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Stimulus or no – Japan’s “Lost Decade”

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On Wednesday, NPR aired a report on the difference between Japan’s “Lost Decade” and the American fiscal crisis now.

What struck me as most significant was that Japan waited YEARS before the government took action to resolve their problem. That waiting nearly destroyed the Japanese economy. Our not waiting years may pull the world’s largest economy out of the pits that Japan suffered…and save the combined world economy from depression.

According to The Economistd0709fn3

According to an IMF database, there have been 124 “systemic” banking crises since 1970—episodes in which bad debts soared across the economy and much of the banking sector was insolvent.

Most of those were in the developing world. But the list also includes half a dozen rich-country crashes, from Japan’s slump after its property bubble burst in the late 1980s, to the Nordic bank crises in the early 1990s. All involved deep recessions, required massive government intervention to clean up bust banks, and led to big increases in public debt as economies shrank while government spending soared. But the speed of recovery differed dramatically; Japan endured a decade of economic stagnation, whereas South Korea returned to growth within two years of its 1997 banking disaster.

Received wisdom holds that policy choices determined the pace of recovery. Sweden rebounded quickly because it acted fast: removing dud assets from banks’ balance-sheets, recapitalising weak banks and nationalising where necessary. Japan stalled for a decade because it took years to recognise the scale of its mess. In his first presidential news conference on February 9th, Barack Obama pointed to Japan as an example of what not to do. Its “lost decade”, he argued, was the consequence of “not act[ing] boldly or swiftly enough”.

cfn818This crisis, like most others in rich countries, emerged from a property bubble and a credit boom. The scale of the bubble—a doubling of house prices in five years—was about as big in America’s ten largest cities as it was in Japan’s metropolises. But nationwide, house prices rose further in America and Britain than they did in Japan (see first chart). So did commercial-property prices. In absolute terms, the credit boom on top of the housing bubble was unparalleled. In America private-sector debt soared from $22 trillion in 2000 (or the equivalent of 222% of GDP) to $41 trillion (294% of GDP) in 2007 (see second chart).

If the U.S. economy is to be saved from the hugely erroneous mistakes – and often greed – of mortgage companies, mortgage brokers, Wall Street, and government, then the Federal government must inject massive stimulus into not only the banking system but the overall economy–and do it quickly.

As the Japanese learned in the ’90s, waiting only makes the crisis worse.

Japan’s central bank took too long to fight deflation; its fiscal stimulus was cut off too quickly with an ill-judged tax increase in 1997; and it did not begin to clean up and recapitalise its banks until 1998, almost a decade after the bubble had burst.


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