Business / Economy

Budget in hand, Abe shifts focus to pandemic response as economy reels

After the Diet passed the regular annual budget Friday, the path is now clear for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to come up with new measures to help an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Even though a portion of the ¥102.7 trillion ($950 billion) budget will fund parts of a stimulus package announced in December, it already looks outdated because it was put together before the virus started spreading worldwide.

Now with the budget for the year starting April 1 out of the way, the government looks ready to put together more spending measures to counter the sharp deterioration in the economy as the virus halts assembly lines, empties hotels and restaurants, and keeps shoppers and tourists at home.

Abe on Friday wrapped up a series of hearings with experts and business representatives looking at the impact and what can be done to ease the pain for businesses and households.

Following his final session in the evening with economists and experts who deal directly with consumers, Abe told reporters he will draft policies to lead Japan into a v-shaped recovery.

“While thoroughly stopping the virus spreading further, we’ll make it a priority to protect jobs and businesses,” he said.

The postponement of the Olympics also removes a potential boost to the economy. Whatever measures Abe takes, a sharp widening of the budget deficit seems inevitable.

Finance Minister Taro Aso hinted Friday that the government’s strategy will be to help keep companies running and workers employed before a second round of measures.

“We need a two-stage response to the coronavirus outbreak,” Aso said following the passage of the fiscal 2020 budget.

Analysts believe the economy is already in a recession after contracting an annualized 7.1 percent the previous quarter in the wake of a sales tax hike, natural disasters and weak overseas demand.

Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Thursday that an unprecedented economic response is needed to keep Japan from falling back into deflation, saying the economy is likely to worsen from the fourth quarter. “We need a response that’s in line with that impact,” he said.

Among the ideas being floated are the boosting of loan programs and other assistance for companies, cash and coupon handouts for consumers and even a temporary reduction of the sales tax.

“We must think about who is going to be hardest hit,” said Atsushi Takeda, chief economist at Itochu Research Institute. “For now, it appears the service industry is going to get hit hard. That’s why the government must implement measures to shore up consumer spending.”

Takeda said that industry-targeted measures such as those supporting tourism would be effective, as would supporting households with children and lower incomes.

Economists’ estimates for the scale of the package range from around the ¥26 trillion size of the December package to an eventual total that is double that. Whatever the headline figure, probably less than half would amount to real fiscal measures.

Some lawmakers in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party have called for much larger amounts.

“I think if we passed the equivalent of two years’ budget in a year, that would put people’s minds at rest. So if the budget for a year is ¥100 trillion, we should double it to ¥200 trillion,” said Lower House lawmaker Yasuhide Nakayama.

Still, even if the package is similar in scale to the December spread of measures, together they would represent about 10 percent of gross domestic product, said economist Mari Iwashita at Daiwa Securities

Some economists say additional spending can only do so much.

“Unless the spread of the virus itself is halted things won’t return to normal,” said Yasunari Ueno, chief market economist at Mizuho Securities Co.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner