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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation