Mt Fuji from Yokohama, Japan

Japan’s Abenomics: 3 out of 5 Arrows

by John Brian Shannon originally published at JohnBrianShannon.com

If the fundamentals of an economy are sound, any conceivable shock to an economy will eventually dissipate and normal economic flows will resume. (Every economist knows this)

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan he inherited an economy where the fundamentals were unsound, and more than one economic parameter was out of alignment. Which is a different way of saying the Japanese economy was going to fail on his watch, or early into the next Prime Minister’s watch.

The unexpected shock of the Fukushima-Daiichi meltdown and the subsequent shuttering of Japan’s entire nuclear power plant fleet didn’t help Japan’s economic matters. Some 29% of Japan’s electricity was produced by those (cheap to operate) nuclear power plants. Many of those n-plants are now undergoing decommissioning, or are still offline.

Mr. Abe’s Three Arrow policies were necessary, timely, and for what they are, effective. In retrospect, there was no other way for Japan to proceed. The country’s economy would have imploded had the Prime Minister not acted so appropriately.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, he announced a strategy – comprising three “arrows” – to overcome the economy’s combination of slow growth and low inflation: [1] very easy monetary policy, [2] a short-term fiscal stimulus, and [3] structural reforms to labor and product markets. But the government’s economic policies (so-called Abenomics) have not fixed Japan’s problems and are unlikely to do so in the future.” — Professor Martin Feldstein writing in Project Syndicate

However, I suspect that even Shinzo Abe knew that it would take more than Three Arrows to reset Japan’s economy. But they are a great start to putting Japan’s economic fundamentals where they need to be.

It will take two more ‘Arrows’ to return Japan to a balanced state — the ‘steady state’ where a fundamentally sound economy can withstand moderate political or economic shocks.

Mt Fuji from Yokohama, Japan. Image courtesy of comeonoutjapan com
Mt Fuji from Yokohama, Japan. Image courtesy of comeonoutjapan com

Arrow #4 must surely be an inheritance tax of some significance. Japan’s diminishing population pyramid means that domestic demand will continue to taper. An inheritance tax can help to counter that loss in government revenue.

With falling tax revenue due to a shrinking population, the government needs money to operate — providing the same infrastructure, but to a shrinking population. In Japan’s case an inheritance tax of 25%-50% will allow the government to maintain services in the face of falling income tax and other tax revenues.

Arrow #5 must be raising corporate taxes. Voters will not accept the twin assault of higher inheritance taxes and an already proposed Value Added Tax increase from 8% to 10%.

That will only result in widespread public disaffection and Prime Minister Abe being voted out of office after doing so much good work.

If voters are expected to shoulder a higher tax burden then corporations must also pay their fair share. If that means that corporate dividends for wealthy investors are a few cents lower, well, that’s just too bad.

By raising inheritance taxes and corporate taxes, the government should hit zero-deficit within 3 years.

At that point the Japanese economy will return to a ‘steady state’ where it can flourish as a fully functioning economy.

Although I’m a fan of massive stimulus; At the early onset of economic downturns, massive government intervention works well, but continuing to massively stimulate an economy for longer than 5 years, we reach a point of diminishing returns in the 6th or 7th year.

That is why, in order for government intervention to be most effective, it must be massive, it must be early, and it must continue for 5 years or less. (Less is better)

Other economic levers must also be applied. We can’t expect stimulus to solve fundamental problems with the economy.

If the economy hasn’t got it’s fundamentals in order, massive stimulus only warps the equation — but in fairness — it gives the country’s leaders five years to get those fundamentals in order.

Therefore, my prescription for Japan’s ailing economy is ‘take two more arrows and aim for zero deficit within 3 years.’

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the credibility and the political energy to get it done. Leaving it for the next Japanese Prime Minister isn’t an option.

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Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.