Japan’s 245pc of GDP debt ratio is not safe
Mr Yen cautions on Japan’s ‘unsafe’ debt trajectory
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in Tokyo
4:04PM GMT 26 Mar 2013
“A debt ratio of 245pc of GDP is not really safe, and it is not happening because we are investing,” said Takehiko Nakao, Japan’s ‘Mr Yen’ or vice finance minister in charge of the exchange rate.
Mr Nakao said the scope for further fiscal stimulus is running out and the country must restore public finances to a sustainable path by the middle of the decade. “We can’t continue to expect people to lend money to us,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
The comments touch on an acutely sensitive topic. A number of global hedge funds and banks have begun “shorting” Japan’s debt, the world’s biggest at $23 trillion.
They are mostly taking positions through the credit default swap (CDS) market, betting that Japan will be the next big crisis theme after the US subprime crash and the eurozone debt debacle. The radical new government of premier Shinzo Premier is determined to prove them wrong.
Mr Nakao brushed aside criticism that Japan is engaged in currency war or trying to push down the yen, but acknowledged that there are limits to what the Bank of Japan (BoJ) can do under the rules of global finance.
“We didn’t blame other countries after the Lehman crisis when they had large falls in their currencies. We are using monetary policy to tackle persistent deflation in Japan, and avoid a deflationary spiral,” he said.
Mr Nakao said there is a “shared view” among the developed countries that central banks can legitimately buy any form of domestic asset – as the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve have been doing – but overseas bonds are another matter.
“We cannot buy foreign assets at our leisure. That would be the equivalent of currency intervention by the Bank of Japan,” he said.
The world turned a blind eye to Japan’s purchases of US Treasuries in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster, when the yen surged to a record Y76 against the dollar. But those were unique circumstances.
The yen has since weakened dramatically to around Y95 under Mr Abe, whose “Abenomics” stimulus policies include a shake-up at the BoJ and a new team of governors committed to reflation.
Veteran Japan-watchers say there is a graveyard full of foreign funds that bet against Japanese debt over the last two decades, only to learn the hard way that the country is sui generis, with vast overseas assets and a captive pool of domestic savings.
The great unknown is whether this is now changing as Japan’s trade surplus evaporates. The International Monetary Fund says gross public debt will reach 245pc of GDP this year. Net debt – stripping out the BoJ’s liquid assets – is much lower but it too is now rising fast.
The IMF says net debt will reach 145pc in 2013, well above the usual safety threshold. Figure has jumped by 50 percentage points since 2008, roughly the same as the jump in Spain and Portugal over the same period.
Japan is the only major nation that has not begun to tighten fiscal policy. The IMF says the primary budget deficit was 9pc of GDP last year, yet the Abe government is launching a fresh $200bn blast of stimulus worth 2pc of GDP to kick-start recovery.
Mr Nakao plan is to withdraw the stimulus gradually once recovery gains traction, with a rise in VAT from 5pc to 8pc next year, and then to 15pc. Mr Abe has vowed to cut the primary deficit to 3pc by 2015. “We think that is unrealistic,” said Junko Nishioka from RBS.
Chisato Haguma, chief equity strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ, said the government must curb “exploding social security outlays” as Japan’s ageing crisis hits.
However, he said the high debt level is overstated since the vast assets of the state – including land – dwarf liabilities, and could be sold off if needed. “They have more options than assumed. There is not going to be a fiscal crisis in the next two to three years, but there could be one later,” he said.
Foreign hedge funds have made much of recent moves by the state pension fund GPIF to start selling off part of its vast holding of government bonds (JGBs).
Mr Nakao said the selling is a temporary blip caused by bulge of retiring baby-boomers. The GPIF will soon be a net buyer again and will continue to accumulate for another thirty years.
The IMF has warned repeatedly that Japan is pushing its luck. The Fund has advised fiscal tightening of 10pc of GDP by 2020 just to stabilise the debt level.
It said there is plenty of “low-hanging fruit”, advising Tokyo to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, and remove the tax subsidy for dependent spouses to make it worthwhile for women to continue working.
Yet the Fund said Japan is uncomfortably close to a debt compound trap, and could face trouble if borrowing costs ratchet up. “Even a moderate rise in yields would leave the fiscal position extremely vulnerable,” it said, warning that this would have implications for the entire world.
“Even a relatively small increase in the sovereign risk premium would make fiscal consolidation more difficult, pose challenges to financial institutions, harm growth prospects in Japan, and could spill over to global risk premia and growth. In this regard, Europe’s recent experience offers a cautionary tale. Once market confidence is lost, regaining it becomes very difficult.”