SAN FRANCISCO -- The Japanese government is nothing if not routine.
Now that Japanese stocks are once again skidding -- moving to prebubble lows right off the opening bell -- high-ranking politicians and bureaucrats are popping out like well-oiled birds in a Swiss cuckoo clock to utter vague pronouncements on something they've proven they cannot control.
Less than an hour into Friday trading, the Nikkei was down 531.12, or 3.7%, to 13,882.67, smashing below the decade's intraday low of 14,194.60, set Aug. 19, 1992. Ninety minutes into action, the Nikkei was still down more than 3%. At midday Japanese stocks had bounced off their lows, but were still trading at 1986 levels. With so much volatility in the early-morning hours, Japanese officials appeared with the speed of lawyers rushing to a toxic waste spill to offer their help.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi
, a man widely considered too out of touch for the job, said he sure hoped Russia wouldn't hurt the global economy. An official from the
Economic Planning Agency
, whose job is to inform the obviously well-informed prime minister on economic matters, said the stock plunge would make it harder for the government to allow banks to fail.
Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa
, who as prime minister presided over some of the Nikkei's nastiest declines in the '90s, dared to remind everyone that it's important not to panic over today's stock slide. He should know.
The grotesque festival of jabbering jowls in Tokyo recalls those underground alien workmen in
who tried to change the world by jerking their jawbones. They've been doing the same since the Nikkei has dropped from its Dec. 1989 peak of nearly 39,000. But it's becoming clearer with each painful plummet in Japanese share prices that they are largely to blame for the sorry state of things. Instead of addressing the chronic loan problems head-on, they've bandaged the wounded economy with pork packages. Instead of allowing the stock market to find its natural valuation in the wake of the biggest financial bubble in history, they've repeatedly tossed government cash into the hands of any stock investor who would part with their shares.
Such tricks worked well when Japan was a developing economy, but when it came time to transform itself into a more mature economy, the tricks fell flat. Yet here they are again. Nearly every ministry official paraded out Friday strongly argued that government cash wouldn't be around this time to artificially support the market. If only it were so. Such promises have been made several times this decade. Each time, they capitulated when the DTs grew too intense.
Maybe the best thing would be just to lock all the ministry heads in the closet until the pain passes. After all, the Nikkei is only about 1,500 points above where it was in 1985, when the
was signed. That, to many Nikkei watchers, is when the bubble in Japanese stocks really started to catch fire.
By that measure, the bad air is almost entirely out of the bubble. If only the government would shut up.
Kevin Kelleher, a senior news editor in San Francisco for TheStreet.com
, covered the financial markets in Tokyo from 1991 to 1994.