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One of the greatest fears of many economists is that the financial recovery of the United States will be doomed to the same fate Japan's economy once faced: a decade or more of stagnant growth.
Despite the fact that there are major differences between the U.S. economy and the Japanese economy, the U.S. may be vulnerable to the same unconventional cause that sealed Japan's fate. This is according to Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor, author of The Innovator's Dilemma, and the foremost expert on innovation in the U.S., who recently visited The Motley Fool headquarters.
That unconventional cause is innovation stagnation. According to Christensen, every industry that constituted the engine of Japan's economic miracle was "disruptive."
That is to say, companies started competing in Japan's market from the bottom and rapidly worked their way to the top of the market through innovation, transforming industries whose products historically were complicated and expensive into something affordable and simpler for a much larger population. By that point, companies had finally reached the promised land of high margins at the upper end of the market.
At the same time, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore came in on the low end of the very industries that had propelled Japan's growth, stealing those markets. Now enter China and India from the bottom, which are racing upmarket as fast as possible.
"It wasn't just Toyota (NYSE: TM ) that [stole the market from] General Motors," said Christensen. "Honda (NYSE: HMC ) did it to the motorcycle industry, Canon (NYSE: CAJ ) did it to Xerox (NYSE: XRX ) , Sony (NYSE: SNE ) did it to RCA, Mitsui did it to shipbuilding, and by 1990, those companies had gone from the low end to the high end of the market. There just wasn't anywhere to go."
This is evidence, according to Christensen, that there really are microeconomic roots to countries' macroeconomic prosperity and stagnation. "I really worry about America because there's nowhere to go," he said.
Now turn to the U.S.
Christensen says the U.S. economy got disrupted out of manufacturing by the Japanese and that now we're getting disrupted out of engineering and creativity by India. "We've led the world in technology not because the Americans are technologists," he said. "We've just been a magnet for the best in the world, and now if our immigration policy tries to systematically turn those immigrants [away], and they can't come here -- or they don't come here -- I really worry what will become of us."
Indeed, Christensen is not the only expert who is worried about this scenario. Charles Geisst -- the man who called the 2008 financial meltdown four years prior in a book called Undue Influence: How the Wall Street Elite Puts the Financial System at Risk and a professor of finance at Manhattan College -- told me in an interview that he thinks a Japan scenario could be on the table for the U.S. economy.
Tyler Cowen, George Mason University professor of economics and co-creator of the popular economics blog marginalrevolution.com, has a slightly different spin on innovation, pointing out that the current crisis is fundamentally about the real economy.
Cowen points to recent innovations like the Web as things that are life-enhancing but not necessarily substantial creators of jobs or revenue in the real economy. To Cowen's point, maybe the stagnation Christensen and Geisst predict has already happened. Cowen notes that about 10 years ago, the real economy began to stagnate because revenue models crashed. As a result, banks like Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Bear Stearns (now owned by JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) ) sought to innovate in areas like subprime mortgage securities that provide debatable benefits to the real economy.
Those are the thoughts of Christensen, Geisst, and Cowen, but we'll let you have the final word. Share your insights on innovation and a possible lost decade in the U.S. in the comments section below.
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