Deflating the Japanese Horror Story

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Sunday, 17 October 2010 07:40

The NYT devoted a lengthy piece to telling readers how bad things in Japan have been since its bubbles collapsed in 1990. It gets many things badly wrong.

First and most importantly, Japan is actually considerably wealthier on average today than it was in 1990, contrary to the implication of this article. According to the IMF, per capita income is 16.4 percent higher in Japan today than it was in 1990. This is considerably less than the 21.5 percent growth in the UK over this period or the 36.6 percent increase in the United States, but it is still a substantial gain in living standards. It is also worth noting that Japan's gain in per capita income was accompanied by a considerable shortening in the ratio of hours worked to population (shorter workweeks and more retirees).

However the biggest flaw in the piece is its obsession with deflation. Japan's has suffered from deflation in the last two decades, but the rate of price decline has always been very gradual. Only in 2009 did it even exceed 1.0 percent. (It is projected to be larger than 1.0 percent this year.)

It makes very little difference to an economy whether prices are falling by 0.5 percent or rising by 0.5 percent. The argument that people put off purchases because they see prices falling is just silly. If prices are declining at the rate of 0.5 percent a year, then someone considering the purchase of an $800 refrigerator can save $4 by waiting a year. It is unlikely that these sorts of savings would have much impact on even the purchase of a big ticket item; it's inconceivable that they would have any impact on the purchase of more every day items like food and clothing.

The real issue is simply that Japan's inflation rate has been too low. In this sense, a 0.5 percent deflation rate is worse than a 0.5 percent inflation rate. But a 0.5 percent inflation rate is also worse than a 1.5 percent inflation rate. A low inflation rate, whether positive or negative, keeps real interest rates higher than would be desirable in a severe downturn. It also prevents the economy from inflating away the debt burden left over from the housing bubble.

This point is important because many people wrongly believe that the United States will only be suffering from a problem of too low inflation if the inflation rate actually turns negative and we have deflation. This is not true. The inflation rate in the United States is already a level that is hampering growth. Any further drop in the inflation rate will make the situation worse but there is no importance to crossing zero.

One final point worth noting: this article implies that Japan's low birthrate is a bad thing. Actually, Japan is a very densely populated country. This is why house prices are so high. If its population declined then housing prices would fall. (This is a sophisticated economic concept known as "supply and demand.") A lower population would also mean less greenhouse gas emissions for those who care about the future of the planet. For these reasons, a low birthrate could help Japan in the future.