Please, Sayle-san, lend your bank some money

Murray Sayle tells a tale of a Japanese financial panic that is starting in his village
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The Independent Online
I WAS AT HOME in our Japanese mountain village one snowy Monday morning last December when a polite young man tapped at our door.

We know him well. He works at our local building society, which takes deposits and lends to buy homes. "Can you help us out, Sayle-san?" he asked. "If you have any money around the house, please come and pay it in straight away. It's only for 24 hours. You can take it out again tomorrow."

"We'd like to help," said my wife, Jenny, who is English and sensible, "but as it happens, we don't have an account with you. And what you have just said doesn't exactly persuade us to open one. Why do you need my house-keeping money?"

"Well, it's no big deal," he said. "I'll try next door." And off he went.

I went round later to ask our visitor what was going on. His new office, all glass and chrome, stands out among the old wooden houses of our village street. "We don't keep cash here over the weekend," he explained. "I was afraid that someone would try to take money out this morning, the word would get round that we couldn't pay, and in an hour we'd be cleaned out."

Then the phone rang. "If you have any money in the Yokohama Bank get it out," a friendly neighbour advised. "They'll be the next to go."

Jenny went down to look and, sure enough, there were queues to make withdrawals. It turned out to be just a rumour, but the fact that it was being spread about one of Japan's oldest banks shows how jumpy the Japanese are getting these days.

Oriental windiness? I consulted a couple of economic classics I have been reading recently, Manias, Panics and Crashes, by Charles P Kindleberger, and his even more ominously titled The World in Depression, 1929-1939.

During the great British crash of 1826, the Times reported, "a panic seized upon the public, such as had never been witnessed before: everybody begging for money - money - but money was hardly upon any condition to be had."

The Bank of Japan has been pouring liquidity (bankerese for cash) into the Japanese economy since 1989; the presses, it is said, are thundering like Hondas, churning out banknotes, stacking them up in the cellars against - what?

Readers who get lost in the blizzard of zeros on the financial pages still know that the principle of fractional reserve banking, invented in Florence about the time Donatello was chiselling David, is that a lot more can be loaned out than is actually in the vault, provided everyone doesn't ask for his or her money back at the same time. It is this quirk of human credulity that, in fact, makes banking possible.

Credit, we recall, is the Latin for "he believes it", and as long as belief is strong, the cupboard can actually be bare, behind the imposing facades favoured by bank architects.

We humans are adept at inventing new forms of money: credit cards, cheques, certificates of deposit, IOUs, even the standing offer of a fiver until pay-day are all forms of money; the list is endless. So when enough people sincerely want to become rich by buying assets to sell them again, or just buying the right to sell them to the next punter in line, shortage of cash, east or west, has never yet stopped them.

Something like this happened in Tokyo in the late 1980s - a bubble or speculative boom, based on big-city real estate and shares with the slightest land components, even as slender as a link to memberships in imaginary golf clubs. At its height, one memorable calculation showed that Emperor Akihito's palace in Tokyo, about the size of London's Hyde Park, was worth more than Canada.

In January 1990, Japan's supply of optimists ran out, as it always does. There ensued what Germans, who often have them, call a Torschlusspanik - a rush to get out before the door shuts.

The banks were left with a package of bad loans totalling, by the government's own admission, Y76 trillion, or around $540bn - but, if we include the deficit in the Japanese postal savings system, it was probably nearer a round $1 trillion.

Oriental inscrutability alone has enabled the Japanese bureaucrats to conceal this enormous hole in the national finances for close on eight years, while hoping for something to turn up. It has, however, turned down. And it has happened in, of all places, the lands of tinkling temple bells and pedigreed fat cats (both feline and human), South-East Asia - once part of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and now Japan's valley of despond.

"Bubble" is a misleading metaphor for what happens when greed temporarily overcomes fear in a collective psyche. "Boil" would be better, because when a boil bursts it leaves a hole. Bust follows boom, as the process goes into reverse. Japan has been in and out of a deflationary spiral since 1990; and as John Maynard Keynes observed, there is a degree of deflation no banking system can withstand.

The one bright spot has been Japan's mighty export industries, whose worldwide market shares have replaced the lost empire as Japan's manifest destiny. Exporting from a depressed economy which imports the bare minimum, however, puts your currency up and up, and eventually chokes off your exports - the British predicament that sparked the Jarrow march.

In 1985 a dollar bought almost Y240. By 1992 it was down to Y80. Exports became all but unexportable. Japan's response was to move production offshore, where meek labour for as little as a dollar a day beckoned from among the palm trees.

Altogether Japan invested $271bn in other Asian countries in the mid 1990s. The result was to duplicate in those cleaner, greener lands (but not for long, after the factories arrived) Japan's own bloated export industries, all competing for the same markets in Europe and the US.

As the competition got hotter, the Japanese poured more into Asia, blowing up bigger credit-fed bubbles. A year ago "international speculators", sincerely wanting to be even richer, selected the Thai baht as the easiest to pick off, in a practised short-sell. The Asian chain of bubbles collapsed, the most spectacular, of course, being Indonesia, with blood flowing in the streets.

Indonesia was also Japan's biggest borrower. Asia had been taking a quarter of Japan's exports, and the loans there suddenly joined the "non-performing" mountain back home. An important bank and one of Japan's "Big Four" brokerage houses went bust. The rest slammed the credit window shut. Two weeks later the young man was at our door, asking for Jenny's housekeeping money.

Let us, a little uneasily perhaps, reconsult our economic guru Kindleberger. On the classical path to depression, he says, we first see displacement, a move the system is unused to - such as the Japanese-led expedition to South-East Asia, perhaps?

Then we have what used to be called overtrading: lenders who have to keep on lending to borrowers who can't stop borrowing. This is followed by a phase of distress, the whole credit mechanism stretched taut as a Japanese drum.

In the distress phase, says Kindleberger, demand falls, and supply follows. People are thrown out of work, demand falls some more, and so down the deadly spiral.

At least two remedies, contradictory, it is true, could be tried: either let the fires of speculation burn themselves out, no matter who gets singed; or conversely, use public money, that is, our future taxes, to prop up every bad loan, every hungry speculator, every bent politician, so the relatively good times can keep rolling for us all.

The Japanese, as they often do, are trying both simultaneously, which is not doing much for their business confidence. But surely an intelligent, caring world system won't let some selfish impulse, some bad idea, some purely temporary shortage ...

Just a tick. Somebody's at the door.

A longer version of this article appears in this week's `New Statesman'.