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Japan blazes a trail for living with stagnation and deflation

The Asian nation's so-called Lost Decade, which the U.S. may be mirroring, offers Americans lessons on the good (lower prices, cheap mortgages) and the bad (skimpy pay raises, little or no appreciation in home values).

December 02, 2010|By Don Lee, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tokyo — With some U.S. economists now predicting years of slow growth, stagnant salaries and even deflation, ordinary Americans may furrow their brows and wonder just what that means for them.

The answer may lie in the experiences of a 45-year-old systems engineer named Hiroshi K., his wife and two children. After more than 10 years of living it, they know all about stagnation and deflation — the good and the bad.

The 30-year mortgage on their house in a Tokyo suburb now carries an interest rate of just 2.5%. Recently, when the family bought a 46-inch high-definition television set, they got one-third off the $1,450 sticker price. Hiroshi's wife gets her hair done for $25, less than half the cost 10 years ago.

That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that the family waited months for prices on the TV to drop; much of the price break came from government subsidies and retailer incentives.

Also, Hiroshi has not seen a significant pay raise in a decade, so he's not spending more either. And his 1,000-square-foot home is worth about the same as when he bought it seven years ago.

If Hiroshi's story sounds familiar to Americans, it's because the United States — caught in the economic doldrums after the worst recession in more than a generation — is beginning to display many of the characteristics of Japan's so-called Lost Decade.

That's the period when a booming economy that many expected to dominate the world instead ground to a halt, then slipped into a deflationary spiral that continues today.

Sitting under a cherry blossom tree at Ueno Park on a recent Sunday afternoon, Hiroshi — who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for how his employer might react to his candor — spoke about deep-seated worries that many Americans could relate to: job security, retirement, his children's future.

"Because of the uncertain economy, I can't really plan our future life," he said, his thin face tightening ever so slightly. He said he already changed jobs five times since graduating from technical college, something unthinkable for his parents' generation. "They never had that kind of worry."

Widespread layoffs and lower-paying jobs are nothing new in the United States. In recessions, U.S. companies have always cut back. But U.S. downturns also typically haven't lasted long, and they've been followed by extended boom times and bursts of hiring.

What's different now is that the U.S., after the big recession, could be settling into a long period of sluggish growth with little prospect for a quick fix.

Slow growth and high unemployment tend to depress consumer prices as well as home values in Japan and the United States. But counterintuitive as it may seem, falling prices tend to discourage spending, not stimulate it. People hesitate to make big purchases for things they think will soon be worth less, especially homes.

Also, Americans are mired in debt, and the stubbornly high unemployment rates have made people feel insecure even if they still have jobs.

Even though the Federal Reserve is holding interest rates unusually low to stimulate economic activity, it's swimming against the current because businesses are reluctant to borrow money and expand, questioning whether hard-pressed consumers will buy more.

Many analysts, looking for a bright side, point out that the United States has a much more dynamic economy than Japan — with greater labor mobility and inherently more entrepreneurial energy. America's working-age population is not shrinking, as Japan's is. And perhaps most important of all, American officials have studied the policy missteps of the Japanese.

Even so, more than a few prominent economists, including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, see the U.S. possibly sliding down a similarly dark path in which prices and wages fall and the economy stagnates. In some ways, the situation may turn out to be worse for Americans than it has been for the Japanese:

Japan's social norms and institutions provide more support for workers as well as homeowners and bank clients in trouble.

"In a few years, we may envy Japan," says R. Taggart Murphy, professor of global management at Tsukuba University in Tokyo.

By world standards, Japan remains rich and fairly comfortable. Average household income is about $62,000 — slightly less than in the U.S. — based on the latest government data.

Japan's unemployment rate has been running 4% to 5%, about double the rate in the go-go 1980s, but still just half of the current U.S. rate of 9.6%.

Much of Tokyo still looks rich. Sparkling towers are rising. Bullet trains run on time. Shopping districts are teeming.

But discount stores are springing up too. In Tokyo's famous upscale Ginza shopping district, where real estate once sold for as much as $139,000 per square foot, the biggest new thing are stores like Forever 21, a Los Angeles chain of fashionable clothing that stresses value.

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