In the years following the global financial crisis, economists and investors have gotten very comfortable with very high, and seemingly persistent, government debt. The nonchalance may be underpinned by the assumption that globally significant countries that can print their own currencies can't get trapped in a sovereign debt crisis. However, it now appears that Japan is preparing to put this confidence to the ultimate stress test.
For the better part of 20 years, successive Japanese governments and central bankers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to use quantitative easing strategies to pump up a deflated asset bubble. The economy has by and large not responded. The sustained and impressive growth that Japan delivered during the 45 years following the Second World War (which had made the country one of the most successful economic stories in world history), has never returned. For the last 20 years Japan has offered a "zombie" economy characterized by low growth, stagnation, and exploding government debt. The Japanese government now owes approximately $12 trillion, a figure representing more than 200% of GDP. The IMF expects that this figure will reach 245% by the end of this year. This gives Japan the unenviable title of having the world's highest government debt-to-GDP ratio. But Shinzo Abe, the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan, and Haruhiko Kuroda, his newly-appointed Governor of the Bank of Japan, feel much, much more debt needs to be issued to turn the economy around.
The hope that Abe would be a new kind of prime minister with a bold economic formula helped revive the long dead Japanese stock market. Between May and November of 2012, the Nikkei traded within a range of 8200-9400. As Abe's victory began to be expected, the Nikkei started moving up, reaching 10,000 by the time he was sworn in on December 26 of last year. The euphoria continued throughout the spring and by April 2 the Nikkei stood at 12,003 points. Then on April 4, BOJ Governor Kuroda made good on Abe's dovish rhetoric and announced a plan to end years of mildly declining prices by doing whatever necessary to create 2% inflation (in reality these price declines have been one of the few consolations to Japanese consumers). To achieve its goals, the government is prepared to double the amount of Yen in circulation. Stocks immediately rallied, and in less than a week the Nikkei had breached 13,000 points, taking the index to a 4 1/2-year high. It is rare that any major stock market can achieve a 50% rally in less than a year. But the rally will be costly.
The Japanese government already spends 25% of tax revenue to service outstanding debt (compared to 6% in the US). These costs become even more astonishing when one considers the extremely low rates Japan pays. Ten-year Japanese government bonds now pay less than 0.6%, and five-year yields are now a little more than 0.20%. How much will debt service costs increase if Abe succeeds in pushing inflation to 2.0%? Two percent rates would triple long term borrowing costs. Given the size of its debts, increases of such magnitude could hit Japan with the force of 10 Godzillas.
Japan has an aging demographic and as more time goes by, the pool of potential bond buyers continues to shrink. Unlike the United States, where individual savers are mostly irrelevant in the sovereign debt market, Japanese investors have largely set the market in their own country. There is evidence to suggest that Japanese savers are increasingly considering overseas sources of yield for protection from the inflation that Abe is so determined to create.
As the Nikkei has moved upward, the Japanese Yen has taken the opposite trajectory, falling more than 20% against the US Dollar since the beginning of 2012, and nearly 12% since the beginning of this year (the decline has been even greater in terms of several other currencies). This steep drop, which has taken a huge bite out of the nominal gains in Japanese stocks is unusual in the foreign exchange markets, and has threatened to destabilize an already weak global financial system.
Earlier this year the falling yen issue sparked a full-fledged headline war. On February 16th, participating members of the G20 issued a statement, clearly aimed at Japan, warning against competitive devaluations and currency wars. A day later, Japan's Finance Minister stated flatly that Japan was not attempting to manipulate its currency. After some hesitation, the G20 seemed to accept this statement. For now it seems the international powers have fallen in behind Japan. Both IMF Chief Christine Lagarde and Ben Bernanke have praised Abe's policies. The prevailing opinion seems to be that weakening a currency should not be considered manipulation as long as it's done to revive a domestic economy, not specifically to harm competitors. Such an opinion qualifies as a great moment in rhetorical shamelessness.
In addition to his plans for inflationary monetary policy, Abe is also attempting to wage war from the fiscal side as well. His Liberal Democratic Party has called for over $2.4 trillion USD worth of public works stimulus over the next 10 years. This spending represents approximately 40% of Japan's current GDP and, adjusted for population, would be the equivalent of nearly $600 billion USD annually in the United States.
It should be obvious to anyone with even half a brain that Japan's prior experiments with ever larger doses of quantitative easing have failed. Leaders in both Japan and the United States, however, are following this path with reckless abandon. According to Abe, the entirety of Japan's economic problems can be blamed on the fact that consumer prices have been declining by one tenth of one percent per year. If only Japanese consumers were forced to pay two percent more per year for the things they need or desire, all would be well.
Abe's wish may already be coming true. McDonald's announced this morning that, for the first time in five years, the price of hamburgers and cheeseburgers in Japan will be rising by 20% and 25% respectively. No doubt the Japanese will be so excited by this development that they'll rush to the stores to consume all the burgers they were planning on eating in 2014 before prices go up again. Of course, there is no official concern that low-income Japanese will now have to pay more for low cost food.
The idea that informs Abe's plan, that rising prices entice consumers to buy before the prices go up, is clearly suspect as economic law dictates that demand increases when prices fall. Any store owner will tell you that cutting prices is the best way to move merchandise. Apart from this problem, how does Abe expect consumers to buy more when their currency is losing purchasing power and more of their incomes will be needed to pay interest on the national debt?
The boldness of Abe's plans should provide the rest of the world with a crash course in the ability of debt accumulation to jumpstart an economy. The good news is that the effects should not take too long to be seen. I believe that we will be treated with a stark lesson on the limitations of inflation as an economic panacea.
Hopefully, failure of this latest Japanese experiment will help convince leaders in the US and Japan that the only true path to prosperity is free-market capitalism. Rather than trying to reflate busted bubbles and micro-manage Keynesian style recoveries, politicians and central bankers should recognize their respective roles in creating the problems and get out of the way.
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