Zen and the Art of Economy Repair

According to an article that appeared in The New York Times, written by Norihiro Kato, the Japanese have gotten good at sloughing off their worldly cares. Japan is no longer the world’s number two economy; it was eclipsed this summer by China. But the Japanese are used to slippage. We all know the story of their 20-year economic decline; Japan’s GDP actually peaked out about 15 years ago. It has been sliding ever since. That is only a part of the story. In terms of rice production, the Japanese have been downsizing for more than 40 years. Japan’s population, too, grew by 1% per year from 1917 to 1977. It peaked out in 2005. There are fewer Japanese now than there were 5 years ago. If the trend continues, eventually there will be none.

Our back page dictum: people come to think what they must think when they must think it. What do people on the road to extinction think? Ask the Japanese. According to Kato, they become less competitive and more reflective, almost zen-like, turning an eye inward, away from striving, fighting, jostling and whacking…gracefully accepting whatever the economic gods send their way. In the meantime, they stay at home and save their money; like a lap dancer in retirement, they know it is all downhill from here.

Over in the developed West on the other hand, resignation and capitulation have not yet caught on. People still rage against the dying light of the Bubble Epoque and count on quantitative easing to get it going again.

In the US, half a million Americans filed for jobless benefits last week – the highest number in 9 months. At this point in a typical recovery, job growth should be strong. Instead, it is shockingly weak. As for house sales, the drop in July was the greatest one-month decrease since 1968. Again, the direction is all wrong. Housing led the US out of 7 of the last 8 recessions. Now, it is holding it back! One out of every 7 mortgages is delinquent or in foreclosure. The nation is on target to foreclose on more than a million houses this year – a new record.

So let us take up a serious question. If an economy cannot trot out of recession, what becomes of it? To Japan or not to Japan? There are so many economists voicing an opinion on the subject that if you spent 5 minutes listening to each one you would have to be an idiot. There are those who think Europe and America will follow in Japan’s footsteps. And those who think it will not. Taking no chances, our Daily Reckoning has firmly held both opinions at one time or another.

The US is not Japan, say many. Japan’s 20-year slump was made possible by three unique circumstances: deflation imported from China, falling commodity prices and a current account surplus. The US is confronted with the opposite situation: commodities prices are strong, its current account is in deficit, and China is raising prices. These differences will bring on a crisis Japan never had to face. Interest rates will rise. The dollar will fall. Unable to finance its deficits at low rates, the US will unable to stay on the road to Tokyo. Instead, it will soon be detoured to Buenos Aires. Or Harare. The resulting panic will have nothing in common with Japan’s orderly ruination.

Those who think the US and Europe are following on Japan’s heels have at least the flow of current news to support them. Japan fell into a slump. Rather than let its markets clear, its government supported zombie banks and businesses with money borrowed from the public. This effectively transferred the burden of debt from the private sector to the public sector, while holding the economy in a state of suspended animation for two decades. Meanwhile, Japan’s people were getting older…more cautious…and more resigned to slippage.

This seems to be what is happening in America too. The private sector is de-leveraging. The latest report shows credit card debt at an 8-year low. Mortgage debt is dropping sharply too – thanks to defaults and foreclosures. Banks and private companies are stockpiling cash in anticipation of a cold winter. Households are playing it cool too.

Ben Bernanke must have gotten the message sometime between the 4th of July and the Assumption of the Virgin. On the 11th of August, the Fed announced another round of quantitative easing designed to fight against the decline. Of course, Japan tried quantitative easing too. It failed, just as monetary and fiscal stimulus had failed.

But who knows? Maybe the Japanese are just losers. They are the only people on earth to have atomic weapons dropped on them. Then again, that only seemed to encourage them. After 1945, the Japanese and the Germans picked themselves up and went from absolute ruin to become the world’s most admired economies. Let us hope the authorities don’t draw the obvious lesson: on the evidence, nuking may pack more stimulus punch than quantitative easing.


Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning