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Japan's Experience Shows That A National Infrastructure Bank Can Have Very Bad Consequences


A state infrastructure bank will be at the core of President Obama's "jobs program" that he plans to unveil after his vacation. He will argue we desperately need a new government entity to repair our crumbling infrastructure and create jobs.  The president will spin seductive images of high speed trains, highways without traffic jams, and clockwork subways in every city.  With an infrastructure bank, the sky is the limit.

He will roll out respected moderate Republicans and even the Chamber of Commerce to vouch for his bank. His explain that his miserly opponents, like the kooky Tea Party, favor collapsing bridges, traffic jams, and the loss of international competitiveness. Past generations gave us the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. What will we leave behind, he will ask?

Under normal circumstances, the president could sell his infrastructure bank (It only costs $30 billion at the start). But 2010 and the Tea Party will make it a tough sell even to "reasonable" Republicans.

A president who preaches internationalism must look to the experiences of other countries. Japan is a mega model for state infrastructure banks. Its Japanese Postal Bank (JPB), with its 25,000 branches, is the world's largest bank. JPB attracts about one out of every three yen of household savings. It is the world's largest holder of personal savings with household deposits of some $3.3 trillion. Japan has the JPB. It also has high speed trains. The model looks like a good fit for us. Right?

It so happens that JPN is also the world's largest political slush fund. Politicians at all levels direct its funds to voters, constituents, friends, and relatives for infrastructure, construction, and business loans. They basically use it to buy votes, curry favor, and get rich.  They waste depositor money for political gain. If there are losses, we have enough reserves to cover them.

The result: Japan's economy has one of the world's highest investment rates and one of the world's slowest growth rates. Rates of return on invested capital are only a small fraction of that in the U.S.  Over time, we get moderate to high rates of growth from a small amount of capital. Japan gets zero or slow growth from huge amounts of capital.

Japanese politicians understand what is going on, but they like JPN's business as usual.

Japan's best prime minister of recent history, Junichiro Koizumi, ran on a platform of privatizing JPN. With its huge depositor base, private investors salivated over the prospect of buying it up. Koizumi understood that private owners would use JPN for economic gain, and Japan could restart economic growth.

Koizumi risked a special parliamentary election to push JPN's privatization, and in October 2005 parliament passed a bill to privatize JPN by 2007. 2007 came and went. Koizumi retired his popularity intact. It is now 2011. JPB is still owned by the government!

Koizumi's successors blocked JPN privatization, warning of closures of post offices and job losses, but they really did not want to lose their slush fund. As the current Financial Services Minister says: "When the borrower is in trouble, we will grant them a reprieve on their loans. That is the natural thing to do," In other words, a politician/bureaucrat decides who gets loans, who repays, and who is forgiven. This power brings in votes, bribes, and other shenanigans, but it is only "business as usual."

Of course, this would not happen in the United States with a state infrastructure bank. As John Kerry assures us: "The bank will finance economically viable projects without political influence."

Anyone who believes this would be a good candidate to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.


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Reader Comments (1)

A banking system built on lies and deception – Hiding commercial real estate losses by laundering bad loans through the Federal Reserve.

Aug 22, 2011 at 12:23 PM | Registered CommenterDailyBail

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