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Friday, September 29, 2006

Japan: Bulls or Elephants?

Lex has a column on Japan in the FT today. Basically it reflects the growing attention which is likely to be focused on Japan's fiscal situation. One interesting point which can be seen in the graphic he provides is the fact that Japan seems to have peaked in early 2005. This may be the longest running expansion Japan has had in many a long year, but we definitely seem to be in the downswing at this stage. Which makes you wonder about all those 'recovery' arguments we had earlier in the year.

Lex is also right to draw attention to all the uncertainty which there is about the level of the debt. He suggests that it may be as low as 90% if you take into account accumulated assets in the social security fund, although some argue that if you take that into account then you also need to consider the acquired liabilites (all the pensions yet to be paid) and then you end up with something in the region of the 'official' 175% figure.

The numbers don't seem to be the important issue. The important issue is the sustainability of this moving forward.

And don't miss the fact that he gets the main point, namely that "nominal growth could slow as Japan’s workforce shrinks more quickly."

The news that Japan will soon enjoy its second golf course flotation since 2004 should warm the hearts of bulls. Whether Shinzo Abe’s ascent to prime minister this week should do so is less clear. During the tenure of Junichiro Koizumi, his predecessor, the scourges of bad debt, deflation and abysmal confidence were largely overcome. Unfortunately, in spite of slaying post-bubble Japan’s dragons, Mr Koizumi left behind an elephant in the room: the level of public debt.

This can be exaggerated. Gross public debt is a catastrophic 175 per cent of gross domestic product. But deducting substantial financial assets held by the state, but excluding central bank assets, leaves net debt at 90 per cent of GDP – lower than Italy, a fellow fiscal reprobate. And any government which can borrow 10-year money at a rate of 1.66 per cent cannot be said to face an imminent fiscal crisis. Mr Abe’s new cabinet confirms that he prioritises growth over lower debt. Koji Omi, finance minister, a proponent of higher consumption taxes, has said that this revenue-raising measure is off the agenda until after the July 2007 upper house elections.

And in the longer term? As cabinet secretary, Mr Abe signed up to Mr Koizumi’s July plan to eliminate the primary deficit (that is, before interest payments), currently 4 per cent of GDP, by 2011/12. Aside from the leisurely pace and, arguably, the lack of detail, there is one big objection: a primary balance may not be enough to lower net public debt relative to GDP. By 2011/12 the level of gearing will have reached about 100 per cent. For it to fall, the state’s effective net cost of borrowing must be lower than nominal GDP growth – today, at 1.5 per cent, it is at least 50 basis points below. But low real interest rates may well rise, while nominal growth could slow as Japan’s workforce shrinks more quickly.

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