Monday, August 29, 2011

We're Not Japan, But There Are Similarities

There are similarities and differences between the US and Japan (20 years ago).


* High private debt levels leading to high government debt levels, as the government “rescues” selected areas of the private sector
* Asset bubble deflating
* Desire for security drives government interest rates lower
* Intractable government deficits
* Both have warped monetary policy to try to deal with the problem.
* Slow to fix banking problems; reluctance to take big banks under.
* An unwillingness to note that the problems are structural, not cyclical.
* Failure to recognize that growth is not a birthright. Proper policies must be maintained.
* Slow response from legislators.
* Low growth is anticipated, because of high private debt levels.


* Japan’s deficit is self-funded for now.
* Demographics in the US are far more favorable.
* US Economy more open to global competition.
* No Tohoku tsunami in the US.
* Japanese politics don’t care as much about their problems.
* Japan’s debts were debts of over-production, rather than over-consumption.

I think the right answer to the question of whether the US is going the route of Japan is no, but there are similarities, and significant differences. In Japan, they entered their troubles with corporations and banks overly indebted, whereas in the US it was consumers and banks. A lot depends on how much US consumers reduce debt, making them more capable of buying goods and services in the future.

With over-production, there is no guarantee that the world will ever get up to the level where they demand all the capacity that was developed. With over-consumption, many debts will get compromised, lenders may be in a funk for a time, but there should be cleaner ways of clearing away and paying off the overindebtedness.

In the Great Depression, the US was in the position of being the over-producer. Other nations indebted to the US came through the experience better. Japan was the over-producer of the 1980s. This time, the US will probably come through the crisis better than China and other creditors of the US. No guarantees, but foolish lenders eventually get their comeuppance.