Abenomics failed to deliver as Japan braces for post-Abe era

People watch the broadcast of a news conference of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Friday night.  Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Politics

Abenomics failed to deliver as Japan braces for post-Abe era

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By Leika Kihara and Takaya Yamaguchi

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s signature shock-and-awe Abenomics stimulus strategy was already faltering even before Friday’s news that he would be stepping down for health reasons.

That blunt assessment by many Japan observers underlined the daunting political challenge Abe has faced in his efforts to pull the economy out of decades of economic stagnation.

And the coronavirus may have just put the final nail in the coffin to his “three arrows” reform program as the economy sinks deeper into recession, analysts say.

After sweeping to power in late 2012, Abe deployed his three arrows of Abenomics – large-scale monetary easing, fiscal spending and structural reforms – to reignite the world’s third biggest economy after years of subpar growth and falling prices.

There were some quick-hit successes.

The Bank of Japan’s “bazooka” stimulus program lifted business sentiment and helped weaken the yen, giving exporters windfall profits that trickled down to wages and new jobs.

Corporate governance reforms drew in huge amounts of overseas money, pushing up foreign ownership of Japan’s listed stocks to a record 31.7% in 2014 from 28% in 2012. It stood at 29.6% in 2019.

But Abe, who is set to step down before his term ends next September, will leave behind a pile of unfinished business for his successor.

“The focus at the moment will be on the coronavirus recovery and controlling the infection, regardless of who will be the next prime minister,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

“There has been talk that Abenomics has been having a harmful impact, so I think the focal point will be on suggestions how to make changes to it.”

The biggest disappointment for the prime minister, and many Japan observers, is that the third-arrow reforms to reshape an economy hobbled by low productivity, a rapidly ageing population and a rigid labor market, have proved elusive.

PAYING THE PRICE

Now, Japan is paying the price as COVID-19 wipes out the short-term benefits brought by Abenomics, such as an inbound tourism boom, reflated growth and rising job availability.

Abe’s failure to entice companies to spend more on capital expenditure has given Japan Inc a huge cash-pile that served as a liquidity buffer to weather the pandemic’s shock.

But the experience may give firms an excuse to keep hoarding cash rather than spend on new business opportunities, which could stifle innovation and weigh on Japan’s potential growth – factors Abe was focused on addressing through the third arrow.

“COVID-19 may have reassured corporate executives that cash is indeed king,” said Hideo Hayakawa, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. “My fear is that companies may feel even more inclined to save rather than spend.”

Social distancing policies and other business constrains to contain the virus may cripple potential growth – already low due to slow progress in deregulating highly-protected medical and agriculture industries, and accepting more foreign workers to address chronic labor shortages.

Japan’s potential growth rate, which used to exceed 4% in the 1980s, slid near zero last year from around 1% before Abenomics began, according to BOJ estimates.

“Structural reform, or the third arrow, has been the declaring failure of Abenomics,” said Samuel Tombs, chief U.K. economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Even the government’s signature immigration reform last year was much ado about nothing, in practice.”

DEFLATIONARY MINDSET

COVID-19 also dashed a grand experiment of Abenomics that aimed to turn around Japan’s “deflationary mindset,” in which companies and households hold off on spending on expectations that low growth and wages will persist.

The economy stumbled to a record contraction in the second quarter that shrank nominal gross domestic product (GDP) to 507 trillion yen ($4.8 trillion), around levels marked in 2013 and far distant from Abe’s 600-trillion-yen target.

“Japan’s economy may have performed better after Abenomics, but not enough to change public sentiment dramatically,” said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

“With the pandemic, we’ll likely see growth fall further. With many legacies of Abenomics wiped out, we know now there was no magic wand to fix Japan’s chronic woes,” he said.

Moreover, with the BOJ having exhausted its tool-kit to achieve its elusive 2% inflation target, policymakers face the challenge of seeking to revive the economy with a dearth of ammunition.

Japan’s huge debt also limits room for big fiscal spending, which may keep any economic recovery weak, analysts say.

“Japan failed to normalise monetary and fiscal policies when the economy was in better shape,” said former BOJ board member Takahide Kiuchi. “Now, it’s paying the price.”

Reactions from public

Here are the reactions of some people on the streets of Tokyo.

NAOHITO KOJIMA, 55, BROKERAGE EMPLOYEE

“I think he worked hard. As head of the ruling party, he worked hard on Abenomics for eight years. There were various problems, but if someone else had been leader, it’s questionable whether they could have maintained a stable government for as long as he did.

“He had various diplomatic negotiations overseas and there were pros and cons, but I think there were many merits.

REIJI IWATA, 24, ACTOR

“I think he’s been working the whole time, and we’ve also had the coronavirus pandemic. He’s faced various criticism, I think, but he’s worked hard for the country so I feel kind of sad that he’s resigning.”

KUNIO SEKINE, 62, OFFICE WORKER

“I’m surprised. He looked really tired, but I didn’t think he would resign. I wish he could work harder and stay on a bit longer.”

KUMIKO SAITO, 45, OFFICE WORKER

“He was working hard on (measures to deal with) the coronavirus. But he seemed worn out lately, and I was worried.(His resignation) is very unfortunate.”

KATSUMI ABIKO, 79, SHOPKEEPER

“I’ve been wanting him to resign for a long time.”

KATSUMI ABIKO, 79, SHOPKEEPER

“Everything he did was wrong. Especially (trying to) amend the constitution. He is not protecting our constitution but wanted to change it. I can’t forgive him.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

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