After a lot of partisan “happy talk” about how the Obama administration is handling the economic crisis here, Paul Krugman goes on record saying the world is doomed to suffer Japan’s lost economic decade on a global scale.
The thing about Japan, as with all of these cases, is how much people claim to know what happened, without having any evidence. What we do know is that recessions normally end everywhere because the monetary authority cuts interest rates a lot, and that gets things moving. And what we know in Japan was that eventually they cut their interest rates to zero and that wasn’t enough. And, so far, although we made the cuts faster than they did and cut them all the way to zero, it isn’t enough. We’ve hit that lower bound the same as they did. Now, everything after that is more or less speculation.
For example, were the problems with the Japanese banks the core problem? There are some stories about credit rationing, but they are not overwhelming. Certainly, when we look at the Japanese recovery, there was not a great surge of business investment. There was primarily a surge of exports. But was fixing the banks central to export growth?
In their case, the problems had a lot to do with demography. That made them a natural capital exporter, from older savers, and also made it harder for them to have enough demand. They also had one hell of a bubble in the 1980s and the wreckage left behind by that bubble – in their case a highly leveraged corporate sector – was and is a drag on the economy.
The size of the shock to our systems is going to be much bigger than what happened to Japan in the 1990s. They never had a freefall in their economy – a period when GDP declined by 3%, 4%. It is by no means clear that the underlying differences in the structure of the situation are significant. What we do know is that the zero bound is real. We know that there are situations in which ordinary monetary policy loses all traction. And we know that we’re in one now.
Shorter Krugman, “we’re in new territory in terms of the size of the problem, but it is all eerily similar to what happened to Japan”. Unfortunately our reaction has been eerily similar to what Japan did as well.
Krugman’s bottom line:
WH: So, one way to think about it is that self-reinforcing financial crises rooted in overstretched, overborrowed companies and governments in less developed countries – like those in Argentina and Indonesia, which were amazingly destructive in the 1990s and 2000s, but localised – are now playing out in the developed world?
PK: There are really two stories. One is the Japan-type story where you run out of room to cut interest rates. And the other is the Indonesia- and Argentina-type story where everything falls apart because of balance-sheet problems.
WH: So in a nutshell your story is …
PK: The “Nipponisation” of the world economy with a bunch of “Argentinafications” playing a role in the acute crisis. But even after those are over, we have the Nipponisation of the world economy. And that’s really something.
And of course, implicit in the “Nipponisation” of the world economy is the “Nipponisation” of the US economy – something we’ve been talking about for some time. Now, add “cap and trade” and “health care reform” into the mix.
What will we be wishing we were suffering when that all kicks in, should it pass? Nipponisation, of course. As bad as lost decade or two might be, it would be heaven compared to the economic carnage those big tax and spend programs will inflict on a very weak economy here in the US. And that, of course, will ensure the “Nipponisation” of the world economy.
And China is making no bones about it:
China will not make a binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions, putting in jeopardy the prospects for a global pact on climate change.
Officials from Beijing told a UN conference in Bonn yesterday that China would increase its emissions to develop its economy rather than sign up to mandatory cuts.
Not only no cuts, but an increase in its emissions.
And Japan – where the Kyoto accord was signed – isn’t very enthused about cuts either:
Hopes that Copenhagen might deliver tougher carbon reduction targets were dashed further when Japan failed to make a significant commitment to reduce emissions.
Instead of the hoped for 15% cut, Japan said it would try for 2%.
The Bush Administration had insisted that it would not agree to mandatory cuts as long as developing nations increased emissions. The Obama Administration has taken a softer line, accepting that China and India could not be expected to make equal commitments to developed economies. However, Mr Stern recently said: “They do need to take significant national actions that they commit to internationally, that they quantify and that are ambitious.”
Well we now know how that “soft line” works, don’t we? China bows up and not only refuses to play but says it is going to increase its admission. And Japan felt confident enough to lower its target from 15 to 2. Not that I blame them or don’t think we should blow this whole thing off too.
But that’s the probem – the US will probably continue to pursue cap and trade because that’s been the left’s wet dream here for years. You see we use too much energy and we need to be punished – punished I tell you! And we’ll commit ourselves to the equivalent of bailing the ocean with a teaspoon while our economy strangles.
Ironic – in the real world “little green shoots” would thrive in increased CO2.
It certainly seems like it. Reason magazine finds the current way the US is addressing the economic crises to be pretty familiar:
The scenario was eerily familiar. A long real estate bubble that had expanded extra rapidly for the previous five years suddenly burst, and asset prices came crashing back down to earth. Banks and financial institutions were left holding piles of worthless paper, and the economy soon headed south. The national government responded to the crisis by encouraging more lending and spending previously unfathomable amounts of money on public works projects in an effort to stimulate consumer spending and restart growth.
Of course that’s where we are now and what that led too in Japan has come to be known as the “lost decade” (now three decades old).
One of the things we’ve pointed out is there is an element within this model that both Japan and now the US has used that is focused on “pain avoidance” (GM and Chrysler are prefect examples of that). Part of that is driven by the belief by those in power that the government can address problems within markets and lessen the impact. The second part of that, of course, is by convincing the public that’s the case, they then have to try to do what they claim they can do. But the law of unintended consequences has a bad habit of pushing its way into such situations and turning them sour:
The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.
A friend, talking about the recession and eventual recovery, said that we’ll come out of it “okay” because “Americans are neurotically productive”. True. But so are the Japanese. While we have a fantastic workforce which is among the most productive in the world, even they won’t be able to overcome restricted economic growth caused by the government’s deep intrusion into various markets.
Comparing Japan’s reaction to the US reaction in similar circumstances is instructive:
When a recession began to set in after the 1990 stock market crash, Japan responded by reversing its tight money policy, cutting rates to 4.5 percent in 1991, 3.25 percent in 1992, 1.75 percent from 1993 to 1994, 0.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and as low as 0.1 percent in September 2001.
A similar pattern took place in the United States. From 2000 to 2002, the Federal Reserve slashed the target discount rate from 6 percent to 0.75 percent. Fearing irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, the Fed then raised the rate as high as 6.25 percent in June 2006. But now that the bubble has burst and the economy contracted, the Fed has cut the discount rate 12 times, lowering it to the current 0.5 percent. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly stated that he sees interest rate cuts as a way to “support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.”
In both the Japanese and the American cases, post-bubble policy makers believed that lowering interest rates would make credit easier to obtain, thus recreating the environment that had spurred economic growth to begin with. But this meant that the supposed cure for a bubble created by easy credit was to extend even more easy credit.
These rate cuts only perpetuated the distortion of economic decisions and prevented savings, investment, and consumption from realigning with true preferences, as opposed to the illusory ones created by easy credit and artificially low interest rates. The lesson is that when monetary policy is used to “smooth” or “tweak” the market, it inevitably causes unintended consequences that in some cases can be very damaging to long-term economic growth.
Of course it is hard to say what future growth might be had the US government not done what it has done. But again, using Japan of that era vs. the US of that era, the difference is between 1.3% growth on average vs. 3.5% growth here. In economic terms that is a huge difference.
Reason also does a nice job of dismantling the “failure of regulation” argument. As they point out, what must be examined is how the regulatory environment then in place spawned the crisis vs. the claim that not enough regulation was in place.
For instance, government housing policy of the era:
The push to expand homeownership had two big effects. First, it greatly increased the number of buyers, driving up housing prices. Second, it provided mortgages to a large number of people who had a high risk of default.
That policy was further enabled by the capital reserve requirements which, in effect, encouraged heavy lending and an insensitivity to risk. Instead of admitting that and understanding that such policies are dangerous, the reaction has mostly been to ignore that and shift the blame to the private sector with calls for “more regulation”.
And then, going back to the “pain avoidance” point (justified as “too big to fail” by the government), what has happened is, as in the case of GM and Chrysler before the bankruptcies, government propping up failed businesses:
The Bank of Japan tried to ease economic pain by loaning large amounts to businesses. But the attempts to recapitalize the market ignored underlying management problems in the dying firms. It was a costly mistake. Intense lobbying from special-interest groups representing various sectors of the Japanese economy perpetuated the ill-fated loans and funneled government money to zombie businesses.
The United States has already begun to copy this policy, lending billions of dollars to financial institutions and auto companies and buying up billions more in bank equity in an effort to recapitalize the marketplace. The effect has been to keep poorly managed firms alive with taxpayer money.
Had they been allowed to fail and go through the reorganization process, those problems would have at least been addressed. They haven’t, at this point, in most of the financial sector and in the auto sector, it remains to be seen.
Of course the government’s deep involvement in these sectors and businesses sets up a natural conflict of interests. While a business is market oriented, and takes signals from consumers, governments are agenda driven and politically oriented. And it then comes down to a matter of incentives. In the first case the incentive of a business is to serve its consumer base. But that’s not the case with politicians necessarily, is it?
Lawmakers’ incentives are to serve their constituencies or their own political careers. This can put them at odds with the businesses they are suddenly attempting to manage. The more the government is involved in directing business activity, the less likely those firms will succeed in maintaining long-term growth, and the more likely they will turn into Japanese-style zombies.
While we’d like to believe that lawmaker’s constituencies consist of the people in their state or district, in reality they consist of special interests who help keep them in office. The ability to deliver to those special interests and keep their support and dollars flowing is just to much to resist for most.
Studies from Okimoto’s center and the Bank of Japan concluded that data revealing the scope of the economic malaise were suppressed and that regulations were developed with governmental interests in mind.
Given how the discussion has been driven here by the likes of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, there’s little doubt that regulations will be “developed with governmental interests in mind”.
In reality it all comes down to power, or the illusion of power, and politics. Short-term politics with no real eye on the future impact of actions taken today. And these actions are based in a false premise that the market is not self-correcting and that it must be both controlled and tweaked by government.
Japan bought into that premise, and so has the US:
The principle of creative destruction—the economic mutation that continuously breaks down old forms and creates newer, more productive and efficient ones—was ignored in the hope that legacy corporations could somehow save Japan. From Wall Street to Detroit, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the American government has been equally unwilling to let once-formidable companies fail.
And that, in my opinion, will see us repeat the Japanese experience, despite the small glimmers of hope we’ve been seeing in the reports in recent days. This isn’t about short term increases in home sales and construction spending. This is about the long term economic health of our economy.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not seeing moves by the government that work toward the most positive outcome in that regard.
That’s the subject Paul Krugman addresses in his NYT Op/Ed piece today. In fact, he implies that even talking up the possibility of inflation comes solely from bad political motives, mostly from people who don’t grasp The Fierce Moral Urgency of Change™.
Why shouldn’t we worry about inflation, according to Prof. Krugman?
Now, it’s true that the Fed has taken unprecedented actions lately. More specifically, it has been buying lots of debt both from the government and from the private sector, and paying for these purchases by crediting banks with extra reserves. And in ordinary times, this would be highly inflationary: banks, flush with reserves, would increase loans, which would drive up demand, which would push up prices.
But these aren’t ordinary times. Banks aren’t lending out their extra reserves. They’re just sitting on them — in effect, they’re sending the money right back to the Fed. So the Fed isn’t really printing money after all.
But, let’s grant that the current monetary moves aren’t immediately inflationary. What happens when the economy recovers and the banks do begin to spnd those extra reserves? Krugman attempts some sleight of hand, in an effort to make it appear that he addresses that concern.
Still, don’t such actions have to be inflationary sooner or later? No. The Bank of Japan, faced with economic difficulties not too different from those we face today, purchased debt on a huge scale between 1997 and 2003. What happened to consumer prices? They fell.
Yes, they did. But since Japan hasn’t had a real economic recovery even today, and is entering its third “Lost Decade”, that really isn’t a compelling argument. Since 1999, Japan’s rate of GDP growth has averaged 1.31%, which is less than half of the average GDP growth rate of 3% a mature economy should experience. Indeed, over the last decade, Japan has experienced exactly 5 quarters where GDP growth was at 3% or more. In that same period, there have been 9 quarters when GDP contracted. The highest annual rate of growth was in 2000, when the annual GDP growth was 2.85%.
So, let’s not pretend we know how the inflationary pressures fall out in Japan once a recovery hits…until there actually is a recovery.
ON the other hand, since our policymakers seem hell-bent on following the same path the Japanese did in the 1990s, the return of inflation when the economy recovers might turn out to be worry we can avoid until sometime in the relatively distant future.