清醒认识日本债务问题 Press pause on Japan’s debt disaster movie
Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Japan’s credit rating raises a disturbing prospect. Is this stage two of the global credit crisis, featuring a chain of sovereign defaults among the largest economies? No less a figure than Kaoru Yosano, Japan’s new minister for economic and fiscal affairs, seems to think so. “We face a dreadful dream,” he told the Financial Times last week.
标准普尔(Standard & Poor's)下调日本信用评级之举，引发了令人担忧的前景。这是不是全球信贷危机的第二阶段——其特征是一连串规模最大的经济体出现主权违约？日本经济 财政大臣与谢野馨(Kaoru Yosano)如此重量级的人物似乎这么认为。他上周告诉英国《金融时报》：“我们面临着一个噩梦”。
After the disasters of 2008, such fears are understandable, but misguided. The risk is they lead to policies that, far from solving the world’s economic problems, make them a whole lot worse.
The case for the prosecution is simple. Japan’s ratio of government debt to gross domestic product is above 100 per cent and shows no sign of declining. The political system seems gridlocked, with a succession of uninspiring leaders coming and going with bewildering rapidity.
On this reading, Greece and Ireland were just the hors d’oeuvre. The main course is yet to come. Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy, and the aftershock from a bond market crash would be like the fall of Lehman cubed.
But a key piece is missing from this picture. Unlike the spendthrifts of euroland’s periphery, Japan is entirely self-financing. The state may be in deficit, but the cash-rich private sector saves enough to cover domestic needs and, in addition, to export capital equivalent to about 3 per cent of output every year. The result is a vast nest-egg of overseas assets.
In this respect Japan resembles not Greece or Ireland but another small European country. Belgium has sported a government debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 100 per cent for the best part of two decades. At the same time, it has been in current account surplus year after year, 2008 excepted.
Citizens of deficit countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal – or indeed the US and the UK – are in the reverse position. They must pay dividends and interest to foreigners, including Belgians and Japanese, who own their liabilities.
But surely such dizzying levels of government debt are unsustainable? If so, nobody has told the markets. As Japan’s debt has snowballed, the interest rate demanded by investors has fallen ever lower. Last year, as yields on Greek debt soared into double digits, Japan’s 10-year bond yields plunged to a paltry 0.8 per cent.
Rather than a “dreadful dream” Japan’s leaders face an enticing reality. They have the opportunity to issue more and more bonds at the lowest interest rates seen since the Babylonians invented accounting.
The smart move would be to copy Britain’s funding of the Napoleonic wars and issue perpetual bonds. That would make explicit what everyone knows. Government debt is never going to be “paid back” – just rolled over ad infinitum. As long as the interest payments can be comfortably serviced, no problem need arise.
The way to ensure this happens is not by demand-shrinking austerity measures but by durable economic growth – which requires a combination of monetary and fiscal stimulus and structural reform. A higher consumption tax, Mr Yosano’s favoured remedy, would probably mean less consumption. This is what happened in 1997, in spite of the finance ministry’s Pollyanna-ish view that consumers would be enthused by fiscal rectitude and go on a spending spree. Instead, a deep recession eroded tax revenues further and left an even bigger budget deficit.
确保上述情况发生的办法，不是通过收缩需求的紧缩措施，而是通过持久的经济增长——这 需要将财政与货币刺激措施和结构性改革结合起来。与谢野馨所青睐的提高消费税的举措，可能意味着减少消费。这种情况在1997年曾经出现过——尽管这位财 政大臣盲目乐观地认为，消费者将受到财政紧缩的鼓舞，继续大肆支出。相反，深层衰退进一步侵蚀了税收收入，并造成了越来越大的预算赤字。
The reality is that in ageing, high-saving countries such as Japan and Belgium there is consistent demand for low-risk financial assets such as government bonds. Private-sector assets and public-sector liabilities are two sides of the same Godzilla-sized balance sheet.
Upsetting this delicate equilibrium could have dire international consequences. If major surplus countries squeeze domestic demand, there is no hope of righting the global imbalances that contributed to the credit crisis. More trouble will follow.
With the deficit countries having used most of their policy bullets, the next phase is likely to feature protectionism, a rollback of globalisation and a rise in nationalist and nativist political movements – a prospect as stomach-churning as a sushi waffle.
Japan needs to forget about the credit agencies, which have not had a terribly good track record recently, and concentrate on exiting deflation. That’s the only way to wake up from Mr Yosano’s “dreadful dream”.