The Japan Fallacy: Today’s U.S. Financial Crisis Is Not Like Tokyo’s “Lost Decade”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Differences in origin, scope and response of policymakers will distinguish the current U.S. financial woes from Japan's "lost decade," which was triggered by the burst of property bubble in the late 1980s, Richard Katz explains in an essay published by Foreign Affairs magazine. For the full article, please visit the magazine's Web site. A few excerpts:

In periods of crisis, pundits and policymakers tend to scramble for historical analogies. This time, many have seized on Japan's notorious "lost decade," the decade of stagnation that followed a mammoth property bubble in the late 1980s. But this comparison is wrong. In Japan, the primary problem was pervasive dysfunction in the economy, which caused a banking crisis. In the United States, pervasive dysfunction in the financial sector has caused a deep recession in the economy as a whole. This financial dysfunction is not the result of structural flaws, as in Japan, but of grave policy mistakes. It is now being compounded by widespread investor panic.

The consequences of the 2008 U.S. financial crisis will be different from Japan's slump in the 1990s for three reasons: the cause of the current crisis is fundamentally different, its scope is far smaller, and the response of policymakers has been quicker and more effective.

Japan's malaise was woven into the very fabric of its political economy. The country has a thin social safety net, and so in order to protect jobs, weak domestic firms and industries were sheltered from competition by a host of regulations and collusion among companies. Ultimately, that system limited productivity and potential growth. The problem was compounded by built-in economic anorexia. Personal consumption lagged, not because people refused to spend but because the same structural flaws caused real household income to keep falling as a share of real GDP. To make up for the shortfall in demand, the government used low interest rates as a steroid to pump up business investment. The result was a mountain of money-losing capital stock and bad debt.

Deregulation Nation

The United States' subprime mortgage fiasco of 2007-8, in contrast, was primarily the result of discrete, correctable mistakes brought on by ideological excess and the power of financial-industry lobbyists rather than intractable structural problems.

The first mistake was the U.S. government's refusal to regulate subprime mortgages. Traditional banking regulations forbid banks from lending to people with no down payment or proof that they can repay a loan. However, no such rule applied to nonbank lenders, even after they became the country's biggest mortgage originators. That left new mortgage institutions with little incentive to ensure that their loans could be repaid; no sooner had they issued these so-called liar loans than they resold them to investment banks for a profit. The investment banks then sliced and diced the loans into securities embossed with AAA ratings despite the dubious creditworthiness of the original borrowers. A single statistic makes clear how damaging this lack of regulation was: by the third quarter of 2008, 22 percent of subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages were in foreclosure; by contrast, the foreclosure rate for prime, fixed-rate mortgages-60 percent of all mortgages-was still less than one percent.

The second policy blunder was the U.S. government's failure to regulate the compensation of chief executive officers (CEOs)-a system that in its current form gives executives incentives to take outrageous risks with other people's money. When CEOs are paid primarily in stock options, as is the case today at many firms, they suffer little punishment for failure. If CEOs gamble big with the company's money and succeed, they can gain hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses; if their gambling fails, they do not suffer losses, just a smaller reward.

The third error was the virtual nonregulation of the derivatives market. Derivatives should serve as a kind of insurance to lessen risk. Today's financial derivatives often turn the insurance principle on its head, causing shocks to be amplified and transforming derivatives into what the investor Warren Buffett has called "financial weapons of mass destruction." Most financial derivatives are traded not on exchanges but in bilateral deals. If an investor's trading partner (counterparty) fails, the investor takes the loss. Rather than frightened depositors banging on bank doors, the result was investors furiously clicking away at their keyboards as their money disappeared. In the end, the impact was the same: perfectly solid companies suddenly found themselves unable to issue commercial paper, and creditworthy homeowners found it hard to get car or student loans.

A Tale of Two Bubbles

The scope of the Japanese crisis and the scope of the U.S. crisis are also fundamentally different. From 1981 to 1991, commercial land prices in Japan's six biggest cities rose by 500 percent. The subsequent bust brought prices down to a level well below that of 1981; as of 2007, they were still 83 percent below the 1991 peak. In the United States, the real estate bubble was not as inflated, and the bust has been less severe. From 1996 through the 2006 peak, housing prices in the 20 biggest U.S. cities rose by 200 percent. Most forecasters think prices will drop by 30-40 percent from the peak levels before bottoming out in 2009 or 2010. No one is suggesting that prices will fall below the level of 1996.

Most of the United States' nonfinancial corporations are still healthy. Whereas the debt of Japanese corporations was several times their net worth, in the United States, corporate debt amounts to only half of companies' net worth, the same level that has prevailed for decades. The ratio of nonperforming loans among nonfinancial companies is only 1.6 percent, and productivity growth remains solid.

A Program of Action

The Japanese and U.S. crises differ in many ways, but the starkest contrast is in the response of policymakers. Denial, dithering, and delay were the hallmarks in Tokyo. It took the Bank of Japan nearly nine years to bring the overnight interest rate from its 1991 peak of eight percent down to zero. The U.S. Federal Reserve did that within 16 months of declaring a financial emergency, which it did in August 2007. It has also applied all sorts of unconventional measures to keep credit from drying up.

It took Tokyo eight years to use public money to recapitalize the banks; Washington began to do so in less than a year. Worse yet, Tokyo used government money to help the banks keep lending to insolvent borrowers; U.S. banks have been rapidly writing off their bad debt. Although Tokyo did eventually apply many fiscal stimulus measures, it did so too late and too erratically to have a sufficient impact. The U.S. government, by contrast, has already applied fiscal stimulus, and the Obama administration is proposing a multiyear program totaling as much as five to six percent of U.S. GDP. When it comes to crisis management, it is far better to do too much than too little.

Policymakers can draw many lessons from this comparison. First, the current U.S. crisis-like the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98-has proved that even an economy with sound fundamentals can be thrashed when financial markets go haywire.

Second, whereas Japan needed a thorough overhaul of its political and economic institutions and practices, a process that continues today, the United States simply needs aggressive reform of its financial architecture and CEO compensation system.

Third, fiscal policy works, but only in connection with other measures. It is hard for fiscal and monetary stimuli to be effective when the financial system is broken.

Finally, markets only work when undergirded by proper regulatory institutions that enforce genuine checks and balances on corporate executives, corporate boards, financiers, accountants, rating agencies, and regulators. Better rules make it safe to have freer markets.

There is, of course, one way in which the United States' crisis is much worse than Japan's: its global ripple effects. Getting through today's recession will be neither quick nor easy. But there is absolutely no need for fatalism or talk of an upcoming "lost decade" in the United States. The first step is to recognize, as Obama has repeatedly stressed, that this crisis is not a once-in-a-century unforeseeable disaster. Bad policies created this mess. Better policies can fix it.

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