Thursday, December 31, 2009

An end to the Japanese lesson - Japan's two lost decades

Japan has taught the world a great deal about coping with the financial crisis. Now the West is on its own

“NEW Year rally expected on Tokyo market next week.” That was a typically boosterish Japanese newswire headline on December 29th 1989, the day that one of the world’s biggest ever asset-price bubbles reached bursting point. Exactly 20 years later the Japanese are still paying the price for such hubris. The Nikkei 225 index, which peaked at 38,916, now languishes at just over one-quarter of that level (though once again there is talk of a New Year rally). Japan’s economy has barely grown in nominal terms after two “lost decades”, and is again suffering from deflation. Where Japan was once bearing down on America, it now feels the hot breath of China on its neck. Remember “Japan as Number One”? These days the country’s chief claim to fame is having a gross government debt burden approaching 200% of GDP.

For the Japanese this has all been deeply troubling. But in the past two years, as the Western world has faced many of the same problems that Japan has been grappling with since 1989 (the collapse of asset prices, a surge in distressed debt and a looming threat of deflation), Japan has provided some useful lessons on how governments should, and should not, tackle potentially systemic financial meltdowns.

Thanks to the precedent set by Japan, many of these lessons were quickly put into practice. Acting far more swiftly than the Japanese authorities did (the Japanese had the misfortune of having to learn through trial and error), Western policymakers provided liquidity to their banks and forced them to rebuild capital, while pumping in generous doses of fiscal stimulus to offset the collapse in private-sector demand. And like the Bank of Japan, they slashed interest rates and took extraordinary measures to try to keep credit flowing. The efficacy of these steps has led to growing optimism about the world economy.

So what is the Japanese lesson now? In many ways, the analogy is no longer terribly helpful. That is partly because the pupils are in a worse pickle than the teacher ever was. The most vulnerable countries, such as Greece, now face a risk that Japan never did: that markets will lose faith in their creditworthiness. Japan, for all its woes, has benefited from a huge pool of domestic savings and investors happier to keep their money at home than abroad. Meanwhile, the scale of the global upheaval makes Japan’s problems, which had little impact overseas and took place against a backdrop of global growth, look small by comparison. And with huge deficits in so many nations, the risk of a sudden loss of fiscal credibility is more acute than it ever was in Japan.

But there are other ways in which the pupils are in better shape. That is partly because they have less rigid systems. In the more adaptable Western economies there has been less resistance to structural changes in order to maintain productivity. There are also usually fewer political barriers to dealing with bad private-sector debts than there were in Japan. Moreover Westerners are also reaping the rewards of having acted more decisively than the Japanese did—especially when it came to pumping money into the economy and cleaning up financial balance-sheets. With fewer zombie banks, fewer signs of entrenched deflation and much earlier signs of growth, the West is in uncharted territory: it has arguably already got to a stage that Japan never really did.

Nothing more will I teach you today

That makes it very difficult to keep on drawing particular lessons from Japan’s sad plight. It does, however, still leave a general lesson common to all economic disasters: don’t be suckered by false signs of economic recovery. In Japan’s case, such hopes have led it repeatedly to tighten fiscal policy before private demand was strong enough to sustain a recovery. That entrenched deflation. Japan also left its banks too short of capital to cope with subsequent shocks.

Policymakers in the developed world still have an enormous task on their hands. Many banks have huge write-downs to make on their loans, economies are burdened with excess capacity and households’ debt levels remain high. It would be disastrous to tighten policy too soon, as Japan’s example shows. But Japan provides no useful guidance on when the right time would be. For that, there is only trial and error. And the more errors there are, the more the West’s next decade may look like Japan’s two lost ones. From the Economist.

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