Japan launches massive stimulus package

Shinzo Abe: Bad guy done good?

The Japanese government has approved a massive emergency stimulus package, worth ¥10.3trn (£71.5bn), aimed at restoring growth in the long-stagnant economy.

The package will be used to fund infrastructure investment, disaster mitigation projects, subsidies for companies which invest heavily in research and development, and financial aid to small businesses. The government hopes to raise growth by 2 percentage points, as well as add over half a million jobs to the economy.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, also made clear again that he is planning to exercise far more direct control over Japanese monetary policy than is conventional. Before Abe was elected, he announced that the BoJ should embrace "unlimited easing" and cut interest rates below even the 0.1 per cent paid on deposits "to strengthen pressure to lend".

Today, Abe reiterated that pressure, telling a press conference:

We will put an end to this shrinking, and aim to build a stronger economy where earnings and incomes can grow. For that, the government must first take the initiative to create demand, and boost the entire economy.

Abe has no qualms with wild policy. Last week, he "nationalised" industrial stock in Japan, buying private infrastructure with public funds in order to force the pace of investment in the country.

It seems quite clear that Abe is prepared to use every possible channel available to him to push for a return to growth in Japan. The results have been positive so far; bond yields have stayed low, while the yen has finally dropped (which might be bad for the country's elderly, but is very good for its economy overall).

Paul Krugman argues that all of this success isn't exactly on purpose. It bears more hallmarks of Abe –  "a nationalist, a denier of World War II atrocities, a man with little obvious interest in economic policy" – doing exactly the opposite of what he's told to do based purely on his contempt for learned opinion:

It will be a bitter irony if a pretty bad guy, with all the wrong motives, ends up doing the right thing economically, while all the good guys fail because they’re too determined to be, well, good guys. But that’s what happened in the 1930s, too…

On the 22nd, the Bank of Japan will meet, and we'll see how much it listened to Abe. If it does follow his requests/demands for aggressive monetary policy, the country will solidify its reputation as one to watch in the immediate future.

Shinzo Abe. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.