Japan Is Taxing Itself Into Trouble

This is the wrong time to be taking money out of consumers' pockets, which is what a sales-tax increase in Japan will do.
A sales-tax increase will put the squeeze on Japan's shoppers. Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

On April 1, Japan's national sales tax will rise to 8 percent from 5 percent. Unless wages rise by an equal amount, the effect will be a drop in consumer spending. Japanese automakers anticipate a sales decline of as much as 16 percent during the next 12 months. Even if this isn't enough to push the economy into recession, raising the sales tax is a bad move that will undermine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's agenda for the world's third-largest economy.

QuickTake Abenomics

Ever since its economic bubble burst almost a quarter-century ago, Japan has been stuck with timid businesses that won't invest or raise wages, skittish households that won't spend and zombie banks that prefer to roll over bad loans to insolvent companies rather than finance new enterprises. Abe wants to break this cycle. The evidence suggests that his efforts, while helpful, will be negated by such a large tax increase.

The chart below shows household consumption after accounting for inflation and changes in population. You can see the slowdown after the bubble burst in about 1990, but since then the improvement has been steady.


From this vantage point, though, it's impossible to see the positive impact of Abenomics. Growth stalled after the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 but has since recovered. But the rate of increase has been slowing.

There are a couple of useful indicators to check if the economy can handle the tax increase. They suggest it can't. For instance, Japanese have been large net sellers of Japanese stocks ever since the big rally that began in the fall of 2012. Foreign investors have more faith in Abenomics than the people with the most at stake.


One consequence is that regular Japanese have missed out on much of the gains they could have reaped had they not sold so many shares. Greater equity wealth might have helped offset the coming tax increase.

A more encouraging bit of news is the rise in consumer prices, excluding food and energy. This measure of inflation has accelerated to 0.7 percent annually -- its fastest pace since 1998, although still slower than the official target of 2 percent. Wages have also started falling more slowly.


Things look less rosy if you include food and energy prices, which have risen thanks to the decline in the value of the yen. Since Japan imports almost all of its energy and much of its food, this form of inflation functions as a tax on consumer spending. If anything, the government should be cutting taxes now, not raising them.

(Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.