Japan in the 1990s — or Italy in the 1970s?

Among economic policy thinkers, the idea that the United States is trapped in a Japan-style balance sheet recession is very widely held. Last month, Noam Scheiber wrote an excellent piece on this line of thinking, drawing on the work of economist Richard Koo:

 

Koo’s view is that consumers and businesses who take on enormous debt during a bubble abruptly shift gears once the bubble bursts, spending very little while they pay off loans. Moreover, this stinginess continues until the process of debt-repayment (economists call it “deleveraging”) is complete, creating a huge drain on the economy. In the case of Japan, whose real estate and stock markets collapsed in the early ’90s, this took over a decade. During that time, Koo argues, the only force propping up the economy was massive amounts of government stimulus. He tells a similar story about the Great Depression.

But what if Japan isn’t the right analogy? My colleagues at Economics 21 have just published an editorial suggesting that there are noteworthy similarities between the U.S. at present and Italy in the 1970s:

 

Rather than focus obsessively on the inapt comparison to Japan, the Fed should be more concerned about the growing similarities between the U.S. and 1970s Italy. Italy experienced financial crises in 1974 and 1976 spurred by large current account deficits, excessive public spending, and a central bank that acquired Italian government debt by printing money. These crises required external financial assistance, led to abrupt and disorderly swings in public finances, and bred political instability. The country moved from economic stimulus, to severe fiscal and monetary contractions, back to expansionary policy. Balance of payments difficulties were persistently addressed through currency depreciation to gain competitive advantage. From June 1972 to August 1977, the Italian lira fell from 579.71 versus the dollar to 884.76 – a depreciation of more than 34%. [Emphasis added.]

The chart below compares recent U.S. public financial data to that of Italy in the 1970s. Relative to 1970s Italy, the U.S. has run larger current account deficits and generated slower economic growth. The U.S. investment rate has barely exceeded Italy’s anemic 13.5% average, and the dollar’s depreciation against gold has been only somewhat less steep than the lira’s fall in the 1970s. The U.S. budget deficit is much larger, although this comparison is difficult to make because official Italian budget deficits tended to understate the government’s true financing needs, which exceeded 12% of GDP in 1977.

If the Italian analogy holds, it might have implications for how we should think about quantitative easing:

 

Between 1974 and 1976, the Italian central bank printed lira in mass quantities to buy Italian government debt. This “large scale asset purchase” program led to a more than 100% increase in the monetary base. This was actually a much smaller increase in the monetary base than that engineered by the Fed’s money printing operations. From February 2008 to February 2010, the U.S. monetary base increased by more than 150% – from $822.54 billion to $2.11 trillion. The Italian central bank accelerated its money printing in conjunction with a “large fiscal reflation” package adopted in August 1975, much as the Fed’s quantitative easing began roughly the same time as the fiscal stimulus.

Although the stimulus and money printing succeeded in generating positive growth in 1976, it also precipitated a crisis in the lira. Mario Monti, later competition commissioner of the European Union, predicted the crisis in late 1975 based purely on observed growth in base money. Foreign creditors – responsible for financing 7.2% of GDP in domestic Italian borrowing during 1973-76 – fled Italian securities causing the value of the lira to fall by 35% in less than five months. Less than two years after the last crisis, the Italian financial system was again embroiled in a panic as printing money to accommodate spending in excess of income at both the government and national levels widened current account deficits and triggered a foreign investor revolt. [Emphasis added.]

Just as Italy went from one financial crisis in 1974 to another in 1976, is the U.S. poised to follow its 2008 financial crisis with another in 2011 or 2012? Maybe. Just as Italian easy monetary policy boosted domestic demand, which could not be satisfied by domestic production even as it reduced the value of the lira, the Fed’s policy has stimulated domestic consumption and reduced the trade-weighted value of the dollar without materially closing the current account since 2008.

Keep in mind that this editorial is part of an ongoing conversation. It is very possible that the Italy analogy is flawed. I’m hoping that Scott Sumner, Karl Smith, and others who favor a more aggressive use of monetary accommodation will weigh in on the editorial.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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