Japan: are there lessons for other developed economies?

A while ago I wrote that the radical economic policies of Japan’s new government under Shinzo Abe would be an interesting experiment for the world. They were much lauded by austerity sceptics, such as Paul Krugman, who drew attention to aggressive monetary policies and fiscal stimulus, which they were advocating for other developed economies. I was sceptical. But early results have exceeded expectations. There is a good analysis here from the Economist, which also discusses the new government’s nationalist tendencies. Is this evidence that the austerity policies being pursued by much of the rest of the developed world are mistaken?

My scepticism when I last posted was based on two things. First that the policies hinged on companies raising wages, when their profits were under pressure. Second was that, based on Mr Abe’s previous form, I did not think that structural reforms to Japan’s economy would be pursued with vigour. On both counts it looks as if I was too pessimistic. This means that Japan’s economy might well get a sustained period of growth, and that it will reduce the burden of government debt. But applying its policies to other developed economies is problematic. There are three reasons for this.

The first is that for longer term success it is still the element of structural reform that is critical. Mr Abe refers to his programme as “three arrows”, in reference to a Japanese folklore story that you can snap the shaft of a single arrow easily, but not three held together. These three are monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. Austerity policies in Europe and America are firmly based on structural reform: especially in reducing the size of the state. Opponents of austerity tend to want to halt or slow down structural reform. Some say that it should wait until growth is resumed; others would rather avoid the reform process altogether. The three arrows approach would in fact promote reform, alongside the monetary and fiscal palliatives, and, indeed, the more considered critics of austerity do say this. But here there is a problem: Japan does not have an oversized state, so cutting back government expenditure is not a major reform priority, as opposed to opening the economy up to more competition and reforming corporate taxes. In Britain, France, Italy, Spain and so on the size state has run beyond what the economy can sustain, and so it has to be cut back, which in turn drains demand from the economy in the short term. There is good reason to doubt whether fiscal or monetary stimulus, beyond their current levels, are compatible with the need to shrink the state.

There is a second important difference in Japan. Its economy has a trade surplus and (which is linked) a savings surplus, albeit temporarily challenged as it has to import energy while its nuclear programme is in abeyance. That means that a fall in the exchange rate, as has happened to the Yen, will generate an immediate bonus to businesses, easily outweighing the extra costs imposed on the economy. This allows companies to put wages up. The savings surplus also means that the economy is not dependent on borrowing from overseas investors, who might be shaken by such currency depreciation. This is not the case with the austerity economies. Where their exchange rates have fallen, as in Britain, this has simply contributed to the squeeze on consumers without benefiting business to anything like the same degree.

Mentioning the exchange rate brings me to a third observation. It is that a lot of Japan’s success so far has less to do with with the country’s actual economic policies than with the effect of announcements on the zeitgeist. Implementation has hardly started, and yet the exchange rate has already plummeted and stock market risen, which is having the necessary warming effect, and set off a virtuous circle. The same can be said, in reverse, for austerity policies in the West, of course. But where reforms are necessarily painful, this is almost impossible to do. Economists have long been reluctant to admit the role of psychology in macroeconomic policy, and have let it in only gradually (through such ideas a inflation expectations). Governments and central banks have long known it – and Mr Abe’s government is acutely aware. The question for Europeans, in particular, is whether further aggressive monetary easing, linked to higher inflation expectations, combined with some fiscal stimulus would lift the zeitgeist and get the economies moving again. We have reason to be sceptical.

Almost all the developed economies in the world are experiencing difficulties. It is easy to fall in with the idea that this must be for similar reasons and that the solutions for each economy are similar. In fact each major economy is unique. And the differences between Japan and the others is amongst the largest. Abenomics may work for Japan, but that does not mean they will work anywhere else.

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.