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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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