WASHINGTON – As we Americans watch with growing concern our crazy presidential elections politics, other crazy things are happening around the world, without anybody paying any attention. Western governments (US included) keep piling up more and more debt, while Central Bankers do all they can to keep interests rates at zero, or close to it, this way allowing the insane perception that getting deeper into debt is painless, and therefore fundamentally OK.
Japan’s enormous public debt
David Stockman illustrates this point very well in a recent piece in his www.davidstockmanscontracorner.com that focuses on Japan:
“The government of what can only be described as an old age colony sinking into certain bankruptcy sold 30-year bonds at an all-time low of 47 basis points. Let me clear here that we are talking about a record low not just for Japan but for the history of mankind. [Emphasis added]
To be sure, loaning any government 30-year money at 47 basis points is inherently a foolhardy proposition, but it’s just plain bonkers when it comes to Japan.
Here is its 30-year fiscal record in nutshell. Notwithstanding years of chronic red ink and its recent 2014 consumption tax increase from 5% to 8%, Japan is still heading straight for fiscal oblivion. Last year (2015) it spent just under 100 trillion yen, but took in hardly 50 trillion yen of revenue, stacking the difference on its already debilitating mountain of public debt, which has now reached 240% of GDP.”
“That’s right. A government which is borrowing nearly 50 cents on every dollar of outlays should be paying a huge risk premium to even access the bond market. But a government with a 240% debt-to-GDP ratio peering into a demographic sinkhole would be hard pressed to borrow at any price at all on an honest free market.
[This is] what lies 30 years down its demographic sinkhole. To wit, Japan’s population will have declined by 30% to 90 million, while its working age population will have plummeted from 78 million to about 52 million or by 33%. Moreover, its labor force participation rate has been declining for years, but even if it were to stabilize at the current 60% level, it would still mean just 31 million workers.”
A horrible picture
Yes, these are the facts. Japan’s revenue covers at best 50% of its spending. The remaining 50% is financed by issuing bonds. As a result, the national debt is now equivalent to 240% of GDP. And yes, as Stockman points out, going forward this horrible picture gets a lot worse. Given Japan’s rapid demographic decline, the number of active workers and therefore tax payers is rapidly decreasing, while the number of retirees receiving pensions, health care services and other benefits is increasing relative to the overall population. This means that going forward there will be even more spending for seniors, while less revenue will be coming in.
No trouble selling bonds
And in all this, notwithstanding this brewing fiscal catastrophe, the Japanese government has no trouble selling 30 year bonds at a nominal interest rate. How is that possible? In a sane world, no government in this fiscal predicament would be able to sell any bonds, let alone at these rates!
Yes, as Stockman points out, there is a fix. Bond traders “know” that the Bank of Japan, BOJ, eventually will buy these bonds. So, they are not concerned that these will turn out to be like Argentina’s bonds right before bankruptcy. There will always be a reliable buyer.
But here is the question. The BOJ will keep buying worthless paper, paying real money for it, for ever?
Everybody is doing it
As absurd as this sounds, at the moment this seems the consensus. What makes things worse is that this insanity linking fiscal profligacy and Central Bankers’ madness is now the official orthodoxy. Indeed, what Japan is doing is pretty much in line with what other Central Bankers in Europe and America are doing. The difference is only one of degree.
Getting into debt is good
So, here is the picture. Formerly rich Western countries keep spending way beyond their means, this way accumulating more and more debt. However, thanks to their Central Banks, the cost of borrowing is way below what it should be. And this of course encourages more fiscal irresponsibility. Indeed, at least in the short term, there is essentially no heavy price to pay for profligacy. Japan is an extreme case, but all the others, the US included, are quickly catching up.
More red ink with Trump
And, by the way, if we take a quick detour back to US politics, most estimates indicate that Donald Trump’s proposed public policies would add another $ 10 trillion in 10 years to the US national debt. This staggering figure would be on top of the $ 19 trillion the US already owes.
And, of course, Trump is leading in the polls. Amassing more public debt seems to be a good way to “Make America Great Again”.