Great expectations surrounded the announcement of Shinzo Abe’s economic revolution in Japan to pull the economy out of its 20 year slump. The revolution involved a huge overhaul of public policy, with a three-pronged attack on the macroeconomic conditions beleaguering the nation.
The first prong, a tsunami of monetary stimulus and cheap credit released by the Bank of Japan’s new governor Haruhiko Kuroda was designed to end the deflationary spiral. The second was a similarly immense fiscal stimulus package worth $116 billion designed to offset lacklustre investment from the private sector. But it was the third arrow, a series of supply-side reforms, that was perceived to be key to improving the competitiveness of Japanese firms and bolster long-term growth.
At best, these supply-side measures will prove to be only mildly stimulative to the Japanese economy if it begins to recover from its 20 year slump. By contrast, if the economy falls into another recession and the continued deregulation of Japanese labour markets is pursued aggressively, the result could be damaging.
So let’s star our analysis by looking at the channels through which labour market reforms increase productivity. The first channel allows low-productivity sectors and unprofitable enterprises to shed labour more easily. The second channel is then designed to allow firms to hire workers more easily, and consequently pick up the previously fired workers. Therefore, in a healthy economy, structural reform redistributes labour from unproductive employment towards productive employment.
In conditions of economic malaise however, the second channel operates rather weakly. It is easy to see why. When aggregate demand is depressed even productive firms may be saturating the market with unsellable produce and as a result, they are hardly likely to increase employment until aggregate demand recovers. Thus, only the first channel operates at full capacity, and labour is fired at increasing rates. Synthesising these two channels in dampened economic conditions therefore results in heightened levels of unemployment, whilst aggregate demand is depressed even further.
If Abe’s supply-side plan is to recognise any success in this case it will have to hope that the effects of monetary and fiscal stimulus hit the economy before the labour market deregulations do. But even in this event (which admittedly is the more likely one), the third arrow of growth will inevitably fail to boost growth substantially.
The fact of the matter is that Japan’s crisis is one of a huge debt-deflation overhang, and one of depressed demand. That is; it is cyclical in nature, not structural. The huge time-frame and multitude of bogus recoveries would seem to imply that the recession is not a normal one, and the implication is correct; the problems are odd. But the peculiarity of the problems does not make them structural.
In an economy suffering from supply-side malaise, firms are unable to compete internationally and produce anything of meaningful values. In this situation, the current account deficit will rise due to domestic inefficiencies (since domestic production will be unable to compete with imports, and exports will falter).When the current account deficit rises, the currency devalues by the natural mechanisms. When the currency devalues imported inflation will rise. And when inflation rises the central bank will attempt to remedy the problem via contractionary monetary policy. Thus an economy suffering from supply-side inefficiencies should be characterised by having:
- A deficit on the current account.
- A weak currency
- High levels of inflation
- Contractionary monetary policy
These symptoms validate the experience of the USA in the 1970s, when it suffered from stagflation. Indeed, the problems in that situation were supply-side, and the required response was microeconomic in nature. But 1970s America is very different to 2000s Japan.
The Japanese economy for the past 20 years has shared none of the symptoms of stagflation. It has enjoyed persistent current account surpluses, a strong currency (the government has had to step in on numerous occasions to weaken the Yen in the past 20 years), persistent deflation and the most expansive monetary policy seen in history.
This should all point to the fact that Japanese firms are highly competitive on an international-scale. Whilst many academic economists may not realise this reality, one merely has to look in their own home to validate the reality. Japan’s firms are at the forefront of global innovation, and export their products vigorously to western households and businesses.
If Japan’s economy thus does not suffer from supply-side ails, and an economy stifled by over regulation then Shinzo Abe’s measures will be largely fruitless. If the demand-side stimulus measures hit the economy fast, the microeconomic reforms will be redundant. If however, implementation of the fiscal and monetary attacks wavers, the microeconomic reforms could cripple the situation and prolong the pain even further.
The reality stabs policymakers in the face every day. Japan’s problems are demand-side, failing to recognise this jeopardises the livelihood of millions of people.