Japan Is Back. Is Inflation the Reason? - Kanebridge News
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Japan Is Back. Is Inflation the Reason?

Deflation might be vanquished, but the payoff could be elusive

Fri, Mar 1, 2024 9:28amGrey Clock 4 min

The Nikkei stock index recorded last week its first new high in 34 years, a fitting tribute to Japan’s re-emergence as a genuinely exciting economy.

It also comes amid mounting evidence that Japan has finally broken the hold of deflation. Inflation in January was 2.2%, the 22nd month above 2%. Wage growth has picked up too.

This appears to vindicate the economic consensus that deflation was a primary driver of Japan’s decades long malaise. But that conclusion might be premature. Proof of deflation’s harm has been elusive, and the benefits of low, positive inflation might be similarly subtle.

Consumers are often surprised to hear that deflation is supposed to be bad. In the U.S., where prices have risen steeply since 2021 , normal people, and even economists, wouldn’t object if they fell a bit.

The trouble arises when prices fall persistently, year in and year out, because wages, incomes and the prices of assets such as property tend to follow. Debtors struggle to repay loans and might slash spending or default, endangering the financial system. That is what happened in the U.S. when prices fell 27% from 1929 to 1933.

Even mild deflation can, in theory, inhibit growth. Central banks stimulate spending by lowering nominal interest rates below inflation to make the real—i.e., inflation-adjusted—cost of borrowing negative. That is almost impossible when inflation is itself negative.

The roots of deflation

Japan’s deflation began after its property and stock-market bubbles burst in the early 1990s. Ensuing losses at banks eroded their ability to lend. Inflation turned negative in 1999.

Western economists such as future Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke argued that curing deflation was essential to restoring Japan’s economic health. The Bank of Japan agreed, at first half heartedly and then wholeheartedly.

It used zero, then negative, short-term interest rates. Next came purchases of short-term, then long-term, government securities. Finally, the BOJ even bought shares in companies with newly created money to stimulate spending and raise inflation.

The BOJ only succeeded in bringing inflation up to around zero. It took the global supply chain shocks of the pandemic to finally push underlying inflation to 2%, the bank’s target .

Japan’s 25 years of zero to negative inflation was accompanied by one of the rich world’s lowest growth rates. Japanese deflation became a cautionary tale for other countries, most recently China, where prices are currently falling .

Yet proving that deflation was behind Japan’s problems is maddeningly hard. Arguably, it was more symptom than cause.

In the early 1990s, working-age population growth turned negative. This happened just as Japan’s post-World War II phase of catching up to other developed nations ended. Meanwhile, industry began moving production to lower-wage countries.

All this, plus the banking crisis, put structural downward pressure on prices, wages and growth.

Underlying performance

Adjusted for its shrinking population, however, Japan’s performance has been respectable. From 1991 to 2019, its output per hour worked rose 1.3% a year. This was slower than in the U.S. but comparable with Canada, France, Germany and Britain, and faster than Italy or Spain, according to the economists Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, Gustavo Ventura and Wen Yao.

Since 2019, output per working-age person rose 7% in the U.S., 5% in Japan, 2% in the eurozone and zero in Britain, by my calculations. (This might overstate Japan’s performance because many of its elderly still work.) As any visitor can attest, Japan remains a prosperous, harmonious and well-ordered place.

“Had you appointed me governor of the Bank of Japan for 25 years with all the power in the world, I don’t think I would have been able to do better,” said Fernández-Villaverde.

This doesn’t prove deflation was benign. Growth (and deflation) might have been worse without the BOJ’s herculean monetary efforts. And if inflation had been positive, growth might have been stronger.

Still, it raises an awkward question: If zero to negative inflation is so damaging, where is the evidence?

The price mechanism

The harm might lie in subtle behavioural changes by investors, companies and the public. For example, in a market economy, changing relative prices and wages are critical signals for reallocating capital and labor from stagnant to growing sectors.

Relative prices changes are unusually rare in Japan, according to the University of Tokyo economist Tsutomu Watanabe. He has found that from 1995 through 2021, prices of more than half of products didn’t change at all from year to year. This wasn’t just because average inflation was lower; price changes deviated from the average much less than in other countries.

In a December speech, Bank of Japan Governor Kazuo Ueda said years of low to negative inflation led to a “status quo in wage- and price-setting behaviour,” so many prices and wages didn’t change. “The know-how for raising prices was thus lost,” he said.

The absence of this price-discovery function, Ueda contended, sapped productivity and dynamism.

Watanabe’s research shows that since January 2022, prices have been less sticky and more dispersed. Coincidentally, the Nikkei’s latest rally began a year later.

This in great part reflects the enthusiasm of foreign investors such as Warren Buffett , shareholder-friendly changes in corporate governance, and Japan’s importance as an alternative to China for high-end manufacturing and technology.

Inflation, though, might also be a factor, said Paul Sheard , a former vice chairman at S&P Global who has studied the Japanese economy for decades. He added that investors care about nominal, not real, stock prices, earnings, dividends and cash flow.

Higher inflation flatters all those metrics. That benefit might be neutralised by higher interest rates, but Japanese bond yields have risen less than expected inflation, so real yields are down to minus 0.6%.

So perhaps inflation is reviving businesses’ and investors’ animal spirits. Even so, growth last year was about the same as before the pandemic and turned slightly negative in the third and fourth quarters, producing a technical recession . What’s more, wages have lagged behind inflation, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ’s approval ratings have plummeted.

Japan might have prevailed in its war against deflation. But ordinary Japanese have yet to see a peace dividend.


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These stocks are getting hit for a reason. Instead, focus on stocks that show ‘relative strength.’ Here’s how.

Wed, Jun 12, 2024 4 min

A lot of investors get stock-picking wrong before they even get started: Instead of targeting the top-performing stocks in the market, they focus on the laggards—widely known companies that look as if they are on sale after a period of stock-price weakness.

But these weak performers usually are going down for good reasons, such as for deteriorating sales and earnings, market-share losses or mutual-fund managers who are unwinding positions.

Decades of Investor’s Business Daily research shows these aren’t the stocks that tend to become stock-market leaders. The stocks that reward investors with handsome gains for months or years are more often  already  the strongest price performers, usually because of outstanding earnings and sales growth and increasing fund ownership.

Of course, many investors already chase performance and pour money into winning stocks. So how can a discerning investor find the winning stocks that have more room to run?

Enter “relative strength”—the notion that strength begets more strength. Relative strength measures stocks’ recent performance relative to the overall market. Investing in stocks with high relative strength means going with the winners, rather than picking stocks in hopes of a rebound. Why bet on a last-place team when you can wager on the leader?

One of the easiest ways to identify the strongest price performers is with IBD’s Relative Strength Rating. Ranked on a scale of 1-99, a stock with an RS rating of 99 has outperformed 99% of all stocks based on 12-month price performance.

How to use the metric

To capitalise on relative strength, an investor’s search should be focused on stocks with RS ratings of at least 80.

But beware: While the goal is to buy stocks that are performing better than the overall market, stocks with the highest RS ratings aren’t  always  the best to buy. No doubt, some stocks extend rallies for years. But others will be too far into their price run-up and ready to start a longer-term price decline.

Thus, there is a limit to chasing performance. To avoid this pitfall, investors should focus on stocks that have strong relative strength but have seen a moderate price decline and are just coming out of weeks or months of trading within a limited range. This range will vary by stock, but IBD research shows that most good trading patterns can show declines of up to one-third.

Here, a relative strength line on a chart may be helpful for confirming an RS rating’s buy signal. Offered on some stock-charting tools, including IBD’s, the line is a way to visualise relative strength by comparing a stock’s price performance relative to the movement of the S&P 500 or other benchmark.

When the line is sloping upward, it means the stock is outperforming the benchmark. When it is sloping downward, the stock is lagging behind the benchmark. One reason the RS line is helpful is that the line can rise even when a stock price is falling, meaning its value is falling at a slower pace than the benchmark.

A case study

The value of relative strength could be seen in Google parent Alphabet in January 2020, when its RS rating was 89 before it started a 10-month run when the stock rose 64%. Meta Platforms ’ RS rating was 96 before the Facebook parent hit new highs in March 2023 and ran up 65% in four months. Abercrombie & Fitch , one of 2023’s best-performing stocks, had a 94 rating before it soared 342% in nine months starting in June 2023.

Those stocks weren’t flukes. In a study of the biggest stock-market winners from the early 1950s through 2008, the average RS rating of the best performers before they began their major price runs was 87.

To see relative strength in action, consider Nvidia . The chip stock was an established leader, having shot up 365% from its October 2022 low to its high of $504.48 in late August 2023.

But then it spent the next four months rangebound—giving up some ground, then gaining some back. Through this period, shares held between $392.30 and the August peak, declining no more than 22% from top to bottom.

On Jan. 8, Nvidia broke out of its trading range to new highs. The previous session, Nvidia’s RS rating was 97. And that week, the stock’s relative strength line hit new highs. The catalyst: Investors cheered the company’s update on its latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

Nvidia then rose 16% on Feb. 22 after the company said earnings for the January-ended quarter soared 486% year over year to $5.16 a share. Revenue more than tripled to $22.1 billion. It also significantly raised its earnings and revenue guidance for the quarter that was to end in April. In all, Nvidia climbed 89% from Jan. 5 to its March 7 close.

And the stock has continued to run up, surging past $1,000 a share in late May after the company exceeded that guidance for the April-ended quarter and delivered record revenue of $26 billion and record net profit of $14.88 billion.

Ken Shreve  is a senior markets writer at Investor’s Business Daily. Follow him on X  @IBD_KShreve  for more stock-market analysis and insights, or contact him at  ken.shreve@investors.com .