Abe's 'third arrow' will restructure Japan's economy for growth

Koichi Hamada says its focus on corporate deregulation and tax cuts will revitalise real economy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2014, 3:47am

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has unveiled his long-awaited growth strategy - the so-called "third arrow" of what has come to be known as "Abenomics". A preliminary version of the plan, announced to Japan's Diet last year, was met with disappointment in international financial markets. The new version is far more robust - and has received a far more positive global response.

Over the past 18 months, the first and second arrows of Abenomics - consisting of expansionary monetary and fiscal policies - have achieved considerable success in spurring Japan's economic renewal. For starters, they have fuelled price growth, with the gross domestic product price deflator declining from 3 per cent to nearly zero.

Moreover, the ratio of job openings to applicants, which fell to 0.4 under Japan's last government, is now approaching 1.1. Indeed, Japan is beginning to show signs of a labour shortage.

But the limits of Abenomics' first two arrows will soon be reached. With employment rising as Japan's economy moves towards realising potential output, monetary stimulus will create inflationary pressures and public expenditure will yield sharply diminishing returns. At that point, significant growth can be achieved only by increasing the economy's real productive capacity. That is what Abe's new growth strategy aims to achieve.

At the strategy's core is the removal of obstacles to growth for businesses, particularly the elimination or easing of regulatory barriers. Deregulation promises to bolster the ability of Japan's private sector, which already excels in hi-tech industries, to innovate and compete globally.

While some officials, who may benefit from business regulations, may resist this initiative, its economic benefits, together with Abe's determination, are compelling.

At the same time, Japan will undergo sweeping labour-market reforms, open designated industries to foreign workers and create "special economic zones" within which officials will have the authority that they need to reduce red tape in areas like agricultural land management. If concluded, the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a mega-regional free trade agreement - will provide an additional boost to Japan's economy.

Perhaps the most promising reform is corporate tax reduction, which will help Japan boost both foreign and domestic investment. By spurring increased business activity, it will actually increase Japan's corporate tax revenue.

By global standards, Japan's current corporate tax rate of 35 per cent is quite high. Indeed, while it remains lower than in some US states (California's rate, for example, stands at 40 per cent) it exceeds the rates applied in Germany (25 per cent), China (24 per cent), South Korea (24 per cent), Britain (24 per cent), and Singapore (17 per cent).

A quarter of a century ago, the UK and Germany had higher corporate tax rates than Japan. But they have since recognised the value of reduced rates. Britain practically waged a tax war against other countries to attract investment. Both countries' experiences have demonstrated that substantial reductions over a short period are far more effective than a gradual, drawn-out process. Fortunately, Abe plans to follow suit.

The impact of this approach may be even more pronounced in Japan, where only a small share of firms currently pay corporate tax. One reason for this is the contractionary monetary policy pursued by former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa, which prevented the economy from reaching its growth potential, until Haruhiko Kuroda took over the position last year.

Japan's so-called "special measures for corporate tax" - ad hoc provisions that reduce or waive certain taxes for firms at particular times - have also contributed to sustaining the economy's output gap. These measures not only distort resource allocation; they also often lead to collusion between businesses and government officials seeking opportunities to enter the private sector upon retirement. Eliminating them would go a long way towards increasing corporate tax revenue, without stifling growth.

Abe's growth strategy has the potential to bring massive benefits to Japan. But it will also demand sacrifices. Consumption tax hikes will be borne by consumers; the Trans-Pacific Partnership will create new challenges for farmers; and deregulation will run counter to some bureaucrats' interests. In this context, it is reasonable to expect businesses to relinquish some of their tax exemptions.

The Abe government has presented a set of forward-looking reforms - and appears determined to follow through on implementing them, even if doing so means confronting those with a vested interest in their failure. If the third arrow succeeds in sustaining Japan's economic revival, there will no longer be any room to doubt the merits of Abenomics.

Koichi Hamada, special economic adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is professor of economics at Yale University and professor emeritus of economics at the University of Tokyo. Copyright: Project Syndicate