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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


6. Japan: Lessons from a Lost Decade

Some experts have observed that the current global financial crisis resembles the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s. And indeed, the under­lying behavior was the same: Financial institutions, looking for fast returns, provided financing without enough restraint. This capital in turn fueled sectors of the real economy, such as durable consumer goods, along with the housing boom, and caused them to overdevelop as they competed for customers. Before Japan could return to prosperity, its business community had to learn three critical lessons.

The dangers of excess supply. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Japanese economy grew largely through exports. Then, after a steep rise in the value of the yen in 1986, Japanese policymakers increased deregulation and added more government supports to business, actions aimed at stimulating domestic demand. The relaxation of constraints on financial activity spurred investment; industrial companies, as well as real estate developers, expanded their businesses by relying on their increased ability to borrow. This business growth, in turn, drove up the Nikkei stock index.

Only after the bubble collapsed in 1991 did the un­derlying problem with this growth strategy become evident: The consumer market in Japan was limited, and the perception of high demand was mistaken. But many companies had invested in anticipation of future de­mand, and now the country had too much supply capac­ity and too much debt. Many borrowers ended up with debts that exceeded the value of their collateral assets.

In our current economic crisis, the global financial community has fallen into the same set of traps. A surplus of financing drove the excess supply in the industrial sector, which drove fierce competition to fulfill future demand, leading to long-term overcapacity.

Customers as scarce resources. After the collapse of the Japanese bubble, industrial companies had to recognize that customers are scarce resources. Among the first to see this were the Japanese automotive companies, for whom “follow the customer” has been a core strategy — especially valuable when the demand for new cars is declining. In their home market, Japanese auto companies emphasize downstream revenues, including insurance, loans, inspections, maintenance, parts, and accessories. Those revenues, stable even in recessionary times, are essential to keeping the dealer network alive. In overseas markets, Japanese automakers “follow the car,” offering used high-quality vehicles as weapons against the cheap new automobiles being introduced by upstart Asian competitors. By building relationships with consumers through service and support, these moves create a market for the future.

Today’s global companies are not necessarily doing a good job of following the customer or the car (or any other product). Throughout the early 2000s, they pursued the familiar business model of churning customers by focusing on new sales. Now they must redefine their global business models, changing the focus from making and selling to making, selling, and servicing — seeking more revenue from the same customer base rather than chasing new and uncertain growth. Making the most of an existing customer base is an effective strategy in a recession, and it will remain effective even in growing markets, especially for the long term.

Inevitable consolidation. In Japan, after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, 13 banks merged into four groups. Something similar will happen in the U.S. and Europe during the next year or two — not just in financial services, but in all sectors. Large companies will have to consider consolidating their excess capacity by ac­quiring (or allying with) overseas companies and their potential customer bases.

In Japan, this was a particularly important lesson for the financial and industrial sectors; both had to solve excess capacity problems. But whereas the banking sector consolidated, Japanese industrial companies have been slow to follow suit. Instead, they have largely continued competing with one another. There are only a few models of constructive consolidation, such as the global alliance between Renault SA and Nissan Motor Company. The two parties jointly pursued real synergies (for example, in reducing sourcing costs) rather than one seeking full control of the other party (as Daimler-Benz AG sought with the Chrysler Corporation).

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