Without government deficits, Japan's economy will decline much more. Central government bonds and borrowings plus its guaranteed debts rose by 116.3 trillion yen during the period, equivalent to one-fourth of the level of the nominal GDP in the third quarter of 2011. If Japan had adopted balanced budgets, its economy would have contracted two to three times more. This will lead to a debt crisis in its private sector.
A strong yen , deflation and rising government debt form a short-term equilibrium that lasts as long as the market believes it is sustainable. The yen has seen a relentless upward trend since it depegged from the dollar in 1971, up to 83.4 from 360 again to the dollar. When wages and asset prices rise, a strong currency can be justified. When wages and asset prices fall, a strong currency is suicide. Japan's nominal GDP peaked in 1997 and its nominal wages did too. Its property prices have declined every year since. The Nikkei rose in only four out of the last fifteen years and is still close to a three-decade low.
Japanese policymakers, businesses, academics, currency traders and the average Mrs. Watanabe all believe in a strong yen. This belief is wrong but self-fulfilling. It has lasted so long because the Japanese government adopts policies to offset the destabilizing effects of deflation due to a strong yen. Hence, Japan's national debt has marched upwards along with the value of yen. It is expected to top yen 1,000 trillion in 2012, 215 percent of GDP, 7.8 million yen (or roughly US$ 94,000) per person, and about half of net household wealth per capita.
The sustainability of Japan's deflationary path depends on the market's confidence in Japan's debt market. As Japanese institutions and households hold almost all of the government's debts, their faith in the government's creditworthiness is the mojo for Japan's seemingly harmless deflationary spiral.
A Vast Bubble
In a normal market, greater supply leads to lower prices. The opposite occurs in a bubble; faith in price stability or appreciation exaggerates demand. Japan has the highest level of government debt and the lowest bond yield. The later is necessary for the former. Even though the yield on 10-year Japanese Government Bonds (JGB) is only 1 percent, the interest expense is expected to top 22.3 trillion yen in the fiscal year that begins next month. This is one-quarter of the general account budget. If the bond yield rises to 2 percent, the interest expense would surpass the total expected tax revenue of 42.3 trillion yen.
In addition to its fiscal vulnerability to a rising interest rate , Japan's budget deficit is still too high. The government budgeted 44 trillion yen in net additional borrowing in the next fiscal year, nearly half of its expenditures. It needs to double its tax revenue to balance the budget. But, as the economy is deflating with declining private consumption, a major tax increase would cause the economy to go down more, shrinking the tax base and requiring even bigger tax increases to balance the budget. Even though the government plans to achieve a primary fiscal surplus, i.e., revenue above non-interest expense, by fiscal 2020 to 2021, it is difficult to see how.
The justification for the low JGB yield is deflation. The real interest rate (the nominal rate plus deflation) is comparable to that in other countries. This rationale requires deflation to persist. But, deflation shrinks the nominal GDP or tax base. How could the government pay back its escalating debt by taxing a shrinking economy? It can only sustain its debt by borrowing more. This fits the definition of a particular type of Ponzi scheme.
The JGB bubble explains the seeming lack of pain in Japanese society. A strong yen and deflation haven't led to an employment crisis because the government deficit is pumping up aggregate demand. As long as wages decline in line with prices, one doesn't feel the pain. Japan's household debt is only half of GDP, about half of the level in the United States. Deflation doesn't cause much balance sheet trouble.
The Strong Yen Bubble
Yen bulls usually point at Japan's trade and current account surplus as supporting factors. A trade surplus can reflect a country's competitiveness or lack of it. Current account surplus is savings minus investment. When investment declines, the trade surplus is boosted. When a country cuts investment, it signals declining competitiveness. Hence, the current account surplus shouldn't be viewed as a supporting factor for strong currency.
The combination of a weak economy and strong currency are always suspect. But it has lasted for so long that even foreigners take it for granted. I think this is some sort of mass hysteria. Most people only remember a strong yen. On the other hand, most people haven't seen rising property or stock markets either.
Japanese culture is group-oriented. Individuals usually embrace group activities. This psyche was the reason that Japan's property bubble became so big in the 1980s. In terms of value above the normal level, Japan's bubble was five to six times the size of the bubble in the United States. After the property bubble, the group psyche shifted its power to a strong yen, pushing Japan's economy onto the path of a rising yen, deflation and rising government debt.
Japan's paralyzed political system is the reason the government has accommodated the deflation path by running up national debt. The Japanese people, on the other hand, buy the debt because deflation makes property or stocks bad investments and a strong yen discourages them from buying foreign assets and deflation.
Despite the fact Japan has had a bad economy for so long, the yen has remained strong. It reinforces the Japanese psyche on the issue. The strong yen has become a cult.
The international financial market believes in a weak yen from time to time. In 1998, the short-selling by foreigners briefly caused the yen to touch 140 against the U.S. dollar. But, as the Japanese hold all of the yen, if they believe in the yen, foreign short-sellers get punished eventually. Over time, yen bears are all weeded out of the market. The remaining yen traders are all believers in a strong yen.