Japan: stimulus without reform leads to a policy cul de sac

If one wants to see what happens when you use stimulus to help keep zombie companies alive and to resist reform efforts, look no further than Japan. 

For twenty years now, Japan has been dealing with the consequences of a burst asset bubble in shares and property. And for twenty years, the body politic has been unwilling to make the necessary reforms which would eliminate zombie companies while still helping to repair balance sheets in the private sector. Instead, the Japanese have piled government deficit upon deficit like Sisyphus trying to get consumers to reflate the economy. It has not worked.

Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), told the US Congress last week that the debt path was out of control and raised "a real risk that Japan could end up in a major default".

The IMF expects Japan’s gross public debt to reach 218pc of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, 227pc next year, and 246pc by 2014. This has been manageable so far only because Japanese savers have been willing – or coerced – into lending for almost nothing. The yield on 10-year government bonds has been around 1.30pc this year, though they jumped to 1.42pc last week.

"Can these benign conditions be expected to continue in the face of even-larger increases in public debt? Going forward, the markets capacity to absorb debt is likely to diminish as population ageing reduces saving," said the IMF.

The savings rate has crashed from 15pc in 1990 to near 2pc today, half America’s rate. Japan’s $1.5 trillion state pension fund (the world’s biggest) has become a net seller of government bonds this year, as it must to meet pay-out obligations. The demographic crunch has hit. The workforce been contracting since 2005.

Japan Post Bank is balking at further additions to its $1.7 trillion holdings of state debt. The pillars of the government debt market are crumbling. Little wonder that the Ministry of Finance has begun advertising bonds in Tokyo taxis, featuring Koyuki from The Last Samurai. If Japan’s bond rates rise to global levels of 3pc to 4pc, interest costs will shatter state finances.

What this illustrates is that stimulus cannot be seen as a cure-all in an economy which lacks in domestic demand or in which debt burdens are high. I see this as a cautionary tale for The Europeans and Americans looking at stimulus as some magic bullet which will make structural problems disappear.

I increasingly ask myself whether any advanced democracy has the foresight to implement a targeted monetary stimulus campaign without knee-capping efforts to induce more private sector savings – fiscal stimulus is a whole different affair. Right now, the savings rate in Japan is even lower than in the United States, a direct result of easy money.

In my view, fiscal or monetary stimulus are bridges to a sustainable economic future built on the back of deleveraging, a purge of malinvestments and industry consolidation. Right now, the stimulus in Japan is looking more like a bridge to nowhere.

It is Japan we should be worrying about, not America – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph

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