Since Haruhiko Kuroda became Governor of the Bank of Japan in 2013, he has implemented a labyrinth of monetary expansion initiatives, including the famous quantitative easing programme of ¥80 trillion per year and the negative interest rate policy. As a major tenet of the Abenomics reform package, this was intended to stimulate Japan’s ailing economy.
The most pressing issue for both Kuroda and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that these reforms did not—even remotely—achieve their desired goals. Inflation is nowhere near the 2% annual target and GDP growth is lacklustre. Since the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, the Japanese economy has endured five recessions and GDP growth that is stagnant at best.
Abe’s reform package relies heavily on a weaker Yen to increase exports, raise corporate profits, and fight deflation, but this is not materialising either. Since January 2016, the Bank of Japan has improvised a -0.1% interest rate on many reserves and yet the currency has still increased 18% vis-á-vis the US dollar since the new target rate. The asset purchasing programme, which has now been implemented at the ECB as well, has resulted in the Bank of Japan holding 38% of Japanese government bonds. This astonishing figure is more than double the 14% of US government bonds held by the Federal Reserve after its quantitative easing scheme under Bernanke and Yellen.
In a desperate attempt to finally revitalise Japan’s economy, many observers are pointing to helicopter money as a means to increase aggregate demand and hopefully economic output. While this has not been implemented at the central bank level, Abe’s cabinet did approve a 13.5 trillion stimulus programme in August that focuses on public works spending. The recent appointment of Toshihiro Nikai, a long advocate of this variety of spending, as Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party signifies Abe’s commitment to this new plan.
There is one significant problem with this new plan—it isn’t new at all. Following the burst of the Japanese property bubble in the early 1990s, several administrations, notably that of SPJ PM Tomiichi Murayama, initiated massive stimulus programmes in civil projects to jumpstart the economy. In fact, the massive demise of this policy was even used in the United States to argue against the Obama administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Like many Western nations, the plight of the Japanese economy is the result of structural forces that are regulatory, tax-related, and demographic.
In their reckless aim to artificially boost the economy, Abe and Kuroda both fail to realise this. While the BoJ Governor said in late 2015 that negative rates were not an option, he proceeded to implement them in January the following year. Any denial of prospective helicopter money directly from the BoJ should likewise be viewed as a tentative hope for the future, not as an actual policy position. After the pledge of a “comprehensive review”, the BoJ has now decided to begin a new yield-curve monitoring programme during the late September meeting.
A glimmer of hope once existed for the Japanese economy: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Unfortunately, due to populist forces fuelled by demagogues such as Bernie Sanders in the Western world and the Renho-led Democratic Party’s opposition to the deal, this lifeline is unlikely to come to fruition.
As Japan’s international competitiveness continues to decline, leaders in both the BoJ and National Diet will attempt to employ any method possible to save future generations from malaise…
…except the ones that actually work.