Why should we study the Japanese banking crisis?
Firstly, the Japanese banking crisis was one of the biggest and longest-lasting in the post-war history of the world economy. The Japanese banking crisis started in the early 1990s and lasted until the beginning of 2001. The consequences of the crisis negatively influenced the portfolio of Japanese banks for more than ten years. Two of Japan’s top 21 banks collapsed, an event which was unprecedented in Japan’s post-war history. During the post-war period until the 1990s there had not been any case of bankruptcy of a bank in Japan (Lincoln and Friedman, 1998: 355). Secondly, if we recognise the reasons for the banking crisis we can counteract any potential crisis in the future. This lesson can be useful, not only for Japan, but also for other countries. Thirdly, if we analyse the policy of the Japanese government toward the banking crisis we can identify both good points and mistakes in the government’s policy. In particular, it is important to try to find an explanation for why the crisis lasted so long. If we can find such an explanation we can take appropriate action to deal with future crises faster and more effectively. Lastly, by analyzing the banking crisis in Japan we can discover any weaknesses in the structure and in the policy of the banking supervision agencies.
To begin with then, it is essential to answer the question of why the regulators conducted the policy of “forbearance” and hid the true value of non-performing loans in the portfolios of Japanese banks. They disclosed the problem in the second half of the 1990s when it was obvious that several big banks had serious financial problems and numerous small financial institutions like jusen, credit cooperatives and regional banks, had become insolvent and were liquidated.
I suppose that if we find an answer to such questions we can understand better the nature of the Japanese banking crisis. Moreover, it will be easier to analyse and assess the significant reforms of the banking sector in Japan which were begun by Prime Minister Hashimoto in 1996.
In beginning this study is important to define the term “Big Bang”. It was a plan of comprehensive financial reforms in Japan which was proposed by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in November, 1996. The term “Big Bang” was an allusion to the London financial market reforms of October, 1986. According to this policy package, by 2001 the Japanese financial system was to be totally reformed to create a “free, fair and global” financial system. The concept of a “free, fair and global” financial system meant – free, in that it would operate according to market principles; fair, in that it would be transparent and reliable; and global, in that it would be sophisticated and internationally respected (Craig, 1998a: 1).
At the time, when the new reforms were introduced, the Japanese banking system was suffering from the problem of huge amounts of non-performing loans. The problem of non-performing loans occurred after the bursting of the “bubble” economy at the beginning of the 1990s. The Ministry of Finance (MOF), which regulated the banking system, initially adopted a “forbearance and forgiveness” policy, allowing financial institutions to hold non-performing loans without special write-off. Nevertheless, the MOF failed to deal with this problem quickly enough, and thereby made the situation progressively worse. It is also worth noting that, at the beginning of crisis, the MOF did not have a comprehensive strategy to address the banking sector problem.
The failure of the seven housing loan corporations (jusen), as well as several small credit associations and regional banks in 1995, exposed both the seriousness of the financial difficulties facing the banks and other financial institutions. At the end of September, 1995 the volume of non-performing loans was officially set at 27 trillion yen, equal to 10% of Japan’s GDP and 6% of all the loans held by Japan’s depositary institutions (Ito, 2000: 91). The financial crisis was so serious that soon after the “Big Bang” programme was announced, despite some restructuring efforts, a major city bank, the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, failed. Two large securities companies, Sanyo Securities and Yamaichi Securities, went bankrupt and two major banks, Nippon Credit Bank and the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, began to have management difficulties (Kawai, 2003: 3). In the wake of these failures, the government was under pressure to act to prevent an uncontrolled rash of financial collapses.
Why was the government so slow to respond to the banking crisis in the 1990s?
Patrick (2001: 22) stresses the fact that the Ministry of Finance wanted to hide the seriousness of the banking difficulties, and to delay dealing with them. The regulators feared that any sign of distress might trigger a panic and a systemic crisis. On the other hand, the MOF expected that a resumption of economic growth would restore the financial health of banks and their clients. Thus banks continued to pay regular dividends until 1997, even though they reported losses from 1995. Additionally, bad loans were transferred to the bank’s affiliates in order to remove them from the balance sheet. According to Kawai (2003: 23) the authorities failed to tackle the banking sector problem more decisively because of their underestimation of the nature and seriousness of the problem. Due to the serious financial crisis the “Big Bang” plan has accelerated the process of reforming the financial system in Japan.
Why was the “Big Bang” reform so important for the future shape of the Japanese banking system?
Although the primary focus of the “Big Bang” was on the mounting problems faced by Japan’s banks, it also significantly affected other sectors of the financial system. Craig (1998b: 17) explained that the “Big Bang” proposal was designed to make the Japanese financial industry more competitive, and was applied to securities firms and insurance companies as well as to banks. The “Big Bang” reforms also promoted the development of the securities market in comparison to banking. It is necessary to remember that the post-war Japanese financial system was a bank-based financial system, in which capital markets played a very limited role. The system was heavily regulated and restricted by the regulatory authorities. Moreover, the financial system was highly segmented. Banks could not compete with other financial institutions like insurance companies or securities companies. Each financial institution operated in its own part of the financial market. Patrick (1998: 5) pointed out that the system was based on a close relationship between the powerful Ministry of Finance and the big banks, securities companies and insurance companies. It was also based on the leadership of the MOF through administrative guidance, price setting, protection and the restriction of competition between financial institutions. The “Big Bang” plan changed this situation and created new, open and competitive financial markets. The reform was especially relevant to banks as the “Big Bang” abolished the segmentation of the financial market. It meant that banks were allowed to trade securities and derivative instruments from which they had previously been banned. The reforms eliminated the distinctions between the different kinds of banks, allowing them to compete in one another’s territory. Moreover, banks were permitted to enter other, potentially lucrative areas, such as mutual fund distribution, asset management and insurance sales. It also allowed foreign entities to enter the Japanese market. To deal with new competition of domestic and foreign financial institutions, banks were forced to restructure. The supervisory control over the banking system was transferred from the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan to a new agency, the Financial Supervisory Agency (FSA). The supervisory control was strengthened and the FSA, which was independent of the MOF, reported directly to the Prime Minister. The “Big Bang” plan also promoted increased transparency and Western standards of governance (Craig, 1998b: 17).
The “Big Bang” reform has changed the economic outlook for the Japanese banking system. It was a transition from the post-war, heavily regulated financial regime, to a market-based competitive regime. Patrick (2001: 17) stressed that the reform strengthened the competition and created new opportunities for banks. However, it also created new risks – creditworthiness evaluation risks, interest rate fluctuation risks, foreign exchange risks, and the risk of being left behind by more effective competitors.
The Japanese banking sector before the crisis
This chapter will describe the structure and the main features of the Japanese banking sector before the crisis in the 1990s. It is necessary to present it in order to understand the origin of the banking crisis in Japan. The crisis did not emerge suddenly and was not caused only by external factors. The origin of the Japanese banking crisis was rooted in the post-war shape of the banking system. Some of the most important features of the Japanese banking system like: the main bank system, the system being heavily regulated by the Ministry of Finance, the underdeveloped competition in the financial market, the convoy system, the close relationships between banks and other financial institutions and the regulators (amakudari) caused the fragility of the system in the 1990s.
The structure of the Japanese banking sector in the 1990s
In the 1990s when the Japanese banking crisis emerged the banking industry was segmented into five distinct categories of banks: ordinary banks; long-term financial institutions; financial institutions for small business; financial institutions for agriculture, forestry, and fishery; and public sector banks. At the top of the banking sector was the Bank of Japan (Hall, 1998: 13).
In the group of ordinary banks were city banks, regional banks and foreign-owned bank branches. As of February 28, 1997, there were 10 city banks, 129 regional banks and 92 foreign-owned banks (Craig, 1998b: 9).
The city banks are large commercial banks with many branches nationwide and in some cases worldwide. They are called “city” banks because of the location of their headquarters. Their headquarters are usually located in big cities, like Tokyo and Osaka. Some of the city banks belong to the one of the bigger banks in Japan and in the world (for example the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi). City banks traditionally focused on short-term lending to large corporations. Hall (1998: 8) pointed out that after the gradual deregulation of financial system and development of the capital market the demand for bank credit started to decrease. Thus, the city banks were forced to seek new customers and they attracted clients from the small corporate and personal sector. The city banks were also engaged in some securities activities and international finance. City banks were usually funded by borrowing from the Bank of Japan, the deposits and short-term financial markets.
Regional banks are smaller than city banks and usually confine their operations to the principal cities of the prefectures in which their head offices are located. They focused on lending to small or medium-sized companies in the locality. The regional banks also lend funds to the city banks through the interbank market. Flath (2003: 262) explained that in this sense, they specialize in collecting deposits and the city banks specialize in extending loans. The majority of deposits of regional banks come from individuals.
Foreign-owned bank branches in Japan function like city and regional banks. They are traditionally involved in foreign currency transactions and trade finance. They are also active participants in the derivatives market. Some of them focus on investment banking and risk management. Others offer services related to foreign real-estate investment and mergers and acquisitions (Hall, 1998: 9). Their share of the Japanese banking market has always been small because of the government’s policy of protecting domestic banks from foreign competition.
Long-term financing is provided by long-term financial institutions, a group that in 1997 included 33 trust banks and 3 long-term credit banks (Suzuki, 1987: 218). Trust banks are licensed to conduct both banking and trust activities. They offer savings and deposit accounts. They are also active in funds management (including pension funds) and provide real-estate broking and stock transfer services. In the 1980s trust banks also became significant investors in the overseas market where they are also engaged in securities underwriting. Trust banks are funded by individual and corporate deposits held in trusts. Since 1971, they have been allowed to expand their activity to offering consumer loans (Flath, 2003: 262). Craig (1998b: 9) noted that trust banks were major sources of real-estate and development loans during the “bubble years”, accounting for a large percentage of the banking sector’s non-performing loans.
The long-term credit banks were established to provide long-term loans to large customers. These loans were mostly for five to seven years. On the funding side, they were permitted to issue debentures. Hoshi and Patrick (2000: 2) explained that the long-term credit banks’ debentures were bought by other banks, which were allowed to use the debentures as collateral to borrow funds from the Bank of Japan. There were three long-term credit banks: the Industrial Bank of Japan, the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and Nippon Credit Bank (Flath, 2003: 262).
Financial institutions for small business consist of the shinkin (mutual) banks, the labour banks and Shokochukin Bank (Hall, 1998: 10).
Shinkin banks are non-profit-making cooperatives with a strong local bias. Their membership comprises local residents and small to medium-sized companies. Shinikin banks concentrate on taking deposits from both members and non-members and lending and discounting bills for members. Hall (1998: 10) stressed that Shinkin banks are also allowed to undertaken certain ancillary operations, the most important of which are securities-related. Their activity is limited to certain geographical areas because of their character as regional financial institutions (Suzuki, 1987: 218).
The labour banks are also specialist bank institutions serving small and medium-sized companies. Their aim is “to raise the living standards of labourers by promoting the activities of bodies such as labour unions and consumer co-operatives” (Hall, 1998: 11). Members of the labour banks are mostly labour unions (Flath, 2003: 263). They are involved in deposit-taking, the generation of instalment savings and lending. The labour banks usually lend surplus funds to affiliated associations or invest in public corporation bonds (Hall, 1998: 11).
The final specialist institution which finances small and medium-sized companies in Japan is the Shokochukin Bank. Hall (1998: 11) explained that the bank was founded to provide financial assistance to the unions of small and medium-sized companies. However, in the 1990s the Shokochukin Bank was involved in lending to and taking deposits from its subscribers, their members and others, including individuals, non-profit-making organisations, government bodies, financial institutions, foreign enterprises and electricity, power and gas companies. In addition, the Bank was permitted to carry out securities operations such as over-the-counter sales and dealing in Government bonds, and the investment of surplus funds into money trusts and monetary claims in trusts (Suzuki, 1987: 231).
The fourth category of financial institution comprises financial institutions for agriculture, forestry, and fishery. As of February 28, 1997, there were 47 credit federations of agricultural cooperatives and 35 federations of fisher cooperatives (Craig, 1998b: 10). Hall (1998: 12) stressed that the most powerful institution that operated in that field was the Norinchukin Bank. According to Flath (2003: 263) in size of deposits the Norinchukin Bank was comparable to a city bank. The Norinchukin Bank collected the deposits from prefectural credit federations of agricultural and fishery cooperatives. The bank’s surplus funds were lent to subscribers and to a range of other organisations and individuals. Surplus funds were also invested in short-term securities.
The fifth category of Japanese financial institutions is public sector banks which consist of two wholly publicly owned banks – the Japan Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of Japan (Hall, 1998: 12).
The Japan Development Bank was established to supply long-term funds to undertakings that contributed to the economic development of society and the improvement of industry. The Bank provided funds that would be difficult to obtain from private financial institutions for certain public purposes. Hence, the Japan Development Bank usually granted loans to companies of such industries like: electric power, shipping, mining, transports and communication (Suzuki, 1987: 292).
The Export-Import Bank of Japan was established to provide long term-funding for export promotion, import finance and foreign investment carried out by private financial institutions. Suzuki (1987: 293) explained that the Bank granted funds for export of equipment produced in Japan or for the supply of technology to foreign countries. The Export-Import Bank of Japan also lent funds necessary for the import of particularly important materials and funds necessary for foreign investment.
At the top of the Japanese banking sector is the Bank of Japan. It was established under the Bank of Japan Act in 1882. The Bank was reorganised in 1942 in conformity with the Bank of Japan Law (the Law of 1942). Then the Law of 1942 was revised in 1997. The Bank of Japan is the central bank. One of its main roles is to conduct monetary policy in order to develop a sound national economy. The Bank also performs other duties typical for a central bank such as: note issuance; banker to the government; banker to the banking system; foreign exchange market intervention; and government and money market activities (Hall, 1998: 8).
It is also worth noting the significant role of the Japanese Post Office in the banking market. Suzuki (1987: 288) explained that the post office was one of the first modern financial intermediaries in Japan. The purposes of the postal saving system were to encourage workers to save money and to stabilise the national welfare. Craig (1998b: 11) noticed that despite the fact that the Japanese Post Office can not be considered as a bank, it plays an important role as an important banking competitor. Its saving system has taken in approximately $2 trillion in savings in 1998 – 45 percent of all Japanese deposits. The Japanese Post Office usually offers deposit and payment services to lower-income and non-urban households (Kuwayama, 2000: 74).
The main features of the Japanese banking sector
During most of its history the Japanese banking system was highly regulated and was an important instrument for the government’s economy policy. During the Meiji period the banking system was utilised in order to provide funds for the modernisation and industrialisation of Japan after more than 200 years of the country’s isolation. During the pre-war period the banking system was modified to channel funds into military industries. After the Pacific War banks were responsible for supplying funds for a reconstruction of the country from war damages (Cargill, 2000: 39).
The first important feature of the Japanese banking sector is the dominant role of the banks in the financial system. According to Patrick (2001: 5) capital markets played a very limited role. Securities companies and insurance companies were developed, but they were less important than banks. Hoshi and Patrick (2000: 7) pointed out that capital markets, especially for corporate debentures and commercial paper were underdeveloped, due in large part to the MOF’s restrictive regulatory framework. Thus, the dominant role of the banks in the post-war Japanese financial system has contributed to establishing a main bank system.
The main bank system is the second very important feature of the Japanese banking system. According to Aoki, Patrick, and Sheard (1994: 5) the main banking system can be defined as “a nexus of relationships” between the firm and its partner bank. The relationship consists of three core elements. The first is the multitude of relationships between the firm and its main bank. Hoshi and Patrick (2000: 7) explained that the main bank was usually the largest lender but its relationships with the firm were more complex. A main bank was usually one of the largest shareholders of a firm and often provided management assistance. The main bank’s managers often sat as directors or auditors on the board of the client firm. The main bank also provided much valuable information and investment banking services to its client firms, for example the introduction of potential business partners (Aoki, Patrick, and Sheard, 1994: 15). In any situation when a client firm had financial problems the main bank provided financial and managerial assistance (Patrick, 1998: 5).
The second element was “a unique reciprocal relationship among major banks” (Hoshi and Patrick, 2000: 7). They explained that although the typical Japanese firm borrowed from many lenders, only the main bank played the dominant role in monitoring a client firm. In this sense, the other creditors did not have to monitor this firm. Through such cooperation, banks did not duplicate their efforts in the process of monitoring the client firm.
The third element was the relationships between the regulatory authorities (MOF and BOJ) and the banking sector. It was connected with the MOF’s policy of protecting the banking sector from competition within the sector and competition from capital markets. The special position of banks in the financial system contributed to the establishment of the above mentioned close relationships between banks and their client firms. According to Aoki, Patrick, and Sheard (1994: 5) it was characteristic of the post-war banking system that almost every Japanese company had a main bank relationship.
The next important feature of Japanese banking sector was the fact that the banking sector was heavy regulated by the Ministry of Finance. According to Hayakawa (2000: 7) the Ministry of Finance divided the financial sector into three main areas – banking, securities, and insurance sectors. The banking sector was further subdivided in terms of the long and short term credits which banks extended – long term credit banks, commercial banks, and trust services. The financial institutions were allowed to operate only in their own sectors. Companies belonging to one financial group could not enter the markets of other groups. In reality it meant that any attempt by a group of institutions to attract deposits from another group was not accepted by the Ministry of Finance. Such a strict segmentation of the financial market caused the lack of competition between banks and other financial institutions. Ueda (1994: 92) stressed the new entries into the banking sector were also severely limited by the MOF. The separation of the banking and securities industries, of long-term and short-term banking, and of ordinary banking and trust banking services was maintained into the 1990s.
Besides the restriction of the competition between financial institutions the MOF also established the restriction of price and non-price competition. Hayakawa (2000: 8) pointed out that the price competition among the participants in one and the same market has in effect been barred by regulating deposit rates, stock brokerage commissions, and insurance premium rates. As a matter of fact, the same kind of financial product or service was offered at the same price. In regard to the restriction of the non-price competition the MOF established the policy to control new branches to avoid excessive competition among banks. Hence, opening new branches required permission from the MOF (Ueda, 1994: 93).
Patrick (1998: 5) noted that essence of heavy regulation conducted by the MOF was to guarantee that banks would not fail, so their management, stockholders and depositors were protected. Moreover, the “convoy system” was maintained to strengthen the security of the Japanese banking system. Spiegel (1999: 4) explained that in that system all large banks would grow at roughly the same pace, hence the name “convoy.” The convoy system also imposed responsibilities on commercial banks for the safety of their competitors. In a situation where the bank experienced serious difficulties, the MOF usually conducted the policy to merge the troubled smaller bank with the stronger bank. Hanazaki and Horiuchi (2002: 9) presented the example of such a merger between Sumitomo Bank and Heiwa-Sogo Bank in 1986. Heiwa-Sogo Bank got into difficulty in the first half of 1980s. The MOF prepared the bailout plan in order to prevent Heiwa-Sogo Bank from bankruptcy and from destabilizing the Japanese banking industry. The MOF successfully persuaded Sumitomo Bank to absorb Heiwa-Sogo Bank. Sumitomo Bank had to bore the cost of dealing with the distressed bank. On the other hand, Sumitomo Bank was able to expand its branch network at once by absorbing Heiwa-Sogo Bank’s branches. Finally, despite Heiwa-Sogo Bank’s bankruptcy there was no damage caused to depositors. The convoy system was set up by the government to guarantee the stability of the Japanese banking sector. During the post-war period until the 1990s this policy was successful. In that period there was not any case of bankruptcy of a bank in Japan (Lincoln and Friedman, 1998: 355).
Finally, the close relationships between banks and other financial institutions and regulatory authorities were another feature of the Japanese banking system. According to Horiuchi (1999: 31) many private banks and other firms accepted retired government officials as managers or directors. This system was called amakudari. It was a system where regulators could monitor bank management. This system encouraged regulators to monitor bank management properly. If they fail to do their job correctly and the bank performance suffers as a result, they may not obtain good jobs in banks after retirement.
In my opinion the post-war shape of the Japanese banking system caused the fragility of banking system in the 1990s. The main bank system was especially useful for the government which wanted to channel significant funds for rebuilding Japan after the Pacific War. The Japanese banking system was a bank-based system. It meant that a bank’s deposits were one of the main ways of saving money for households and companies. On the other hand, the banks collected deposits and extended loans to industry. It was in accordance with the government’s policy to provide funds for fast industrialisation. However, this system was costly for large companies. They were dependent on the main bank’s loans and it was not possible to utilize other financial sources. The situation started to change when the government gradually began to deregulate the financial system. Financial deregulation began with the creation of a secondary market for government bonds and gradually spread to markets for corporate bonds and equities. Thus, many large companies replaced their bank loans with new bond financing and reduced the dependence on banks. It meant that many banks started to lend loans to new and often small customers. The problem was that the banks did not have intimate knowledge of these new customers (Hoshi, 2001: 12). In order to compensate for the lack of information, the banks often required collateral for those loans. The most secure collateral for those loans was land the nominal value of which did not fall even once through the postwar period, until the 1990s. However, when land prices dropped in the early 1990s, many above-mentioned loans became non-performing and the collateral lost its value. This led to the bad loan problem in the Japanese banking system.
The lack of competition and segmentation of the Japanese financial sector also resulted in the fragility of the financial sector in the 1990s. As was mentioned earlier the Japanese financial sector including the banking sector was protected from full-scale competition by the policy of the MOF. Thus, the market competition had not worked to discipline management in the banking and other financial industries in Japan. Moreover, the banks continued to believe in an implicit guarantee of profitability from the MOF. There was also not any case of failure of banks in the postwar period. All the financial market participants fully believed that the regulators would not allow a bank to fail. When a problem bank emerged, the regulators would intervene and, in serious case, merge it into a stronger institution. The convoy system guaranteed the security of the Japanese banking system.
On the one hand, it seems that the convoy system was very useful in terms of maintaining the security of the banking sector. However, there was a danger that it would influence on the increasing of the moral hazard-type behavior among the bank’s management. It might encourage the management to exceed the risk in order to achieve higher profits. Moreover, the willingness to generate higher profits might lead to avoiding of prudential regulations. The author of this study can not agree with Ueda who argues that moral hazard was not a serious problem in Japan (Ueda, 1994: 102). In my view, the convoy system resulted in higher risks being taken by management of the Japanese banks. It was especially characteristic during the period of the “bubble economy” when banks were involved in the speculative real estate lending. The fierce competition between banks resulted that they were mainly interested in the development of their loan portfolio. The majority of the banks did not expect sharp decreasing of the land’s prices. In the post-war history of Japan there was not any case were the land’s price had decreased. Hence, the management of the banks was confident that land was the best collateral for a loan. However, the management of a bank should not only concentrate on increasing of profits. It is also necessary to estimate the risk which is connected with any new undertaking. It is worth noting that the document “Bank Failures in Mature Economies” which was prepared by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in 2004 states that management and control weaknesses were significant contributory factors in nearly all cases of bank’s failure. Evidence was based on (117) individual bank problems in 17 countries (including Japan). Moreover, this statement was confirmed in the document “Supervisory Lessons to be drawn from the Asian crisis”. The document was prepared by the “Working Group on the Supervisory Lessons to be drawn from the Asian crisis” which was established by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crises. The document stressed that many financial institutions exceeded the risk in part due to government guarantee. There is a belief that government will provide assistance in any case of failure. To sum up, the lack of competition, the convoy system and moral hazard-type behaviour were very important factors which negatively influenced on the quality of management in Japanese banks during the “bubble economy” and in the 1990s.
Finally, close relationships between banks and regulatory authorities, especially the earlier mentioned amakudari system, influenced the weakening of the Japanese banking system. Amakudari system, where retired regulators work in the banks, might result in conflict of interests. On the one hand, regulators are assigned to monitor bank management, but on the other hand, they expect to be employed later by the banks they monitor. Additionally, this system is heavily dependent on honesty of regulators. It can work properly in the situation when regulators fulfill their duties honestly. On the other hand this system can encourage regulators to conduct forbearance supervision toward banks.