Krugman's uncanny accuracy shows why more eyes should be on Japan

Abenomics is more that just a Japanese story.

Noah Smith has a post up examining Paul Krugman's remarkable record of accurate economic predictions. Ask "KrugTron the Invincible", as Smith dubs him, and he will point to his use of Keynesian economics for simple rule-of-thumb guesstimates, which then get cleaned up with his understanding of the problems of a liquidity trap. But Smith wonders if there's a more specific reason for Krugman's hit-rate:

Like Voltron before him, he's borrowing heavily from Japan.

See, I myself am fairly agnostic about Keynesian ideas. But I've expected nothing but low growth, low interest rates, and low inflation since 2008 (though I haven't been as confident about these things as Krugman, and am thus not in his class as a super-robot). I expected these things because of one simple proposition: We are like Japan.

Since its land bubble popped in 1990, Japan has had low inflation and low interest rates and low growth, even as government debt mounted and quantitative easing was tried. Paul Krugman was there. He watched Japan carefully, and he often states that it deeply affected his thinking. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that watching Japan made Krugman the Keynesian he is today.

The comparison is, at the moment, more relevant to the US than the UK. Our problems are pretty clear: we slashed investment coming out of a recession, which put the brakes on recovery. Now that we're (slowly) putting our foot back on the accelerator, we can expect a return to growth – at least until deficit reduction becomes a priority again. Insofar as we have any macroeconomic phenomena confounding economists, it's positive news: our unemployment rate is significantly lower than it should be, given our anaemic recovery. That's been pegged on underemployment, productivity declines, and the government fiddling the figures, but it doesn't call for a wholesale reworking of economic theory.

The Japanese experience, however, does. Its "lost decade" – now well on the way to being twenty years long – has stubbornly resisted everything thrown at it so far. The pessimistic view is that it's just what happens when demographics turn sour: with an ageing society and migration too low to counteract it, the economy is retooling to serve the needs of retirees, for whom long-term growth isn't a priority.

But Abenomics, the name for the broad package of unconventional policy measures brought in by the government of Shinzo Abe, offers a ray of hope. And if any of those tools, which range from monetized nationalisation of industrial stock to explicitly targeting the stock market to performing one of the largest rounds of qualitative easing ever, work, then there's a meaningful plan of action for not just Japan, but the US as well.

If they don't, then hopefully it won't take America the same twenty years it's taken Japan to realise that business as usual just won't cut it.

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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.