Abenomics: why it doesn’t look good for Japan’s economic experiment

A few years ago, as the Greek crisis unfolded, an Economist blogger suggested that its austerity programme would be an interesting experiment. Did the then fashionable idea of austerity growth have any validity? The answer to that experiment seems to be a clear no, though now doubt there are get out clauses. Now a very different economic experiment is taking place in Japan, after the election of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democrat Party last December. It is popularly referred to as “Abenomics”.

Abenomics, described by the Economist here,  has three elements: increased infrastructure expenditure, looser monetary policy (through focus on a higher inflation target), and “supply-side” structural reform. This coordinated nature of the policy is one of its most important aspects. Here in Europe we are used to fiscal policy pulling one way, while monetary policy and structural reform pulls in the other. All this has “Keynesian” economists like Paul Krugman in raptures (I used the inverted commas because no self-respecting economist accepts that label, it’s just common sense after all, though their political supporters love it). Japan has been stuck in the economic doldrums for two decades, and these economists feel that at long last the country might be digging its way out. Better still, success in Japan will show that these policies can be applied in other developed economies. But this analysis is deeply flawed – a case of macroeconomic blindness, a sort of failure to see the trees for the wood.

Look again at Japan. Its unemployment rate is currently a shade over 4%, having fallen from a peak of 5.5% in 2009. Compare that to the UK’s rate, which has hovered around the 8% mark since 2009, compared to about 5% before the crisis. This does not suggest a huge amount of slack in Japan, even allowing for distortions in the way it measures its unemployment. Growth will have to come about either through productivity growth or new people entering the workforce (e.g. through immigration). There is plenty of scope for both. Japan may have some of the world’s most efficient companies, but these dominate its export economy only; there is a lot of inefficiency in domestic markets. Japan has long eschewed immigration as placing an unacceptable strain on its social infrastructure. All this depends on the third prong of Abenomics, structural reform. And yet the government already seems to be going slow on this, afraid that the public will disapprove, with bad consequences for upper house elections due later this year.

In fact what Abenomics really seems to be about is to make government debt more affordable through setting off inflation (specifically of incomes, and hence tax revenues). Japan’s inflation has been very low, and negative for much of the stagnant period. Even this may not work – economists understand little about how inflation actually comes about, assuming that it is some kind of endogenous variable in that depends on such things as aggregate demand and money supply. Instead the policy may simply lead to state bankruptcy – though that is no doubt a long way off.

What are the implications for the rest of us? The justification for “Keynesian” policies in most developed economies, including th UK, remains intact because our high unemployment shows that there is quite a bit of slack, though we don’t actually know how much (the 1970s stagflation crisis arose because economists too readily assumed that unemployment meant economic slack). But they are not the answer to raising long term growth rates. And Japan’s agonies with inflation and government debt may well foreshadow future dilemmas our own governments will face.

What arrogant economic commentators, like Professor Krugman, need to accept is that economies are the sum of freely made choices of individual citizens, excercised through both markets and the ballot box, as they try to shape the world they live in. They are not the creation of governments and policy makers playing with their economic toolkits to win prize for the biggest d**k growth rate. Japan’s stagnation is the result of choices that Japanese people are making about the sort of place they want to live in, one which consideres wider factors than monetary income. Get over it.

That speech: just a ripple on the surface of British politics?

Last week I commented on David Cameron’s speech on Britain and the EU, where he promised an in-out referendum, following a “renegotiation” if the Conservatives win the next General Election in 2015. For some days after I though this was a decisive moment in British politics, in which Mr Cameron seized the initiative, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, lost his chance to win the next election. A week on, the dust has settled and the news is dominated by other stories. Was is such a decisive moment, or a mere ripple, a failing prime minister making a promise he can’t deliver?

The weekend polls show no decisive shift, with the coalition parties trending up a tad, but Labour still comfortably ahead, following a trend already evident before the speech. One poll seemed to show a big advance by the Conservatives at the expense of UKIP – but on further examination it looks as if this has more to do with polling methodology than people changing their voting preferences. Mr Miliband’s calculation appears to be that the main issue for British politics is the economy, and so the best thing to do is to change the subject back to this issue. His line that the speech hurts the economy because it creates uncertainty, that old argument against any form of decisive leadership, seems to be carrying weight with the British public, according to a further poll published by The Independent – though this also showed Tory support rising. And in the ephemeral world of British political commentary that should be enough to say that this is just a small tactical victory for Mr Cameron, making his party less vulnerable to UKIP, and not much more. But I think two big things have changed, and a big problem has opened up.

Firstly, Mr Miliband has made a serious strategic error, even if its significance will not show up much before 2015. His strategy should be to focus the political debate onto a small number of subjects and overwhelm the opposition there. This is a strategy I have called “the same, only different” following a 20th Century advertising campaign for a product I have long forgotten. It was used by Tony Blair’s New Labour to devastating effect in 1997. Basically you shadow your opponent’s policies in almost every detail except for a small number carefully chosen issues, plus a big investment in mood music to make your party appear more caring and more competent. I remember the exasperation of Tories; whenever they came up with a new policy to try and get an edge on Labour, Labour promptly adopted it as their own. It prevented the other side from changing the agenda. This seems to have been what Mr Miliband is trying to do, albeit without actually committing to any policies just yet (again following Mr Blair’s example). He is not creating sharp policy differences with the government, and making the main focus of his attack the economy. He is trying to create the right mood music by painting the government as by turns gratuitously nasty, and shambolic and incompetant. This strategy was slowly paying off.

But Mr Cameron has hit Labour below the waterline. He has created a clear area of policy difference, where he is probably more in tune with the British public than Mr Miliband, and one in which he can guarantee coverage from Britain’s still-important press. But also the issue makes Mr Miliband look weak, indecisive and un-prime ministerial. That could be fatal. What Mr Miliband actually should have done was welcomed Mr Cameron’s speech and adopted his policies as his own. That would have taken the wind totally out of the Tory sails.

The second way that Mr Cameron’s move may be decisive is that it may have turned the advancing tide of British Euroscepticism, while at the same time unifying his bitterly Eurosceptic party. I have read Mr Cameron’s speech, and the most striking thing about it is how Europhile it is. He has well understood the arguments for Britain staying in, and put them forward. Britons are a suspicious, conservative bunch as the 2011 AV referendum showed. Leaving the EU would be a big step into the unknown, and the more people think about it, the more nervous they are likely to become. And yet the sceptics are happy because they have their precious in-out referendum.

Mr Cameron’s speech was a genuine act of decisive political leadership. There are risks, but there always are. There is also a risk that the EU needs to take forward a treaty change that we are forced to put to a referendum that is then lost. This risk has now been sidestepped, because we now have the opportunity to package it up with more popular changes and put it too an in-out referendum.

But there is a big problem with Mr Cameron’s speech, which I did not pick up last week. Aside from its tactical genius, it is intellectually vacuous. Its economics is based on a fatuous understanding of international competition and the fear of Europe falling behind the developing economies. Its analysis of how the EU needs to be changed is hot air with no concrete proposals. A single market without harmonised rules may sound good, but what does it mean in practice? I really don’t understand how this wishful vision breaks down into nitty-gritty negotiating points. Mr Cameron badly need somebody with intellectual heft to lead the negotiation – the job the Lord Cockfield did for Mrs Thatcher in developing the original European Single Market in 1992. The risk is that he will make no headway in the negotiations, and waste an opportunity to improve both Britain’s role with the EU, and the stability of the EU itself. That’s the big problem the speech opens up.

Growth: the deeper questions

Today first estimates of the UK’s final quarter GDP show that the economy shrank by 0.3%. There will be a lot of posturing around this but it doesn’t mean that much. GDP is not a direct measure of wellbeing (unlike unemployment, for example), and it isn’t that clear how one quarter’s statistics have a bearing on people’s day to day lives. Besides these early estimates are not very reliable. Still these GDP figures do prompt some wider questions.

The first is about short-term economic strategy. A large number of government critics, loosely referred to as “Keynesians” though no professional economist would accept that label, say that a series of poor GDP returns reflect a failure of economic management. Firstly that cutting government expenditure reduces demand, which has a multiplier effect to shrink the economy as a whole. Second that the government should in fact be doing the opposite: using fiscal policy to use the same multiplier effect to boost the economy at large. I don’t intend to discuss this much further today, except to make this point. These arguments have weight because the UK economy is in recession, with high unemployment. This means, or should mean, that there is slack. Slack is usually inefficient, especially when unemployment is involved, and evidence that the slack is being taken up would come from better GDP growth figures. But what people are talking about is a short-term effect: once the slack is taken up the economy bumps into more substantive constraints and “Keynesian” stimulus would have undesirable effects, such as inflation or an unsustainable trade deficit. But what are the prospects for growth in the longer term, and does it matter?

There is now quite widespread pessimism about the long term prospects for growth in the UK and other developed economies. Mostly this is ephemeral. People assume that current trends simply continue; a few quarters of stronger growth and the mood will lift, even if this says nothing about longer term prospects. But more serious questions are being posed. Mostly these are based on demographics – the aging of the baby boom generation – and an allegedly slowing pace of innovation. The Economist had an interesting article on the latter a couple of weeks ago. This explained the reasons why people are becoming pessimistic – but then pointed to reasons for counterbalancing optimism. I think The Economist is right as far it goes: innovation picks up in some areas just as it slows in others. But they miss an important wider question about the role of economics itself. They too easily assume that innovation will lead to increased productivity and this to growth, in accordance with conventional economics. I think this may be breaking down.

Try to think about this in terms of three ways in which economic wellbeing advances. First is the conventional consumption which dominates economists’ thought. People consume more goods and services, and the economy is able to deliver these because productivity rises. Second is the consumption of what I would describe as personal goods and services. This superficially resembles the first sort of consumption, but the very nature of these goods and services is that productivity cannot grow. Think about personal therapy – shorter sessions or sharing sessions with more people undermines the product we want to buy. Another example is status goods – often the whole point is to show status by buying goods or services that are produced at low productivity. And finally people may opt out of the conventional economy altogether: take time off, pursue hobbies and so on.

So what if people direct their energies (and use innovation) to consuming personal goods and/or opting out, rather than consuming conventional goods? Economic wellbeing advances but GDP growth does not; in the case of opting out, GDP actually shrinks. Economists tend to be very dismissive of this, and try to assume their way out the problem: in particular that than economy advances on all three fronts at once, so that conventional consumption is representative of the whole. This has worked well enough for the “opt out” option: I am assured that there is good evidence that leisure increases alongside consumption, not in opposition to it. But there is a logical problem with the advance of personal goods, and economists have a name for it: Baumol’s disease, after the economist who pointed it out. The more productivity advances on conventional goods, the higher share of the economy is taken up with personal goods – and you have to work that much harder to improve productivity on conventional goods to achieve the same level of growth. Economists may have named it, but they still usually ignore it and its implications. They usually just have a quick moan that we should spend more energy trying to improve the productivity of services (the problem is usually defined in terms of agriculture, manufacturing and services – with what I am calling personal goods being part of services).

But I think the whole balance is shifting. There are limits to the extent that people will want to improve wellbeing by simply consuming more mass-produced goods and services. An increasing proportion of the population has reached that limit (I certainly have), instead increasing leisure or buying “quality” (lower productivity) goods. And look at innovation. I consider my smartphone to be a fantastic technical advance that has improved my life a lot. But has it helped the conventional economy by helping me to produce more services for other people to consume? It hasn’t. Quite apart from the demographic issue, which is real enough (and you could say this is actually the same thing, with people choosing more leisure by retiring for longer and consuming more personal services through hospital and other care), the rate of conventional economic growth is slowing in the developed world.

Does it matter? After all economic wellbeing may still progress. Unfortunately there are two reasons that it may: debt and taxes. These two lie at the very heart and purpose of the conventional economy. Debt and credit tend to get washed away in a high growth economy – but it will get increasingly difficult for people, businesses and governments to service past debts in a low growth environment. And a lot of the personal services that take up a higher and higher proportion of our economy (like health) are funded through taxes, as well as support for leisure (pensions) – and yet if the conventional economy does not grow this will bulk larger.

Debt and taxes. These issues are destined to dominate developed world politics in the century to come.

Cameron may yet win his gamble on the EU

This morning the British Prime Minister David Cameron gave his long awaited speech on the European Union. I didn’t listen to it, or read it, so you won’t get any light on the nuances of his argument here. I’m interested in the political dynamics, which, as usual, do not depend on exactly what he said. From the BBC report his speech was fairly much as the last two weeks’ briefing had suggested. We wants to “renegotiate” Britain’s terms of membership, and then offer the British public an in/out referendum, after the next General Election, by the end of 2017. Mr Cameron’s political reputation is mixed. He showed brilliant footwork when he first took over leadership of the Conservative Party, but rather fluffed the 2010 General Election with his incomprehensible idea of the “the Big Society”. He restored his reputation with the assured manner in which he put together the Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. After that he seemed lack vision and grasp. Will today’s move restore his reputation? It might.

A couple of weeks ago I thought he was onto a hiding to nothing, and in the process of leading his party to defeat at the next election, set for 2015. Various shades of Euroscepticism seem to define the rank and file of the Conservative Party, right up to Parliamentary level. It seems impossible to satisfy them. On the other hand assorted Europhiles (in deed rather than word in most cases) amongst the deeply conservative British establishment don’t want to rock the boat.  He risks isolation and an almighty mess. His own view seems to be that the UK is better off inside the EU, but it would be really nice if its institutions were less intrusive.

But Mr Cameron has two things going for him. First is that his personal view on the matter probably represents what most of the British public thinks: a very grumpy “well yes I suppose so” to the EU. From this he should be able to build a bond of trust, unlike other participants in the debate, whose firm views one way or the other are not shared by the public. And second, Mr Cameron is a vital swing voter in the debate. It is highly unlikely that either side can win a referendum without his support. The smart thing for the various players here and abroad is to build bridges with him, rather than try to isolate and vilify him. This could put him into the driving seat.

Things are now starting to get very interesting.  In spite of the very long time they have been given to develop a party line, the Labour opposition is completely at sea. They are trying to paint a picture of a PM beholden to his backbenchers, and who, by creating uncertainty, is making things worse for the national interest. This is desperately unconvincing.  The British public probably rather agree with what their PM is saying, while Labour are merely offering obfuscation and procrastination.  Uncertainty over Britain’s future in the EU is already a fact of life.

Meanwhile, those who are in favour of the UK staying in the EU are at long last starting to stir. Their silence to date has been one of the main frustrations of the public discussion so far. The Eurosceptics have had the field pretty much to themselves, unchallenged. What these EU supporters – from outside and inside the country – have to say is pretty ugly, it has to be said. They aren’t trying to sell the EU as a positive vision. They are stoking fears about what life would be like outside. Real Europhiles, like me, really dislike this negative stuff, a lot of which is intellectually unconvincing. But elections are won on the ugly stuff – just look at the 2011 referendum on a fairly minor tweak to Britian’s electoral system, which was portrayed as the end to life as we know it. The Eurosceptic arguments are being given much greater scrutiny, and many will wilt.

The big problem for Mr Cameron is how the “renegotiation” will work out.  I use quotation marks because ever since Harold Wilson used it in the 1970s (in my formative political years) I have felt it to be an sham concept, used by armchair commentators. Either you enter into an honest negotiation about matters that need fixing, or you are going back on your promises; you should be honest about which it is. The difficulty is that our existing treaty terms are a carefully balanced whole, and if you change one bit it unbalances others.  The favourite Eurosceptic idea of opting out of the social standards bits we don’t like, and then use this to give British businesses a competitive edge over their foreign rivals, has a rather obvious flaw as a negotiating stance.  What’s in it for them?  The country’s European partners would mainly rather have us in than out, and we do have a trade deficit with them, but this does not add up to a strong negotiating position. Mr Cameron might simply do what Mr Wilson did: get a few token concessions and try to big them up. That would be risky for Mr Cameron’s reputation, though he might still win.

But Mr Cameron has set quite a long time frame for his negotiation. In that time it is quite likely that the EU will want to alter its treaties to make the Eurozone more stable. Under Britain’s “referendum lock” legislation this could trigger the need for approval by referendum in the UK anyway. If Mr Cameron can tie these treaty changes into his “renegotiation”, and then use his in/out referendum to endorse it as a package, then he does have something to negotiate with – and can paint himself as doing the EU a favour. The transfer of powers between EU institutions and the UK might actually be two-way traffic. If he pulls that stunt off, his political legacy will be secure, in my book anyway.