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Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s victory in the recent election in Japan opens up significant opportunities for political and economic change. But not in the case of one of the biggest structural problems facing the Japanese economy — the tendency of business to save vastly more than it invests, with deflationary consequences.
In an ageing society like Japan’s, deflation ought to be a dwindling threat. Rising numbers of elderly people could be expected to save less while consumption should increase with age thanks to relatively generous pensions and healthcare. At the same time, a shrinking workforce should enjoy increased labour market power and demand higher wages.
In the event Japanese households have reduced their savings close to zero. Yet this has been more than offset by the rise in corporate savings. At the same time wage growth has failed to materialise. Lifetime employees continue to value security of employment and feel a loyalty to the company, which keeps them docile. There has also been a big increase in the number of part time workers whose bargaining power is weak.
Too much income is trapped in a risk-averse corporate sector awash with record profits, while Japan suffers from a structural deficiency of consumer income. The country has only escaped a 1930s-style slump because the government has run huge deficits to…