Thursday, 10 December 2009

Is Britain turning Japanese?

Graham Turner

A defunct banking system, spiralling government budget deficits and an economy mired in recession. This description of the UK economy sounds all too familiar to those who followed Japan closely during the 1990s. The parallels are indeed troubling.

Japan tried to spend its way out of trouble, incurring record budget deficits that were buttressed by quantitative easing. A brief recovery from 2003 onwards was cut short by the credit crunch. And now, the Japanese government’s public debt burden is racing towards 200% of GDP, nearly three times that in Britain. Deflation has intensified to fresh highs, and wages are being slashed. Property prices across Japan have continued to slide uninterrupted for nearly two decades.

It is a sorry state of affairs that reflects a series of policy mistakes, which are being repeated not just in the UK but also in the US. There is time for policy makers to reverse tack. However, there is a real danger that the 'Anglo Saxon' world will be blighted by the Japan economic disease for years.

For years, Japan was dismissed as an idiosyncrasy by Western commentators. Many claimed the country’s problems were unique and that 'it could never happen here'. Some even revelled in the sudden downturn in Japan's fortunes. The remarkable rise of Japan from its defeat at the end of the Second World War had left many in awe. The spectacular growth of Japanese industry and the world domination achieved by so many of its leading companies had been viewed with considerable envy.

When Japan's bubble burst in early 1990, the Bank of Japan was slow to cut interest rates. Japan's central bank had become obsessed with the spectre of inflation and it failed to cut interest rates quickly. The threat of a deflation spiral was completely overlooked.

Frustrated by the Bank of Japan's inaction, the Japanese government responded by trying to reflate through demand management or Keynesian policies. Virtually every fiscal policy option was tried in a bid to end the decline. The first emergency supplementary budget was introduced in the spring of 1992. A total of ten emergency budgets had been crafted, worth a massive ¥124.6 trillion before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi came to power in April 2001, calling a halt to the great ‘Keynesian’ experiment. Large sums were pumped into building new roads, bridges and dams to keep construction companies in business.

But it was all to no avail. No matter how hard the politicians tried, the economy would only respond for a short while before slipping back into recession. The failure of fiscal policy to reverse the decline did not deter them. Politicians reasoned that if they did not try, the situation would be even worse.

The experience of 1997 in particular convinced many that the government had no choice but to keep incurring record budget deficits, otherwise Japan would slip further into difficulty. The tax increases of that year – the consumption tax (similar to VAT) went up from 3% to 5% – were followed by an alarming dip in the economy. The decision to tighten fiscal policy was blamed by many for pushing the country back into recession.

It is an argument peddled by Richard Koo in "The Holy Grail of Macro Economics", a book cited by many commentators today in defence of fiscal profligacy. His analysis is wrong.

A number of economic indicators suggest that the Japanese economy was in trouble well before the tax hikes took effect. And significantly, Japan suffered the first of five major bankruptcies in the life insurance industry. The failure of Nissan Mutual Life Insurance in the spring of 1997 caused people to panic, pushing the savings rate up sharply. The South East Asian crisis then struck. But none of this gets a mention in Koo's book, which has become the bible for those advocating relentless fiscal stimulus to keep the economy on life support.

Koo and many others also cite the 1930s to support their assertion that big budget deficits are necessary for an economic recovery. Historical evidence does not support their case. The primary tools for reversing the Great Depression were an aggressive monetary policy combined with extensive restructuring of the banking system. The US economy turned up in 1932 in response to quantitative easing. Bank recapitalisations in the spring of 1933 then added momentum to the recovery. The War Loan Conversion in the UK, a similar policy to quantitative easing, was critical in turning the tide in the UK. Abandoning the Gold Standard in both countries helped too.

But the role of fiscal policy was secondary. The budget deficit rose to a peak of just 5.1% of GDP in the US and 5.0% of GDP in the UK, during the early 1930s. The contrast with today is stark. On current projections, the US administration may run a deficit more than double this in financial year 2010. The UK is on track to run a deficit of more than 13% of GDP this year.

Too many economists and politicians have invoked Keynes to justify the aggressive use of fiscal policy, without realising – or admitting – that this was not his prescription. For much of the early 1930s, his time was devoted towards the correct debt management policies that would support a recovery. Keynes was first and foremost a monetary economist. His work on liquidity preference and the difficulty central banks faced getting borrowing costs down when asset prices collapse were the most important of his many practical contributions to economic policy during the early years of Great Depression.

But much of this was overlooked during the post-war era. Keynes was cited by those who wished to promote fiscal stimulus to drive economic growth, while ignoring many of the underlying structural problems, including the persistent downward pressure on wages that ultimately reared their head during the credit crunch.

The Bank of England would rightly argue that its aggressive use of quantitative easing has indeed adhered to the 1930s textbook. Even if the budget deficit has been allowed to rise far beyond that seen in the early 1930s, extensive buying of gilts has produced a powerful monetary response that should, in theory, see the economy emerge from recession in the fourth quarter of this year.

Adam Posen, a recent recruit to the Monetary Policy Committee, gave an articulate defence of quantitative easing in a speech at City University last month, rightly admonishing critics who warn that 'printing money' will inexorably lead to higher inflation. With wages being squeezed so hard, a resurgence of inflation remains a distant prospect. Even though the headline CPI may rise above 3% early next year, this is very modest given the scale of sterling’s decline since 2008.

However, Mr. Posen did also highlight the limits of quantitative easing in an economy like the UK, where too many of its banks are too large – and broken. The UK may be a 'world leader' in international finance but, Mr. Posen warns, the banking system is ill-equipped to support companies that do not have access to capital markets. Quantitative easing works by driving bond yields down, both for the government and for companies. Buying government debt – or gilts in this case – has a very direct impact on yields, if done on a sufficient scale.

GFC Economics has been vocal in its support for quantitative easing. Indeed, when our book The Credit Crunch was published in June 2008, the warning was explicit. "There is only one monetary policy option that is likely to work at this late stage. That is quantitative easing".

When the policy was finally unveiled in March this year, we argued it was necessary, but it would not be a panacea. Two risks were apparent. Borrowing costs might fall, but because the banks were so weighed down by non-performing assets, the recovery might still be slow. Mr. Posen gave a good critique of the structural problems within the banking system that any incoming government will need to address next summer.

The second problem remains entwined with the first. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) has plainly not learnt from the 1930s. The Fed chair, Ben Bernanke, has been widely touted as an expert on the 1930s, but closer inspection of his academic work shows a limited understanding of monetary policy during this era, and in particular the role of quantitative easing.

The Obama administration has failed to address the foreclosure crisis too. The latest National Delinquency Survey in the US made for grim reading. By the end of September, one in eleven homeowners with a mortgage was either in the process of being repossessed, or seriously in arrears (more than three months).

Despite repeated bailouts, capital injections and tax-subsidised incentives, the homeless crisis is intensifying. The banking system is failing to support a recovery in the US too. Real GDP may have risen in the third quarter, courtesy of tax giveaways, but the US faces an economic and political crisis in 2010 if President Obama does not tackle the housing debacle.

That is perhaps ironic, as critics of Japan often claimed banks were too slow in recognising their losses, which exacerbated the deflation spiral during the 1990s. By contrast, it is claimed that the losses have been acknowledged sooner in the UK and US. And yet, credit is still contracting in both countries. Owning up to bad debts does not automatically presage a recovery, if banks are not willing to lend and are busily defaulting on borrowers: in a deflation spiral that simply creates more bad debts. And the UK banks may have more nasty surprises in store for the UK taxpayer, if property prices in the US – commercial and residential – continue to slide next year.

Alternative avenues to get credit flowing are needed if the UK is to avoid a double dip. The current Labour government is trying to inject more competition in to the banking sector, allowing new entrants, but these are long term solutions to a chronic over-concentration of the finance industry – which it has long supported. State backed, democratically accountable institutions offer an alternative route. But again, time is of the essence.

Ultimately, the UK government needs to recognise the role it can and should play as the major shareholder of RBS and Lloyds/TSB, and forget trying to prepare these banks for an early return to the private sector. The banks are currently being run on commercial lines. Shrinking balance sheets and raising margins is the inevitable private sector response to a credit crisis. But more direct control of these institutions might allow the flow of credit to smaller and medium companies to resume, putting the economy in better shape to withstand a double dip in the US, and a necessary tightening of fiscal policy in the UK.

*The LEAP Red Papers 'The Cuts', available to download and discuss in full.

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