Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: (Hopefully Learning) Lessons From Japan

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Japanese economic policy, named “Abeconomics” after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, offers a natural experiment from which the U.S. can draw lessons. There is a much more obvious natural experiment for the U.S., which is U.S. economic policy, but those against “Quantitative Easing” are never short on reasons for why QE hasn’t debased the dollar / led to soaring interest rates on U.S. bonds (but soon will ahhtheskyisfallingmoralhazard!!!!!). Perhaps Japan’s experience, which is further removed from the U.S., can allow us to be more objective in our analysis.

The basis for expansionary monetary policy is due to “liquidity trap” macroeconomics. When the Fed cut’s interest rates near zero, non-traditional means of using monetary policy are the only policy choice left to stimulate aggregate demand and reduce unemployment (as far as monetary policy goes, fiscal policy is another story to be addressed shortly).

Both the U.S. and Japan have greatly increased the supply of money in attempt to revive the economy. QE in the U.S. has basically quadrupled the Feds holdings since 2008, while Abeconomics has doubled Bank of Japan’s (BoJs) holdings. In the U.S., the dollar has remained strong despite QE. In Japan, the Yen has slid in value (and this is a desired result, to increase export competitiveness):

“Normally a weakening exchange rate might be taken as a sign of decline. The yen has fallen nearly 14 percent against the dollar this year, and no currency has fallen more except the Venezuelan bolívar.

In Japan’s case, it is a sign that the policies put in place by Mr. Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda, chairman of the Bank of Japan, are starting to work. A weaker yen makes Japanese exports more competitive around the world.”

The U.S. probably benefit from a slightly weaker dollar, making exports more competitive which could help revive U.S. manufacturing and renewable energy industries (among others). I believe the USD role as primary international reserve currency (60% of international holdings) are keeping the dollar strong despite QE. Foreign holders do not want to see the value of their reserves go down, so the dollar continues to be the safe-haven for investments despite unprecedented monetary stimulus.

How effective have these policies been? U.S. unemployment has dropped to 7.5%, although underemployment and people dropping out of the labor market may be producing a rate that doesn’t capture the stagnation in the job market in the U.S. Japanese unemployment sits at 4.1%, a rate that for the U.S. would currently constitute an economic pipe-dream.

Japan certainly has its issues, but it is not letting doomsayers dictate its economic policy. Despite much higher gross government debt to GDP (Japan has roughly 235% debt to GDP ratio, while the U.S. is at about 107%) Japan is pursuing fiscal stimulus. Abeconomics includes a 2-2.5% of GDP stimulus plan for Japan. Compare that with the fiscal contraction in the U.S.

So the U.S. and Japanese economic policies give us a natural experiment. Both are advanced countries with highly skilled labor forces and strong financial markets. Both are pursuing monetary expansion. One of the countries, despite a much higher debt-to-GDP ratio, is also pursuing fiscal stimulus, while the other is pursuing fiscal contraction. Granted Japan went through years if not decades of stagnant growth before flipping the script to “Abeconomics”. The U.S. is “only” 5 years removed from the Great Recession. Do we really need to wait decades before we pursue policy that we know will stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment / the output gap?

As Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead”. It is not enough to say give it time and things will get better. Peoples skills and confidence in their abilities are deteriorating in the U.S.. The output gap is large and growing, and spending on safety-net policies will not decrease until unemployment goes down (hence “automatic stabilizers”). Hopefully Japan’s successes will inspire confidence in fiscal stimulus; if a country with twice as high of a debt-to-GDP ratio (and an unemployment rate almost half as low) can benefit from fiscal stimulus, surely the U.S. can as well.

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