Shinzo Abe's reforms too slow when measured in China years

Japanese prime minister is lagging his Asian peers when it comes to the pace of changes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 12:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 1:54am

One thing is painfully clear about Shinzo Abe's programme to revive Japan: the man's in no hurry.

What else can be said about a prime minister who pledged a year ago to provide specifics on how he planned to make Japan relevant again - only to wait until now to reveal them? If Abe wonders why stock markets yawned this week when he unveiled his deregulation agenda, that lack of urgency provides a partial explanation. Two other reasons: policy vagueness and a lack of audacity.

Japanese chief executives are hoarding US$2.3 trillion of cash not because they're selfish, but because they're wary. Abe needs them to boost wages and unleash a virtuous cycle of increased consumption and higher prices. But the plan that was supposed to inspire them - titled Strategy for Reviving Japan - essentially amounts to a long list of ambiguities. Abe has shied away from the tough reforms of agriculture, immigration, energy, education, and entrepreneurship that are needed to shake Japan out of its lethargy. His administration has made no effort to wrest control from the insular fiefdoms of Tokyo's bureaucracy.

Abe's 120-page manifesto has me thinking of China. Back in 2007, Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green used the phrase "China years" to indicate the different speed at which the mainland was operating: in the same way that dogs age seven times as fast as humans, China accomplishes in a few months what it takes other economies years to do. In that context, for any country to adopt a slow and deliberate pace of reform is to be left behind.

Viewed through the lens of China years, Abenomics has a speed problem. No one doubts the power and determination of the vested interests aiming to halt any opening of market access in Japan. That's why Abe did the easy things first: monetary and fiscal pump priming. But for a popular Japanese leader who's managed to last more than 12 months, Abe's continued slow-but-steady approach won't do. Lucio Vinhas de Souza of Moody's Investors Service worries that the "uncertain and staggered timeframe for implementation of these structural reforms exposes the strategy to significant implementation risks".

To Richard Katz, publisher of the Oriental Economist Report, it's ominous that Abe's first big reform step is getting the US$1.26 trillion Government Pension Investment Fund to buy the Nikkei. "Having government-controlled pension funds purchase more stocks - in a market that is no higher than it was almost 30 years ago - has more to do with boosting stock prices and thereby Abe's approval rating, than with helping pensioners," Katz writes in Foreign Affairs.

South Korean officials say Abe is acting at "Japanese speed". The difference between Japan and South Korea can be measured by the different responses to the Sewol and Fukushima disasters. In the two months since the April 16 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, South Korea's prime minister has resigned, President Park Geun-hye has reshuffled her cabinet, the coastguard has been disbanded, the regulatory system is being rewritten, crisis response and prevention procedures are being rethought and trials have begun for crew members, some of whom are getting life sentences.

Thirty-nine months after an earthquake precipitated a made-in-Japan nuclear crisis, no major officials have been fired or gone to jail, and Japan's corrupt nuclear-industrial complex remains largely intact.

Yes, Japan likes its change very, very slow. That's a given. But just as there's a first-mover advantage, there's a slow-mover disadvantage. The steps Abe is taking to empower women, open up corporate governance and create more flexible labour markets are nice. But they're obvious moves that other developed nations adopted decades ago. Japan needs much more - and fast.