Japan’s bankers celebrated the end of the 1980s with raucous parties and an all-time high of 38,957 on the Nikkei stock index. It had been a magnificent decade and they all looked forward to another one.
The economy had grown by an average of 4 per cent a year and seemed well set to continue on a similar path. By 1995, forecast Nomura Securities, the Nikkei index would hit 63,700. It was a thrilling, golden era. Foreign officials, financiers and journalists rushed to Tokyo. Everyone wanted to learn the lessons of Japan.
They still do. Thirty years on, Japan’s economy has not lost its fascination. But rather than the secrets to miraculous economic growth, today’s students of Japan want to know how to respond when the good times stop.
“What had been regarded as Japanese problems are now faced more or less by Europeans,” says Hiroshi Nakaso, the former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan. “I’m not saying I’m convinced Europe will follow Japan’s path but Japan’s experience certainly offers hints.”
Economically, those lessons include the vital importance of maintaining public confidence in central bank policy, and the need for a strategy to generate economic growth. More broadly, Japan’s decades of experience offer a template for how a society can live with low interest rates. Large parts of the developed world are likely emerge from the coronavirus crisis with economies in that same position.
That prospect is unsettling to some because of the stagnation that Japan has seen over the last the three decades. Since 1990, Japan has recorded average real growth of 0.8 per cent and inflation of 0.4 per cent. The Nikkei index never again came close to that December 1989 peak. Today it stands at 25,907. In dollars, per capita incomes in Japan are a third lower than in the US.
FT Series: Lessons from Japan
As the world’s developed economies struggle to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, they face ultra-low interest rates and low growth. What lessons can be learnt from Japan, which has been battling these trends for several decades?
November 23: As Japan’s economy boomed in the 1980s, everyone wanted to know its secret. Today’s students also want to learn from Japan: how do you respond when the good times stop?
November 24: Adam Posen: ‘When Japanese policy turned round, so did the economy’
November 25: Can a Japan-style public investment boom save the global economy?
November 26: What Mrs Watanabe can tell investors about how to cope with low returns
November 27: Living with low growth — how western kids can learn from Japanese youth
While the rest of the world enjoyed booming growth in the 1990s and 2000s, Japan’s problems seemed unique, and foreign economists lined up to propose radical solutions. But then their own economies began to show an eerie similarity. In the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, interest rates fell to zero in Europe and the US, and during the recovery inflation did not bounce back.
No longer an odd economic twilight zone, Japan is now the best case study of what happens in an environment of persistent low inflation and interest rates — a situation much of the developed world may face in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To extract any lessons, however, it is important to understand what actually happened in Japan over the past 30 years. Although the outcomes of low growth, low inflation and low interest rates look similar throughout the period, the economic forces at work changed a lot. There was no single process of “Japanification”.
Instead, there were three distinct but mutually reinforcing chapters: financial crisis in the 1990s; persistent, mild deflation in the 2000s; and then, in the 2010s, an attempt to fight back against Japan’s ageing demographics. With three chapters in Japan’s post bubble era, the lessons for the rest of the world are inevitably nuanced.
The 1990s — a banking crisis
In the early years of the 1990s it slowly dawned on people that the heady peak in stock and land markets had been a bubble — one backed by trillions of yen in bank loans, which speculators and property developers had no way to pay back. Rather than foreclose on bad loans, however, corporate Japan and its bankers pretended the assets were still solid and the debts were still good.
Minoru Masubuchi took over the Bank of Japan’s financial system department in 1994. “I think we knew quite early that it was an extremely severe problem — that was the understanding I had when I took the post,” he says. “However, for the world at large — especially in politics and the media — there wasn’t such a realisation.”
The technocrats wanted to recapitalise the banks with public money, but they could not persuade the politicians. The banking crisis ground on until the “Dark November” of 1997. “[Hokkaido] Takushoku Bank and Yamaichi Securities went under and there was an atmosphere of confusion,” says Mr Masubuchi. “The worst time was that period from November until the end of 1997.”
Initial attempts to fix the banks made matters worse. At the start of 1997, the finance ministry said it would step in if capital ratios fell below a certain level, but that prompted banks to slash their lending in an effort to survive. “Many small and medium-sized firms failed,” says Hiroshi Yoshikawa, a member of the government’s economic council from 2001-06. “1997-98 was truly one of the worst years for postwar Japanese society.”
A widespread credit crunch hammered the economy. Scarred by the bubble, the BoJ was slow to cut interest rates, and repeated rounds of fiscal stimulus had little effect. Inflation declined steadily and by 1999 it was below zero. But the underlying cause was not peculiar to Japan or even historically unusual — it was an unresolved banking crisis.
Watching from the other side of the Pacific, US policymakers learnt this lesson thoroughly. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008-09, they were quick to slash interest rates and force public capital on banks through the troubled asset relief programme. “The bad loan problem and financial trouble was ended by 2003,” says Mr Yoshikawa. “If we had any trouble after 2003 we must have a different explanation.”
After a great struggle, Japan had resolved the banking crisis and everyone thought things would now go back to normal. “Personally, I thought we’d go back to a regular business cycle. I didn’t expect this stagnation scenario to continue for a long time,” says Mr Masubuchi.
The 2000s — stagnation
The weakness of the economy was obvious and the Bank of Japan needed to do something. The question was what. All the textbooks assumed positive interest rates. “There were no papers we could consult. I guess what we had was very basic financial theory,” says Nobuo Inaba, who was the BoJ’s section chief for monetary policy in the mid-1990s and went on to become one of its executive directors.
The resulting period of experimentation wrote the manual for central banks around the world. First, the BoJ cut interest rates to zero. (At the time it did not think negative rates were possible, says Mr Masubuchi.)
Meanwhile, a former businessman on the BoJ’s policy board called Nobuyuki Nakahara began to promote the ideas of Bennett McCallum, an American economist. Mr McCallum proposed a rule for how the central bank should increase the money supply when the economy fell short of full employment. The BoJ could not cut interest rates any further, but it could increase the quantity of bank reserves. Mr Nakahara called this “quantitative easing”.
Quantitative easing brought down long-term interest rates and had a calming effect on financial markets, but it did not transform inflation or growth, which recovered slowly through the 2000s. The central problem, it slowly became clear, was that the public no longer expected prices or wages to go up, and no matter what the central bank did, their expectations were self-fulfilling.
“In terms of monetary policy, our experience tells us that anchoring inflation expectations is important. In Japan, under the prolonged period of deflation, inflation expectations came to be anchored around zero,” says Mr Nakaso.
One of the primary lessons of Japan’s experience is the need for aggressive action to pre-empt any fall in inflation expectations — and the limited power of monetary policy if that is not achieved.
But the lesson about expectations has hit home in central banks across developed economies. Jay Powell, Federal Reserve chairman, has pledged to raise inflation to moderately exceed its 2 per cent target “for some time”, expressing “determination” to succeed in ensuring inflation expectations do not fall to zero in the wake of the pandemic.
The European Central Bank and Bank of England have both this autumn revised their guidance to commit to keeping monetary policy as loose or looser than it is now until inflation rises back to target and shows no signs of falling again.
The 2010s — fighting demographics
As the period of low inflation dragged on, however, and other advanced countries adopted zero interest rates after 2008, economists began to consider deeper causes. Towards the end of the decade, then BoJ governor began to argue that the root cause of Japan’s low inflation was weak economic growth, and that was linked to the country’s demographics.
“Nowadays everybody says the Japanese economy has poor future prospects because of population decline. But that kind of view is actually quite new,” says Mr Yoshikawa. During the 2000s, when companies were cutting jobs, he says, the debate was about Japan’s surplus of workers, not a shortage.
Japan’s fertility rate has been low since the 1970s and the working age population peaked in the 1990s. With ageing workers wanting to save, and little motivation for businesses to invest in a declining economy, the logical result is a low natural interest rate. The US economist Lawrence Summers crystallised this line of thinking in 2014 when he revived the concept of “secular stagnation”.
If demographics are the root of Japan’s problems, then there is a mixed message for the rest of the world. Fertility rates are higher in Europe and the US and they both have meaningful immigration. Although their populations are ageing, that suggests they have a better chance of escaping persistent zero inflation and interest rates. But other east Asian economies such as China, South Korea and Taiwan are closely following Japan’s demographic track.
Many economists think the theory of demographic destiny is oversold, however, and either does not explain the trend towards zero inflation and interest rates or is framed incorrectly.
Mr Yoshikawa is not a fan of the demographic thesis. “A declining population is of course a negative factor for growth. But at least historically, the importance of innovation dominates it by far,” he says.
For Charles Goodhart, former BoE chief economist, an ageing population holds the promise of escape from the Japanese trap, since the elderly spend more than they earn in the labour market, diminishing the excess savings that brought the world zero interest rates and problematic low inflation.
If this theory is correct, however, it is yet to manifest itself in Japan. Rather than wait for an improvement, the 2010s in Japan brought the most determined effort yet to shake the nation out of its stagnation: the stimulus known as Abenomics.
The performance of the economy under former PM Shinzo Abe improved significantly and public debt stabilised for the first time in years, but the fundamentals of interest rates and inflation were ultimately little changed. Inflation remained low and interest rates were still pinned to the floor, providing little scope to act as a cushion when downturns such as the Covid-19 crisis hit.
Thirty years on from the bursting of the bubble, a common reaction to Japan’s predicament is to ask whether there is really a problem at all. The country is stable and prosperous. Per capita growth in output has not been too bad. For many, especially the elderly, low inflation is a good thing, and a large public debt is less daunting when it carries an interest rate of zero.
Such optimism, however, belies difficult problems of economic management. For much of the past three decades, Japan’s economy has operated below full capacity, ruining the life chances of millions of people who graduated into a weak labour market. The country’s only option when a crisis such as Covid-19 strikes is to run up ever more public debt.
What are the lessons from Japan’s experience? One is that the route to zero interest rates and zero inflation does not matter. The crucial requirement is to find a way to stop a temporary plunge to zero interest rates from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, the US and UK have avoided falling into the trap of zero inflation expectations, but the ECB is perilously close.
The demographics of Europe and the US are different to Japan, but all advanced countries have ageing populations — which may bring caution in spending — while technological progress is a global and not a national phenomenon.
Most important is the need to look past the specifics of Japan’s experience and recognise that whatever the difficulties, countries must not give up on the quest for growth, and do whatever is necessary to raise it to levels that keep employment high, wages rising and inflation from sinking to zero.
“There were two things that we recognised over time. One is how important financial stability is and the second is the importance of a growth strategy,” says Mr Nakaso. “Policies to address both the demand and the supply side of the economy are important. Raising Japan’s potential growth rate remains essential.”
Covid paralyses Asia as western economies prepare for blast-off
Throughout 2020, Asia’s success in controlling Covid-19 made it the champion of the world economy. While Europe and the US were mired in deep recessions, much of Asia escaped with a shallower downturn or even kept growing.
But as western economies gear up for a vaccine-induced rebound which is set to take their output back to its pre-pandemic scale by the end of this year, parts of Asia are still paralysed by coronavirus. As a result, although the region’s output is already above its pre-pandemic level, slower growth is expected in the coming months.
As it launched its new regional outlook last week, the Asian Development Bank said that the region’s economies were diverging and that more Covid-19 waves were a big risk.
“New outbreaks continue, in part due to new variants, and many Asian economies face challenges in procuring and administering vaccines,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the ADB’s chief economist.
The ADB projected growth of 5.6 per cent across developing Asian economies in 2021, led by growth of 8.1 per cent in China and 11 per cent in India. But the continued threat of coronavirus means risks to that outlook are skewed to the downside.
“Six months ago, or eight months ago, I would have said Asia is going to be ahead of the game because Asia can control Covid,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Apac economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.
But the picture has changed, with India suffering a severe wave of the virus, and cases still high in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Thailand is unable to reopen its crucial tourist industry.
More subtly, countries such as Japan are only controlling the virus with restrictions that keep parts of the economy in hibernation. “Some countries need vaccines to control Covid,” said Cochrane. “Others need it so they can open up to international travel and tourism.”
The promise of more than 6 per cent growth in the US this year, as a result of President Joe Biden’s fiscal stimulus, would normally have Asian exporters licking their lips.
The outlook, however, is more subdued than record US growth would usually imply: Americans already bought plenty of goods during the pandemic, while higher US interest rates would mean tighter financial conditions in Asia.
“Adding stimulus at this stage, from the goods perspective, is a real test of whether wants are insatiable,” said Freya Beamish, chief Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. As the economy opens up, US consumers will probably pay for the services they were denied during lockdown — such as meals out and haircuts — rather than replacing their television again.
There will still be some spillover from the US stimulus, said Beamish, noting that service providers needed equipment, too. “We suspect that people will find new goods to buy and that Asia will benefit from that.” But she added: “We suspect that China will benefit proportionately less from the services recovery than from the manufacturing recovery.”
Whether the extra US demand for goods turns out to be large or small, it is clearly positive. By contrast, higher US interest rates and a stronger dollar would threaten many emerging Asian economies with a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum”.
Increased financial integration and foreign currency borrowing mean that the pain of rising US interest rates is quickly felt on the other side of the Pacific.
“A stronger dollar is no longer an unalloyed blessing for Asia,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC in Hong Kong. “It helps exports but tightens financial conditions.”
However, inflation is subdued across most of emerging Asia, and the ADB said the risk of a US-induced shock to financial conditions “remains manageable at present”. It said economies such as Sri Lanka and Laos would be vulnerable if such a shock occurred.
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Some Asian economies are well-placed for the next few years, especially Taiwan and South Korea, which are exposed to the semiconductor cycle. “Judging from semiconductor shortages, it doesn’t look like the electronics cycle will break down in the next two or three quarters. That tides them over this rough patch,” said Neumann.
But other Asian economies will find themselves in the less familiar position of relying on domestic demand to grow. One of the biggest question marks is China itself, where first quarter numbers suggest the economy has lost a little momentum.
“Chinese domestic demand still has a way to go,” said Cochrane. “Our forecast right now is for 8 per cent growth in China in 2021, but it depends a lot on policymakers and how quickly they pull back on stimulus and introduce frictions in areas like construction.”
Has Venezuela’s economy bottomed out?
After one of the biggest economic meltdowns in Latin American history, there are signs that Venezuela may finally be turning a corner.
According to some economists, the socialist government’s decisions to loosen currency controls, relax import restrictions and encourage informal dollarisation have breathed a modicum of life into an economy that has shrunk by about 75 per cent since 2013.
The change of government in the White House has also raised hopes that a solution might be found to the country’s long-running political stalemate, which might lead to an easing of US sanctions and in turn fuel a further rebound.
Credit Suisse recently predicted the Venezuelan economy would expand by 4 per cent this year, which would be its first year of growth since 2013. The bank acknowledged this was in part due to the resumption of economic activity after last year’s hit from the coronavirus pandemic, but this was “not the whole story”.
“The revival in domestic demand, which we have long been noting, is becoming more apparent in the data,” Alberto Rojas, the bank’s chief economist for Venezuela, wrote in a note to clients.
“The easing of controls and widespread use of foreign currencies in everyday transactions has rekindled economic activity — even if just slightly.”
Rojas forecasts further growth of 3 per cent in 2022. “In our view, the growth this year is not just a dead cat bounce,” he wrote.
In Caracas, people were sceptical that this amounted to any sort of meaningful recovery. According to the IMF, per capita gross domestic product in Venezuela has dropped a staggering 87 per cent over the past decade, from $12,200 a year in 2011 to $1,540 now. For the first time, the average Venezuelan is poorer than the average Haitian.
“When you’ve fallen so low, eventually you’re bound to see some sort of correction,” said Adán Celis, president of Venezuela’s manufacturers’ association Conindustria. “The government has introduced some anarchic measures of economic flexibility and that’s provided us with a little bit of oxygen but the structural problems remain.”
But a handful of other banks and consultancies also expect output to increase. Two Venezuelan consultancies, AGPV and Dinámica Venezuela, predict growth this year of 1.9 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively.
UK-based Oxford Economics forecasts growth of 0.2 per cent this year followed by a jump of 13.1 per cent next year, although it stresses this recovery needs to be seen in context.
“This follows two years in a row [2019 and 2020] when GDP fell by a third or more,” said Marcos Casarin, OE’s chief Latin American economist. “Given the magnitude of the collapse seen since 2014, Venezuela could grow at double-digit rates for several years in a row and still not recover its pre-crisis GDP level.”
For every economist predicting growth, there are plenty who say Venezuela will suffer more pain before things finally improve.
FocusEconomics, a provider of economic consensus forecasts, recently polled 21 banks and consultancies for their views on Venezuela. The consensus was for a fall in GDP of 3.1 per cent this year followed by a rebound of 2.7 per cent next year. The IMF predicts a contraction of 10 per cent this year and 5 per cent next.
The huge differences between forecasts reflect uncertainty over the consequences of the pandemic, the impact and timing of the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the future of the sanctions regime.
“The evolution of US sanctions under the Biden administration remains the key determinant of the outlook,” wrote Stephen Vogado, economist at FocusEconomics.
The sanctions prohibit Venezuela from selling oil to the US and make it difficult for it to export elsewhere, although the government has found ways to get round the measures. Venezuela’s oil exports have risen slightly in each of the past five months, hitting a 10-month high in March — although they are still feeble compared with historical highs.
While oil has been the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy for the past century, the country also used to produce cacao, coffee and rice in significant quantities. It boasted a textile industry and produced chemicals, cement, steel and aluminium. Most of those industries have been decimated in the past two decades of revolutionary socialist rule.
At an outlet selling car accessories in a petrol station in the Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas, store manager Alfredo Barrera said informal dollarisation had brought some degree of price stability after years of hyperinflation.
“The economy has adapted to the country’s problems,” he said. “Right now, it’s fair to talk about relative stability in terms of the currency but we’re a long way from seeing real improvement.”
At La Alicantina, a bakery that has been in business for more than 30 years, manager Douglas Palencia said sales had been hit hard by the pandemic. The shop’s windows, usually full of cakes and pastries, were empty. “I don’t have great expectations for this year,” he said.
Sturgeon taps Scottish resentment over Johnson and Brexit
Kenny Paton, the postman in Dumbarton, has been criss-crossing the west coast town near Glasgow, delivering flyers for all the parties contesting Scotland’s parliamentary elections this Thursday. But he is only listening to one.
For all the shortcomings of the Scottish National party’s 14 years in power, the recent turmoil surrounding its handling of sexual harassment claims against former leader Alex Salmond and the destructive nature of its cherished goal of breaking the 314 year union, the party is on course for victory once again.
That is in large part because the SNP, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon at its helm, has been speaking to the heart, tapping into the deep resentment many Scottish people feel at being ruled from Westminster by Conservatives whose leader Boris Johnson and policies, notably Brexit, they did not vote for.
For some Scots, the economic arguments against independence — and these have only grown with the sharp deterioration in Scotland’s fiscal position since Brexit and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — are no longer cutting through.
“You can get into all the intricacies about the border and the currency but at the end of the day who do you want to run the country Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?” said Paton, who once supported Labour, but is now rooting for the SNP.
If opinion polls in the run-up to Thursday’s vote are correct, the party is sure to remain the largest in the devolved Holyrood parliament and will possibly gain the slender majority it wants to continue pressing Westminster, for its second chance in seven years of winning independence in a referendum.
There is also the probability that with the Scottish Green party, and Salmond’s newly launched Alba party, the SNP will form part of a bigger block in favour of Scotland going its own way.
But to get across the line to an SNP majority, Sturgeon may need to win marginals such as Dumbarton, where Jackie Baillie, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour and a popular constituency MSP is defending a majority of just 109, the most vulnerable in Scotland.
As well as her appeal to Scottish identity, Sturgeon has a number of other things in her favour. One is Labour’s weakness, and the perception that it could be long before the party Scotland once voted for en masse returns to power.
“I have been an advocate for Scottish independence since the Conservatives won a majority in Westminster. They do not reflect our views — Scotland is a progressive place,” said Ross Crawford, a 28-year-old IT consultant. “It will be a while before Labour can collect themselves — that’s what makes it so discouraging. It means yet more Conservative rule,” he said.
Most of all Sturgeon has Brexit and the indifference shown by first Theresa May, the former prime minister, and then Johnson to the majority in Scotland who voted to remain in the EU and who wanted to retain close relations.
“In 2019, the polls began consistently showing higher levels of support for the SNP. The rise occurs entirely among Remain voters,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Whatever the preferences of Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove [Cabinet Office minister], the brutal reality is that their pursuit of Brexit has undermined support for the union,” he said.
For most of last year backing for independence in Scotland polled at 50 per cent or higher when undecided voters are excluded. But while it has slipped back since then, support for Sturgeon in Dumbarton remains high. This has much to do with her more assured performance during the pandemic, which has helped the SNP avoid an awkward reckoning for its less than stellar longer term record in areas such as education and health.
“We felt safe with her during Covid,” said Julie Reece, a bus company manager and former Labour supporter now backing the SNP.
Like many people strawpolled in the constituency, Reece was unfazed by Sturgeon’s alleged mishandling of sexual harassment claims against her former ally. “They have tried to make her a scapegoat for Alex Salmond’s affairs,” she said, adding, with a nod to how the first minister has brought women like her behind the SNP cause: “She has engaged women better — it switches you on that bit more,” she said.
But the stakes are high and the tightness of the contest is also galvanising Scots who support the union and are passionately against the rupture it would cause. This has led to unlikely alliances in Dumbarton, with some staunch supporters of the Conservative party even promising to vote tactically for Labour — a rare occurrence in UK politics.
“Anything that keeps the SNP out,” said Carl Vickers, who works at the Faslane naval base further up the Clyde estuary, where thousands of jobs could be lost if Scotland breaks away. The SNP opposes the use of Faslane to store the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
Vickers described himself as a Conservative by nature but said he would be voting for Baillie on the day.
“It’s all about stopping them [the SNP] getting another referendum,” said Trish Collins, a headhunter and Tory who was also planning to vote for the Labour candidate in the constituency vote, which the Conservatives have little chance of winning.
In Scotland, members of the parliament in Edinburgh are elected using a hybrid voting system: constituency representatives elected using the first past the post voting system while additional representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes a party secures in a region comprising several constituencies.
On the banks of the river Leven, Baillie herself remained defiant. “My seat on paper should go to the SNP but I am a seasoned campaigner so I am not stopping until polls are closed,” she said.
“Our number one priority should be recovery and then we can argue about the constitution,” she added, warning that when Westminster pulls the plug on the job protection scheme, there could be a surge in unemployment.
“Brexit has been a mess,” said Baillie. “Leaving the UK could be 10 times worse.”
That need to focus on recovering from the pandemic — the core of Labour’s campaign — does appear to have resonance, even among some SNP supporters. But for those already convinced about the risks involved in breaking up the UK union, the feelings were even more emphatic.
“We’d just got over one independence vote then Brexit was thrown at us. Now the SNP have got a good chance of coming out with a majority — the whole of Scottish politics is a joke,” said Bryan Burn, a wholesaler for fishing tackle.
He was speaking an hour south by car from Dumbarton in the relatively prosperous town of Ayr, where Conservative MSP and former farmer John Scott is defending another slender majority. A life-long Labour supporter, Burn was visibly distressed at the way things are headed. “If I were younger I would be looking to move elsewhere,” he said.
But Sturgeon is picking up votes in Ayr too.
“I like what she stands for. She’s great at what she does,” said Chris Hughes, a self-employed software engineer, who hoped an independent Scotland could rejoin Europe, and who along with his wife was voting SNP.
Scott, the Conservative incumbent who is defending a majority of just 700 votes, acknowledged that the odds were even. “It will be very, very close,” he said. “The independence issue has become an issue of the heart. Many people don’t take into account the grim realities it might hold for Scotland.”
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