The short future of Abenomics

Japan's maverick PM might not have his heart in the game.

Shinzo Abe's remarkable attempt to rip up the monetary policy textbook has been paying dividends. Abe got his pick of governor; The strong yen, which was blamed for stifling Japan's exports, has been sliding against the dollar (up is weaker):

 

And the Nikkei 225, Japan's leading stock index, is on trend to hit 13,000 before 31 March—meaning that Japan's economic minister's attempt to goose the stock market has been successful.

But economist Norm Smith throws cold water on the popularity of Abenomics, reminding us that Shinzo Abe does have other policies as well.

We've always known that Abe is, in the words of Paul Krugman, "a pretty bad guy". But the hope of economists was that he was stumbling into a string of monetary successes; that by doing the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom for no other reason than being a crotchety old anti-intellectual, he could prove that conventional wisdom was wrong.

For those purposes, it didn't really matter that Abe is " a nationalist, a denier of World War II atrocities, a man with little obvious interest in economic policy". We would get our experiment either way.

But Smith now picks apart the likely plan of action for Abe, and it doesn't include seeing the experiment through to success:

Abe is generating a brief fillip of optimism and a sense of economic movement in order to secure an LDP majority in the all-important upcoming upper house election. Securing that majority would allow him to get on with his true all-consuming priority - revising Japan's constitution. After that, his conservative instincts, and the conservative instincts of the Finance Ministry (which is arguably a lot more powerful than the Prime Minister), will take over, as will the worries of the LDP's elderly voters that inflation would destroy their hard-earned life's savings. At that point, talk of radical monetary reform will evaporate, and the recent movements in the yen and the Japanese stock market will begin to slowly unwind.

What cynical actions of right-wing nationalists give, cynical actions of right-wing nationalists take. If Smith is right, Abenomics isn't long for this world.

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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.