When the finance minister targets stock prices

February 11, 2013

Japan’s economy has been far too stagnant for far too long: everybody can agree on that. The aging population, now used to deflation, prefers saving to spending — an entirely reasonable stance if prices will be lower tomorrow than they are today. So the government has long been facing a very tough task: to change the psychology of a nation, basically. You can’t do that — as Japan learned the hard way — with old-fashioned public-works spending. Instead, you have to target expectations.

The Bank of Japan started on this road last month, formally adopting a 2% inflation target. That was the BoJ’s way of saying “start spending now, because your yen won’t be worth as much tomorrow as they are today”. And now the finance minister is doing his part to get the party started as well, in a highly unorthodox manner. In a speech on Saturday, he said that he wants to see the Japanese stock market rise 17% to 13,000 by the end of March.

It was a national holiday in Japan today, so the stock market was closed, but we’ll see tomorrow what effect Amari-san’s words will have: my guess is that they’ll give the market a pretty impressive boost. That’s certainly the intention. The Japanese stock market has been on fire of late, rising more than 30% since mid-November. The clear risk is that the rally will lose steam, and that people will start taking profits; the finance minister, with his speech, is basically trying to extend the rally as much as possible.

There’s no particular reason why the Nikkei shouldn’t continue to rise through the end of March, even reaching 13,000. Momentum is a powerful force, in the stock market, which is why central banks know that FX intervention is much more likely to work if you’re acting broadly with the market rather than broadly against it. Amari’s announcement is a canny way of anchoring expectations: the Nikkei might reach 13,000, or it might not, but for the next few weeks at least the perennial stock-market question is going to be reframed. Rather than “how far are we from where we closed yesterday”, it’s going to be “how far are we from 13,000″. The idea is that with stocks, just like with cars, you generally drive in the direction you’re looking.

I like this move: it shows imagination, and the upside is much bigger than the downside. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work, and the stock market ends up doing what the stock market would have done anyway; the best that can happen is that it helps accelerate the broad recovery that everybody in Japan is hoping for this year.

What’s more, Amari is not the first policymaker to talk about targeting asset prices. Minneapolis Fed president Narayana Kocherlakota, for instance, said quite clearly in 2011 that stock prices “are really going to be a central ingredient in the recovery process”, adding:

In this kind of post financial crisis, post net worth driven recession, it makes sense to be thinking about asset value as a way to try to generate more stimulus than you do in a typical recession.

In other words, don’t look to government spending for stimulus: Japan, of course, has learned that lesson the hard way. Instead, simply goose the stock market instead.

There are risks to this approach: if it works too well, you create a bubble — and when a bubble bursts, that can hurt confidence much more than a rising stock market helped it. But for the time being, the Japanese stock market still looks cheap, both on an absolute basis and in terms of its p/e ratio. Now’s no time to worry about overheating. Instead, Japan’s fiscal and monetary policymakers are working together to try to make the country as bullish and successful as possible. I’d do the same thing, if I were them.

(h/t BI)


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