As Japan sails into the shadows, let’s wish them well and wave good-by
About Japan, excerpt from John Mauldin’s weekly letter of 11 July 2009. Based on work of Hayman Capital. I recommend reading this in full, esp to see the fine graphs.
Over the years, I have written about Japan often. Its economy is very important to the world, and its banks have funded and loaned a great deal to companies outside of Japan. Global growth would have been a lot slower without the Japanese. Up until recently, their population has saved a great deal of its disposable income, and those savings have allowed the Japanese government to run massive deficits.
As late as 1999, personal savings plus pensions were running at 12% and had been as high as 16%. And much of those savings went into government debt. The government kept borrowing, and rates stayed in the area of 1%. Today, a ten-year bond yields 1.3% in Japan, so they could run up a very large debt and the interest-rate cost was not a big factor in the budget.
But now things are changing. Demography is starting to change the landscape. Japan is a rapidly aging nation. The population is shrinking, and the birth rate is among the lowest in the world. And the dependency ratio is starting to rise. There are currently 1.2 nonproductive citizens (under 15 years old and over 64) for every productive Japanese; the ratio will reach 2.0 by 2020 and will continue to grow thereafter. (See chart below.)
This also means that the ability to save is dropping, since so many retirees now need to dip into savings to live. Notice in the chart below that savings have dropped from 18% to 1.8%. Also notice that annual net savings is now down to 5 trillion yen.
But this year, the Japanese will want to issue roughly 33 trillion yen in debt! Also note that the national pension fund has informed the government that this year they will for the first time be net sellers of debt. Look at the chart below. Notice that as debt was increasing through 2006, actual interest-rate expense for government debt was decreasing, because rates were dropping, getting to 0.1% in 2001. Yet with no more room to cut rates, interest-rate expenses have started to rise. Total government debt is now close to 900 trillion yen.
Interest-rate expense is now about 18% of the Japanese government budget. What if rates went to a lofty 2%? That would over time double the interest-rate expense. And the Japanese are borrowing between 30-40% of their annual budget. The total debt is rising rapidly.
The remainder of the article discusses the implications, which are all bad. Japan’s political regime may have passed the point of no return. The demographics are essentially fixed for a generation or two. The debt is too large and too short-maturity to inflate away — rising interest expense would bankrupt the government (or force hyper-inflation) before it reduced the real debt. And its too big to pay — or even sustain.
Tough choices lie ahead for Japan. It will be interesting to see what they choose to do.
Nothing lives forever, and Japan’s brief experiment with democracy and free markets may be reaching its end.
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
- about the Financial crisis – what’s happening? how will this end?
- about the End of the post-WWII geopolitical regime
Other posts about Japan: