Economic Woes Turn US, Japan Into Ugly Stepsisters

Name that country: surging debt, a rapidly falling currency, a sclerotic political system, and a central bank pulling out all the stops to revive a stagnant economy.

Economic Woes Turn US, Japan Into Ugly Stepsisters
Source: Pathé Entertainment

If you guessed either Japan or the United States, both would be the correct answer. This week, the similarities between two of the world's economic heavyweights became more apparent, with both starting to resemble ugly twin sisters.

Japan reported a surprisingly deep 0.9 percent contraction in the third quarter, the first time in the year. Meanwhile, initial jobless claims in the U.S. surged to their highest in more than a year, and a clutch of companies announced mass layoffs – the latest sign of how slowly the economy is growing

With the world fixated on the euro zone's debt troubles, Japan this week provided a stark reminder that it's vast economy remains a basket case — which puts it in dubious company alongside Europe and the United States.

"It's the U.S. to Europe that's the best comparison, but in terms of levels of debt, comparing debt proximity to the ceiling, then it's a U.S.-Japan race," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak. (Read More: What Will Save the Japanese Economy?)

As anti-austerity strikes and a deepening recession roil the 17-nation euro club, most economists are quick to point to Continental Europe as an emblem of what ails America: too much debt, sluggish growth and political paralysis.

However, with Japan's "Lost Decade" stretching into a generation, and U.S. lawmakers scrambling to avert economic disaster as the "fiscal cliff" draws nigh, the two countries are starting to resemble two sides of the same tarnished coin. (Read More: Congressional Leaders Voice Optimism After 'Cliff' Talks.)

Both countries have debt levels that match or exceed their gross domestic product.

In Japan, runaway public spending has pushed its debt to GDP ratio above 200 percent, while the U.S. just recently topped 100 percent. The state of affairs has ratings agencies ratline their downgrade sabers at both governments. (Read More: Japan Grapples With Its Fiscal Cliff)

The reasons behind how two colossuses of the global economy were laid low have their roots in crisis. The bursting of Japan's asset bubble in the 1990s unleashed massive public spending and a Bank of Japan committed to rock-bottom interest rates.

Nearly two decades later, the financial meltdown precipitated by America's housing meltdown also opened the public spending spigot, and forced the Federal Reserve to adopt three different waves of monetary stimulus, or quantitative easing, along with near-zero rates.

"The Bank of Japan is now trying to adopt unorthodox quantitative easing policies, and so far it hasn't worked," Dominic Rossi, global CIO of equities at idelity, told CNBC's "Worldwide Exchange" this week. "But if you compare those policies to what the Fed has done…it's just not enough."

Wilkinson says there are important differences between the two economies. Japan's debt is mainly held domestically, while the U.S. is deeply in hock to both China and Japan, which are voracious buyers of Treasury debt.

And while Japan's massive manufacturing sector is on the decline, U.S. exports recently hit a record in September, helping to contract the trade deficit.

Still, Japan and the U.S. are confronting the real prospect of having to rein in spending in order to cut its debt. According to many experts, that will drag on the economy at a time when growth is already scarce.

"The real focus is on fiscal policy," Jesper Koll, managing director and head of Japanese equity research at J.P. Morgan, said on CNBC. "Can the [Japanese] government open its purse strings on public spending?"