As G-20 finance ministers and central bankers meet in Seoul to call a verbal truce at least in the currency wars, Bloomberg has a piece noting that China has taken note of what happened to Japan after the 1985 Plaza Accord led to the rapid appreciation of the yen against the dollar.
A short history lesson for younger readers: Following the accord between what was then the G-5 to depreciate the dollar against the yen and the mark, the dollar fell by 51% against the yen between 1985 to 1987. Japan’s exports shrank, unemployment rose, cracking the system of lifetime employment at the large conglomerates, and the economy slowed dramatically — the endaka fukyo, high-yen recession. The cutting of interest rates to get the economy going again led to the asset bubbles which, after they inevitably went pop, left the country mired in debt, which in turn has left the Japanese economy becalmed in the still waters of recession and deflation ever since.
Now Japan made policy mistakes and had a political and social system designed to absorb external shocks rather than effect change when change was needed, so the analogy only goes so far, but Beijing doesn’t want to go anywhere near there in the first place. Hence its determination to let its own currency appreciate only gradually.
There are two other lessons from Japan’s experience in the 1980s that won’t have escaped the notice of China’s leaders. First, it was Japan’s huge current account surpluses that had given it the global buying power in the 1980’s that made the country “No 1” and raised a scare among developed nations, particularly the U.S., that Japan was taking over the world and would eclipse the U.S as the world’s leading economy. When the current account surpluses disappeared, Japan’s emerging clout on the world stage evaporated with it. Second, what happened to Japan’s economy after the Plaza Accord led eventually to the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party lose its monopoly grip on power.