Which major economy is most likely to disappoint expectations this year, and perhaps even cause a financial crisis big enough to break the momentum of global economic recovery? The usual suspects are China and southern Europe. But in my view the most likely culprit will be Japan.
While Japan no longer attracts much attention these days, it is still the world’s third-largest economy, with a gross domestic product equal to France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. Its industries still pose the main competitive challenge to U.S., European and Korean manufacturers, and its regional weight is still sufficient to trigger financial crises across the whole of Asia — as it did in 1997.
To make matters worse, the Japanese government bond market is in an enormous financial bubble that could burst catastrophically if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s audacious economic program is seen to have failed.
I was an early enthusiast for Abenomics, but I became alarmed about Japan’s prospects last October, when Abe decided to impose a massive tax hike on consumers beginning in April this year. With this crunch point now approaching, I travelled to Japan to get a firsthand feel for economic conditions. What I saw and heard from financiers, businesses and officials has heightened my concerns.
Abenomics was initially a promising program because it seemed to pierce the complacency of previous governments with its “three arrows” of radical economic policy — monetary expansion, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform.