Vol.23, No.1 / February 2005

The "Middle-Risk Gap" and Financial System Reform: Small-Firm Financing in Japan

Ulrike Schaede

This paper addresses the puzzling existence and persistence of a pronounced "middle-risk gap" in Japan's interest rate structure, which reflects an underdeveloped and distorted market for small-firm finance. The paper shows that a confluence of systemic reasons (including a shift away from the former reliance on real estate collateral, social constraints on bank strategies, bank capital adequacy constraints, and an underdeveloped market for securitized debt) and political pressure on banks have inhibited private bank activity in the middle market and necessitated specialized banks for small-firm financing. A second concern is the overall low level of the loan interest rate structure. The paper argues that the Japanese government's small-firm loan programs at greatly subsidized rates have depressed loan rates and exacerbated the middle-risk gap, creating great impediments to banking reforms. However, these subsidized small-firm loans are best understood as welfare, and while they are market-distorting they cannot simply be abolished without a substitute. The middle-risk gap is both a strong indicator of, and an important reason for, the slow course of financial system reform in Japan. Successful reforms toward a greater market orientation in Japanese banking must begin with the interest rate structure.

Key words: Middle market; Interest rates; Japan; Small-firm financing; Government lending; Securitization; Banking reform


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