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(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

The Present State of the Japanese Economy and Policy Issues

Lectured by Motoshige Itoh
Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo
Professor at Gakushuin University

It will be six years at the end of this year since the Abe administration was inaugurated. I believe that "supply and demand" is a keyword to evaluate the administration's economic policies. The Abe administration has succeeded in generating demand. As is the case with the current US economy, the boosted demand is propelling the Japanese economy --- a great achievement, indeed.

Meanwhile, the supply-side adjustment is facing difficulties. Among various reasons for this is the harsh reality that such policy measures required of the government as a growth strategy, a social security reform, and a fiscal health restoration plan are not only difficult per se but also difficult politically. The same is true with labor reforms. Unfortunately, these policy measures are not promoted energetically at this moment.

Another point to note is that the government's reach is much weaker on the supply side than on the demand side. Unless corporations take actions, potential growth will not rise no matter how cogent a policy the government can formulate. These are relevant to the demand side policies the Abe administration has so far advanced.

(Abenomics successfully boosted demand)

Some symbolic data are available regarding Abenomics that succeeded in generating demand.

(Fig. 1) Nominal GDP of Japan

A blue line represents Japan's nominal GDP in Figure 1. Its past peak was registered in 1997. The Global Financial Crisis, among others, ensued after that. The present Abe administration was inaugurated at the end of 2012. GDP for this year was a disastrous 494 trillion yen, 7% lower than the peak of 20 years ago. Yet, it started to rise from 2013, and now continues rising, registering a record high around 2016 for the first time in 20 years. This graph shows that there were considerable structural changes in the Japanese economy during this period, and that demand stimulating measures were taken including monetary policy.

Figure 2 indicates that corporate profits also expanded during this period. As will be described later, how to mobilize the expanded corporate profits into the Japanese economy in the future is a significant point.

(Fig. 2) Corporate Profits and Facility Investment

(Fig. 3) Labor Supply and Demand

Figure 3 shows labor supply and demand. The current jobs-to-applicants ratio is 1.6, which is the highest level in the past 40 years. When the Abe administration started, the ratio was 0.8. Today it has risen to 1.6.

In that sense, demand generating measures achieved certain effects, and in that context, Abenomics has been successful.

(Fig. 4) A State-to-State Comparison of Net lending / Net borrowing to-GDP ratio --- Government sectors

Figure 4 represents a saving-investment balance that appears in the government's GDP statistics. Saving-investment balance means a fiscal balance in a broader sense. In other words, it is a summation of the primary balance (the normal annual income and expenditure), interest payments of government bonds (debt service), and the balance of social security fund.

Japan's I-S balance-to-GDP ratio (light blue line) was about -8% around 2012, but it improved to about -3% in 2015. Although Japan's fiscal balance is still in a large deficit, it is however getting better compared with that of the United States, because both GDP and tax revenues have increased. As a result, the primary balance deficit has halved, while the interest rate is so low that the debt service is also low. On top of this, the social security fund is still maintaining a surplus.

The present state is not satisfactory, but if the situation in 2012 had continued, Japan's national finance would have become catastrophic.

(Delayed adjustments on the supply side)

The biggest problem is that the adjustments on the supply side are delayed. Symbolically, the potential growth rate is stagnant. While the nominal growth rate rises due to demand generation, if, however, the potential growth rate fails to rise, economic growth will not continue on account of the stagnant potential growth rate. The Japanese government has tried various measures to raise the potential growth rate, but almost in vain.

Another factor closely related with the supply side is wage increases. So far wages have failed to rise. Delayed adjustments in the labor market account for the cause and result of the stagnation of wages.

The supply side is a structure behind the production function that invests capital and labor, and produces by use of technology. There are three ways to raise the production growth rate.

One way is through capital accumulation; the second is to increase labor supply, and the third is to raise TFP (Total Factor Productivity) --- the last is the most important. TFP would rise in such cases as follows: capital or labor shifts from a low to a high productivity sector as a result of industrial structure adjustments; added values and higher productivity are realized due to business model changes, or productivity rises more than ever before thanks to some innovations. The problem is that these things are not taking place in the labor market; and these are key topics in watching the macro economy.

(Technology Innovation and Economic Growth)

The relationship between technology innovation and economic growth is also important. Robert Gordon wrote a book titled "The Rise and Fall of American Growth." The book includes, among others, an odd episode --- in the mid-1800's Boston, more than 10 people were "kicked to death by horses" every week --- these were traffic accidents in those days. Joking apart, the core of the book consists of a close analysis of the long-term TFP of the US economy. The volume clarified that the US TFP was generally high during the 100 years from 1880 to 1980, a fact which boosted the potential growth rate and the actual growth rate (the Golden Century). Unfortunately, the US TFP has been in a very low state since 1980. Exceptionally, it rose slightly from mid-1990s to 2000. The part of the book describing that period introduces the bits-to-riches stories of Bill Gates and Intel. Before TFP did not rise sufficiently, the bursting of the IT bubble happened in 2000, and TFP reverted to the former low levels. The US economy had been supported by technological innovation, but for the last 30 years very few additional seeds of technological innovation have been planted. The same book also describes that electricity became available from the 1880's, and that as motorization advanced, telecommunications developed --- to be short brief various types of innovation have influenced industries. If electricity, to name only one, were not available, it would be impossible to construct buildings of five stories or more; the use of electricity has made possible the construction of high-rise buildings, as an electric-powered elevator is always a prerequisite for such tall buildings. In fact, skyscrapers began to come into existence in the first half of the 1900's. Technology innovation has changed society but has always been accompanied by a time lag of 20-30 years --- 40 years in some cases.

It was 1880 or thereabouts that Daimler developed an automobile; but it was not popularized until the Ford Model T was introduced in early 1907; and it was around before the Great Depression that automobiles were widely seen. In those days, such new waves of technology came one after another, but unfortunately, none came after the 1980s. As Robert Summers said, "secular stagnation" is continuing.

When it comes to Japan, the bubble burst in 1990, a financial crisis occurred in 1997, and deflation continued all the time. The Lehman shock in 2008 was followed by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The balance sheet deteriorated, and finance fell into a stagnant and deflationary situation. Thus came "the lost three decades." The decline of TFP that began in the United States in 1980 took place in Japan after a 10-year delay. No matter how much demand may be created, unless the low TFP condition is addressed, no economic impact will occur.

On the other hand, there is a shared optimism that AI and IoT may help raise TFP. As Gordon says, if it takes 20 or 30 years to change a society, they will not matter in an immediate future. Whether to side with techno-pessimists or techno-optimists, the developed countries as a whole are mired in such a difficult structural situation. When Federal Reserve Banks of the United States are trying to raise the policy interest rate, the long-term interest rate does not rise, then abnormally a long-term interest rate becomes lower than a short-term interest rate. The reason why the long-term interest rate does not rise is that the market apprehends that the potential growth may not turn upward in the future.

(The Labor Market)

In this context, the supply side of the economy is quite an important topic, and this is true not only in Japan but also in the United States. Based on the above, we should take up the supply side of Japan's economy.

First of all, it is essential, as far as the labor market is concerned, to realize wage increases to materialize Abenomics. As wages rise, workers' disposable income will also increase, which in turn will be appropriated for consumption, and thus eventually a virtuous circle will be created on both the supply and demand sides. Prices will not rise if wages do not, and wages will rise if prices do. Only after such a spiral comes out, the targeted inflation rate of 2% will become realistic. See Figure 5 for a comparison of wage and consumer price changes on a year-on-year basis.

(Fig. 5) Wage and Consumer Price

In Japan, prices of goods are currently rising. The Japanese situation differs from that in the West in the sense that prices of services have not risen. Here are a couple of problems: one is that the prices of services will not rise if wages do not. In the United States, the rises in prices are accounted largely for by rises in public services, but this is not the case in Japan. Further investigation is needed into this question.

So far we have discussed the relation between wage increases and price hike. As for the supply side, it should be noted that there is a strong relation between wage stagnation and delayed labor market reforms. Japan is said to have a labor force shortage, and actually the jobs-to-applicants ratio is over 3 in nursing and care, computer businesses and the construction industry. A year ago, the jobs-to-applicants ratio for ordinary office workers was 0.36. The jobs-to-applicants ratio differs according to business sectors. The important thing for raising the growth rate is to activate a flow of the workforce from a business of low productivity with a surplus labor force to a business of high productivity with short of labor force. Also important is to urge in the same business sector a flow of workforce from a division of low productivity to a division of high productivity. It is wages alone that can induce these flows. Unless wages rise, a labor shift will be difficult. If there is a shortage of manpower in the distribution industry and the restaurant industry, there is no means to solve this problem other than by raising wages.

When wages are going up, it is really necessary to raise productivity commensurate with wages. Unfortunately, in Japan, this labor adjustment speed is very slow. Nonetheless, wages are rising at this moment in different business sectors. Give this move another push forward!

Another important point is that Japan must raise labor productivity --- in other words, heighten added value. That said, people are inclined to think of increasing the overall productivity of so many kinds of industry as a whole. However, it is more realistic to make adjustments to realize a shift from a low to a high productivity sector. For example, Seven Eleven and UNIQLO boast their excellent labor productivity in the light of international standards. Yet, there are numerous industries and corporations suffering from weak labor productivity, where the shift of labor should be implemented for the betterment of the business situation. This is a significant challenge concerning wage increases.

In Japan, only 7% of the total farming households sell more than 10 million yen of agricultural produce every year. These farmers account for 60% of agricultural output in Japan. The remaining 93% of the Japanese farming households make the remaining 40% of agricultural output. In a sense, it is quite easy to revitalize Japan's agriculture as a whole. Agricultural workers are decreasing due to population aging. If the remaining agricultural population can sell more than 10 million yen of produce, the productivity of Japan's agriculture will increase as a whole.

Thus, little effect of wage increases on the supply side accounts for Japan's stagnant labor productivity. What matters is whether market mechanism works rather than institutional issues being discussed.

(Investment by Corporations)

Investment by corporations is of utmost importance. This is concerned with R&D investment and business model investment rather than with capital investment.

(Fig. 6) A State-to-State Comparison of Net lending / Net borrowing to-GDP ratio --- Corporate sectors

Figure 6 represents a state-to-state comparison of savings-to-investment balance (corporate sectors). Japan stands at the top, while the UK is -0.1% (2015) or quite normal. UK corporations' investments are a bit more than savings. Meanwhile, the United States allegedly saves too much, but its savings-to-investment balance is 0.5%, while Germany 2.5% and Japan 5.5%. As far as Japan is concerned, a large sum of money equivalent to 5.5% of the nation's GDP becomes available from corporate sectors in a single year.

For ten years following the Lehman shock, Japanese corporations accumulated a huge amount of money worth 27-28 trillion yen every year. If this money were put into circulation, it would provide a great vitality to the nation's economy. The destinations of corporate savings, or cash out, are no other than dividends, wage increases, or investments.

What is serious, however, is that investment does not progress. Why do Japanese corporations not make investment at home? Corporate managers of most corporations believe that the Japanese economy is now improving due to Abenomics. However, the economy will encounter another severe situation in due course; and it is uncertain whether they can recover money if they make a hasty investment. The reason for not raising wages is the same. Prevailing views are that economy will not remain good after 2020.

For what purpose is an investment made then? Noteworthy in this regard is the automobile industry. COP 21 struck out a proposal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. The UK and France preponed the time limit to 2040, while China to 2020, raising considerably the height of the hurdle. All automakers will have to develop EV or fuel cells --- that is, they would be unable to survive without making necessary investments. Investments are necessary not only for expanding business, but also to cope with drastic structure changes in society. In the financial industry, amidst the technical innovation of FinTech, corporations would not be able to survive without making investments. As for the distribution industry, survival would be hard without working out such business models capable of competing with Amazon. It only matters whether and to what extent Japanese corporations hold a forward-looking business view. This is because Japanese corporations have enormous money and they are in a position to make investments instantaneously, as mentioned earlier in connection with the savings-to-investment balance. The Japanese government's growth strategy is of central importance, but it is Japanese corporations that ultimately hold the key.

What is important in thinking about the long-term trend of the Japanese economy is not the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 but declining birthrates and population aging; the environment; the growth of Asia, or technological innovation. Especially, technological innovation is important. Tangible and visible technological innovation would generate a good return on the investment of Japanese corporations. This is what is called digital transformation, which deserves our careful attention.

A couple of years ago, at a council meeting of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, discussion was focused whether Japan could get along amidst the current situation where GAFA (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook) are dominant, as well as on Japan's comparative advantages. The strength of GAFA lies in their virtual information --- information exchanged on the net. If there remains room for Japan to play some role, it may be the field of real information and real data. Real data is, for example, the information that comes from a running automobile. In the medical field, the information coming out in the form of clinical records and rezepts is real data. A factory may be flooded with information on the operation of machines. Such information is also real data. In the years to come, we will face a question of how to utilize not just virtual data but real data as well.

There is a data cycle for real data. We collect real data by use of IoT, integrate them into big data, analyze them with AI, and make them into such products as a robot, a smart city, or a smart house. There are different data cycles in different fields --- the automotive industry, the medical field, retail operation, and a smart city, to name just a few. In the area of real data utilization, corporations will have to make investment to survive.

(Fig. 7) Fourth Industrial Revolution

Next, I would like to explain about the restoration of fiscal health, Japan's monetary policy and trade policy.

(Restoration of Fiscal Health)

Japan's fiscal policy is facing tremendous difficulties. It has three different aspects. They are figuratively called a tiger at the front gate, a continuing bleeding, and a wolf at the back gate. A tremendous amount of debt has accumulated due to budget deficits in the past 20 years, which is the front gate tiger. The continuing bleeding means that the budget deficit continues to grow at this moment, causing various problems. The wolf at the back gate refers to the fact that circumstances surrounding social security will become more severe in the coming aging society. It is difficult to solve these three tough problems at the same time, no matter how quickly they should be addressed. To decide the order of priority is, therefore, extremely important. It is impossible to address the front gate tiger in a three-to-five year term; instead, we should consider steps to take over a 20-30 year term. On the other hand, the continuing bleeding must be reduced soonest by whatever means possible. It cannot help that any reform of social security --- the back gate wolf --- will require considerable time. What we can do is to take immediate measures whenever necessity arises, even if the effects of such measures will be tangible only in 2020-2025 at earliest.

The following graph of "National and Local PB-to-GDP ratio" (Figure 8) worked out by the Cabinet Office shows the government's aim of turning the national primary balance positive through expenditure reforms, somehow until 2025 (the target year is shown as 2024 in the graph). Primary balance deficit is assumed to be reduced at a PB-to-GDP ratio of 0.5% annually. Less than this ratio, the problem would not be solved for good. On the contrary, raising the ratio to more than 0.5% would entail tax increases or expenditure cuts. A great majority of the Abe cabinet members are anxious about such a problem-ridden situation.

(Fig. 8) National and Local PB-to-GDP ratio --- Mechanical calculation

Although an expenditure reform is important, yet, the most important point is how to increase revenues continuously from 2020 onward, not solely dependent on a consumption tax hike. Prime Minister Abe, however, refuses to discuss this point. He seems to insinuate that he will raise the consumption tax by 5% during his tenure of office, implement an expenditure reform, and boost the economy. Considering the current national burden rate of Japan, we should discuss an additional increase of tax burden.

Like the wolf at the back gate, social security reforms are an inescapable agenda item. There is no time to discuss social security reforms at length here, but as already pointed out by many experts, various reforms will be necessary in terms of medical treatments, pensions, nursing and care, etc. Regarding medical treatments, it is necessary to adjust the medical supply system to address the excess bed issue. Since there seemingly is a tendency that regional differences in the number of hospital beds are reflective of regional differences in medical expenses, measures to eliminate the differences in bed numbers would be effective. It might also become necessary to introduce a reform so as to demand that the elderly people having substantial income shoulder 20-30% (or thereabouts) of their own medical expenses like in the case of active workers. This is an idea of apportioning burdens according to income level, not by age

How should we reduce the fiscal debt of 1,000 trillion yen? The amount is too large given a GDP of 500 trillion yen. To what extent could we reduce this? At least we should aim to halve the amount. Even if we could turn the annual fiscal balance to a surplus of 10 trillion yen, it would take 50 years to reduce 500 trillion yen. In the first place, the creation of a budget surplus of 10 trillion yen is a daunting task which means to turn primary balance to surplus and raise 10 trillion yen after deduction of debt service.

First of all, we should not increase any more the fiscal debt of 1000 trillion yen. It would be more realistic to increase GDP higher than 500 trillion yen in parallel with the implementation of fiscal reforms. Needless to say, this is not easy, because we have to secure primary balance and then turn it to surplus after deduction of debt service. GDP should grow while the increase of debt must be reduced. It is of primary importance, at any rate, to increase nominal GDP. Its annual increase of 3% would make nominal GDP 2.45 times larger after the elapse of 30 years. Then, if the debt does not increase, the current 200% ratio of debt-to-GDP will decrease to 85%. The Abe administration estimates the potential growth rate at 2% and sets the consumer price increase rate at 2%; therefore, the GDP deflator will be about 1% and the nominal GDP growth rate 3%. This is still pretty tough. If the potential growth rate failed to achieve 2% but only 1%, a consumer price increase rate of 3% would become necessary.

The points are as follows: the fiscal balance should be in equilibrium as much as possible; a budget deficit, if any, should be minimized, and simultaneously nominal GDP raised gradually. What is most desirable is an increase in real economic growth rate; otherwise, a certain degree of inflation would become necessary.

Japan is expected to undergo two kinds of inflation over the next 10-15 years. One is a fierce inflation caused by a financial collapse, while the other is a milder inflation where the budget deficit is to be suppressed. It is already some 30 years since the bubble burst around 1990. The fiscal situation has since deteriorated during these years. It will take another 30 years to rebuild today's deteriorated finance. In any case, it is necessary to discuss the topic of the restoration of fiscal health more strategically.

(The Monetary Policy)

The next topic is the BOJ's monetary policy. It is no doubt that the monetary policy has reached a turning point. Governor Kuroda's two bazookas (2013 and 2014) were certainly effective (See Fig. 9). As a result, the then deflationary state changed to a non-deflationary state. However, bazookas would not be so effective repeatedly. Consequently, the BOJ has switched to a policy to be pursued painstakingly over a long time. This is the so-called negative interest rate policy, after which comes a review of the yield curve control.

Pessimistically, it may be quite difficult at this moment to raise prices by 2% for structural reasons. But I personally think that prices will rise sooner or later. Reflationists argue that prices will rise, if the volume of money increases. This is correct. The problem, however, is how long it will take to achieve the 2% price hike. When time prolonged, social costs for the BOJ's ultraloose monetary policy will matter.

(Fig. 9) Consumer Price Index

It would be difficult for the BOJ to pull down the flag of 2% hike they hoisted. Diverse problems may arise as soon as the goal has been lowered to, for example, 1%. Therefore, the BOJ has taken a step not to lower the target of 2% but to obscure the timeline instead. Social costs may be incurred from the ultraloose monetary policy: (1) The government bond market and the stock market would become dysfunctional. (2) Purchase by the BOJ of a large amount of government bonds would raise the risk of future loss. (This discussion is based on the premise that interest rate will rise. If the interest rate goes up, it may be a welcome phenomenon, then we do not have to discuss this topic at length.) (3) A heavy burden on financial institutions due to the flat yield curve (Figure 10) would contribute to the dysfunction of financial markets. It is indispensable to review this point.

(Fig. 10) The Yield Curve for Japanese Government Bonds

Then, how should the current monetary policy be reviewed? (1) Regarding the flexible inflation targeting, the government was quick to make the timeline flexible. Further action, therefore, is not needed. (2) Importantly, quantitative easing should not be forced. To our relief, any enforcement measures have so far not been taken. (3) And then comes a review of the yield curve control. In my opinion, the current zero interest rate should be applied to the 5-year government bond instead of the 10-year bond. The reason is that the 5-year government bond interest rate is closer to the market interest rate.

(Trade Policy)

I wrote something on trade policy in my handouts; but there seems to be no time to touch on the topic in detail today. Since the Trump administration was inaugurated, the style of the US trade policy has changed a great deal, and it becomes increasingly vital to grasp recent developments in the US' trade policy. The United States places an emphasis on changing the status quo, and views as a problem China's behavior of taking a free ride on the US efforts and of disturbing the world's trade order. It is apprehended that the US-China trade war may worsen from now on. We must keep watch over its negative effects on the global economy. Even if the United States and China compromise somehow or other, it will still be necessary to pay attention to what direction the global trade system will be headed.

(This paper was prepared by the SSDP secretariat.)

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