a disaster scenario for this small group of affluent people, but it sounds like great news for the tens of millions of people who hold these sorts of jobs. It should mean rapidly rising living standards for those who have been left behind over the last three decades.

Of course, Baker could just look at the data from Japan. Real wages there have been depressed in recent years, even while the labour force has shrunk:

Japanwages

Even more damningly, labour’s share of income in Japan has declined even more considerably than the United States, and other nations with a growing working-age population:

ShareofLabourincome

Matthew C. Klein asks an important question:

Perhaps Mr Baker was thinking of an older example: the Black Death, which killed about half the people in Europe. Many (including me until I looked it up) believe that the resulting shortage in agricultural labour led to soaring real wages for peasants and a redistribution of economic power away from landowners. Recent evidence, however, casts doubt on this hypothesis. While nominal peasant wages did indeed increase in the aftermath of the Black Death, real wages may have actually fallen for decades. That may have helped heavily indebted peasants, but everyone else had to endure punishing declines in their standard of living, not to mention the psychological trauma of surviving such a devastating plague.

And the evidence on the Black Death seems conclusive:

In southern England, real wages of building craftsmen (rural and urban), having plummeted with the natural disaster of the Great Famine (1315-21), thereafter rose to a new peak in 1336-40. But then their real wages fell during the 1340s, and continued their decline after the onslaught of the Black Death, indeed into the 1360s. Not until the later 1370s – almost thirty years after the Black Death – did real wages finally recover and then rapidly surpass the peak achieved in the late 1330s.

And if we look at China — a country which has seen stunning real wage growth in recent years — it is clear that that growth has come in the context of a growth in the working-age population. China’s working-age population hit one billion for the first time in 2011.

To me at least, this seems to suggest that while all else being equal, a shrinking working age population might lead to a more competitive labour market, all else is not equal. Employers invest in more capital-intensive processes like automation and robots to compensate for a lack of workers, or in our globalised world they shift operations to somewhere with a stronger labour force (like China today, or perhaps like Africa further into the future). Even more simply, a falling population as a result of a natural disaster like the Black Death, or even just as a result of demographic trends like Japan, may lead to an economic depression due to falling demand.

This suggests that Baker’s conclusions are extremely optimistic for labour, and that shrinking populations may be bad news for wages.

Japan’s Adult Diaper Boom

Japan’s population has gotten so old that diaper manufacturers are selling more adult diapers for incontinent seniors than they are baby diapers. According to Bloomberg:

Unicharm Corp’s sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded those for babies for the first time last year.

This is because Japan’s population is getting older and older:

This is a pronounced trend all over the developed world. As people live longer and as fertility rates fall, there is a proportionately a larger and larger population of elderly retirees being supported by a proportionately smaller and smaller population of young workers paying taxes and interest on debt.

Governments of countries with ageing populations have a few choices. First, they could relax immigration laws so that working-age immigrants can enter the country, work and pay taxes to support the domestic elderly population (Japan has some of the tightest immigration laws in the world). Second, they could change the tax code or legal framework to incentivise a higher birthrate (for instance, tax breaks per child). Third, they could raise the retirement age (or at least provide incentives to keep an ageing population in work).

Another option is to hope for a miracle. But that doesn’t have a history of working out very well.