Lessons from a "lost decade"

Updated: Aug 28 2008, 08:06am hrs
As falling house prices and tightening credit squeeze Americas economy, some worry that the country may suffer a decade of stagnation, as Japan did after its bubble burst in the early 1990s. Japans property bubble was also fuelled by cheap money and financial liberalisation andjust as in Americamost people assumed that property prices could not fall nationally. When they did, borrowers defaulted and banks cut their lending. The result was a decade with average growth of less than 1%.

Most dismiss the idea that America could suffer the same fate as Japan, but some of the differences are overstated. For example, some claim that Japans bubble was much bigger than Americas. Yet average house prices nationwide rose by 90% in America between 2000 and 2006, compared with a gain of 51% in Japan between 1985 and early 1991, when Japanese home prices peaked (see left-hand chart). Prices in Japans biggest cities rose faster, but nationwide figures matter more when gauging the impact on the economy. Japanese home prices have since fallen by just over 40%. American prices are already down by 20%, and many economists reckon they could fall by another 10% or more.

What about commercial property Average prices rose by less in Japan (80%) than in America (90%) over those same periods. Thus Japans property boom was smaller than Americas. Japan also had a stockmarket bubble, which burst a year earlier than that in property. This hurt banks, because they counted part of their equity holdings in other firms as capital. But its impact on households was modest, because only 30% of the population held shares, compared with over half of Americans.

Nor were Japanese policymakers any slower than American ones to cut interest rates and loosen fiscal policy after the bubble burst, contrary to popular misconceptions. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) began to lower interest rates in July 1991, soon after property prices began to decline. The discount rate was cut from 6% to 1.75% by the end of 1993. Two years after American house prices started to slide, the Fed funds rate has fallen from 5.25% to 2% (see right-hand chart). A study by Americas Federal Reserve concluded that Japanese interest rates fell more sharply in the early 1990s than required by the Taylor rule, which establishes the appropriate rate using the amount of spare capacity and inflation.

Japan also gave its economy a big fiscal boost. The cyclically adjusted budget deficit (which excludes the automatic impact of slower growth on tax revenues) increased by an annual average of 1.8% of GDP in 1992 and 1993similar to Americas budget boost this year. Japans monetary and fiscal stimulus did help to lift the economy. After a recession in 1993-94, GDP was growing at an annual rate of around 2.5% by 1995. But deflation also emerged that year, pushing up real interest rates and increasing the real burden of debt. It was from here on that Japan made its biggest policy mistakes. In 1997 the government raised its consumption tax to try to slim its budget deficit. And with interest rates close to zero, the BoJ insisted that there was nothing more it could do. Only much later did it start to print lots of money.

Americas inflation rate of above 5% is an advantage. Not only are real interest rates negative, but inflation is also helping to bring the housing market back to fair value with a smaller fall in prices than otherwise. But in another way America is more exposed than Japan was. When its bubble burst in 1991, Japans households saved 15% of their income. By 2001 saving had fallen to 5%, which helped to prop up consumer spending. Americas saving rate of close to zero leaves no such cushion.

The perils of procrastination

John Makin, at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, argues that monetary and fiscal relief were necessary but not sufficient to revive Japans economy. The missing ingredient was a clean-up of the banking system, on which Japanese firms were more dependent than their American counterparts. Japanese banks hid their bad loans beneath opaque corporate structures, and curtailed new lending to profitable businesses. A vicious circle developed, whereby banks bad loans depressed growth which then created more bad loans.

In another new report Richard Jerram, at Macquarie Securities, concludes that America will not come close to repeating the experience of Japan, because its regulatory system, financial markets and political structure will not let it procrastinate for so long. America has a more transparent regulatory structure which presses banks into recognising losses and repairing their balance-sheetseven if regulators were slow to recognise that the banks were shifting risky securitised assets off their balance-sheets in the first place. But Japans regulators for a long while were in cahoots with banks over hiding their bad loans.

Over the past year, American banks have been quicker than those in Japan in the 1990s to disclose and write off losses and raise new capital. In Japan it took a long while before the political will was there to use taxpayers money to plug the banking system. A big test for Americas Treasury will be how quickly it recognises the need to nationalise Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the teetering mortgage giants.

One advantage over Japan, says Mr Jerram, is that America is spreading the costs of its housing bust across other countries. Foreigners hold a large slice of American mortgage-backed securities. Sovereign-wealth funds have provided new capital for American banks. And Americas booming exports have helped to support its economy, thanks to the cheap dollar. In contrast, the yens sharp appreciation after Japans bubble burst hurt exports at the same time as domestic demand was being squeezed.

By learning from Japans mistakes, America can avoid a dismal decade. However, it would be arrogant for those in Washington, DC, to assume that Japans troubles simply reflected its macroeconomic incompetence. Experience in other countries shows that serious asset-price busts often lead to economic downturns lasting several years. Only a wild optimist would believe that the worst is over in America.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008