Chase Franklin International Tokyo News: The Lessons of Japans Economy
Posted Nov 03 2013 3:56am
BY many measures, Japan’s economic fortunes have turned up. The Tokyo stock market has surged about 65 percent since last fall. In the second quarter, the economy expanded by 3.8 percent, which is faster than other developed economies. At last, prices are edging upward, a good thing for Japan. Yet, the mood in Tokyo among businessmen and economists remains precariously balanced between enthusiasm for the monetary and fiscal stimulus unleashed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and worry that promised structural reforms might not be implemented.
That’s a worry that other countries should absorb. What concerns businesses in Japan concerns business all around the world. In the endless global debate about the importance of macroeconomic budgetary and monetary policies, insufficient attention is often given to the unsexy, often politically toxic pile of smaller-bore policy challenges that can be critical to restarting a faltering economy.
Many countries need to take on those challenges, including calcified parts of “old Europe” like France and Italy, emerging nations like India, and even the United States, with its shortsighted slant toward consumption in place of saving and investment.
Japan is certainly as shackled by its own rigidities as any other country. While some export-oriented industries (autos but, notably, not electronics) have remained competitive, the domestic economy feels straitjacketed by bureaucracy, tradition and overregulation.
Accordingly, Mr. Abe has promised to deliver a vast array of microeconomic reforms, from permitting online drug sales to increasing the number of women in the work force by expanding child care, to “corporatizing” Japan’s fragmented farming industry.
But to date, virtually none of Mr. Abe’s long, self-created to-do list of structural reforms, which he calls the “third arrow,” has been proposed in full detail, let alone completed.
During even a short visit, it’s easy to see that the need for microeconomic reform is glaring. All told, Japan’s labor productivity is 71 percent of America’s — and on a par with Italy’s. While Japan is still a wealthy country, its return on capital is equally unsatisfactory.
And much like the United States, it needs better tax policy: fewer loopholes, lower rates on income and, down the road, as the economy recovers, more revenue to close gaping budget deficits.
Even if the prime minister pursues his ideas vigorously, Japan will still face significant structural challenges.
For example, despite a declining population, no one in Japan — essentially a closed society — is talking seriously about reforming exceptionally strict immigration laws. Nor do many expect meaningful changes in rigid labor policies.
Some elements of Mr. Abe’s plan appear to be working. In order to stimulate consumer purchasing, he has exhorted Japanese companies to replenish thin wallets by increasing wages. As a result, consumer spending has begun to tick up, particularly for luxury items. Inside the Daimaru department store near the Tokyo train station, gleaming new boutiques have been built for brands like Prada and Bottega Veneta.
Loan demand and business investment are also finally increasing. But Tokyo, which once seemed so dazzlingly modern, now feels far from cutting edge next to gleaming cities like Shanghai. A gloomy sensibility was particularly apparent this summer, when office lights were dimmed, temperatures turned up and strict office dress codes relaxed as Japan grappled with shrunken electricity supplies following the Fukushima nuclear incident.
Given Japan’s past failure to take on sacred cows, it’s unlikely that the country will ever again rank as an economic juggernaut. But a robust third arrow could at least put it back in the game and provide an important lesson for other developed countries.