Thursday, February 05, 2009

Could The USA Fall Into The Japan 18 Year Stagflation Trap?

There are now increasing opinions that the US may go the way of Japan - in having a prolonged stagflation. To refresh our memory, Japan's real estate and stock market bubble collapsed quite spectacularly sometime around 1990. The first couple of years saw a lot of wealth being erased from the real estate and stock portfolio. The following 16 odd years, even till today, basically saw Japan registering a period of stagflation or what some may refer to as the L-shaped recovery - i.e. you don't really recover. Japan made many policy mistakes (that the US should and could avoid):
a) it cut policy rates two years after the bust of its asset bubble while the US eased monetary policy aggressively after August 2007
b) it went into quantitative easing reversed ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) too slowly
c) it waited two years after the bursting of its bubbles to do a fiscal stimulus (and reversed it too early with a consumption tax) while the US did one – albeit a failed one – last year and is doing another large one now
d) it created a convoy system of zombie banks and corporate that were restructured too late while the US may become more aggressive in cleaning up the financial system
e) it had structural rigidities – like lifetime employment – that slowed down the adjustment while the US has a more flexible labor markets

If we were to look at the missteps by Japan, we might easily conclude that the US reacted much faster, swifter and the structural and employment adjustments were rapid as well. However, we must also acknowledge that Japan's bubble was in stocks and real estate - as bad as that sound, there were very little leverage or derivatives enlarging the bubble. The current credit implosion is largely driven by a leveraged credit, based on insufficient capital, propeled by new fangled derivatives. Thus in that light, the situation faced by the US was a lot worse than Japan.

Japan was in much better macro and financial shape than the US before and during its stagnation: high household and national savings and low leverage of the household sector, net foreign asset position that allowed it to finance its large fiscal deficit during the stagnation via domestic savings. The US instead has had near zero household savings and massive leverage for years, large current account deficits and is the largest net foreign debtor in the world. Thus any further fiscal stimulus by the US basically is further deficits on an already damaging deficit problem. The problems are in the US are magnified by the high debt levels on the personal level as well, and would eat immediately into consumption patterns. Whereas in Japan they still had truckloads of savings.

Fiscal policy has its limits when you are already the biggest net debtor and net borrower in the world and where you need to borrow this year $2 trillion net ($2.5 trillion gross) to finance your fiscal deficit ... and your currency is still backed by nothing. The US is taking an approach to bank recap and clean-up that looks more like Japan than the successful Swedish outright takeover/nationalization process. While the bad bank idea might work, it will require the US taxpayers to pony up another $2-$3 trillion to fund that bad bank. How many trillions of USD can you print before China and Russia turn around and say "wtf...".

The US and global economy are truly risking a near-depression if the policy reaction is not bold, aggressive, sustainable and credible. For almost every action that the Treasury or the government has proposed, there will be tons of criticisms, and that's beauty and beastly side of a true democracy. This credit crisis is not quite like any we have seen before as it involved an enormous amount of leverage, hence we have no textbook solutions to guide us. Hence, we can be assured that every single policy action, be it the TARP, the reworked and reworked stimulus plan, the bailouts, and now the bad bank idea ... will have a lot of detractors... and probably not many cheering the measures even if they agree (as no one is really sure they will work well).

We also have to remember that there are mainly two main schools of economic thought - though you could probably have tens of shools of economic thought on this - either you are a Keynesian or you are Gasparino (libertarian market purist). The latter being that mainly you think the markets should be allowed to correct itself, and bad companies should be allowed to fail, and shareholders should not be saved... or something to that effect. There are still many more who have opinions along those lines of thought which differ here and there, so you can understand why everyone is an asshole and an expert at the same time.

Back to the Japan trap, its government spending soared (after a couple of years following the correction) as a massive public works program covered the country with cement. Yet Japan also prevented the bust from performing its role of creative destruction. Businesses were reluctant to shed workers and renege on their lifetime employment guarantees. Japanese authorities encouraged banks to supply new credit to weak companies. This served to worsen the bad-debt problems within the banking system, which came to a head in the 1997 financial crisis. Academic research suggests that the increasing dominance of certain industries by so-called "zombie" firms tended to depress job creation and lower productivity. Product prices in zombie industries were low because of excess competition. Low prices and high wages reduced profits and discouraged new investment.

I was working for Nomura, the biggest Japanese securities firm then from 1988-1991, and I can say that Japan did one thing right: government spending increase. They did many things wrong which was what dragged the recession into a stagflation period for over ten years: they did not force bad banks to fail; the worst was allowing banks to not act on bad debts thus keeping technically insolvent businesses alive for years; the life-time employment culture caused many companies not to restructure; not allowing the banks to seek foreign investment to replenish their capital; not allowing foreign ownership of banks and most other companies which would have restructured many of them and given them much needed capital.

Hence to use the Japan experience to somehow link it to the futility of what the US government agencies are doing is flawed, very flawed. The bubble was deflated in stocks and property, stocks crashed because its a relatively open market with foreign participation, property died slowly as there were too many regulations preventing foreign ownership. I basically think that the US moved fast and aggressively, and industries are being restructured quickly, ... I don't like the bad bank idea but it will work best if you don't take the nationalisation route. The US will throw everything at the problems at hand. Its not much point to harp on how much money they will be flooding the system to do that. Yes, the USD is doomed for a long long depreciation. Its the lesser of two evils, throw more money at the problems... as not doing anything will be anarchy.

So, I do think that while the problems are huge, the US will be able to recover much faster and will not fall into the stagflation trap of Japan.

p/s photos: Megan Lai


see said...

The Japanese let zombie companies continue to exist hence kept bad debts in their books, cos, according to an ex finance official, its their way of doing things ie in their culture. Let foreigners in? That would be sacrilege, they won't allow immigration let alone being taken over by foreigners. I wonder what the reaction will be if Arabs take controlling stake in a big USA institution. That would be a real test for Obama.

David said...

US got into this mess by spending too much, borrowing too much and inflating too much. So whats their proposal to end this? Lets spend even more, borrow more money and print more money..I really can't see how you are solving this if you are doing the exactly the same thing as before.

solomon said...

Two important key words here are the nationalization of bad banks(in other word, bad assets) and the Authorities reaction.

Putting the US and the current old financial system as an oldman, when he had a fall on the street, you cann't expect him to have a sudden stand up. The healing process takes time, unless you can agree with some that US financial system is like Michael Phelps in the pool.

To a certain extent, they must be some distinction between dollar and yen economies, especially the spending and savings habits of the two nations' consumers. Easterners tends to save more than Westerners in general.

No matter what shape(L,V,U) the world will pull out eventually, there must be joint effort from the private and public sectors worldwide. Now, you needs two man to walk together if both have one injured leg. If not, expect the M shape recovery.

Jeremiah said...

Why would the bad bank idea work best if you do not nationalise?

The problem with the state of semi-public, semi-private banks is an agency problem according to Nasim Taleb. Bank CEOs will act for their short-term well-being and not for the interests of the company or the taxpayer for that matter.

Another problem which the TARP saga has shown is that when the gov buys bad assets from the banks, a liquid market is created, forcing the banks to mark-to-market and book real losses.

If they nationalise the entire system, forcing the bad banks to be taken over by the good banks and doing a debt-for-equity swap with the shareholders, then there is some form of market incentives for future banks (when they are privatised) to be managed prudently.

rask3 said...


Unchecked greed. That is all it boils down to. The robber baron days have returned to Wall Street, albeit disguised as derivative trading.

Of course Wall Streeters would not say it is derivatives such as CDS's and overleveraging that brought them down much more than mortgage defaults, for that would be politically unaccepable.

So they sing about mortgage defaults only as that would partly ascribe blame to the general public. How clever.