Tobias Harris: A twenty years' crisis in Japan

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Tobias Harris is a fledgling Japan/East Asia specialist — who worked for a DPJ member of the upper house of the Diet 2006-2007. He is presently a Ph.D. graduate student in political science at MIT. He has been published in the Wall Street Journal Asia, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Japan Times. He can be contacted at]

Japan is an economy that is almost certainly producing well below its productive capacity - that is, the immediate problem facing Japan is one of demand, not supply. And it gives every appearance of being in a liquidity trap - that is, conventional monetary policy appears to have been pushed to its limits, yet the economy remains depressed. What can be done?"

So wrote Paul Krugman in his 1998 analysis of Japan's prolonged economic crisis, in which he argued that to escape its liquidity trap, it was necessary for "the central bank to credibly promise to be irresponsible - to make a persuasive case that it will permit inflation to occur, thereby producing the negative real interest rates the economy needs."

Four years later, then-Fed governor Ben Bernanke, in his noteworthy speech on deflation, echoed Krugman, arguing "We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation" — but then concluded that Japan's prolonged crisis was not the result of ineffective monetary policy but reluctance on the part of political actors to implement structural reforms, reforms that, Krugman argued, may be necessary but would do little to "induce people to spend more."

A decade after Krugman, Japanese authorities are once again stuck trying to stimulate aggregate demand.

Economist Ikeda Nobuo, in considering Japan's sluggish aggregate demand, concludes, like Bernanke, that the high liquidity preference of Japanese households — nearly half of Japanese household assets are held in cash or low-risk, low-return bank accounts — is a response to inefficient Japanese companies. Pessimistic that the Japanese government is capable of stimulating Japanese demand in the absence of foreign demand for Japanese goods, Ikeda concludes that the lost decade never ended: Japan is in the midst of a "lost twenty years."

A group of fifteen LDP lawmakers, however, has decided to embrace Krugman's solution, calling for the government to run the printing presses, expanding the money supply by 50,000 billion yen independently of the Bank of Japan in order to finance further economic stimulus. The "Diet Members League to consider the issuance of interest-free government bonds and government money" will hold its first meeting on Tuesday, with upper house member Tamura Kotaro chairing. Former finance ministry official Takahashi Yoichi will address the inaugural meeting.

The group's motto is essentially "desperate times call for desperate measures." Acknowledging that running the presses has positive and negative consequences, the group believes that the economic situation is sufficiently dire to merit the risk of hyperinflation. Quoted in an FT article, Mr. Tamura clearly has read his Krugman: "We are facing hyper-deflation, so we need a policy to create hyper-inflation. We have to do something to undermine the central bank and government’s credibility or else we won’t be able to halt the yen’s rise. So, while we know this is drastic medicine, we will do it."

The new study group has drawn the opposition of senior LDP and cabinet officials. Yosano Kaoru, minister without portfolio for economic and fiscal policy, suggested that the government should issue more bonds instead of printing currency. Shirakawa Masaaki, president of the BOJ, insisted that the policy would do precisely what its proponents intend, namely undermine the credibility of his bank and the health of the currency. The heads of the LDP's factions were equally critical of the proposal, with Tsushima Yuji, the eponymous head of the Tsushima faction, likening the proposal to the enten ponzi scheme.

In other words, this is yet another policy upon which the LDP is divided and unsure of how to proceed, yet another sign of the governing party's flailing about in hope of finding some way to save itself (and Japan).

Not being an economist, I cannot say whether this group's proposal is appropriate. After years of weak domestic aggregate demand, it may be that only drastic inflation may be the only way to make Japanese spend at home — or demand less liquid assets with higher returns — no matter how politically risky it is for the LDP. Pensioners, already angry at the government, will presumably be no less angry as they watch inflation erode their fixed incomes.

But however appropriate the inflationary proposal, it may be beyond the power of the Aso government to implement. Whatever legitimacy the LDP-Komeito government had is now in tatters. The prime minister's latest misstep is to call for the revision of the postal privatization scheme, the very basis of the government's parliamentary supermajority. Mr. Aso questioned whether it is appropriate to divide the postal system into four companies, and stated that now is the time to revise the privatization scheme. He blithely stated that this position is wholly unrelated to the 2005 election that gave the government its mandate. Public opinion may have changed since 2005, but to backtrack now makes a mockery of democratic legitimation. If the government wants to revert from a policy that was critical to returning the coalition to power, it should have to go to the people and ask for approval to change course. (Nakagawa Hidenao made this argument at his blog, as did DPJ member Nagashima Akihisa.)

Naturally LDP proponents of postal reform have been quick to criticize the prime minister for his naked appeal to find some issue that will rescue his sinking government. (It bears noting that Mr. Aso has spoken of preserving the quality of postal services, a major concern of the public when it comes to privatization.) Koizumi confidante Takebe Tsutomu was perhaps the most succinct in his criticism: "What nonsense! I wish he would be more discrete in his speech."

In short, the prime minister is gradually losing whatever ability he has to rally his party and the public to an agenda. He is incapable of setting priorities or taking decisive action. The halls of power echo with rumors of plots to unseat him.

It is unlikely that this shiftless prime minister is capable of deciding on so risky and decisive a policy as proposed by the new league.

This prime minister, his party, and his government are bereft of authority and legitimacy — and they appear determined to drag Japan into the abyss with them.

As MTC so eloquently observes, hopefully Secretary Clinton will take heed of the stench of decay when she visits Japan later this month.

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