Lessons The US Can Learn From Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’
A record-long U.S. bull market hasn’t stopped investors from asking: Is Japanification coming this way, too? Lessons The US Can Learn From Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’
The S&P 500 has soared 800% over the past 30 years, overcoming bear markets and a financial crisis. It almost seems as if stocks can’t go down, at least not for long.
On Dec. 29, 1989, the Nikkei Stock Average closed at a record 38915.87. Then it fell. And it never came back. Thirty years later, the Japanese market languishes 40% below its all-time high.
And Japan isn’t an easily dismissed outlier; it is a free-trading, technologically savvy developed market, in many ways not that dissimilar to the U.S.
Could What Happened There Happen Here?
Like Japan, the U.S. has an aging population and a concentration of industry among a small number of giant businesses. In 2019, U.S. interest rates fell sharply, sparking serious discussion in markets, perhaps for the first time, of whether long-term rates could fall to zero or even turn negative. That already has happened in Japan and in much of Europe.
“Developed economies that are maturing that have demographic headwinds are going to face many of the same things Japan has been facing over decades,” said Joseph Amato, president and chief investment officer of equities at Neuberger Berman. “It’s almost inevitable.”
What can the past three decades in Japan’s markets and economy tell us about what’s in store?
1. Subpar Returns.
In a world that looks increasingly like Japan, the returns that investors will get on assets ranging from stocks to bonds are likely to become scarcer in the years to come, analysts and portfolio managers say.
“It’s not that there’s no economic growth. It’s just that the likely ability for us to grow at anything like an acceptable rate in the future is now increasingly likely to be challenged,” said Neil Dwane, portfolio manager and global strategist with Allianz Global Investors.
The U.S. still has demographics on its side: While its population ranks as the 61st oldest in the world, Japan’s is far older, in second place globally behind Monaco, according to the CIA World Factbook. The rapid aging of Japan’s population has driven up health-care and pension costs, slowed productivity and chipped away at its workforce at a pace that the U.S. hasn’t had to deal with so far.
But the U.S. economy has undoubtedly cooled. Treasury yields, which came close to hitting record lows in 2019, are trading well below historical averages. Corporate earnings are likely to end 2019 nearly even with the prior year after several quarters of tax-cut-fueled growth. Productivity has withered, growing an average of 1.3% annually between 2007 and 2018 after increasing by an average rate of 2.7% between 2000 and 2007.
“It’s hard to come up with a scenario that gets us to where trend line growth is 3%,” said Dave Donabedian, chief investment officer of CIBC Private Wealth Management. Given U.S. markets look expensive relative to their peers, Mr. Donabedian expects stocks and bonds to deliver below-average returns over the next five to 10 years, and unloved areas such as emerging markets to potentially become more attractive over that time.
A future in which growth is scarcer also will throw into question strategies that have rewarded investors over the past decade, such as buying and holding passive, index-tracking funds in the U.S. or following the age-old wisdom of allocating 60% of one’s portfolio to stocks and 40% to bonds.
Japan already is feeling the pinch: The national pension fund hasn’t grown rapidly enough to keep up with a rapid rise in the elderly population. As a result, the country’s Financial Services Agency released a report in June warning that a typical couple would have to save at least $185,000—in addition to whatever they contributed to their pension over their lifetime—to sustain themselves after retiring. That has troubling implications for a country where, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, more than half of retirees live on pension payouts alone.
In the U.S., a similar problem is developing for state and local governments trying to deliver on promised benefits for retired workers. Public pension funds often can’t deliver returns at the pace that they need to fund future payouts for retirees, and many managers of such funds have had to lower their predictions of what they will be able to earn in future years. That is forcing governments to turn to unpalatable measures to stave off a shortfall in funding, such as venturing into riskier investments including commodities, private equity or real estate. Some analysts worry those could backfire in a downturn.
“This type of low-return environment has significant challenges for everyone who provides pensions, asset managers and also millennials who will be saving for their future,” said Allianz Global Investors’ Mr. Dwane.
2. Policy is key.
Another lesson drawn from Japan and increasingly Europe is that negative interest rates aren’t easy to quit. And they aren’t a panacea, either.
Over the past decade, the Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and Swiss National Bank, among other central banks, have cut their benchmark interest rates to below zero to try to fend off the threat of a deflationary spiral. The experiment hasn’t worked. In fact, central banks that introduced negative interest rates expecting them to be a short-term remedy have been unable to transition back.
That has diminished the attractiveness of yield-bearing assets in those countries and distorted asset prices, investors say. Bond yields in countries including Germany, France and Austria have fallen to record lows. Bank profits have taken a hit, hurt by falling net-interest margins, or the gap between what they pay for funding and what they make from loans.
“Rather than creating or accelerating economic activity, negative interest rates basically just lead to the zombification of the economy over time,” said Hans Olsen, chief investment officer of Fiduciary Trust.
Negative rates don’t look as if they will be coming to the U.S. soon. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, testifying before Congress in November, said “the very, very low and even negative rates that we see around the world would not be appropriate for our economy.”
Even so, the problems ailing Europe and Japan are a cautionary tale that show the U.S. can’t necessarily rely on monetary policy alone to support its economy—especially with interest rates already at relatively low levels.
“The toolbox is less full today than it was in 2007,” said Neuberger Berman’s Mr. Amato. “To spur growth above what has come to be described as trend line growth, you’re going to need more help from the fiscal side of the ledger.”
Japan has recently taken steps to bring about exactly that, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet passing a $120 billion stimulus program in December to help offset a slowdown in the global economy and a recent sales-tax increase. It is questionable, though, whether the U.S. would be able to do the same in the near term. Control over Congress remains divided, and politicians are turning their focus to the 2020 elections.
That hasn’t stopped the U.S. bull market so far. But unless U.S. politicians are able to push through growth-boosting structural reforms, be they related to health care, infrastructure or immigration, it is hard to figure out where the U.S. will get its next growth boost from, Mr. Dwane said.
3. Markets aren’t everything.
A final takeaway: The growth rate of a country’s economy and market isn’t necessarily indicative of its residents’ standard of living.
Japan’s residents enjoy among the longest average life expectancy in the world. Crime rates are relatively low and the country’s health-care and public-education systems score highly in international rankings.
But decades of slow growth have nevertheless taken their toll on the country. Consumers are becoming glum about economic prospects, with one measure of consumer sentiment this fall dropping to the lowest level since Japan’s Cabinet Office began administering the survey in 2013.
And underneath the surface, there are signs of increasing strain. Young workers worry they won’t be able to save enough for retirement. And the elderly face particularly daunting prospects, with 1 in 5 Japanese citizens age 65 or older living in relative poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is higher than the average of 14% among OECD members.
The government is hoping the sales-tax increase passed in October will help boost its coffers without denting consumer spending. It also is loosening its immigration policy in an attempt to try to expand its labor force—although, as a famously homogeneous society, foreigners will face an uphill battle to integrate into the country.
There are no easy fixes in sight. As other countries around the world get progressively older, some money managers warn that Japan is a case study in what could go wrong.
“Japan is what happens if we don’t do structural reform,” Mr. Dwane said.
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