Despite ‘Abenomic’ growth, Japan needs reform

ScreenHunter_09 May. 22 15.59

Cross-posted from The Conversation

Amid the doom and gloom of recent world economic reports, Japan has provided a rare source of good news. In the first quarter of the year, its economy grew by 0.9%, indicating an annual growth rate of 3.5%. This is considerably higher than most comparable nations; the US is growing, but at a lower rate, and much of Europe is still in recession.

Japanese growth is particularly welcome as the country’s economy has stagnated for much of the past two decades. Confidence is in short supply, and investment and consumption are lacking. Even zero interest rates have failed to encourage spending. The high value of the yen has resulted in a negative trade balance; Japanese products have simply been too expensive to export.

So what is Japan doing right? And how much credit can Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and his “Abenomics” programme take for the recovery?

Three-pronged Abenomics

Since taking office in late December, Abe has pursued a three-pronged economic strategy: an expansive monetary policy with the central bank injecting more money into the economy (quantitative easing); an expansive fiscal policy with higher levels of government borrowing and expenditure; and a programme to achieve structural change and higher productivity, particularly through encouraging a larger and more flexible workforce.

The initial signs are seen as encouraging. Over recent months the value of the yen has fallen by around 30% against the US dollar, making exports cheaper, while share values have risen significantly. Growth has been driven mainly by cheaper exports, followed by residential investment and consumer spending.

But the target of a return within two years to 2% inflation is likely to prove tough. There is as yet little sign of a return to inflation, and the longer term effects of the monetary and fiscal stimulus remain unclear.

Differing views

The pros and cons of “Abenomics” have been vigorously debated. Some commentators have condemned the strategy as fundamentally flawed. For one US commentator it is one Ponzi scheme on top of another. Others are concerned about the apparent erosion of central bank autonomy.

As cash is pumped into the economy firms have invested in speculative activities, driving a rise in share values. Investment banks and brokers have benefited, but core business investment has remained very sluggish, with would-be borrowers reluctant to take on debt.

A cheap yen may have stimulated exports, but it has also increased the cost of imported energy, already ballooning following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The past tendency of government spending to be diverted by political agendas – usually those of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party – into unproductive infrastructure projects increases scepticism about its potential for stimulus.

Don’t forget the third prong

Even the optimists, though, agree that the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies will only deliver the desired outcomes if the third element, structural reform, can be promptly implemented. Reform is vital for sustained economic growth, and without it the government’s debt burden could become totally unsustainable.

Japan already has one of the world’s highest debt to GDP ratios. The combination of even higher debt – increasingly held overseas – and stagnant revenue is potentially disastrous. But delivering on structural reform and greater efficiency through labour market change will be tough.

It’s the demography, stupid

Demographic change remains at the heart of all workforce issues. Japan has the world’s fastest ageing population, and estimates suggest that by the middle of the century nearly 40% of the population will be of retirement age. In that time Japan’s population will have fallen to around 100 million, compared with over 120 million today.

Immigration presents one possible solution, but it is still a fraught issue in Japan. While there are a significant number of workers from other parts of Asia – temporary and permanent, legal and illegal – any kind of open door policy remains politically difficult, particularly in the absence of growth and improved employment prospects for Japanese nationals.

Making better use of highly qualified women seems an obvious solution to worker shortages associated with the changing demographic profile. However, this is in conflict with the traditional Japanese pressures on women to care for the elderly within the family, to have more children and reverse the decline in the birthrate, the persistent unequal career prospects for women, and their reluctance to put up with the work demands conventionally accepted by many of Japan’s male workers.

Above all, increasing women’s workforce participation requires modifying deeply held Japanese cultural traditions. This may be almost impossible to achieve in the shorter timescales required by Abe’s economic strategy.

Too early to judge success

Abe was not elected because the Japanese were confident that he could bring them out of stagnation – confidence in politicians remains at an all time low – but rather because he at least seemed to have a concrete strategy that offered a better chance of success than those of his opponents. To what extent the positive signs in Japan’s economy are the outcome of Abenomics rather than a lucky set of circumstances is difficult to judge at this point.

Earlier Japanese history perhaps gives cause for optimism. Expansionary government expenditure, low interest rates and currency depreciation helped Japan’s rapid emergence from the Great Depression.

We must take the positives from recent events. Japan still has its problems, but it remains the world’s third largest economy and its prosperity matters for us all.

Article by Janet Hunter, Saji Professor of Economic History at London School of Economics

9 Responses to “ “Despite ‘Abenomic’ growth, Japan needs reform”

  1. notsofast says:

    I don’t see why Japan needs to reform.

    It is the Western financial systems with the problems. The way they create bubbles and then let them collapse.

    I expect Japan to give a polite thank you but no thank you to anybody trying to “force” Japan to reform.

    Japan should take the reform measures it wants, when it wants and not before.

    • Sweeper says:

      If they can boost labor force participation and ignore people like Kyle Bass, I think they’ll be fine.

      • notsofast says:

        I am struggling to give Kyle Bass any credence also. I can’t see how his storey fits the facts for Japan. Japan has the economic muscle to overcome its problems.

        Maybe this is just Japans efforts to rebalance its trade flows which other countries are prepared to accommodate given Japan’s critical position in the world.

        If I was an Australian Superannuation fund I would have been in Japan three months ago talking about buying into some of the Japanese corporations that are leaders in their fields.

        While it may not be an investment that gives the highest yield, I believe the days of Superannuation Funds chasing yield are over. Its a sure way to lose money. Superannuation Funds now need to be about building yield, which means build relationships and staying in them.

        Put it this way, I would rather be investing in Japan than the ponzi finance schemes that are driving the US sharemarket and for that matter, our sharemarket with the obvious problems with our banking system and the banks valuation.

  2. V says:

    Gee it only took them 20 years to massage the statistics.

    30% drop in the currency relative to the USD- the population must be really loving their loss of PP.

  3. chrisr says:

    Japan desperately needs reform. If you visit the country you will understand why unemployment is so low – lots of people are employed doing totally pointless work. This seems necessary to preserve social order, but also prevents those people from adapting to change.

    Also, their government is beholden to various interests, such as of the big consumer electronics companies, the Renesas bailout being an example of how Japanese resist anything resembling capitalism being applied to their own.
    (see http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-news/4399111/Japan-s-missed-deals–KKR-Hitachi—GE-Olympus)

    I tend to agree with Kyle that just depreciating their currency won’t be enough to kick-start their exports again, and so the strategy ultimately will not work.

  4. emmrob says:

    Japan is embarking on the same disasterous monetary policy as in the early nineteen thirties. They are simply provoking an outright currency war. This is the ultimate beggar thy neighbour policy. When inflation is coming home to roost, they will regret they have ever elected Mr. Abe and got Mr. Aso as finance minister. Readers familiar with the dutch language are advised to read the following article: http://www.economie-macht-maatschappij.com/valutaoorlog.html

  5. bennoz says:

    Good video on the impact on global markets of Abenomics and QE infinity – explains a lot about the current situation the markets are in…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR3TyfKTeNE

    “interest rates in japan only need to reach 2.8% for 100% of their TAX REVENUE to be spent on interest repayments alone”

  6. timwightman says:

    “In the first quarter of the year, its economy grew by 0.9%, indicating an annual growth rate of 3.5%”

    Measured in what, Yen? If so, that’s hardly growth!

    This is like a cookie company selling 5000 x 100g cookies one year. To get growth the next year, they sell 6000 x reduced size 80g cookies and claim growth because the numbers went up!