The Japanese Banking System is in Transition

Summary of working paper 7250
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There will be a substantial decline in the prominence of Japanese banks as the financial markets become as liberalized as U.S. markets.

Japanese banks are among the largest in the world, yet they are some of the least profitable. Burdened by recent bank failures and the poor performance of the economy, the Japanese banking sector is in transformation. In The Japanese Banking Crisis: Where Did it Come From and How Will it End? (NBER Working Paper No. 7250), Takeo Hoshi and Anil Kashyap predict a shift in Japanese banking to a new steady state. The authors suggest that there will be a substantial decline in the prominence of Japanese banks as the financial markets become as liberalized as U.S. markets.

An important force behind this transformation is deregulation, a process that began more than 20 years ago. The reform program, commonly referred to as the "Japanese Big Bang," represents the conclusion of the deregulation process. Deregulation allowed large bank customers to quickly shift from bank financing to capital market funding. Hoshi and Kashyap show that large Japanese firms, particularly manufacturers, are now almost as independent of bank financing as comparable U.S. firms. Deregulation was less favorable for savers, and they continued to deposit their money with banks. Japanese banks were not permitted into new lines of business; consequently, their new loans primarily flowed to small businesses and expanded real estate lending. Both actions proved unprofitable.

A result was the immense banking crisis in the Japanese economy. The estimates of bad loans in Japan remain large, at roughly 7 percent of GDP (several times the size of the U.S. crisis). This crisis has included the first significant Japanese bank failures since the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan. The banking problem is not just a reflection of poor performance of the economy as a whole. Hoshi and Kashyap present evidence that banks' performance was worse in the 1990s than would be expected on the basis of macroeconomic conditions. They also find that the banks most at risk of losing customers to the capital markets underperformed others. Both results indicate the importance of deregulation.

The Japanese government during the 1990s has taken steps to address the financial problems: a private loan purchasing company to purchase non-performing loans, the establishment of a bank to take over failed credit cooperatives, reorganization of the supervision authority for banks, and the provision of funds for bank reorganization and capitalization. Nevertheless, the authors believe that a recurring problem with the Japanese government attempts to overcome the crisis has been a lack of a clear vision for the future of the Japanese banking industry.

By 2001, when the Big Bang is complete, banks, securities houses, and other financial institutions will be competing on a level playing field. At that time, Japanese financial markets may even be less regulated than U.S. markets. Once financial deregulation is complete, the authors say that even relatively small firms will start following the route already taken by the large firms and will cut their dependence on bank loans. The Japanese allocation of savings and investment financing patterns will move further towards the patterns seen in the United States. The authors present estimates showing that this impending shift implies a massive contraction in the size of the traditional banking business in Japan.

The speed of adjustment depends on three factors: how fast corporations modify their financing, how fast households shift their funds out of bank deposits, and how fast the banking industry is reorganized. The authors expect the adjustment on the corporate side to be complete within 10 years. The most significant elements of the liberalization of savers' options have started only recently, but even a modest shift in this aspect would be substantial because the savers dependence on deposits has been extremely high.

Lastly, the speed of reorganization depends on the government policy actions toward bank failures. According to the authors, the Japanese government is taking initial steps to address the bad loans problem. Once the restructuring begins in earnest, it will take several years for doomed banks to exit, but reorganization should be complete within the 10-year period. Importantly, the recently announced mergers among several of the largest Japanese banks should only be viewed as progress if the mergers help these institutions to reduce their size: merely combining banks without eliminating redundancies will only postpone the inevitable down-sizing. Ultimately, the transition to the new regime for the banking industry should be almost complete by the end of the next decade.

-- Marie A. Bussing-Burks