Thursday, 3 April 2014

Tax Hike in Japan to test fight against Deflation

The Japanese government has been proactive in its battle with deflation but higher consumption taxes will show how much progress has actually been made

There is a big test coming up for the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and his own brand of economic policies which have been labelled “Abenomics”.  Abe has launched a range of aggressive measures to end deflation and get the Japanese economy moving again.  However, a rise in the consumption tax from 5% to 8% in April will provide a thorough examination of the economic recovery in Japan.  The results will matter not only for the long-suffering Japanese citizens but may also provide crucial lessons on how to combat the growing threat of deflation.

Economic Policy - could do better

A report card for Japan's Prime Minister might see him get an “A” for effort but a “C” for execution.  Abe has had a busy first year in power and has attracted plaudits for his three arrows of economic policy encompassing fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms.  This has translated into 10.3 trillion yen (or around US$100 billion) in extra government spending and the Japanese central bank aiming to double the money supply over a two year period.

Hopes were buoyed as the Japanese economy perked up in early 2013 while the stock market in Japan was one of the best performers last year.  Unfortunately, Abenomics did not live up to the hype with economic growth slowing and many investors selling their Japanese shares in 2014.  The shortfall against expectations has been due to an unwillingness to push through the reforms which are key to getting the economy moving again.

Your Neighbourhood Economist had always been sceptical about the outlook for the reforms as Abe is a conservative in a political party which is known as a bastion of old-school traditions in Japan.  The Japanese government is not alone in using expansionary monetary policy as a shortcut to improving the economy.  Yet, two decades of stagnation show that there is no easy route to scoring good marks where the economy in Japan is concerned.

Economic recovery put to the test

The hike in the consumption tax (which has been on the cards for decades) is a move to sort out the government finances but threatens the goal of defeating deflation.  Consumer prices have begun to edge upwards but this depends on the central bank in Japan continuing to print a torrent of new yen notes.  Rising prices are a novelty in Japan after decades of deflation with the higher consumption tax set to bump prices up a further notch.

It is not clear whether Japan is ready for this real-life lesson on the effects of inflation.  Many companies in Japan are not yet convinced that inflation has taken hold with some even lowering prices to absorb the higher taxes.  As a result, wage gains have been timid despite the government's efforts to bully Japanese firms into paying their workers more.  Inflation without higher wages is even worse than deflation as consumers increasingly feel the pinch.  The increase in consumption tax could exacerbate this trend and depress spending.

Little to learn

A poor showing in economic policy in Japan will seldom make the news elsewhere but it does not bode well as other places look set to face a similar set of problems.  The causes of deflation in Japan are becoming more prevalent in Europe – high government debts, an ageing population, a stagnating economy, and companies struggling amid globalization.

Lessons learnt in Japan could be applied elsewhere.  Yet, successes have been few and far between.  Japan does not make a good case study for fiscal stimulus (more due to problems within Japan rather than problems with the idea of a stimulus).  Neither has monetary policy had much impact with an increase in the supply of money only having a limited effect on inflation (due to the link between money supply and inflation being weaker than assumed).  Europe is instead contemplating negative interest rates which is something that Japan has not tried.

Too much inflation will drag down the grades of central banks but deflation could earn them a fail.  Part of the reason is that deflation has been seen as a cause of the malaise of the Japanese economy (even though deflation is more likely just a symptom).  If the Japanese economy could return to being the star pupil it was in the 1980s, deflation would no longer come with such a bad reputation.

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