The question now is how to execute the transition to a more balanced relationship among the world’s economies, including and especially in the relationship between the US and Japan. How can the US become relatively more predisposed to production and Japan relatively more predisposed to consumption (especially of imports from the US and elsewhere)? The FT’s Wolfgang Münchau praises the G20 for at least recognizing the problem of imbalances. For his part Münchau rejects the notion that adjustment can happen automatically simply by US households changing their behavior — or rather, that it can happen, but the transition will be painful everywhere, as Japanese exporters, deprived of American consumption, have discovered over the past year. Instead he argues that each country will have to adjust in its own way:
The answer is that policy will have to be tailor-made to suit the specific circumstances of each country. China will probably not be able to reduce its excessive current account surplus without a revaluation of the renminbi. In Germany, the best overall macro-policy instrument would be a big tax cut to boost domestic demand. In the UK, restoration of balance will have to include heavy cuts in public spending, while Spain will also have to raise taxes, even in addition to last week’s announcement of a rise in value-added tax.
And what of Japan?
The DPJ fully acknowledged during the campaign that the challenge facing the government is managing the transition from the postwar producer economy — divided between efficient exporters and inefficient domestic producers and service providers — to a more consumer-centered economy.
But less clear is how the Hatoyama government plans to contribute to the global rebalancing. After all, the government has few policy tools at its disposal. Interest rates cannot go any lower. The government’s debt burden limits its ability to use public funds to make up for weak private consumption. The yen’s exchange rate is one tool available to the government, but as Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa’s conflicting remarks suggest, there are political limits to how far the government can permit an undervalued yen to rise. After stating following a summit with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh last week that the government would not intervene to keep the yen down, Fujii subsequently softened his position, alluding to intervention should the dollar-yen exchange rate rise too rapidly.
Richard Posner’s note upon reading John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money for the first time — “How I Became a Keynesian” — makes for interesting reading in light of Japan’s dilemma. Posner highlights Keynes’s focus on consumption as the engine of growth in an economy — and how uncertainty can trigger hoarding. “People do not save just to be able to make a specific future expenditure; they may also be hedging against uncertainty,” writes Posner. “And the third claim, related to the second, is that uncertainty — in the sense of a risk that, unlike the risk of losing at roulette, cannot be calculated — is a pervasive feature of the economic environment, particularly with respect to projects intended to satisfy future consumption.” This passage strikes me as a particularly succinct description of the problem faced by the Japanese government since the bubble burst: how can the government dispel the ubiquitous sense of uncertainty on the part of Japan’s aging consumers? LDP governments engaged in policies that took the outward form of Keynesianism — large-scale construction projects — without appreciating the essence of Keynes, that the goal ultimately was (and is) getting consumers secure enough to spend their own money again. For all the dams and bridges built by the government, the money probably would have been better spent rebuilding the social safety net, which would have in turn made the economy better capable of weathering the transition from the producer-centered dual economy.
In short, the DPJ-led government will attempt what should have been done a decade ago, except that now its fiscal policy options are constrained and the global economy is recovering from a monumental crisis. It will have less recourse to foreign demand to ease the pain of transition than the LDP had up until the global financial crisis. Ultimately the DPJ may be able to do little more than make the transformation marginally less painful, but, as Noah Smith wrote at this blog earlier this year, it will be painful nevertheless. The DPJ may be able to extend its time in office if it is able to deliver adequate social spending in its budgets, but admittedly the prospects for success are grim. The government may simply not have the tools at its disposal to overcome the thriftiness of the Japanese people in an age of uncertainty — but it could pay the political price for “inaction” anyway.