Japan's Economy Shows Limits of Keynesian Policies

by: Daryl Montgomery

Second quarter GDP figures show that the Japanese economy has fallen behind China's and is now only the third largest in the world. Japan has engaged in 20 years of massive government stimulus programs and kept interest rates low, but this has failed to reignite GDP growth. Instead, its economy continues to slowly sink.

In the 1980s, Japan was an unstoppable economic juggernaut that everyone feared. It all ended when a spectacular stock market and real estate bubble blew up in the early 1990s. These bubbles were the ultimate outcome of excessive stimulus over many decades. Initially, that stimulus acted to revive the Japanese economy from the ruins of World War II. In the end, huge asset bubbles resulted. These collapsed throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. One government stimulus program after another during that time only had temporary impact on the economy. As soon as the stimulus ended, economic growth disappeared. The U.S. is currently finding itself in the same situation.

A continual backdrop of close to zero short-term interest rates, known as ZIRP - zero interest rates policy - also did not revive the economy. Japanese government longer-term bond interest rates also collapsed, with the 10-year rate falling below 0.5% at one point. Extremely low government bond rates indicate too much liquidity exists in an economy and the government is getting too big a share of it. Businesses can be starved for capital under such circumstances and this in turn limits economic growth instead of stimulating it. This same pattern is emerging in the United States right now. The two-year bond interest rate has been at record lows for weeks. Rates fell to 0.48% this morning. The lowest rate during the Credit Crisis was 0.60%.

Keynesian economics became the almost universal approach for economic policy in the developed economies after World War II. Keynes recommended initiatives, stimulus during a downturn and paying off the stimulus debt during the recovery, got horribly mangled to more and more stimulus during a downturn and somewhat less stimulus during a recovery. This is essentially an ongoing money-printing scam. Like many scams, it works well as long as it doesn't get out of control. Eventually though some huge crisis becomes inevitable after decades of excessive stimulus and the economy falls apart. Stimulus no longer works then. After two decades, the Japanese have failed to realize this. The economic establishment in the U.S. is equally oblivious.

China is only in the early stages of the stimulus manipulation of its economy and is now the world's current economic powerhouse. It surpassed the UK (the world's largest economy until the U.S knocked it out of the box around 1880) in 2005, Germany in 2007, and now Japan in 2010. Media reports in 2009, estimated that China would overtake Japan in 2012 or 2013. Time seems to be speeding up. The Washington Post also predicted last year that China could overtake the U.S. as early as 2027, which was much sooner than other predictions, which are as late as 2040. Even 2027 might prove to be optimistic however.

Disclosure: No positions.