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Bailout Nation

January 19, 2010

Not the U.S., but Japan. Japan Airlines, after repeated bailouts, finally succumbed to its $25 billion debt load and filed for bankruptcy today. According to The Wall Street Journal:

The company will be aided by a $10 billion lifeline from the government in the form of capital injections and credit, and by unloading billions of dollars in losses across an already weak Japanese economy. Bureaucrats also strong-armed Japan’s banks into forgiving more than $8 billion in outstanding loans, while retirees and employees accepted more than $11 billion in pension cuts. Shareholders will be formally wiped out when the stock — once considered one of Japan’s bluest of blue chips — is delisted from trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Feb. 20.

For the record, JAL offers a quick primer on how government intervention destroys an economy:

1. State ownership and control. “Though financial profligacy was one cause of JAL’s demise, its close ties with the government — even after it was privatized in 1987 — effectively crippled the carrier. Pork-barrel aviation policies drawn up by transport bureaucrats caused JAL to fly unprofitable routes for decades.”

2. Moral hazard of implicit government backing. The 1987 IPO (and others like it, such as Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) were wildly successful in part because investors felt the government wouldn’t allow them to lose money.

3. Bubble behavior. “When Japan Inc. rose to glory in the late 1980s, gobbling up trophy icons such as New York’s Rockefeller Center, JAL also spread its tentacles around the world by buying the Essex House in New York and setting up resorts in Hawaii.”

4. Endless government lifelines. According to CNBC, JAL was bailed out four times by the Japanese government over the past decade.

How much capital was squandered on JAL? How much was looted from the real economy? This explains Japan’s “lost decades.” America’s path down the same road can only produce similar results. Please repeat after me: “Fannie Mae.”

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