VAT rise won’t create a Japan-style slump – but the banks might

One of the things that most worries the ‘must-have-more-stimulus’ crowd about the Budget is the rise in VAT from January. It will, they say, tip the economy over the edge. Next thing we know, we’ll be back in recession.

The critics point to Japan as an example of how the nightmare of rising consumption taxes unfolds. There, in 1997, the tax rose from a mere 3% to 5%. The economy subsequently shrank in four of the next five quarters.

I say subsequently rather than consequently for the simple reason that there is little evidence the two were particularly connected. As Graham Turner of GFC Economics points out, the Japanese economy had been slowing for some time before the tax actually rose. And the country’s financial crisis was already “palpably intensifying”, with a number of finance companies having just failed or being publicly on the verge of failure.

At the same time, a big land auction in Tokyo had just failed (falling land and property prices were at the core of the Japanese financial collapse, just as they have been in ours). Worst of all, one of Japan’s big insurers had just defaulted – the first to do so.

All this “arguably had a far greater impact on consumer confidence than the hike in consumption tax.” The UK may well end up back in recession. But if it does, I don’t think it will be the rise in VAT that puts us there. Just as it was in Japan, it will be the next leg of the banking crisis.