Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday vowed to press ahead with a sales tax hike seen as crucial to shrinking a huge national debt, although critics fear it could derail a budding economic recovery.
The move marks a big political gamble for Abe — previous hikes have proved career-ending for his predecessors — with the 59-year-old leader later yesterday expected to spell out details of a stimulus package aimed at softening the blow.
Tokyo’s Nikkei stock index finished in positive territory yesterday, although early gains were pared after a political stalemate in Washington sparked the first US government shutdown in 17 years.
The benchmark Nikkei added 0.2 percent, or 28.92 points, to 14,484.72, while the TOPIX index of all first-section shares slipped 0.06 percent, or 0.66 points, to 1,193.44 at the close.
The tax increase ends months of uncertainty about whether Abe would press on with hiking the levy to 8 percent from 5 percent, still far lower than in many wealthy countries.
Economists estimate the impact on households at about 8 trillion yen (US$81 billion), dealing a blow to consumer demand just as the world’s third-largest economy is picking up.
Abe’s stimulus package is expected to come in at US$50 billion, with benefits for low-income earners and corporate incentives to boost investment and wages.
He may also speed up the timeline for getting rid of a special corporate tax ushered in after the 2011 quake-tsunami disaster.
Abe told a meeting of government and ruling party policymakers that the tax hike was aimed at “maintaining the nation’s trust and handing over a sustainable social security system to the next generation.”
The decision yesterday came just hours after the Bank of Japan published its quarterly Tankan business confidence survey, which surged to a more than five-year high.
A strong showing in the Tankan was widely viewed as the tipping point for Abe to implement a tax rise passed by the administration he booted out of office, although Japan’s recovery is far from complete.
“Companies are still cautious about investing more and they’re concerned about the negative impact of the tax rise,” Tokyo-based Japan Research Institute senior economist Hideki Matsumura said.
Japan is on track for a strong annualized economic growth rate of 3.8 percent, leading G7 nations, while the stock market is up about 40 percent from the start of the year, following Abe’s unprecedented policy blitz — a blend of government stimulus and monetary easing dubbed Abenomics. However, the tax levy threatens not only to sink his growth plans; it could also dim his popularity with voters.
“This is Abe’s biggest political decision since he took office,” Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai said. “Japan is in the middle of an epic experiment and his decision is a crucial test of Abenomics.”
While the upbeat Tankan survey was sure to be embraced by proponents of Abenomics, a string of data in the past week showed Japan’s battle to turn around years of lackluster growth has yet to be won. Inflation figures released on Friday last week showed price rises driven by soaring energy costs, not the broad-based increase seen as key to dragging Japan out of years of deflation that crimped private spending and growth.
Japan’s factory output slipped more than expected in August, while household spending last month remained stubbornly weak, slipping 1.6 percent from a year earlier.
Getting consumers to spend more — and employers to raise wages — is a key part of Abe’s bid to reverse a 20-year funk in Japan’s economy.
Following through on deeper reforms, including shaking up protected industries and a rigid labor market, is also seen as key to Abe’s success.
“This is what will determine whether Japan’s reflation drive succeeds,” HSBC said in a note.
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