Unpopularity Contest at the Edge of the Japanese Abyss

While all eyes are on Europe and the ever expanding Greek farce, a much bigger fiasco on the other side of the globe is advancing at an inexorable pace—with another setback for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who was stuffed into that slot last September. All Japanese prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) slither down a bumpy and steep slope that lasts between 8 and 15 months. When their approval ratings drop into the low twenties, they’re thrown out, and a new sacrificial lamb is stuffed into that slot. And Noda is on a straight line down to replacement hell. 

In a Kyodo News telephone poll over the weekend, Noda’s approval rating dropped to 29%, down 6.8 points from January, and down a dizzying 50 points in less than six months. The disapproval rating jumped to 55.2%. Only Taro Aso fell faster. But at the current trajectory in the prime-ministerial unpopularity contest, Noda might beat his records soon:


It seems the top item in Noda’s job description is to get the unpopular consumption tax through a recalcitrant parliament along with some half-hearted reforms of the social welfare system that is bankrupting the country—if that were still possible.

The Japanese fiscal quagmire has no peers among developed nations—by March 2013, national debt will surpass one quadrillion yen, or $14 trillion, a mindboggling 240% of GDP. The budget deficit for fiscal 2012, with all its accounting shenanigans, will exceed ¥54 trillion yen, of which an astounding 56% will have to be borrowed.

So, comes along the idea of an increase in the consumption tax. It’s currently 5%. The first phase would take it to 8% in April 2014; the second phase to 10% in October 2015. While the deficits are eating up Japan’s future right now, the proposed fixes, insufficient as they may be, won’t even kick in until 2014 and 2015. Sure, a consumption tax will further demolish consumption, and given that Japan’s fourth quarter GDP has shriveled by 2.3%, it’s not a good time to try to implement something like that. But in Japan’s economy, which is completely dependent on a flood of deficit spending, it’s never a good idea to implement any kind of tax increase or spending cuts. Meanwhile, as the problems get worse and more intractable, ineffectual and powerless prime ministers are shuffled in and out.

And the problems are getting worse, fast. Japan’s all-important trade balance has generated huge surpluses and $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and has been one of the pillars supporting the government’s deficit-addicted ways. Alas, the joyride is over. The trade balance for January, reported today, set an astounding record: a deficit of ¥1.475 trillion ($18.6 billion), the fourth consecutive month of trade deficits. Already, 2011 had seen the first annual trade deficit in 31 years, but it was a mild compared to what 2012 will look like.


Imports jumped 9.8%, liquefied natural gas being the most salient item. That won’t be getting better anytime soon: another nuclear power plant was shut down today for scheduled maintenance, and will stay off line. Due to opposition and controversy—Fukushima is haunting the country in a myriad ways—none of the reactors that have been shut down since March 11 have been brought back up. By now, only two of Japan’s 54 reactors are still generating electricity. On March 26, both are scheduled to be taken off line as well.

A mad scramble has ensued to replace their capacity. Old and inefficient fossil-fuel plants have been de-mothballed, and new ones are being planned. Companies are building their own in-house power plants as a matter of survival. They need LNG. Hence the jump in LNG imports. Other generating capacity is being brought on line, but it will be impossible to replace the massive capacity of 54 nuclear power plants over such a short period. With harsh consequences for power-hungry manufacturers.

Exports plummeted 9.3% from January 2011, as manufacturers reacted to the power shortage, the strong yen, and high production costs. Caterpillar was the latest when it announced that it would shift production of small track-type tractors and mini hydraulic excavators out of Japan to the US. And Japanese companies spent $70 billion on acquisitions overseas in 2011—a record. They’re going overseas to escape the pressures at home. But they’re doing it just when Japan can least afford it.

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