Watching Japan slide

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Watching Japan slide

Comforted by the notion that “Japan could not happen here,” there was a time when U.S. economists felt confident lecturing the Japanese government on how to pull the country out of its prolonged economic malaise.

However, as I wrote in 2011, in doing so they severely underappreciated the challenges of post-bubble recoveries. Today they are rightly more timid about criticizing Japan, given that the West is still failing to bounce back fully from its own economic lapses, which culminated in the 2008 global financial crisis.

If anything, Japan continues to serve as a teacher for the rest of the world (notwithstanding its unique mix of characteristics, including lousy demographics and limits on labor mobility). There was another lesson this week when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to postpone a sales tax increase that, not long ago, was deemed essential for the country’s fiscal sustainability; there is even some talk of cutting corporate taxes next year. All this follows news of the country’s slip back into recession, which was emphasized by an unexpected contraction of 1.6 percent in the third quarter of the year.

This latest warning siren is particularly relevant for Europe, which finds itself heading down the same path as the Japanese as it faces a mix of sluggish growth and a risk of price deflation.

At its core, Abe’s decision to postpone the consumption tax increase reflects the chaos that prolonged weak economic momentum inflicts on countries wishing to pursue more than one objective - in this case, raising living standards, curtailing the growth in government debt and breaking the private sector’s deflationary mindset. The move also highlights the difficulty of correcting impediments to growth that have become embedded in the economy.

Remember that early on in his premiership Abe said he would pursue three “arrows” - monetary expansion, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms - to lift Japan out of its two lost decades. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has recently advocated similar goals for Europe, stressing the need to move simultaneously on improving both supply and demand measures. With new leadership at the Bank of Japan, Abe has had little difficulty in getting its support of strong stimulus measures.

Yet even with this advantage and with his significant majority in parliament, Abe has struggled in delivering the third arrow - structural reforms. In calling for an early election in an attempt to extend his term, he is seeking to reassert his political dominance so he can move more forcefully to break down entrenched economic interests. In the meantime, he is being forced to reconstitute a better mix for his three arrows to ensure that the country’s debt dynamics don’t get out of control.

Already frustrated by too many false starts, Japan’s private sector is likely to become even more skeptical and risk averse. If this continues, the private sector could end up in what economists call Ricardian equivalence - that is, it will act to negate the stimulus efforts of Japanese officials. Households and businesses could curtail their consumption and investment today as they wait for the higher taxes that are coming in the future.

If Western nations don’t do a better job of internalizing the lessons of Japan, some of these economies may find themselves in even deeper trouble. And if they aren’t careful, they could well end up in an even worse position, since they lack Japan’s social cohesion, sense of collective action and its cushion of wealth.

The author, the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE, is chairman of Barack Obama’s Global Development Council.

by Mohamed El-Erian
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