But for a long time the problem of misallocated investment, which was whispered about in Japan but not taken too seriously, didn’t seem to matter. After all, as nearly everyone knew, Japan’s leaders were extremely smart, with a deep knowledge of the very special circumstances that made Japan different from other countries and not subject to “western” economic laws, with real control over the economy, with a strong grasp of history and penchant for long-term thinking, and most of all with a clear understanding of what was needed to fix Japan’s problems.Stein's law, famously, says that "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." I would like to propose two corollaries that I've observed empirically in human affairs:
And look what a great job they had already done: by the early 1990s Japan had generated so much investment-driven growth that it had grown from 7% of global GDP in 1970 to 10% in 1980, and then surged to nearly 18% at its peak in the early 1990s. In about twenty years Japan’s share of global GDP was two-and-a-half times its initial share. That is an extraordinary growth story and one that can only be explained as a function of a new kind of economic thinking, right?
But less than twenty years later, after a terribly long struggle to adjust to high debt levels and massive overinvestment, Japan is about to be overtaken by China with only 8% of global GDP. Japan, in other words, has given back in less than two decades almost the entire GDP share it had taken in the two astonishing decades that preceded it (while during the same period the US has maintained its share). What’s worse, it is hard to pick up a newspaper today and read about Japanese policymakers without getting the idea that they are a totally dysfunctional, narrowly ambitious, and not especially savvy lot, much like their US and European peers. As Mortimer Snerd used to say, who woulda thunk it?
- It will go on a lot longer than we think
- It will end badly when it does stop.