The U.S. Financial Crisis: Is Legislative Action the Right Approach?

[A few short years ago, there was a country experiencing significant prosperity.  The flow of credit within the economy was fluid, stock prices were at all time highs, and many people were becoming wealthy in due part to real estate speculation and appreciation.  As the economic outlook in the real estate market was bright, banks began granting increasingly risky loans.  Eventually the bubble burst.  Inflated real estate market values began to decline, lendees found themselves unable to pay back their risky loans, and the credit markets froze.  As a result, government intervention came in the form of subsidizing failing banks and businesses.]

 In the middle of this financial crisis facing our country, one would assume this passage is referring to the United State of America.  However, this is the very similar story of the Japanese housing bubble that burst and led to what is known as the “the lost decade.”  This article will briefly describe the legislative responses taken by the Japanese government to address their crisis, compare those to any similar one’s being taken by the US government in response to its own, and comment which legislative actions may succeed or fail, and why.

                The financial crisis that led to Japan’s “lost decade” is very comparable to the crisis our country is currently facing.  Overnight Japan became one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  In fact, just before the Japanese economy fell into a deep recession, it was experiencing unprecedented prosperity.  This prosperity was attributed to the success Japanese businesses were experiencing in the exporting of Japanese goods, as well as economic policies implemented by their government discouraging the importation of goods.[1]  This led to a massive buildup of the Yen, which in turn led to easily obtainable credit for Japanese citizens and businesses which resulted in real estate and stock speculation.[2]  At its peak, Tokyo’s Ginza District was selling for $139,000 a square foot.[3]  Eventually the bubble burst.  Houses were selling for 1/10th their peak value, and the stock market at one point lost roughly 70% of its value.[4]  Many of the problems causing the deep recession were risky loans and lack of oversight and regulation in the real estate and financial markets.[5]  Although this lack of regulation and oversight was the catalyst behind the deep recession, many economists believe it was the Japanese government’s inaction that led to their great depression. [6] 

                Traditional capitalists believe the government is overstepping its bounds when it intervenes in the private market to rescue failing banks and businesses.  This phenomenon has become to be known as “the bailout.”  Although in Japan’s case, many believe it was their government’s opposition towards the bailout, and policy of “do nothing” while Japanese banks were swallowed by unrecoverable debt that caused ‘the Lost Decade.’ [7]  As a result consumer confidence fell, Japanese citizens saved, and their economy became stagnant.[8]  It was not until 1999 when the government finally responded with legislative action forming the Resolution and Collection Corporation to handle the “toxic” debt. [9] Unfortunately, by this time, the Japanese economy had already fallen into a negative spiral for nearly ten years which is why this time frame was labeled “the lost decade.”  One particular critic of the Japanese government’s inaction was a Princeton University professor who, at the time of the crisis, accredited “exceptionally poor monetary policymaking” for the resulting “lost decade.” [10] That professor was Ben Bernanke, now head of the U.S. Federal Reserve.[11]

                Currently, a little over a decade later, the United States is facing a very similar issue, a real estate market in shambles, and a financial system in crisis.  Recognizing the dangers of sitting idle, the United States, now stuck in its own recession, has moved swiftly with legislative action.   In October of 2008, the Bush Administration implemented a $700 billion bill known as the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 in order to assist financial banks and institutions that were bogged down with “toxic” debt. [12] This act is aimed at purchasing troubled assets from banks (specifically mortgage backed securities) as well as injecting large stakes of capital into financial institutions to ease the flow of credit. [13]  President Obama opined the need for additional legislative action, warning of the United States own “lost decade” if congress did not pass a stimulus bill for the economy. [14]  As a result, congress passed another $800 billion stimulus plan. [15] This bill includes aid to states and local governments, tax provisions, and mass spending for programs like health, education, and renewable energy. [16] In all, the rescue efforts are estimated to total almost $2.5 trillion.[17]

                Suffice it to say, government inaction has not been the route taken amidst the U.S. financial crisis.  This immediate legislative action is a starkly different approach from the “do nothing” policy taken by Japan’s government.  Not until 1997, when one of Japans largest financial institutions failed, did government bailout opposition soften, but by then, the damage had already been done. [18]  In contrast, the U.S. has taken the stance that failure is not an option for large financial institutions.  One specific case was the government bailout of financial giants “Fannie Mae” and “Freddy Mac.” [19]  In fact, some believe it is this legislative response that will help the U.S. economy weather the financial storm much better than Japan did during “the lost decade.”  Taro Aso, Japan’s prime minister, cautioned the United States that procrastination prolonged his country’s financial crisis. [20] However, some legislative action taken by the United States government has been met with criticism.  During Japan’s economic downturn the government increased spending on public works programs like infrastructure investment that had no beneficial effect of pulling the economy out of the recession. [21] These are exactly the types of projects President Obama plans to implement to steer off the deepening crisis. [22]  Economists from the Cato Institute, a non-profit public policy research foundation, have voiced their opinions that government spending is not a way to improve economic performance. [23][24]   If this approach will work for the U.S. remains to be seen. 

                Whether or not the U.S. government has taken the right approach with its legislative action will be decided in the next few years.  One thing this government cannot be criticized of is its inaction to address the crisis. We can only hope this response will prevent our country from falling into a “lost decade” of our own, just as Japan suffered as a result of its own real estate bubble. 

               

  End Notes:

[1] William Patalon, The Lost Decade: How the U.S. Financial Crisis Resembles Japan’s Ten Years of Misery- And How to Play it, MONEY MORNING, available at  http://www.moneymorning.com/2008/07/17/the-lost-decade/.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Justin McCurry, Japan’s Lost Decade, GUARDIAN, Sept. 30, 2008, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/sep/30/japan.japan.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. 

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Eric Weiner, What the US Can Learn from Japan’s ‘Lost Decade,’ NPR, Mar. 13, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88156284.

[11] Id.

 [12] Dina Temple-Rason, Bush Signs $700 Billion Financial Bailout Bill, NPR, Oct. 3, 2008, http://www-cdn.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95336601.

[13] Id.

[14] Laura Meckler and Jonathan Weisman, Obama Warns of ‘Lost Decade,’ WALL ST. J., Feb. 10, 2009, available at  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123419281562063867.html?mod=rss_Today's_Most_Popular.

[15] Economic Stimulus, N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 23, 2009, available at  http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/subjects/u/united_states_economy/economic_stimulus/index.html.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. 

[18] McCurry, supra note 5.

[19] Statement by Federal Reserve Board of Chairman Ben Bernanke, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, available at http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/press/other/20080907a.htm.

[20] McCurry, supra note 5.

[21] Weiner, supra note 10.

[22] Economic Stimulus, supra note 15.

[23] CATO Institute, www.cato.org (last visited Mar. 3, 2009). 

[24] David Nicklaus, Economists Say Stimulus Won’t Work, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, Jan. 29, 2009, available at  http://www.stltoday.com/blogzone/mound-city-money/us-economy/2009/01/economists-say-stimulus-wont-work/.

 

               

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