Over the last twenty three years Japan has tried stimulus after stimulus in a desperate bid to get back to the pre 1990 growth rates. Nothing has succeeded.
As a result Japan has gone from having a relatively low debt and deficit, to having the largest public debt as a proportion of GDP of all advanced countries. Japanese public sector debt is now over $12 trillion, and more than 230% of GDP. Money has been borrowed to boost current public spending, and to provide investment stimulus through large public capital projects.
Nor has Japan spared the monetary stimulus as well. Japan has tried liberal amounts of Quantitative easing, has run interest rates close to zero for most of the time, and has made clear it would prefer inflation to deflation. The latest programme of bond buying is just a larger version of what has gone before.
So why hasn’t the Japanese economy taken off? Crude Keynsian reflationists would predict that with this much fiscal and monetary stimulus combined the economy should be in overdrive. Some would accept that the extreme bubble created in the 1980s posed big problems whilst asset prices adjusted, and would agree that the banks remained broken by falling asset values and damaged loans for a long time. In retrospect maybe a sharper crash and more drastic bank write offs and recapitalisations might have speeded up the adjustment and the eventual recovery.
This to me is only part of the story. At about the same time as Japan’s bubble burst something else important happened. The Japanese model of incremental innovation in cars and consumer electricals and electronics which had spwaned a series of world beating companies suddenly met its match from competition elsewhere. The Japanese excellence at making things was copied by the US and Europe, adopting the Toyota type manufacturing systems. The US launched the digital revolution, which Japan found difficult to adopt and develop. Later, China and other Asian centres emerged capable of undermining Japanese competitiveness still further.
The truth is Japan’s era of supremacy making the world’s most competitive cars, tvs,cameras and the rest was undermined both by new products and services she did not develop, and by cheaper competition for the products she does still make. Japan needs a new industry or two and more world beating companies.
Commentators always think there is a simple monetary or budgetary fix. In the end earning a good living in a competitive world comes down to having better goods and services. Japan has lost her edge. In the UK the decline of finance and oil and gas, our two high value added lead sectors of the 90s and noughties, is the background to our current sluggish GDP performance. Spending a bit more in the public sector does not fix this, as Japan shows.