A recurring concern in the Western economies today is that they may be headed toward a Japan-like lost decade. Remarkable similarities between house price movements in the U.S. this time and in Japan 15 years ago, illustrated in Exhibit 1, suggest that the two countries have indeed contracted a similar disease. The post-1990 Japanese experience, however, also demonstrated that the nation’s recession was no ordinary recession.
The key difference between an ordinary recession and one that can produce a lost decade is that in the latter, a large portion of the private sector is actually minimizing debt instead of maximizing profits following the bursting of a nation-wide asset price bubble. When a debt-financed bubble bursts, asset prices collapse while liabilities remain, leaving millions of private sector balance sheets underwater. In order to regain their financial health and credit ratings, households and businesses are forced to repair their balance sheets by increasing savings or paying down debt. This act of deleveraging reduces aggregate demand and throws the economy into a very special type of recession.