By orchestrating a massive appreciation of the yen in the mid 1980s, the US condemned Japan to decades of stagnation and ended the challenge to its own economic hegemony. Effectively, Japan was forced to commit financial hara-kiri.
This theory, once confined to Japan’s nationalistic fringe, is now being used by the Chinese authorities to justify their resistance to a substantial revaluation of the renminbi. By so doing they are misdiagnosing Japan’s woes and misperceiving the true threat to their own economy. The threat to China does not lie in an appreciating currency, but elsewhere.
Here’s what happened in the case of Japan. In the Plaza Accord of 1985 the G7 attempted to address global imbalances – worrying then, but small beer by today’s standards – by “encouraging” significant changes in currency parities. They got what they wanted. The yen took off and never looked back.
Japanese policymakers accepted the loss of competitiveness not because they were submissive, but because they were brimming with self-confidence. They believed their economy would survive any downturn with little damage, and they were right: the recession of 1986 was short and shallow.
Furthermore they saw a strong yen as a useful weapon in a world in which Japan’s trading partners were imposing quotas on its most successful companies. Again they were right. The all-powerful yen allowed Japanese auto makers to build up manufacturing capacity inside key Western markets.
They also believed it was high time to shift the Japanese economy from exports to consumption, and that a stronger yen would raise the purchasing power of households. Here, though, they were wrong.
The spending spree of the late 1980s – when Japanese salarymen sprinkled gold-flakes on their noodles and secretaries stayed in the same upmarket Hawaiian resorts as American chief executives – is now a distant memory. (more…)