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Japan’s Debt: A Small Taste of the Coming Financial Implosion

The big news went almost unnoticed. Bloomberg was there, however, and had this report:

Housewives With Frying Pans Protest Japan Tax Hike as Debt Soars

About 200 housewives marched down a shopping street in central Tokyo, beating pans with ladles and shouting slogans criticizing a government plan to double Japan’s 5 percent consumption tax.

“Ordinary people like us have a limited amount of money we can spend each month,” said Natsuyo Makabe, a protester who took part in three demonstrations in June against the tax as well as nuclear energy and a free-trade pact. “Ninety-nine percent of the public will have to cut back on what they buy.”

The apron protesters, as they are known, argue that a tax increase would crimp household budgets just when the economy can’t withstand a drop in consumption, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Aug. 13 issue.

They say it’s a bad time for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to rein in public debt that will be over 230 percent of national output this year, the biggest anywhere. The tax plan has already cleared the lower house of Japan’s parliament, and Noda this week brokered a deal to bring the bill to the upper house today.

Japan’s debt is ballooning as its population is aging and shrinking, meaning there are only 2.4 working-age Japanese to support one senior citizen now, compared with 9.1 in 1965. If he gets this tax issue wrong, Noda could throttle consumption, reduce tax revenue, and still leave Japan deep in debt. If the tax increase is defeated, the debt problem remains unsolved.

Yet Japan’s bonds have never been more popular. The ticking fiscal time bomb is being drowned out by noise from the euro crisis, which has turned Japan into a haven for bond investors. Foreign ownership of Japanese government bonds rose to a record 8.3 percent last year.

Yields on the 10-year benchmark slid half a basis point to 0.795 percent today in Tokyo, after last month falling to 0.72 percent, the lowest since 2003. Only Switzerland pays less to borrow. Yet Japan’s debt comes to about $93,000 per person, compared with about $33,000 in both the U.S. and Greece, according to Bloomberg data.

You’re probably thinking what most of the world’s financial press thought. This story seems small. Unimportant. Insignificant.

But it is THE story of our time… a harbinger of the coming worldwide financial implosion.

Do you recall the news reports in 2001 as Argentina’s economy slipped into the biggest default the world had ever seen – $100 billion worth?

Groups of housewives began beating on pots. They called them the “cacerolazos”. They were protesting against the “corralito”, in which their savings were forcibly trapped by the government. This led to a breakdown in the whole financial system… including the above-mentioned defaults.

The background to the story was that Argentina had borrowed too much money from foreign creditors. It couldn’t pay. This led to a variety of measures – including taking dollars out of their citizens’ bank accounts and devaluing the Argentine peso – to try to correct the situation. In the end, however, nothing worked… except the default.

Bad debt is bad debt. It is bad because it can’t be repaid. The debtor can hem and haw… he can delay and obfuscate. But he can’t pay. And sooner or later, the day of reckoning comes… and all hell breaks loose.

In order to keep up with Japan’s debt, Japan is taking money from citizens – via a sales tax. The tax is modest. It should be no big deal. But there is only a limited amount of real purchasing power in an economy.

And it is that purchasing power that must, ultimately, be the source of debt repayment. A sales tax merely transfers money from households to the government. Japan’s households are already not big spenders. The additional tax will make them spend less, leading to further economic weakness… and possibly the need for more borrowing!

In their book, Rogoff and Reinhart, argue that after government debt passes 90% or 100% of GDP it weighs so heavily on the economy that it is very difficult to avoid a major breakdown. In small countries, or those that can’t borrow in their own currencies, the breakdown comes quickly. In large ones, it can take many years.

Japan has the world’s third largest economy – after the US and China. It also has a printing press. In today’s world, as we observed a few days ago, a printing press in the hands of debtor nation is like a bomb strapped to the back of a bank robber.

It only works if people think you’re crazy enough to pull the cord. If you seem ready to blow yourself up, people will give you money. Bank clerks hand over stacks of $100s. Investors give you hundreds of billions, sure that you will print up enough to make sure they get paid back.

This bank robbing phenomenon makes it easy to sustain debts far beyond those that any sensible person would consider healthy. At 230% of GDP, a normal interest rate of 5% would mean that more than 11% of output must be used to support past spending.

Japan’s government collects 28% of GDP in taxes and borrows another 10%. And this is while it pays almost nothing on interest on its debt. Were interest rates to return to normal levels, Japan would have to cut half its spending in order to stabilise its debt.

Is that likely? No. It is probably not even possible, since cutting government spending on that scale would bring such a sharp drop in GDP and tax collections that the whole economy would fall apart.

More likely, Japan will print money to cover its debts. This will spook investors who will drop Japanese yen and Japanese bonds. Still a disaster, but of a different sort.

In short, Japan’s debt is bad. It is just a matter of time until the world realises it. Maybe a year. Maybe five years. We will see.

But when Japan’s debt goes bad, investors will begin to take a hard look at other big economies that also have printing presses, especially the USA.

At this writing, the US could still probably escape disaster. It is a political issue now. A government with enough guts and foresight could cut spending by 10%, foreswear borrowing and avoid the Japan trap.

Will that happen? We wouldn’t bet on it.

Regards,

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

From the Archives…

When the Trickle Becomes a Flood
10-08-2012 – Greg Canavan

What Central Planners Can Never Know
09-08-2012 – Bill Bonner

The Central Bank Big Bazooka in Theory and Practice
08-08-2012 – Bill Bonner

In Thrall to the Iron Fist
07-08-2012 – Dan Denning

Cracks in the Foundation
06-08-2012 – Dan Denning

1 Comment

  1. Peter says:

    I’m a little confused?

    When you say Japan’s need for “more borrowing”, is this attributed to Japanese government bonds and or via printing press and I am assuming here they are one and the same; buyer of last resort. And if so “who” or what is ultimately responsible for the mess? is it government, central bank, or are they one and the same as it is every where else in the developed world. I continue to think if people were to challenge whether or not their “deposit” is intact things may play out differently, as Rothbard stated the supply of money is inflationary when there is an inflow of money into deposit giving the central bank it’s ability to create additional borrowed money. Is my understanding correct or am I missing something?

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