A Eulogy for Abenomics

On the morning of Friday, July 8th, 2022 the life of Japan’s former and longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was brought to a brutal and premature end. Abe had been campaigning on behalf of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the Japanese city of Nara, before being fatally shot by a man wielding a homemade weapon (Regan, Ogura & John, 2022). Widely regarded as a figure that “inspired respect rather than love” (Wingfield-Hayes, 2022), the tragic nature of Abe’s death has sparked a unified sense of grief and shock across the nation of Japan and beyond. Prior to stepping down in 2020 as a result of recurring health issues, Abe had occupied the role of Prime Minister for 8 consecutive years, the longest anyone has stood in this position since the commencement of the Japanese “parliamentary cabinet system” in 1885 (Ito, 2021).

Figure 1: Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving Prime Minister and the Godfather of Abenomics

Abe had also served a brief and controversial stint as Prime Minister between the years 2006 and 2007 before relinquishing the role citing poor health once more. Although critics have speculated whether a series of political scandals and widespread corruption allegations may have played a more significant part in Abe’s resignation at this time (McCurry, 2022, “Scandal and defeat”, 2007). An oftentimes controversial figure Abe attracted criticism in certain circles for the “remilitarization“ of Japan, having notably called “for a more ’assertive’ Japanese military“ (Li, 2015) and a revision to Japan’s constitutionalised ceiling on military spending, which has sat at one per cent of Japanese GDP since being instituted in 1976. Somewhat ironically Abe’s wish for this ceiling to be lifted may be granted posthumously, with Abe’s untimely demise serving as the catalyst for this policy change (Hanssen, 2022).

Having resumed the role of Prime Minister in 2012, Abe inherited an ailing Japanese economy scarred by the deep recession experienced in Japan throughout the1990s, the more recent 2009 global financial crisis and the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. With Japan mired in a cycle of stagnant economic growth, Abe devised a series of economic policies designed to return the Japanese economy to its former glory. This set of policies would come to be termed “Abenomics” and will serve as the enduring legacy item of Abe’s historic tenure, as well as the centrepiece for this article.

What is Abenomics?

Abenomics is a comprehensive economic policy manifesto characterised by three principle elements or, as Abe chose to label them, “arrows” – “(i) expansionary monetary policy, (ii) expansionary fiscal policy, and (iii) structural reforms” (Hausman & Wieland, 2014). The first, expansionary monetary policy refers to a policy directive that “aims to increase the rate of monetary expansion to stimulate the growth of a domestic economy” (“Expansionary Monetary Policy, 2021), or more simply “increases the supply of money and credit to generate economic growth” (O’ Connell & Schmidt, 2022).

Monetary policy under Abenomics revolved around a major overhaul of the Japanese Central Bank (Bank of Japan) and the highly restrictive lending environment that had developed across the Japanese banking sector. This conservatism could be traced directly to the major financial crisis experienced in Japan over the entirety of the 1990s (Woo & Kanaya, 2000). A phenomenon is so wide-reaching that it is now routinely referred to as “Japan’s Lost Decade” (Yoshino & Taghizadeh-Hesary, 2015). 10 years of “sluggish economic growth and recession” during this period left a deep impression on both the Bank of Japan and the wider commercial lending sector, a hegemony that Abe’s fresh approach would attempt to break.

Figure 2: Scenes of grief have unfolded across the nation of Japan in the aftermath of Abe’s tragic death

The crisis itself had emerged as the result of a poorly implemented financial deregulation policy, the origins of which began in the late 1970s and continued throughout the 1980s. A culture of excessive and high-risk lending contributed to a heavily inflated rise in asset prices. As the value of these assets began to collapse in the early 1990s the hesitancy of the Japanese government to acknowledge the immediate threat to its financial sector and the high levels of unrecoverable “bad loans” in operation culminated in the collapse of a dual real estate and stock market bubble, devastating the Japanese financial sector and the economy as a whole (Hoshi & Kashyap, 1999), (Ueda, 1999). This collapse had a chastening effect on Japanese banking institutions and placed heavy constraints on wider credit availability, with banks preferring the safety of government bond purchases over the perceived risk of providing private sector loans. The difficulty in securing loan provisions proved a major drag on investment throughout the Japanese economy, stalling recovery attempts and contributing to “the two decades of stagnation and deflation” that Abe’s radical policies attempted to address (Hausman & Wieland, 2014).

Figure 3: The “three arrows“ of Abenomics were inspired by a traditional Japanese folk tale

The First Arrow: Monetary Policy

Abenomics set a specific annual inflation target of 2 per cent. Though this may appear a rather modest aim, particularly in the context of the extraordinary levels of inflation currently being experienced throughout the global economy, the Japanese economy at the time had been in a deflationary cycle for over 15 years (Nishizaki, Sekine, Ueno & Kawai, 2014). While at face value it may be difficult to see the downside of a general fall in the price of goods and services, deflationary cycles also tend to correlate with slow or stagnant economic growth. The Japanese economy proved no exception in this regard with real GDP growth (the level of a nation’s Gross Domestic Product adjusted for inflation) having increased at an average of just 0.8 per cent between the years 1993 and 2012 (Hausman & Wieland, 2014). To put these figures in perspective, “Japan’s nominal GDP was roughly the same in 2015 as it was 20 years earlier” while “America’s grew by 134% in the same time period” (“Overhyped, underappreciated”, 2016).

In April of 2013, the Bank of Japan announced its intention to commence a policy of “Quantitative and Qualitative Monetary Easing” (Bank of Japan, 2013) aimed at significantly boosting the money supply in the Japanese economy. This programme formalised Abe’s 2 per cent inflation target and was notable for the aggressive policy measures put in place in an attempt to achieve it. These included “a large-scale asset purchase program that purchased assets worth $660 billion dollars annually” equivalent to over 70 per cent of Japanese GDP. Both the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank by comparison hold assets “below 25 percent of their respective GDPs” (McBride & Xu, 2018).

Figure 4: Japan’s ageing population and declining birth rate remain existential concerns for the world's 3rd largest economy

Quantitative easing is usually associated with fears of rising inflation. The traditional logic is that as more money is printed and in turn enters circulation, prices will inevitably spiral upward. Crucially this concept relies on what Keynes termed individuals’ “propensity to consume”, or in other words the portion of their income that they are willing to spend as opposed to save (Keynes, 1936). Tempering these concerns is the fact that Japan happens to have one of world's highest household savings rates (Feldstein, 2010). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Japanese government had urged its citizens to prioritise personal saving in order to build investment capital for Japan’s reindustrialisation efforts. This policy proved highly successful with the credit supplied by Japanese savers serving as the catalyst for “Japan’s postwar economic miracle” (Soble, 2015). A period which saw the Japanese economy record remarkable levels of economic expansion over a period of approximately 40 years before coming to an abrupt halt in the early 1990s (Crawford, 1998). With private firms now extremely cautious in the aftermath of the market collapse of the 1990s preferring to sit on corporate savings rather than risk larger scale investment, the onus now fell on the Japanese public to spend more in order to grease the wheels of the rusting Japanese economy. Unfortunately old habits die hard, with Japan’s aging population preferring to continue to prioritise saving over spending “amid growing uncertainty (risk) regarding the future in the Japanese economy as a whole” (Nakagawa, 1999). A principle which has remained firmly entrenched throughout Japan's lengthy history (Chotiner, 2022) and has risen to notable prominence once more in the aftermath of the significant spending constraints enforced by the Covid pandemic (“Japan household assets”, 2022).

The Bank of Japan’s enormous asset purchase arrangement was followed by the implementation of a negative interest rate programme in 2016 in a further effort to spark greater levels of lending and investment in the Japanese economy. The bank of Japan itself was not unanimously convinced of the wisdom of this policy with the motion passing by the narrowest of margins on a 5-4 vote. Reduced interest rates mean reduced returns on lending with critics noting that “Negative interest rates could damage the banking system if they cause a sharp worsening in financial firms’ earnings and have little effect on the lending patterns of banks choosing to hold cash” (Fujikawa, 2016). Raising fears that such a policy could end up adding to rather than alleviating the deflationary pressures that Abenomics at its core sought to address.

Figure 5: An ongoing labour shortage has forced Japan to come up with innovative labour force solutions

The policy of vastly increasing the money supply in the Japanese economy also served the purpose of depreciating the value of the Japanese Yen – a simple product of an increase in Supply leading to a fall in price, in this instance the value of the currency itself. This helped to increase Japan’s competitiveness in the global export market boosting Japanese GDP growth significantly in the process (Merler, 2018). It also led to notable criticism from other major exporting nations such as China and the US, both of whom accused Japan of engaging in a “currency war” (Wei, 2013), (McCurry, 2017).

Arrow 2: Fiscal Policy

The second arrow in Abe’s economic quiver – expansive fiscal policy, translates simply to increased government spending and investment designed to spur greater levels of activity throughout the economy as a whole. An idea once again notably espoused by legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes. Abe’s government started with a bang in 2013 by authorising a government spending package “totaling 20.2 trillion yen ($210 billion)” and which “focused on building critical infrastructure projects such as bridges, tunnels, and earthquake-resistant roads” (McBride and Xu, 2018). This initial outlay would be followed by several smaller scale though not insubstantial spending packages before the launch of an enormous Covid relief stimulus in 2020 totalling 108 trillion yen or 989 billion US dollars and equivalent to 20 per cent of Japan’s overall GDP (“Abe unveils”, 2020).

Figure 6: Abe announces the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a showpiece event for Japan’s growing International tourism market cruelly derailed by the Covid Pandemic

In an attempt to fund its ambitious spending protocol Abe’s government would enact a series of controversial consumption tax hikes. While many – including the IMF (IMF, 2016) – would argue the essentiality of these measures in addressing the staggering rise in public debt incurred by the hugely expansive monetary and fiscal policy arms of the Abe economic doctrine, Japanese consumers were decidedly less impressed (Yamamitsu, Inoue, Ueno & Dooley 2019). After initially promising results that brought to a halt a 15-year deflationary cycle in 2013 (Hausman & Wieland, 2014) a moderate rise in consumption tax from 5 to 8 per cent the following year was enough to tip the Japanese economy back into recession, demonstrating the fragility of the gains made (“Overhyped, underappreciated”, 2016). This experience would prove sufficiently discouraging to twice defer in – 2015 and 2017 – a further two per cent rise in the consumption tax rate which was finally implemented in 2019 (Kajimoto, 2019), (Choi & Lee, 2020).

As per Keynes’ theory, the success of an expansive fiscal policy is largely determined by the strength of the Multiplier effect – the extent to which an increase in government expenditure will in turn result in a knock-on in consumer spending and investment throughout the economy as a whole. Given the hypersensitivity of Japanese consumers to any rise in the price of goods and services, the dual goals of expansive monetary and fiscal policy espoused by the Abenomics programme are not easily harmonised. After the excesses of the 1980s and the deep recession of the 1990s Japanese firms, banks and consumers alike remained deeply cautious in terms of borrowing and investment. As a result, the record levels of corporate earnings recorded under Abe’s tenure (“The legacy of”, 2022) did not see a corresponding rise in private sector investment.

Figure 7: Japan has the oldest population in the world by a considerable distance

Arrow 3: Structural Reform

The 3rd arrow or key policy directive of Abe’s economic grand plan was structural reform. This approach laid out hugely ambitious and fundamental structural changes to the regulatory framework of the Japanese economy including “slashing business regulations, liberalizing the labor market and agricultural sector, cutting corporate taxes, and increasing workforce diversity” not all of which would be achieved (McBride & Xu, 2018). Arguably the single greatest burden facing the Japanese economy at the commencement of Abe’s second term in office in 2012 was its ageing population, a fact that remains the case today. Japan’s is the oldest society in the world with 28.7 per cent of its population aged 65 or older as of 2020 (European Parliamentary Research Service, 2020). An issue compounded by a continuously declining birth rate which last year “fell by 29,231, or 3.5%, from the previous year to a record low of 811,604” (“Number of births”, 2022). The combination of low birth rates, stringent immigration policies, early retirement ages, and underutilisation of women in the workforce have all contributed to Japan’s ongoing serial labour shortage, while its ageing population has placed significant additional pressure on its already overburdened pension, health and long-term care sectors (Jones and Seitani, 2020).

Figure 8: The Womenomics programme was seen as a pivotal element of the Abenomics policy doctrine

In partial response to these ongoing concerns, a specific policy directive titled “Womenomics” was launched in 2013 with the explicit goal of increasing female labour participation and boosting Japanese productivity and GDP in the process (Abe, 2013). A pledge to spend “2 trillion yen ($17.6 billion) on education and childcare, promising free preschool for all children aged three to five and for children aged two or younger from low-income households” (McBride & Xu, 2018) served as a dual attempt to bolster female workforce involvement and arrest Japan’s “seemingly intractable decline in its birthrate” (Abe, 2013). Unfortunately in light of continually falling numbers of births annually Abe’s attempts to re-vitalise Japan’s ageing demographic profile by making the cost of raising children more affordable must go down as a failure.

However, some notable success has undoubtedly been achieved with regard to the aim of increased female workforce participation. Japan’s current employment rate of 72 per cent amongst working-age women sits a full 10 percentage points higher than when Abe’s second term as Prime Minister commenced in 2012 (“The legacy of”, 2022). This accomplishment is unfortunately tempered by the persistent levels of gender inequality that remain entrenched within the Japanese labour force. An ambitious Abe-era attempt to have 30 per cent of managerial positions filled by women by the year 2020 proved unsuccessful. As per official data women occupied a mere 13.2 per cent of available managerial positions in Japan in 2021 (Ryall, 2022) while a survey carried out by Corporate research institute Teikoku Databank indicated that of the 24,285 companies assessed “only 8.6% of companies had more than 30% women in managerial positions, while 45.2% had no female managers at all” (“Government Target of”, 2021).

Figure 9: Many have expressed frustration at the glacial pace at which Japanese society has addressed issues of systemic gender inequality

Successes and Failures

Japan’s economic performance under Abenomics is very much open to interpretation and can at best be judged a qualified success in terms of its stated ambitions versus actual accomplishments. A radical overhaul of Japanese central banking policy was successfully implemented, though this extraordinary monetary expansion failed to spur an anticipated rise in private sector investment. Unemployment remained consistently low falling to a mere 2.2 per cent in 2019, Japan’s lowest in 27 years and markedly below the 4.3 per cent inherited by Abe in 2012 (“Scorecard of Japan's, 2019). Corporate profitability increased considerably but did not lead to the predicted wage increases that Abe’s government had lobbied heavily for (Kensuke, 2020). This in turn contributed to the widening levels of income inequality recorded over the course of Abe’s tenure (Komiya & Kihara, 2021).

Female participation in the labour force increased significantly though mainly “in part-time jobs that are usually poorly paid” (“The legacy of”, 2022). Laudable attempts were made to tackle systemic gender inequality in the workplace though results ultimately fell short of those desired. Japan’s 15-year deflationary cycle was successfully broken even if the targeted 2 per cent rate of inflation would remain elusive throughout Abe’s reign. Earnest attempts were made to arrest Japan’s declining population and to incentivise greater numbers of childbirths but once again proved unsuccessful in turning the societal tide. Consistent economic growth was achieved for the first time in over two decades but never quite at the levels promised, while much of the economic gains made over the course of Abe’s time in charge were cruelly wiped out by the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020 (Kihara & Kajimoto, 2020).

Figure: 10: Abe’s legacy will remain one which continues to divide opinion

The Legacy of Abenomics

Having inherited an economy mired in two decades worth of economic stagnation fresh off the back of the 2009 financial crisis and 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, only to depart in the midst of the largest scale global pandemic in over 100 years, it’s fair to say that Shinzo Abe’s time in charge of Japan was marked by the dealing of a series of remarkably tough hands. The wide gap between rhetoric and achievement with regard to the stated objectives of the Abenomics programme will unfortunately remain a persistent theme in any assessment of Abe’s legacy. If Abenomics ultimately fell short of its grandiose ambitions with regard to policy reform and sustained economic development, it should nonetheless be lauded for having had the audacity to attempt to do so in the first place. The tragic nature of Shinzo Abe’s death is likely to colour the interpretation of events, certainly in the short-term. Whether Abenomics succeeded in any meaningful fashion in rousing Japan from its economic slumber it is too early to say, but it certainly tried.

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