Friday, December 7, 2012

How Japan financed WWII

71 years today, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and opened a new front in its global war. Why would a relatively small country take on a much larger adversary when it is already stretched with other wars and occupations? In particular, how do you find the resources to wage such wars, and by resources I mean not just the financing but also the physical resources?

Gregg Huff and Shinobu Majima offer part of the answer by looking at the financing of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. Japan had a strategy that invading troops needed to be self-sufficient. This means that they had to either confiscate (tax) or acquire goods through money creation. To a large extend, the latter was performed through the issuance of military scrip, which is unbacked military notes, along with bilateral clearing arrangements with the occupied countries. This allowed not only to finance local occupation but also transfer substantial resources to Japan, in the case of Indochina up to a third of its GDP.

You would think that money creation on such a massive scale would create hyperinflation or at least high inflation. That does not seem to be the case, at least in the sense that the price levels increased as much as the money supply. One could have expected that given the circumstances inflation would have been significantly higher than money growth if market participants were forward-looking and money velocity would increase (think of hyperinflation à la Cagan). Huff and Majima trace this missing hyperinflation to the fact that money was needed to act as a medium of exchange and store of value, despite very substantial seigniorage taxes. There was not viable alternative, in part because of Japanese coercion. I think this would not have worked in more modern economies where more assets are available.

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