Japan’s surprise recession clouds fiscal future

November 17, 2014

By Andy Mukherjee 

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Japan’s surprise recession has clouded its fiscal future.

Data released on Nov. 17 showed the country’s output has fallen for a second straight quarter. Once again, the modest 3 percentage point increase in Japan’s sales tax rate in April was the culprit. The fragility of private demand not only rules out a planned second increase in the levy next year, but also reduces the chances that future politicians will bite the fiscal bullet. Taxing consumers to shrink the government’s huge debt load is a fast-receding dream.

Economists had hoped for a 2.1 percent rebound in GDP in the third quarter following the 7.3 percent contraction between April and June. Yet this failed to materialise despite the government boosting public investment. GDP shrank by an annualised 1.6 percent.

The disappointing report means Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is almost certain to delay plans to raise the sales tax to 10 percent next October, from the current 8 percent. He may also call a snap election in an effort to pre-empt any challenges to his leadership of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

It’s unclear what other plans for fiscal correction Abe may propose. A lack of any revenue-raising measures could be troubling for a country whose ratio of government debt to GDP is approaching 245 percent, the highest among rich nations.

For now, the government can issue any amount of fresh IOUs because the Bank of Japan is buying assets by the truckload. But the BOJ’s bond-buying won’t continue forever. Once it ends, the government won’t have too many levers to quickly boost revenue and reduce its reliance on deficit financing. Japanese labour taxes are already high by OECD standards, while the Abe administration wants to cut corporate taxes to revive private investment. That leaves higher duties on consumption as the only way for an ageing society to fulfill its massive social-security commitments.

However, this is the second time that a modest sales tax increase has tipped Japan into recession. If Abe leaves the task unfinished, future Japanese politicians will be even more reluctant to risk their political capital chasing the chimera of fiscal correction.

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