Lessons from Japan’s fiscal disaster

By Felix Salmon
December 27, 2010

When it comes to overindebted countries which can’t stop spending, it’s pretty hard to compete with Japan. The fact that everybody picks up on when reporting on the 2011 budget is that debt issuance is going to exceed tax revenues for the second year running — or, to put it another way, that more than half the budget is being paid for by borrowing rather than taxes. For me, however, the scarier fact is that more than half of government tax revenue is going to go straight back out the door in debt-service payments.

If you’re at all interested in Japan’s budget, the Yomiuri Shimbun editorial on the subject is excellent; for a shorter version, James Simms has a good overview in the WSJ. The problem is a familiar one: politicians are happy spending money and incapable of implementing budget cuts, and the result is a slow-moving fiscal trainwreck.

The situation in Japan is particularly depressing because the country has no major ethnic or political rifts. Sure, there’s political jostling, both within and between the parties. But it’s nothing compared to the vitriol and mistrust that we see in the US, and somehow I can’t imagine Greece-style riots in Japan either. But still the technocrats can’t make any headway.

The lesson here, I think, is that it’s very, very hard for a government to enact a serious fiscal adjustment unless and until the bond market forces its hand. The Brits are trying, of course — and we’ll see whether or not the coalition government can succeed. But as we saw with George W Bush, the fiscal rectitude of one administration can be more than wiped out during the course of the next.

Even now, with the attention of the world more concentrated on sovereign fiscal issues than ever, the Japanese government can still contrive to raise agricultural subsidies by 40% and send child-care payments soaring, including payments to families who don’t need the money. It’s even getting rid of highway tolls. Oh, and it’s cutting the corporate tax rate.

From a bond-market perspective, this basically just means an ever-greater supply of JGBs: we’re still a very long way from any real credit risk, given the political power of the owners of those bonds. But as a lesson in fiscal political economy, Japan is much more worrisome. Everybody agrees that the budget must be cut and the country put onto a sustainable fiscal course. But no one is capable of doing that, and instead they go in the opposite direction entirely. It’s the see-no-evil easy choice to make. And I suspect that we’ll see continue to see similar choices being made in other highly-indebted countries around the world. Including the US.

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