Are we the next Japan?

@Money January 4, 2012: 6:19 PM ET
Japan's Richard Koo says that keeping interest rates low won't help the U.S. economy fight off recession.

Japan's Richard Koo says that keeping interest rates low won't help the U.S. economy fight off recession.

(MONEY Magazine) -- There's no shortage of debate as to whether the Obama administration and Congress have done the right things in attempting to avert a debt crisis and revive the stalled economy.

Richard Koo, the chief economist for the Nomura Research Institute, a Japanese think tank, says that government spending is the key to getting the economy back on track -- and that 2009's massive stimulus package didn't go far enough.

While Koo's kind of thinking is decidedly unfashionable, there are good reasons to listen to him. A Japanese-born Taiwanese-American, he worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the 1980s. For the past 27 years he's lived in Japan, studying its economy in depth and writing what many consider the definitive analysis of Japan's "lost decade" -- "The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons From Japan's Great Recession."

Koo, 57, recently spoke with MONEY senior writer Kim Clark; their conversation has been edited.

Why do you say that this recession is different from others the U.S. has had?

Typical recessions are part of normal business cycles, when overconfident businesses overproduce and then have to cut back. This is what I call a balance-sheet recession. It's caused by an overload of debt.

Why banks won't lend

It's a very rare type of recession that happens only after the bursting of a nationwide asset bubble, like a real estate bubble. Once the bubble bursts, the debt remains. The assets, in this case homes, are underwater; their prices are way down, but all the consumers' original debt remains.

The Federal Reserve recently said it won't raise interest rates for two years. Won't that help?

No. Monetary stimulus doesn't work until balance sheets are repaired.

Right now consumers are using their cash to pay down their debt. The economy is depressed because no one is borrowing or spending. Consumers don't want to borrow, even at [very low] interest rates. And lenders don't want to make loans to consumers who will struggle to pay them back. You need fiscal stimulus. That means the government should borrow and spend the money in the private sector.

When Japan fell into recession about 20 years ago, we had no idea what was happening. Interest rates were lowered to zero, but the economy still did poorly.

Every time the government stimulated the economy, it rebounded nicely. Then when they pulled back, it lost steam again.

Some people look at Japan and say the government spent huge sums on public projects and there was no real growth, so spending didn't really cure the economy.

The early '90s recession in Japan was far worse than people realize. Commercial real estate prices nationwide in Japan fell 87% from the peak. Imagine U.S. housing prices down 87%. The fact that the Japanese government halted what could have been an enormous drop in GDP in the early '90s speaks to the success of its economic policies.

But Japan did suffer a major recession again in 1997.

The Japanese made a horrendous mistake in 1997. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund said to Japan, "You are running a huge fiscal deficit with an aging population. You'd better reduce your deficit."

When the government cut spending and raised taxes, the whole economy came crashing down.

I see exactly the same pattern in the U.S. today. If the government acts to cut the deficit while people are continuing to pay down their debts, then we could have a second leg of decline that could be very, very ugly.

Since 2008 the Fed has been trying to boost the economy -- and prevent price deflation -- by buying Treasury bonds. What has that done?

The Fed's so-called quantitative easing has failed to contribute to economic growth. By taking the new Treasury supply away, it forced the private sector to put its money into equities, commodities, or real estate.

With real estate in a tailspin, the money went to commodities and equities on the assumption that the economy or profits would pick up. The effect was to push stock prices to higher levels than could be justified by genuine cash flow or corporate growth.

Now, with fiscal stimulus disappearing and GDP growth slowing, people have realized that equity prices are essentially overvalued, and that is the correction we are currently seeing.

So are you saying that the stimulus package didn't go far enough?

Obama kept the economy from falling into a Great Depression. But you never become a hero avoiding a crisis.

The economy is still struggling, so people say that money must have been wasted. Not true. The expiration of that package is behind the economy's weakness right now. Yes, the Bush tax cuts were extended last year, but tax cuts are the least efficient way to support the economy during a balance-sheet recession because a large portion of the cut will be saved or used to pay down consumer debt. Government spending is much more effective.

MONEY recently interviewed Carmen Reinhart, an author of what's now thought of as the authoritative history of financial crisis. She warned that economies that build up gross deficits in excess of 90% of GDP weaken significantly. The U.S. recently passed that mark.

Before the next balance-sheet recession comes, you'll have plenty of time to cut the deficit.

Of course, Congress recently committed to slash our deficit by $2.5 trillion as part of the agreement to avoid default.

It is good that Congress managed to avoid default. But they should keep in mind that Japan's deficit actually increased when the government tried to cut the budget while the private sector was paying down debts. The cutback caused a second recession.

Think about the Great Depression; war spending is what finally pulled the economy out.

The Japanese government didn't do enough spending in the early 1990s and added another 10 years to the problem. If the U.S. avoids that mistake, maybe in a couple of years you will be out of this mess.  To top of page

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