Leading economist tells Shinzo Abe of challenges to Abenomics

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Not many leaders call on international experts to bring them bad news. Yet Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe this week invited one of the world’s leading economists to talk to him “candidly” about Japan’s situation in the world.

The message from the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was not encouraging.

“A few years ago, no one would have anticipated that the global economy would be as weak as it is today,” he said at the prime minister’s office. “When economic circumstances change, you have to adapt your policy.”

Professor Stiglitz also urged Mr Abe not to raise Japan’s consumption tax, or sales tax. That is a contentious issue as it is closely linked to Abenomics. A higher consumption tax should mean more government income. But it can become a drag when the economy is close to recession.

Mr Abe’s meeting with Professor Stiglitz was not primarily about tax or domestic Japanese politics. It was more about how the changes to the global economy will affect Japan. In particular, the slowdown in Chinese growth and the knock-on effect of low energy prices.

Mr Abe was not the only person listening to Professor Stiglitz. The Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nobuteru Ishihara, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and the Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda all attended the seminar.

More experts are due in Japan for similar top levels meetings soon, including another world-class economist, Paul Krugman.

Japan’s leaders may be prepared to listen to the opinion of foreign experts but they do not find it easy to change their policies in the wake of their advice. That is partly because the the civil service is so slow at implementing policy change.

Foreigners who study Japan’s economy nearly always prescribe reform – sometimes radical reform. But resistance to reform is strong, particularly among elderly conservative Japanese people who support Mr Abe and his ruling party, the LDP.

The Economist magazine uses its voice to encourage more reform in Japan. This week, its analysis of Mr Abe’s political challenges warned that voters will blame him if the economy does not recover as he has promised.

The Economist believes that Mr Abe’s primary political goal is the reform of the constitution, in particular Article Nine which commits Japan to pacifism. It says in order to change this, Mr Abe needs the overwhelming support of both the upper and lower houses of the Japanese parliament. He could then put the issue to the country in a referendum.

But the Economist says that such a move would cause deep alarm among many Japanese people. That may not be a point of view that Mr Abe wishes to hear.

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20160312_ASD001_0世界のリーダーが自国のマイナス材料となるような情報 を乞うために国際的なエキスパートを招聘するのは稀だ。だが、 安倍晋三首相は今週、世界的に有名なエコノミストでありノーベル経済学賞受賞者のジョセフ・スティグリッツ氏を招き、日本国内の状況に関して忌憚のない意見を求めたが、結果、励みになるような報告は得られなかった。

スティグリッツ教授は「数年前は世界経済がここまで弱くなることを誰も予想していなかっただろう。経済状況の変化に伴って政策を変える必要がある」と述べ、消費増税も間違っていると安倍首相に提言。しかし、消費増税は政府の収入源であり、アベノミクスと深く係わっている。その反面、経済低迷の中、消費増税は更なる景気低迷の引き金ともなり得る。

安倍首相は税金や内政問題以上に、世界経済がどのように日本国内に影響を及ぼすかに興味を示しており、特に中国における景気減速や原油価格の下落に注目。会合には、安倍首相や菅義偉官房長官、石原伸晃経済再生担当相ら関係閣僚に加え、日銀の黒田東彦総裁も参加した。会合は数回続く予定だが、世界のトップ経済学者ポール・クルーグマン教授も招く予定だ。

政府は海外からの意見に耳を傾けているが、政策変更に至るまでには難しく、過去の経緯からして時間がかかると予想する。

海外から日本経済に注目している関係者の多くは、よく構造改革を指示するが、安倍首相と自民党を支持する層の多くは慎重な高齢者のため、なかなか抵抗があるだろう。

英誌エコノミストは、更なる国内改革を後押ししており、安倍政権の下、経済回復が見られなかった場合、国民からの非難は免れないであろうと 報じている。同誌は、安倍首相は平和憲法の根幹である9条改正を優先しているが、そのためには衆参両院からの支持が必須であり、それを以って国民投票の実施が可能となるとしている。ただ、国民からの支持が得られるかどうかは疑問だと述べ、安倍首相の期待を裏切る結果になる事も予想されるとしている。