Why Japan needs Abenomics and Bitcoin faces a lost century

What do Japan's "lost decade" and the intractable problem facing bitcoin have in common? Deflation.

The Japanese economy is in a mess. It has been for a while now. GDP broke $5trn in 1996, but then fell, and stayed low for a decade and a half. It only reached that high again in 2011, after well over a decade with growth fluctuating between mildly positive and mildly negative : the "lost decade" of economists' nightmares.

That's the background against which the new prime minister Shinzo Abe is struggling. Abe, a right-wing popular nationalist, was elected on a platform of giving the Bank of Japan a kick up the arse and using unconventional methods to restore the country to growth. His motivations have been questioned repeatedly: some fear that he's just trying to provide a short term boost to the economy before the upcoming election to in country's upper house; others, that he's only enacting bold new policy due to a stubborn belief that whatever conventional economists say must be wrong. Sure, a stopped-clock is right twice a day, but that doesn't mean you want to base your economy on what it says.

But the unconventional policies have been enacted, and now we are just waiting to see their effect. Abe has launched a ¥10.3trn stimulus package; his economic minister has explicitly targeted the stock market, in an attempt to push it up by 17 per cent in just two months; and he's got his choice of central bank governor, with the appointment of the maverick Haruhiko Kuroda.

But if we want to find out whether these plans are working, we don't look at GDP. That's too slow to change, it's too subject to external shocks, and, most importantly, it's a symptom, not a cause.

The real culprit is inflation. Or rather, deflation.

The Japanese economy has had inflation hovering around 0 per cent – and more frequently below it than above it – for almost as long as it has had stagnation. And while the country has seen a return, of sorts, to GDP growth, inflation remains as stubbornly negative as ever. Even after Abe's reforms, the headline rate fell – down to -0.9 per cent, the fastest rate of deflation in three years. That's against a background, not only of all those impressively major reforms, but also a far more direct one: raising the inflation target of the bank of Japan from 1 to 2 per cent.

But why is deflation a problem? In the west we're used to fearing inflation, after the scarring experiences of the 1970s, when prices grew by 20 per cent in a year. And we all learned in school about hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, where the price of bread would be higher in the afternoon than it had been in the morning, and how that led to the rise of Hitler. (Incidentally, that connection is largely mythical; although it was responsible for prompting the creation of many extremist groups, hyperinflation was largely beaten by 1924, long before the Nazi party became a force in German politics.)

But deflation – prices getting lower year-on-year – sounds like a good thing. Who doesn't like getting richer without having to do anything?

The easiest way to explain the issues is to look at another economy which could almost have been invented to illustrate the problems with deflation: the trade in bitcoins.

Bitcoin, you may recall, is an anonymous, cryptographic, peer-to-peer digital currency. It's been in the news because of its astonishing boom-and-bust dynamics, with the value of one bitcoin increasing by 2000% in two months, then losing almost all of that in a week, and now slowly returning to a second high. But what's interesting here is that it's a currency with deflation built in from the very start.

There will only ever be 21 million bitcoins. Half of them have been made – "mined", in the parlance – already, and the rest will be released in decreasing quantity at ten minute intervals until 2140. Add in the fact that, although they can't be created in any other way, they can be destroyed just by deleting the file that holds them, and you've got a currency which is designed to deflate.

That deflation was made far worse in the last couple of months by the hyperbolic increase in the value of a bitcoin measured in any normal currency. If you can buy a bitcoin for $10, and then a month later it costs you $200, then that is largely inseparable from inflation, particularly since you still need to use real currency to eat, pay your rent, and buy your travelcard to get to work. It got so bad that some started talking about "hyperdeflation".

What all that deflation does is ensure that, if you hold bitcoins, it makes sense to wait until you're absolutely sure you need to make a purchase before you part with them. After all, if you're the guy who bought a pizza for 10,000 bitcoins in 2010, you may have got a tasty meal; but if you had held off, you would be $1.3m richer now.

And it gets worse when you look at things like investment. If you used bitcoins to buy equity in a startup, your expected return would have to be through the roof to even stand still compared to where you would expect to be if you hoarded the money.

These are hypothetical questions for bitcoin – no stock market in the world lets you buy equity with the currency yet – but they're very real problems in Japan. The dearth of investment is so bad that the government has "nationalised" industrial stock, spending up to ¥1trn to buy plants in its biggest manufacturing industries.

There is optimism that Japan can pull itself out of this hole. Even as inflation continues to fall, predictions for future inflation are high; and there's a certain sense that with enough wild plans thrown at the wall, something is going to stick. Even if its just out of the frying pan and into the fire, a change of scenario would be nice.

The future's not so rosy for bitcoin. Even if its price stabilises, the long-term policy of deflation is not going to go away. The fact that Japan's "lost decade" lasted fifteen years may seem like a stretch, but bitcoin's could last a lifetime.

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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.