We have to give grudging respect to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his brilliant successes in several realms: His visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted Japanese war criminals are honored alongside soldiers who gave their lives in battle, elegantly ruffled some feathers among Japan’s most important trade partners; the yen and all assets denominated in it, including household savings, have lost about 25% of their value since his policies were baptized “Abenomics” in late 2012; and one of his promises, inflation, has kicked in nicely.
The consumer price index for November is now up 1.5% from a year ago. Less “imputed rent,” inflation rose 1.9%. Service prices were up 0.6%, and goods prices jumped 2.5%. It was broad based. Fuel and utilities rose 5.7%, food 1.9%, clothes and shoes 0.6%, transportation 2.3%, culture and recreation 1.2%, miscellaneous 3.3%. At this rate, Abenomics will ace its 2015 target of “2% price stability” – a central-banker insider joke that those who pay for it, namely consumers, just don’t get.
Now Abe is practically begging Japan Inc. to increase wages. But why should they? They’re sitting on the Abenomics gravy train: more government money, lower taxes, a devalued yen that inflates earnings from exports and overseas operations, and an asset bubble, particularly in the stock market. They get all this while paying their workers less. It’s corporate nirvana.
As if to drive home the point, the Japanese Statistics Bureau just reported incomes and expenditures of households with two or more persons, the vast majority of households in Japan. Average income rose 0.8% in nominal terms from a year ago. But after inflation – the dazzling achievement of Abenomics – average income dropped 1.1%.
Inflation without compensation. Hapless Japanese households get to bear the brunt of Abenomics. Inflation is whittling away at their real incomes. As they feel their belts being tightened, they adjust their spending. So average household spending in November was up 0.3% in nominal terms from a year ago. But adjusted for inflation, it dropped 1.6%.
Hidden in this awful number are even more awful numbers. The consumption-tax hike from 5% to 8%, effective April 1, 2014, is motivating households to do what they did last time the consumption tax was raised: frontloading of big-ticket items to save 3%. Household purchases of durable goods jumped 25.2% in November from prior year. It made retail sales look good (up 4% year over year). But households cut spending in other areas, including services by 3.7% and education by 14.2%.
The hangover will hit in 2014 – when durable goods purchases will plunge. Every adult in Japan knows how that works. Been there, done that. The government knows it too. Hence its ¥5.5 trillion “supplementary budget” that will be handed out to various constituents, particularly Japan Inc., to compensate for the loss of household purchases. But these households won’t see any of that stimulus money. Instead, they’ll see the consumption tax hike which will add 3% to nearly everything they pay for.
This is where they will feel the heat from the lie of Abenomics.
The average household has ¥436,000 in monthly gross income ($4,150). It pays income taxes and other deductions, saves a little, and spends the remaining ¥279,000. Let’s assume that the official hopes come true and that in fiscal 2014, gross income will rise by 2% or by about ¥9,000 to ¥445,000. So that would be the miracle that hasn’t been performed yet.
But income taxes might eat up ¥3,000 of the increase, leaving a net increase of ¥6,000. Let’s also assume that inflation will be 2% as planned – and not a lot more, given that the Bank of Japan has promised to water down the yen 50% by 2015, come hell or high water. It will raise the cost of outlays by about ¥5,000 to ¥284,000, leaving a measly ¥1,000 per month of the miraculous income increase.
The consumption tax will tack 3% to just about all goods and services at every stage of the process; even building a house gets 3% more expensive. The hike is expected to raise ¥4.5 trillion in fiscal 2014 and make up 10% of total tax revenues. It might cost the average household ¥6,000 per month. And if it does, that household is ¥5,000 per month, or ¥60,000 ($571) per year, in the hole.
That’s the government’s desired best-case scenario.
This is why the newfangled Abenomics math is a big lie. It won’t work out for Japanese households. They’re going to pay the price. And unless they can be made to borrow against their already dark future – they’re saddled with ¥1 quadrillion in public debt – they will have to cut spending in real terms. Inflation without compensation and a consumption tax hike make a very toxic economic mix.
Just before Christmas when no one was supposed to pay attention, Prime Minister Abe and his ministers agreed on a budget for fiscal 2014. It’s a doozy. Instead of slowing down the fiscal fiasco, Abenomics is speeding it up. With an elegant solution. Read…. No Money, No Problem, Bank of Japandemonium Takes Care Of It