Last weekend Japan held “snap” elections, which gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the mandate to continue his pro-growth economic policies. No one outside Japan seemed to care. The Nikkei stock market index fell 1.6% and traders moved on. That may prove to be a big mistake.
Granted, given the precipitous decline in the price of oil and the calamity it is causing in Russia (well-covered in last week’s columns), investors may be forgiven for focusing on other more immediate concerns. Still, I believe that now that Abe has a clear mandate to continue his pro-reform, economic policies, Japan’s prospects for next year have been elevated considerably. And don’t forget that Japan is by far the greatest beneficiary of those falling oil prices.
Japan is technically in recession at the moment. GDP over the last two quarters was dismal. And the third quarter1.9% decline shocked observers, who were actually expecting a rise. Economists pointed to a national sales tax hike that hurt economic growth. Back in April, the sales tax was increased from 5% to 8%, which hurt consumer spending. After the election, Abe announced that another hike in the sales tax (to 10%) would be delayed, if not suspended.
Readers may recall the “three arrows” of Abe’s plan. They are: radical monetary easing (well over a $1 trillion so far in asset purchases), extra public spending ($17 billion plus) and a much-needed program of structural reforms. The last arrow is probably the most difficult and yet to be accomplished. Abe will need all the support of a renewed voter mandate to accomplish these changes. It is the main reason the snap election was called in the first place.
Take unemployment, for example. Although unemployment is only 3.5% in Japan, those numbers can be deceiving. The country’s labor structure is antiquated. A decades-old labor coalition between the government, unions and corporations shelter most workers from market forces. For example, there is a de facto ban on firing and dismissals can be thrown out of court if they do not meet with “social approval.” Employment in Japan, in many ways is part and parcel of the country’s welfare system.
Obviously, Japanese companies are at a severe disadvantage in this globally competitive environment. Corporations have resorted to hiring more low-paid workers with little job protection as an alternative. These “irregulars” now make up two-fifths of the labor market. They are not members of the unions and therefore fall outside the unions’ ironclad agreements protecting their members. As a result of this system, even the most unproductive workers remain employed.
Reform would require Abe to scrap the old system and institute things like severance pay, equal pay for equal work and an overhaul of Japan’s short duration, low unemployment compensation system. In addition, the concept of free trade must be introduced. The end of Japan’s post-WWII protectionism must be tackled. This won’t make him popular among many domestic entities. Japanese farmers, for example, benefit from import duties that are so high that the Japanese consumer spends an average 14% of household budgets on food, compared to American consumers who pay 6%.
The battle to achieve these reforms will be formidable. Pressure groups that have gained economic and political power in post-war Japan will not give in easily. Although the general public agrees that reform is necessary to “save Japan from itself,” the devil will be in the details.
Within Japan, there is an understandably cynical attitude over Abe’s chances of successfully addressing these and other structural issues. Too many politicians in the past have tried and failed. What, they say, makes Abe any different?
It could be his heritage. He is the son and grandson of politicians and tradition counts in that country. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was a war criminal, who later established Japan’s Democratic Party. He served as Prime Minster from 1957-1960.
But it could also be his generation. He is both the first post-war candidate to hold office and the youngest Japanese leader in history. He appeals to both sides of the political spectrum and can inspire, motivate and lead. He has, in my opinion, the best chance to steer Japan in a new direction.