Resolving Shirakawa’s conundrum

April 24, 2012

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The governor of the Bank of Japan, Masaaki Shirakawa, says he is confounded by the still very low level of Japanese government bond yields given the country’s elevated debt to GDP ratio of over 200 percent. Speaking on an IMF panel over the weekend, he offered a rather unintuitive explanation for the phenomenon:

It seems difficult to explain the case of Japan in light of conventional wisdom. One frequently offered explanation is that the ample domestic savings in Japan have absorbed the issuance of JGBs and the share of JGBs held by foreign investors is very small. But a more fundamental explanation is that the stability in the current bond yields reflects market participants’ expectations that fiscal soundness will be restored through structural reforms imposed in the economic and fiscal areas.

Most economists think Japanese yields are low because of continued expectations for deflation and weak economic growth. But for Shirakawa, it seems, it is public confidence in future fiscal restraint that is keeping bond yields low. Except he then contradicts this point by saying weak confidence in future fiscal reforms is also simultaneously undermining consumer spending:

At the moment, such expectations are not firmly backed by concrete reform plans. The public therefore restrains spending on concerns over future fiscal developments. This constitutes one factor behind sluggish economic growth and mild deflation. If this is indeed the case, the experience of Japan indicates a possibility that a cumulative increase in government debt combined with weak economic growth expectations might generate deflationary pressures.

Not so, argues Ugo Panizza, head of debt and finance analysis at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. He and co-author Andrea Presbitero find no causal link between high debt levels and weak economic growth.

Christopher Sims, a Nobel-winning economist and Princeton professor also on the panel with Shirakawa, had a much simpler explanation for why Japanese yields are low while Europe’s face steady upward pressure even though both economies are struggling with soft growth:

There is a very important distinction between inflation risk and default risk. There is a kind of a default premium. An entity that issues debt that only promises to pay paper that it can print for free, is free of any risk that the entity will be unable to deliver on the contract terms. It’s one thing for markets to worry about unpredictable inflation reducing the value of a bond. Another thing is for the markets to be uncertain whether at the next rollover this issue of debt is going to be not be fully paid or whether there might be a general haircut on debt.

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