Economist Richard Bernstein yesterday made a persuasive case that our attempts to rescue failed companies may be putting us on the path to mimic Japan’s lost decade of economic stangation. The basic problem is rather simple: after a bubble bursts, it needs to deflate, which results in massive dislocations, consolidations and failures. This is painful but necessary to move on to healthier growth. But politicians aren’t allowing this process to work.
Ignoring this history, the goal of Washington’s policies has been to stymie the inevitable consolidation, keeping companies operating – and employing voters – rather than managing the consolidation to maximise the economic benefit. History says that Washington’s is an unwise and ultimately fruitless strategy. Certainly, there may be short-term gains in an economy by keeping a bubble’s unnecessary capacity alive (this may explain the recent improvement in economic statistics), but the continued misallocation of capital significantly hinders longer-term growth.
Washington’s tact has not been unusual. Politicians everywhere are naturally fearful of post-bubble consolidation because it always means higher unemployment and voter distress. As a result, policies in post-bubble environments tend to sustain an economy’s unneeded capacity, with the hope that economic growth will rebound so the economy can eventually grow into and soak up those excesses.
Japan’s post-bubble strategy during the 1990s supported excess capacity and stymied the post-bubble consolidation forces. Companies were deemed “too big to fail”, and excess capacity (particularly in the financial sector) was kept alive. Basic economics states that significant overcapacity leads to lower product prices, and Japan’s policies accordingly resulted in an extended period of deflation. Japan did have some inflation during its “lost decade”, courtesy of China’s boom, which soaked up Japan’s excesses. However, deflation returned to Japan and overcapacity grew once the Chinese economy cooled.
US policymakers made a clear choice to follow a Japanese-like route when they declared that a select group of financial institutions were too big to fail, and devised the troubled asset relief programme (Tarp), term asset-backed securities loan facility, and public-private investment programme. The bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler may seem to run counter to this contention, because the government took swift action to reduce unnecessary productive capacity, but it will be interesting to see how the government deals with the resulting consolidation within the industries that supply carmakers.
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