US policymakers take note: Let markets clear.
A little knowledge can be not just dangerous but grossly misleading. That is the right conclusion to draw from the latest, surprisingly reassuring data about the US economy and from the interview in Thursday's Wall Street Journal in which Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that America must avoid a "Japanese-like situation."
Senator Clinton should have researched what actually happened in Japan after its financial crash before using the bogeyman of a Japan-style malaise to support her proposal that taxpayers' money be used to bail out holders of troubled mortgages. She claims that Japan's mistake was to rely excessively on monetary policy to rescue its economy, rather than on fiscal and other measures. The truth is the exact opposite.
Japan's stock market collapse began in January 1990 and continued throughout that year. The property market followed, with a lag. Yet the Bank of Japan did not try to prevent this financial crash from damaging the real economy by cutting interest rates, as the US Federal Reserve has done spectacularly during the past three months. To the contrary, Japan's central bank carried on interest rates until September 1990 and did not make its first cut until July 1991.
In fact, it did not begin using monetary policy as an aggressive tool to arrest the slump until deflation had set in toward the end of the 1990s. Japan did do two things: It used a massive increase in public spending to try to rescue indebted firms and inject money into the economy; and it helped banks conceal the extent of their losses and bad-debt burdens, to prevent markets from clearing at painfully low prices.
The best that can be said about the Japanese experience is that its vast fiscal stimulus may have averted a deep recession at the price of a long stagnation. It also greatly delayed the necessary restructuring of the country's banking system and, by providing huge cash flows to political lobbies, greatly delayed political reform – a mistake from which the country is still suffering.