As Japan's Growth Returns, Will Europe Learn?
For years, Japan and Europe have been the sick men of the world economy. This week, their paths diverged.
Even as Europe fell deeper into what just became its longest recession since World War II, Japan posted an unexpectedly robust growth rate of 3.5 percent under the bold new stimulus measures championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — precisely the medicine many have urged European leaders to take.
"The elites in Europe don't learn," said Stephan Schulmeister, an economist with the Austrian Institute of Economic Research. "Instead of saying, 'Something goes wrong, we have to reconsider or find a different navigation map, change course,' instead what happens is more of the same."
He added, "Angela Merkel is not willing to learn from the Japanese experience," referring to the German chancellor.
Since taking office in December, Mr. Abe has pushed a three-pronged program — called the three-arrowed approach in Japan — to end two decades of stagnation in the Japanese economy. It involves a strongly expansionary monetary policy, increased fiscal spending and structural changes to improve competitiveness; the first-quarter growth spurt suggests that his approach is already paying off.
Not only have exports improved, the logical outgrowth of a weaker currency, but consumer sentiment and household consumption also have risen. "The real economy is responding," said Adam S. Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "The last five months, six months, there's been a mini consumer boom. All the things that people said could never happen in Japan have turned around."
He added: "Japan's central bank is supporting recovery, and it's working. The European Central Bank is supporting stagnation, and it's working."
The question is whether European leaders will learn from the Japanese, and the answer thus far appears to be no. Though it is early in Mr. Abe's term, Japan may have found the recipe for successful economic stimulus, but Germany is barring the door to the European kitchen.
"In Germany the hostility toward those unconventional measures is greater than in any other European society," said Heribert Dieter, a political economist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. In his view, the question is whether a departure from austerity would provide anything more than a few months or even a few years of breathing space.
(Read More: Hold On, Japan Still Missing Key Pillar of Growth)
Other than more flexibility in the speed of budget cutting, there is little sign of a deep rethinking in Germany. If anything it feels as though Berlin is digging in its heels. "It would postpone the day of reckoning," Mr. Dieter said. "It would not solve any problems." The emphasis, in the German view, has to be on maintaining fiscal discipline while focusing on structural changes to restore competitiveness, the only one of Mr. Abe's three arrows that the Germans seem prepared to pull from the quiver.
Many German economists argue that the period of retrenchment is nearing a conclusion, and that the gains promised for the pain of austerity are now right around the corner. "There's no need for a special fiscal stimulus program," said Michael Hüther, the director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.
Mr. Hüther pointed to signs of improved export performance in countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal as evidence that an upturn was nigh. "I'm optimistic that next year there will be a turnaround," he said. "It's not a good idea to join the Japanese program."
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The envy of the world in the 1980s, Japan suffered a real estate and stock market collapse that left it mired in a deflation trap, with falling prices and an economy alternating between anemic growth and contraction. Japan went through recessions in 2011 and 2012, shrinking at an annualized rate of 3.5 percent as late as the third quarter of last year.
After Mr. Abe's Liberal Democrats won a landslide victory in December, Mr. Abe made good on his promise to increase public spending. The central bank increased liquidity and the yen has fallen by about 20 percent against the dollar this year, a boon to the country's exporters. The Japanese stock market has soared, with the Nikkei 225 Index up more than 70 percent over the past year.
(Read More: France's Moscovici Says 'Non' to Austerity)
"Abe clearly decided to change course, and you can see the results were pretty immediate," said Mark Weisbrot, a director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "That's knocking it out of the ballpark."
German economists have raised the prospect of competitive devaluations, a race to the bottom that would benefit no one. "If all countries on the planet would do that we'd be back in the 1930s," Mr. Dieter said. "It would throw the world back into beggar-thy-neighbor policies and hostility and exclusion."
Others dismissed that notion. "The Bank of Japan and the Japanese government, along with the U.S. and U.K. central banks and governments, would be perfectly happy to have the E.C.B. join them on quantitative easing or some other form of more active monetary stimulus, no beggar-thy-neighbor problem here," Mr. Posen said.
Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, took the important step last summer of saying that the bank would backstop the euro and prevent its failure, but he has also drawn a line that it will not help more, wanting to keep pressure on suffering countries to make painful structural reforms.
The euro crisis has been portrayed in the German news media as something of a morality play, where the suffering is necessary for redemption. "The amazing thing that nobody wants to talk about is that Europe could do exactly the same thing as Japan," Mr. Weisbrot said. "It should show the world, if the world was paying attention to this, it's really a political decision by the troika to keep this economy in recession."
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Jens Weidmann, the president of Germany's central bank, has been an outspoken critic of even the half measures taken by Mr. Draghi. In an election year, Ms. Merkel has heeded public opposition to using German money to aid the hardest-hit states of the crisis.
"The tone of E.C.B. statements and the extent to which the E.C.B. makes any stimulus conditional is set by the German government," Mr. Posen said.
Germany has enjoyed lower borrowing rates throughout the crisis as investors have sought safe havens for their money. Employment has remained strong and the country has been attracting qualified job seekers from countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. But many of the customers for German exports are in the crisis-stricken periphery of Europe, and Germany only narrowly avoided recession in the first quarter.
France, meanwhile, did slip back into recession, as the euro zone economy shrank for a record sixth consecutive quarter. President François Hollande of France has called for coordinated European action to increase growth, but to no avail.
"The empirical observation is that the more countries try to adopt austerity policies the more the debt ratio is increasing," said Mr. Schulmeister, speaking for himself and not on behalf of his institute. "This is a grotesque result."
He did not hold out much hope that European leaders would follow Japan's recent example. "They already have their depression behind them," Mr. Schulmeister said, "and Europe has their depression before them."