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In Japan’s Stagnant Decade, Cautionary Tales for America

The Obama administration is committing huge sums of money to rescuing banks, but the veterans of Japan’s banking crisis have three words for the Americans: more money, faster.

Japanese Flag
Photo: Bryan Jones
Japanese Flag

The Japanese have been here before. They endured a “lost decade” of economic stagnation in the 1990s as their banks labored under crippling debt, and successive governments wasted trillions of yen on half-measures.

Only in 2003 did the government finally take the actions that helped lead to a recovery: forcing major banks to submit to merciless audits and declare bad debts; spending two trillion yen to effectively nationalize a major bank, wiping out its shareholders; and allowing weaker banks to fail.

By then, Tokyo’s main Nikkei stock index had lost almost three-quarters of its value. The country’s public debt had grown to exceed its gross domestic product, and deflation stalked the land. In the end, real estate prices fell for 15 consecutive years.

More alarming? Some students of the Japanese debacle say they see a similar train wreck heading for the United States.

“I thought America had studied Japan’s failures,” said Hirofumi Gomi, a top official at Japan’s Financial Services Agency during the crisis. “Why is it making the same mistakes?”

Many American critics of the plan unveiled Tuesday by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said the plan lacked details. Experts on Japan found it timid — especially given the size of the banking crisis the administration faces.

“I think they know how big it is, but they don’t want to say how big it is. It’s so big they can’t acknowledge it,” said John H. Makin, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to administration officials. “The lesson from Japan in the 1990s was that they should have stepped up and nationalized the banks.”

Instead, the Japanese first tried many of the same remedies that the Bush administration tried and the Obama administration is trying — ultra-low interest rates, fiscal stimulus and ineffective cash infusions, among other things. The Japanese even tried to tap private capital to buy some of the bad assets from banks, as Mr. Geithner proposed.

One reason Japan’s leaders were so ineffectual for so long was their fear of stoking public outrage. With each act of the bailout, anger grew, making politicians more reluctant to force real reform, which only delayed the day of reckoning and increased the ultimate price tag. Japanese taxpayers are estimated to have recouped less than half what it cost the government to bail out the banks.

A further lesson from Japan is that the bank rescue will determine the fate of the wider economy. While President Obama has prioritized his stimulus plan, no stimulus is likely to succeed unless the banking sector is repaired.

The Japanese crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s had roots similar to the American crisis: a real estate bubble that collapsed, leaving banks holding trillions of yen in loans that were virtually worthless.

Initially, Japan’s leaders underestimated how badly the real estate collapse would hurt the country’s banks. As in the United States, a policy of easy money had fueled both stock and real estate speculation, as well as reckless lending by banks.

Many in Japan thought that low interest rates and economic stimulus measures would help banks recover on their own. In late 1997, however, a string of bank failures set off a crippling credit crisis.

Prodded into action, the government injected 1.8 trillion yen into Japan’s main banks. But the injections — too small, poorly planned and based on little understanding of the extent of the banking sector’s woes — failed to stem the growing crisis.

Fearing more bad news if banks were forced to disclose their real losses, Japan’s leaders allowed banks to keep loans to “zombie” companies on their balance sheets.

Japan, instead, experimented with a series of funds, in part privately financed, to relieve banks of their bad assets.

The funds brought limited results at best, says Takeo Hoshi, economics professor at the University of California, San Diego. For one thing, the funds were too small to make an impact. The depository for bad loans had no orderly way to sell them off. And the purchases that did take place failed to recapitalize banks because the bad assets were priced so low.

So far, the Obama administration’s plan avoids the hardest decisions, like nationalizing banks, wiping out shareholders or allowing banks to collapse under the weight of their own bad debts. In the end, Japan had to do all those things.

Economists say these blunders meant Japan’s financial system did not start to recover until late 2002, six years after the crisis broke. That year, the government of the reformist leader Junichiro Koizumi ordered a tough audit of the country’s top banks.

Called the Takenaka Plan after Heizo Takenaka, who headed the government’s financial reform efforts, the move finally brought the full extent of bad loans to light. Initially, banks lashed out at Mr. Takenaka. “The government can’t order bank management to do this and that,” Yoshifumi Nishikawa, president of the Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, complained to the press in October 2002. “It’s absolutely absurd.”

But Mr. Takenaka stood firm. His rallying cry, he said in an interview on Wednesday, was, “Don’t cover up. Don’t distort principles. Follow the rules.”

“I told the banks clearly, ‘I am in a position to supervise you,’ ” Mr. Takenaka said. “I told them I am not open to negotiation.”

It took three more years to finally get the majority of bad loans off the banks’ books. Resona Bank, which was found to have insufficient capital, was effectively nationalized.

From 1992 to 2005, Japanese banks wrote off about 96 trillion yen, or about 19 percent of the country’s annual G.D.P. But Mr. Takenaka’s toughness restored faith in the banks.

“That was a turning point in the banking crisis,” said Mr. Gomi of the Financial Services Agency, who worked with Mr. Takenaka on the audits.

By then, other factors had fallen into place that aided economic recovery, including a boom in exports to the United States and China.

(Those very share holdings would come back to haunt banks, as the recent market sell-off batters their balance sheets. And as the economy worsens, bad loans are again on the rise, the Financial Services Agency said Tuesday.)

The United States will probably not be able to count on growing demand for its products, since the global economy is worsening.

“The way things are going right now,” said Mr. Hoshi, “the U.S. taxpayers’ burden will keep going up and up.”