Victory for Abenomics as Japan's maverick PM gets his pick of governor

Haruhiko Kuroda is expected to be the new governor of the Bank of Japan.

The financial press is reporting that Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe is expected to nominate former finance-ministry official Haruhiko Kuroda as governor of the Bank of Japan. If Kuroda's nomination goes ahead, it will be a victory for Abe's desire to pursue aggressive unconventional monetary policy in order to boost Japan's economic fortunes.

Abe has been engaged in a low-level squabble with his finance minster, former Prime Minister Taro Aso, over the extent of Japan's efforts to boost growth and weaken the yen. Aso, who favours more conventional economic policy, most recently squashed the prime minister's suggestion that Japan might buy foreign bonds as a general policy.

That rift is arguably one of the most important in economic policy today. Just as Britain has been the site of the most rigorous experiment on the effects of voluntary austerity on growth (spoiler: results were negative), Japan is pushing some of the most aggressively expansionary monetary policy ever — and has ideas to go even further. Abe's government has already eroded central bank independence, forcing the Bank of Japan to actively push for growth and inflation; it has "nationalised" capital stock, allowing the state to pay for nominally private sector investment; and it has set explicit targets for the Nikkei, the country's premier stock index, of over 17 per cent growth in one month.

The tussle between Aso and Abe over the foreign bonds purchase was widely seen as a proxy fight for the right to award the governorship, and with the apparent selection of Kuroda, Abe has taken the lead. The governor-to-be has long been a critic of the BoJ's lack of stimulus and will likely encourage it to follow the government's suit in further aggressive, unorthodox measures to hit the new 2 per cent inflation target.

But Reuters' Leika Kihara and Yuko Yoshikawa inject a note of caution to their reporting:

Abe must go through political maneuvering to close the deal, as the nomination must be approved by both houses of parliament including the upper house, where his ruling coalition lacks a majority.

The government hopes to garner support from either the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) or a group of smaller parties to pass the nomination.

There's likely to be an even bigger fight on Abe's hands with one of his two desired deputy governors, Kazumasa Iwata. Iwata is an academic who has called for Japan to print money to fight deflation; his appointment would suggest large scale monetary expansion is on the cards. He was widely reported to be Abe's first choice as governor, before Kuroda was picked as the compromise candidate.

With an ageing population, and flunked recovery from a financial crisis, Britain's experience over the next decade may be scarily similar to Japan's over the last. If Abenomics lifts the country out of its hole, we should all be hoping Mark Carney and the rest of the Bank of England are paying close attention, and preparing to follow suit in case the worst happens.

Haruhiko Kuroda. 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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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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