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.

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.