Japan "nationalises" industrial stock

State capitalism, or unconventional fiscal policy?

The latest in the annals of unconventional economic measures, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph:

Japan's government is to take the unprecedented step of buying factories and machinery directly with taxpayer funds, the latest in a series of radical steps to lift the country out of its deep slump.

Premier Shinzo Abe is to spend up to one trillion yen (£7.1bn) buying plant in the electronics, equipment, and carbon fibre industries to force the pace of investment, according to Nikkei news.

This move comes after Abe was elected on a platform of forcing the Bank of Japan to do more monetary easing. That plan was partially an attempt to influence monetary policy – already a bold reversal of the traditional political neutrality of central banks – and partially an attempt to secure further income for the state to use in fiscal expansion.

Some of that expansion has now taken place in the pseudo-nationalisation of industrial assets. The idea is that Japan hasn't just suffered from a paucity of public investment, but also of private investment. By buying up high-quality capital goods (factories, machinery and so on), the Japanese government hopes to be able to provide that private investment directly. It would then lease the new assets back to troubled firms, allowing them all the benefits of investment with none of the downsides.

Ideally, what happens next is companies with new plants experience a boost in productivity, which leads to a boost in Japanese nominal GDP.

Of course, it will be hard to distinguish between that boost, and the similar boost which comes from the fact that this is, at least in part, state aid to industry.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.