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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is Japan Doomed?

Noah Smith:

Time to Japanic?, by Noah Smith: The Atlantic has a big story on the impending Japanese crash; one of the authors is the brilliant Simon Johnson. ...
This prophecy is hardly unique; I have beaten this drum myself. If Japan doesn't change course, it will have a major crisis within the next decade.
If. But what people need to understand is, the Japanese government does have the power to avert a crisis. It is not inevitable.
There is one way that the crisis can definitely be averted: Raise taxes. Japan's fiscal woes can be boiled down to one sentence: Japan has European levels social spending and European levels of aging with American levels of taxation. But this could change; if Japan raised taxes to European levels, crisis would be instantly averted. According to analyses I've seen, this would require raising Japan's taxes from their current level of 32.5% of GDP to somewhere between 40% and 50% of GDP. That's comparable to France or Sweden. Painful, but not impossible.
Now for the rumor (rumor always being a large component in Western analyses of Japan). My sources at the Bank of Japan and Ministry of Finance tell me that domestic Japanese investors are betting that, after all the grumbling and fighting and ending of political careers, Japan's government will suck it up and raise taxes. This, my shadowy sources say, is why pension funds are still willing to put the Japanese people's money into JGBs.
But this story is not really outlandish. It's similar to what we're observing in America right now. U.S. borrowing is at all-time highs, but demand for Treasuries shows no sign of flagging, and most of that demand - more than in the past - is from domestic U.S. investors. Yes, we have shown a reluctance to raise taxes - witness the apocalyptic debt ceiling fight from last year. But if the public really thought the U.S. government was willing to default, domestic Treasury buyers would be heading for the exits. That they are not heading for the exits probably indicates that they believe that when push comes to shove, the U.S. government will suck it up and raise taxes. There are signs that the Republicans are quietly recognizing the necessity of this. At this point, it's just a fight between Democrats and Republicans to see who takes the fall for raising taxes - that's what the "fiscal cliff" is really all about.
Japan seems to be in a similar situation. It is not really unusual or outlandish at all. Everyone in the country still seems to believe that the government will continue to function. The day that that that belief falters - or is proven wrong by main force, when interest payments swamp the primary budget - is the day that Japan collapses (the same goes for the U.S.). But if Japan's government is less dysfunctional than the often skittish Western press believes, that day will never come.
(Anyway...oh yeah, I did mention that there might be two ways out of Japan's fiscal trap, didn't I? The other way is to use monetary policy to create negative interest rates. If that can be done in a stable way (without accelerating inflation) and if stable growth persists, then Japan can use an "inflation tax" to erode the value of its government debt instead of an actual tax. Econ bloggers (and commenters), who tend to believe that central banks can hit any NGDP target they want, will probably advocate this "solution"...)

    Posted by on Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 11:24 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (51)


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