Japan's lost decade serves as warning to America

WASHINGTON — Heavy government stimulus spending and near-zero interest rates did little to end a "lost decade" of stagnation and mushrooming debt in Japan. Some economists and lawmakers say the United States may wind up following the same trajectory.

Despite early signs of recovery and a strong U.S. stock market rally, fears persist that the failure to generate new jobs or ignite more consumer spending could drag the economy back into recession, or result in a protracted Japan-like period of poor economic and stock market performance.

The United States may already be in a lost decade — and not realize it yet.

About 7.3 million jobs have been lost since the recession began in December 2007. Just getting back to even and keeping pace with population growth could take many more years.

Japan is President Barack Obama's first stop on a tour of Asia starting Friday — and the gloomy world economy will be high on the agenda. Both Japan, starting in the 1990s, and the United States, in the most recent economic crisis, had credit and housing bubbles and both engaged in huge amounts of overborrowing leading up to sharp economic downturns. And both used historically low interest rates and government stimulus spending to try to lift their economies out of the ditch — with questionable results in Japan.

"It seems to me we are on the exact same path that the Japanese took in their 'lost decade' — of running up huge government debts, of not stimulating growth and at the end of the decade having this massive debt," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, senior Republican on Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

Others cite differences in the U.S. and Japanese economies and business cultures to argue that things here are different and less susceptible to a prolonged period of economic lethargy.

While the debate rages, both sides agree Japan's painful experience offers the United States a lesson of how attempts at stimulus can go horribly wrong.

In the 1980s, Japan's factories were humming and its banks were the largest in the world by market capitalization.

Real estate and stock prices soared, and Japan was buying up large chunks of the United States.

Japan's bubble economy burst in 1990, and it lapsed into a lost decade that is fast becoming two lost decades.

Japan's older population means more government Social Security spending and a movement by older Japanese away from saving toward spending.

One other difference is that Japan's crisis was largely created by corporate debt excess, much of it borrowed against property with inflated prices, rather than personal debt and housing-market failures as in the United States.

Stock prices bottomed out in Japan in 2003 until hitting an even lower low in 2008. Japan's Nikkei stock index, now just under 10,000, still stands about 75 percent lower than where it was 20 years ago.

Years of expensive post-World War II spending on roads, dams and other projects, together with government stimulus spending to combat recessions, have left Japan with a national debt twice the size of its $5 trillion economy, the biggest deficit of any major economy.

The U.S. national debt of $12 trillion, by contrast, is approaching the size of the overall economy, $13.6 trillion as measured by the GDP. As staggering as that is, the ratio is half that of Japan's.

Japan's lost decade serves as warning to America 11/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 7:06am]

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