Abenomics seems to be working

Lee Jong-Wha, former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, talks about Japan's economic policy.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic agenda – dubbed “Abenomics” – seems to be working for his country. Expansionary monetary policy is expected to inject liquidity into the Japanese economy until inflation hits the Bank of Japan’s 2 per cent target, while expansionary fiscal policy is expected to continue until economic recovery takes hold.

As a result, consumer and investor confidence is returning. The Japanese stock market has soared more than 40 per cent since November of last year, when it became clear that Abe would form the next government, and exports and growth are also picking up. With a large output gap and low inflationary pressure, expansionary policies show great potential for reviving economic activity.

But other countries – including neighboring Asian economies – fear that Japan is devaluing the yen to bolster exports and growth at their expense. Some have accused Japan of fueling a global “currency war.” Anticipation of aggressive monetary expansion has sharply weakened the yen, which has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the dollar in just over four months.

Of course, Japan’s escape from its 15-year deflationary trap and two decades of economic stagnation would be good for the world. Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy, the fourth-largest trader, and the third-largest export market for neighboring China and South Korea, which thus stand to benefit if “Abenomics” revitalizes Japanese domestic demand. More broadly, given Europe’s slide into recession and only a slow rise in world trade volume, renewed growth and stronger import demand in Japan would support global recovery.

The question now is whether Abenomics can achieve its goals without destabilizing the world economy, especially neighboring Asian economies. Doing so requires Japanese policymakers to focus on more sustainable growth while averting a vicious cycle of competitive devaluation and protectionism with Japan’s trade partners. In particular, expansionary monetary and fiscal policies – which are helpful in the short term – must be accompanied by fundamental structural reforms.

Japan’s deflation and economic stagnation over the last two decades stemmed largely from a dysfunctional financial system and a lack of private demand. The collapse of asset bubbles in the 1990’s left Japan’s financial system and private sector saddled with a huge debt overhang. Recovery began only after the balance-sheet weaknesses in the financial, household, and corporate sectors were addressed. Sustainable growth requires sustained private-sector demand.

Monetary easing and fiscal stimulus, combined with structural measures to restore private firms to financial health, would stimulate household expenditure and business investment. Indeed, the impact of real exchange-rate depreciation on growth is likely to be short-lived unless increased corporate profits in the export sector lead to higher household consumption and investment. And yet risks to financial and fiscal stability could arise if higher inflation and currency depreciation were to spoil investors’ appetite for Japanese government bonds, thereby pushing up nominal interest rates.

That is why the success of “Abenomics” hinges not on the short-term stimulus provided by aggressive monetary expansion and fiscal policies, but on a program of structural reform that increases competition and innovation, and that combats the adverse effects of an aging population.

Japan, of course, is not alone in using exchange-rate policies to keep exports competitive. Many emerging economies’ authorities intervene in currency markets to prevent exchange-rate appreciation and a loss of export competitiveness. But if Japan starts to intervene directly in global currency markets to ensure a weaker yen, neighboring competitors will respond in kind. The danger of a currency war and protectionism should not be underestimated.

In South Korea, the government and business leaders worry that a stronger won, which recently rose to its highest level against the yen since August 2011, will hurt key export sectors, including automobiles, machinery, and electronics. One report by a Korean research institute shows that the Korean economy will slip into recession if the yen-dollar exchange rate nears 118, its average level back in 2007.

Moreover, unlimited quantitative easing by the Bank of Japan, the Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank also increases the risk of volatile capital flows and asset bubbles in Asian emerging economies. Chinese policymakers have raised serious concerns about the growing risks of inflation and property bubbles.

The rest of this story can be read on economia.

This is a news story from economia.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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