Take It From Japan: Bubbles Hurt

Take It From Japan: Bubbles Hurt
Country Suffered One of the Biggest Real Estate Collapses

With housing prices in the United States looking wobbly after years of spectacular gains, it may be helpful to look at the last major economy to have a real estate bubble pop: Japan. What Americans see may scare them, but they may also learn ways to ease the pain.

Japan suffered one of the biggest property market collapses in modern history. At the market’s peak in 1991, all the land in Japan, a country the size of California, was worth about $18 trillion, or almost four times the value of all property in the United States at the time.

Then came the crashes in both stocks and property, after the Japanese central bank moved too aggressively to raise interest rates. Both markets spiraled downward as investors sold stocks to cover losses in the land market, and vice versa, plunging prices into a 14-year trough, from which they are only now starting to recover.

Now the land in Japan is worth less than half its 1991 peak, while property in the United States has more than tripled in value, to about $17 trillion.

Homeowners were among the biggest victims of the Japanese real estate bubble. In Japan’s six largest cities, residential prices dropped 64 percent from 1991 to last year. By most estimates, millions of homebuyers took substantial losses on the largest purchase of their lives.

They are also visible in statistics. Residential home prices in Tokyo rose 0.5 percent in the 12 months through July, the first gain in 15 years, the government said in September. Nationwide, land prices are still down, but the pace of decline has slowed to a crawl, the government said.

Japanese economists say the United States is not likely to suffer a decline that is as severe or long-lasting as Japan’s, because they see a more skilled hand at the tiller of the American economy: the Federal Reserve.

Akio Makabe, a finance professor at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, says the Fed has been more deft in handling the rise in America’s property market, which he believes is definitely in a bubble. He praised the Fed for apparently learning from Japan’s mistakes, tightening more gradually and taking the economy’s pulse as it does so.

“Japan shows the importance of avoiding a hard landing,” Professor Makabe said. “Avoid big shocks. That is the biggest lesson of Japan’s bubble.”

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