Shifting Society No. 14 - Momentous times: the London G20 and its implications

On recent visits to some of Tokyo's leading sub-centers - Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Roppongi, Asakusa - I've failed to notice any sign of recession. The stores are full of shoppers, there are queues in front of many café's and restaurants, the atmosphere is upbeat, spring-like. How can this be?

Japan's recession is reported to be worse than the recessions in any other country. But that is measured by the sharp decline in production - mostly to reduce mounting stocks of unsold merchandise - and exports. But by and large, the average Japanese middle-class family is better off than their cousins in Europe or the US. There certainly is much hardship among those who lost their jobs, but the number of redundancies is still comparatively low. Most importantly, the traditionally high level of savings - largely invested in postal savings accounts - combined with low personal indebtedness, will see most Japanese through the crisis.

Drinking sake under the cherry blossoms in full bloom, it is therefore hard to remind ourselves that we are surely and truly going through a historic period of adjustment. Comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s are understandable, though inaccurate, given the vastly different environment and nature of the crisis. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF, has dubbed it the Great Recession. Whatever we choose to call it, it is no doubt the worst financial and economic crisis the world has known since WW2, if not in a century. What's more, if the measures taken so far to control it don't soon start showing results, and countries resort instead to protectionist policies to shield themselves from further damage, the global system of trade, finance and employment may face total collapse.

In this light the G20 meeting that took place on April 2 in London could not be permitted to fail. The policy differences between member countries were and continue to be very worrisome, but in spite of often starkly diverse national and political interests, the assembled leaders clearly knew that they had to find enough common ground to avoid a calamitous retreat into isolationism, help nations in dire straits, and agree on a framework to prevent a recurrence of the abuses and sheer stupidity that caused the collapse in the first place.

From the start the gathering of so many heads of state, clearly aware of their heavy responsibilities, in itself was an encouraging sign. So often these conferences are little more than talking shops and photo opportunities. This time, though, there was far more at stake than could be glossed over by even the most glamorous of presidential wives. And it seems that the assembly to a considerable extent lived up to the high expectations. What exactly did they accomplish?

The agreement to regulate financial businesses and cap their executive pay packages is a welcome response to the public outcry over the exposed greed. Few will shed a tear over the financial manipulators' loss of exorbitant rewards. Even the countless international banks, funds and millionaires who blindly invested in sub-prime US assets and derivatives don't deserve much sympathy. They can do all the finger-pointing they want, but they played the capitalist game and shouldn't blame anyone but themselves for losing their chips in the process.

But what about the real hardship suffered by the millions of hard-working people in developed countries put out of work by the folly of the few? And the hundreds of millions in the developing world who are losing their jobs in the wake of a sharp drop in the rich countries' demand for their goods and produce? How will they benefit from the London accords, specifically the decisions to stimulate trade, and to inject massive new funds into the IMF, a program to which Japan will contribute $100 billion? It is too early to tell, as the measures agreed on will necessarily take time to implement and work their way through the system. It does seem clear, though, that the G20 recognize that relieving the plight of the poor is not only a matter of decency, but in terms of the desired political stability and assurance of vital supplies it also is a matter of self-interest for the rest of the world.

The tens of thousands of protesters gathered in London therefore were right to demand meaningful action this time, not just words. They represented, in their various ways, the outrage, suffering and hopes for a better life for all those affected by the crisis. Their isolated acts of violence were regrettable, as were some of the measures of the London police in dealing with them. But their very presence may well have reminded the assembled leaders not to screw up.

How are the G20 accords going to affect Japan? Not greatly, one way or another, I believe, except perhaps indirectly. Assistance to cash-strapped countries and measures to increase trade should translate into more demand for goods and technology, with Japan taking its share of this growing activity. Restricting compensation for financial executives hardly applies to Japan, where such compensation was seldom excessive. Japan's main challenge is how to revive domestic demand - for cars, consumer durables and luxury goods.

As usual, the government's response is to launch vast new infrastructure projects, chiefly in the construction sphere, a policy that will mostly benefit the construction industry and the bureaucrats and politicians in league with them. But what is more needed than a further upgrading of Japan's already high-quality road, transport and other public facilities is new investment in education, training of health care workers, improvement in immigrant services, and housing and social benefits for the growing numbers of unemployed not currently covered by existing programs. In these fields Japan still has a long way to go.

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© 2009 Hans Brinckmann