On IMF Sidelines, Host Japan Debt Worries Lurk Beneath Europe
'There are worries about the ability of the Japanese policy makers to reduce sufficiently their budget deficit,' Olivier Blanchard, the International Monetary Fund's chief economist, said at a press conference reviewing potential trouble spots.
With its gross government debts expected to rise to 237% of its gross domestic product this year, Japan bears the heaviest public debt burden among major developed nations, according to a new report from the IMF. That's worse than 198% for Greece and 126% for Italy.
While the stable domestic ownership of Japanese government debts minimizes the near-term risk of a debt crisis similar to those ailing European nations hit by pressures from fickle foreign investors, economists here expressed increasing concern that the growing instability in domestic politics makes it more difficult for Japanese leaders to make painful decisions needed to put their fiscal house in order.
'The lesson from Europe is that even if interest rates are moderate and everything looks fine, sometimes the market experiences a reversal impact' that jerks up interest rates sharply in a short period of time and inflicts severe damage to a nation's economy and fiscal sustainability, said Takehiko Nakao, vice minister of finance for international affairs. 'Already, Japan's fiscal situation is so dire. We really need to address this issue,' he added as part of an IMF panel titled 'Restoring Public Debt Sustainability in a High-Risk Environment.'
In its annual Global Financial Stability report released Wednesday, the IMF made a point of noting how market trends could turn against Japan. 'A general rise in global risk premiums could have significant consequences for the Japanese economy through higher JGB yields, particularly if investors come to focus more on similarities between Japan's circumstances and those of stressed European sovereigns,' the report said.
Among the emerging risks cited by Japan watchers attending the meetings and panels: new calls from politicians to shelve a plan to double the nation's broad sales tax, approved in August after a hard political battle as a symbol of Japan's resolve to start cutting deficit; government paralysis due to the failure of parliament to approve a debt ceiling increase; and sharp drops in exports and investment income as a result of the territorial spats, which would leave less money for Japan to finance its debts.
'For Japan, the trigger for a fiscal crisis may be political tumult or a sudden cut in its sovereign rating,' Katsuyuki Tokushima, chief fixed income analyst for NLI Research Institute, an affiliate of Nippon Life Insurance Co., said in an interview. He had earlier appeared on panel titled 'A Close Look at Japan's Fiscal Situation.'
Most economists believe Japan is unlikely to see a European-style selloff in government bonds anytime soon as they are held primarily by Japanese individuals and financial institutions who have few other investment options. Decades-long downturns in stock and real estate prices, as well as sluggish investment demand from companies in a deflationary economy, have pushed Japanese investors and corporate treasurers to pour money into Japanese government bonds. That has allowed Tokyo's reckless borrowing to finance its profligate spending.
'Everyone is aware of the risks of JGBs,' said Manabu Tamaru, portfolio manager at Baring Asset Management. 'But we have to keep buying them as everyone else does. We are trapped in prisoners' dilemma,' he added after joining a Euromoney discussion on 'G3 Bonds Risky Safe Havens?'
Whether any of the risk factors raised by economists becomes a crisis-inducing reality depends in part on what happens next in national politics. The embattled government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is likely to lose power as a result of upcoming general elections to be held sometime before the next summer. While polls show the Liberal Democratic Party, the resurgent former ruling party, has the lead, none of the parties is likely to secure a parliamentary majority. The result would be an unstable coalition government, with individual parties emphasizing to populist policies to outdo each other.
European Pressphoto Agency
日 本國債主要由日本國內投資者穩定持有，這一現狀最大程度地降低了短期內日本發生歐元區問題國家那類債務危機的可能性。但與會的經濟學家卻日益擔心，日本國 內政局日漸不穩將加大日本領導人做出艱難抉擇、整頓國內財政的難度。變化無常的外國投資者所施加的壓力令歐元區那些陷入困境的國家深受沖擊。
日 本財務省國際局財務官中尾武彥(Takehiko Nakao)說，我們從歐洲吸取的教訓是，就算利率不是很高，一切看起來很好，市場有時也會遭受負面沖擊，令利率在短時間內大幅上揚，並嚴重影響一國經濟 和財政的可持續性。他在IMF主辦的題為“在高風險環境下恢復公眾債務的可持續性”(Restoring Public Debt Sustainability in a High-Risk Environment)的專題討論會上說，日本的財政狀況已經非常危險，我們急需應對這個問題。
在 其周三發布的年度《全球金融穩定》(Global Financial Stability)報告中，IMF強調了市場趨勢可能會如何變得對日本不利。這份報告說，全球風險溢價普遍上升可能會通過推高日本國債收益率的方式對日 本經濟造成顯著影響。如果投資者開始更多地關注日本現狀同歐元區問題國家之間的相似性，那麼上述情況發生的可能性更大。
參加會議和小組討 論的日本問題觀察人士指出的風險之一是：日本國內政界人士再次呼吁擱置一項將日本國內銷售稅增加一倍的計劃。今年8月，經過了一場強硬的政治對決之後，日 本政府批準了這項計劃，這也被外界視作日本決心開始削減赤字的標志。風險之二是：由於日本國會沒有批準提高債務上限，日本政府陷入癱瘓。風險之三是：領土 爭端導致出口和投資收入大幅下降，這進一步減少了日本用於債務融資的資金數量。
日本生命保險相互會社(Nippon Life Insurance Co.)下屬研究機構NLI Research Institute的固定收益証券首席分析師德島克之(Katsuyuki Tokushima)在接受採訪時說，對日本而言，引發財政危機的可能是政治騷亂或其主權信用評級突然遭下調。德島克之此前曾參加一個名為“近觀日本財政 狀況”(A Close Look at Japan's Fiscal Situation)的小組討論。
大多數經濟學家認為短時間內 日本不太可能像歐洲一樣發生大規模的政府債券拋售，因為日本的政府債券主要由基本沒什麼其他投資渠道的日本個人和金融機構持有。幾十年來股市和房地產市場 下行的情勢，以及通貨緊縮環境下企業投資需求疲弱，已經使得日本投資者和企業的財務總管把大量資金投入到日本的政府債券中去。這使得日本政府可以不計後果 地通過借錢來為其大手大腳的支出買單。
霸菱資產管理公司(Barings Asset Management)的投資組合經理田丸學(Manabu Tamaru)說，所有人都意識到了日本政府債券的風險，但我們不得不像其他人一樣繼續買入；我們已經陷入了囚徒困境。他剛剛參加過題為“G3債券是有風 險的安全港嗎？”(G3 Bonds Risky Safe Havens?)這一有關歐洲貨幣的討論。
經濟學家們指出的這些風險因素是 否會引發危機，在一定程度上要看日本政局將出現怎樣的狀況。四面楚歌的野田佳彥(Yoshihiko Noda)政府有可能在將於明年夏天之前舉行的大選中失勢。盡管重振旗鼓的前執政黨自由民主黨(Liberal Democratic Party)在民調中處於領先地位，但預計日本沒有任何一個政黨能在接下來的大選中獲得議會絕對多數席位。其結果是日本將誕生一個不穩定的聯合政府，各政 黨為了壓倒競爭對手會紛紛大打民粹主義政策牌。