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Lessons from Japan

Japanese GDP contracted by an annualised 3.5% in the 3rd quarter of 2012. This annualised rate means that GDP fell by 0.9% in the quarter compared to the 2nd quarter. The Japanese economy had barely found its footing after the onset of the global economic crisis when it was hit by the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukishima. Government support for recovery has already ended.The natural disasters are specific to Japan. But each economy is a unique combination of global economic developments and Japan remains the world’s third largest economy. Therefore developments in Japan have a direct impact in the global economy and illuminate those general trends. For example the halt to Japanese production caused by the disaster led to disruption of output in British and other European factories. There may also be wider lessons to be learnt from the Japanese economy and how economic policy responded to the crisis.

At the turn of this century it was already commonplace to speak of a ‘lost decade’ for Japan as the economy had barely grown since the collapse of the combined property and stock market bubble in 1989. But since the beginning of 2000 to the 3rd quarter of 2012 the Japanese economy has grown by just 8.5% in over 12 years. This is an annual average real growth rate of 0.7%. It would have been mediocre growth for the Chinese economy in a single year over the same period. It effectively amounts to two lost decades.

A number of authors have drawn important parallels between Japan at the onset of its crisis and the current situation in many western economies, including the US and Britain. In The Holy Grail of MacroeconomicsRichard Koo analyses the Japanese crisis as a ‘balance-sheet recession’, where the debt liabilities of firms have become far greater than their assets. This means that profits are used to pay down debt, not to invest.
The firms themselves are kept afloat often by banks simply foregoing loans as they fall due. This leads to the creation of both ‘zombie’ firms and ‘zombie’ banks, without any ability to grow. This in turn places an enormous burden on government finances, as the state supports consumption by increasing borrowing and acquiring debt.

The main drag on growth over the entire period has been the decline in Japanese investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation), which has fallen from over 30% of GDP before the crisis to under 20% now (which is still more than countries such as Britain). If investment had just kept pace with the virtually stagnant level of GDP rather than declining GDP would now be over 11% higher.

Figure 1

12 11 22 Japan Fig 1

But this decline took some time to gather pace as the chart in Fig.1 above shows. At a comparable period in the current global crisis, 5 years in to the Japanese crisis of the 1990s investment had fallen by 5.5% from its peak level. By contrast US investment is 16.8% below its peak level. Investment in the Euro Area is 12.8% below its peak. In Britain it is 16% below its peak.

SEB has consistently argued that the state should increase its own level of investment as the necessary response to the crisis and use the growing resources of the private sector to fund that investment. Japan is important in this respect. Many commentators, such as Harvard Professor Robert Barro, have argued that Japan’s frequently announced government investment programmes prove the futility of that idea. However, the chart in Figure2 shows that as Japanese investment has been falling, the government share of that falling total has also been in decline.

Figure 2

12 11 22 Japan Fig 2

The solution of state investment to combat balance sheet recession and a private sector investment strike has not been tried and failed in Japan. It has not been tried at all. Falling government investment has led a generalised investment decline. This has led to economic stagnation and now renewed crisis.

Yet even now its proportion of GDP devoted to investment at 20% is considerably higher than in countries such as the US or Britain which are just 15%. It is unlikely that either economy will be able to grow more strongly than Japan over the medium-term, or to be able to withstand external shocks, unless this rate of investment is increased.

If two lost decades and zombie firms sounds outlandish in relation to Britain it is noteworthy that the latest Bank of England Inflation Report predicted a prolonged period of slow growth ahead, when the current slump is already longer than the Great Depression. The Bank has also led a discussion of an estimated 30% of British firms who are ‘zombies’ able to fund interest payments but not to investment, expand or hire. But with banks unwilling to lend the Bank was oddly silent on the growth of zombie banks in Britain. Like Japan, this is a decisive feature of the current crisis in Britain.

The starting-point for the British economy is not as favourable as that of Japan as it has a lower proportion of GDP devoted to investment. Without increasing the rate of investment there will be even more negative consequences for growth.

This article first appeared in Socialist Economic Bulletin.

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