Monday, January 30, 2012

Japan: Next to face a debt crisis?

A FIERY debate has broken out over an issue that many thought had long been settled: Japan's economy is sliding towards irrelevance.

The freshest evidence, reported last week, is the first annual trade deficit in 31 years. It means, at the very least, that the huge pool of domestic savings that the country uses to finance its staggering national debt might instead start going towards supporting a trade deficit - an ominous sign.

By William Pesek
This is not necessarily a problem, said Mr Eamonn Fingleton, a long-time observer who recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined 'The Myth of Japan's Failure'. His argument that Japan is a model worth emulating generated a huge buzz. So much so, in fact, that it prompted a rebuttal from Nobel laureate and Times columnist Paul Krugman, who is considerably less enamoured with Asia's No. 2 economy. Mr Fingleton then rebutted the rebuttal.

Who is right? I am more in Mr Krugman's camp than Mr Fingleton's. Japan's toxic mix of too much debt, too little growth, too many old people and too few babies will end badly if Tokyo does not get its act together.

It is important, though, to highlight where Mr Fingleton is right. Japan is pretty close to a model society. It is an incredibly safe, clean, efficient, predictable and consistently quirky place for an expatriate to reside in. Japan is reasonably egalitarian, its people have one of the highest standards of living and enjoy the longest life spans, and its cities feature the best infrastructure found anywhere. On a more superficial level, Japanese cuisine arguably blows away all others.

It is worth noting that, in some ways, the United States only wishes it could become Japan someday. All the chatter about 'Japanisation' takes on apocalyptic tones: lost decades, debilitating debt levels, zero interest rates forever, financial chaos and existential despair. Although those worries are valid, Japan never unravelled the way that sceptics expected it to. Crime did not skyrocket, homelessness did not explode, Arab Spring-like social instability never materialised. Workers and companies merely adjusted, living off their savings. Japan brought a whole new meaning to the concept of muddling through.

Could the US pull off what Japan has? I doubt it. The key to Japan's ability to withstand 20 years of stagnation is roughly US$15 trillion (S$19 trillion) of household savings. Many Americans could not live two months without a pay cheque. Japan, by contrast, is anything but a basket case.

Yet here is where Mr Fingleton's argument falls apart. In 1995, he published Blindside: Why Japan Is Still On Track To Overtake The US By The Year 2000. Today, the real blindside among Japan bulls is the thinking that what worked for it yesterday will work tomorrow.

Since its asset bubble burst more than 20 years ago, policymakers have worked frantically to keep the post-war boom alive. For years, pundits fretted about Japan's zombie companies. The real zombie is the nation's economic playbook.

The only reason that Japan has any growth can be traced to its growing public debt, the world's largest relative to the size of the economy, and the free money provided by the central bank. The economic equivalent of steroids is what holds Japan Inc together, Mr Krugman argues, not its organic vitality. To flourish, Japan needs to ease regulations, tap its female workforce and liberalise immigration. Lawmakers are doing none of the above.

There is still a powerful aversion to change and herein lies the nation's Achilles' heel. The Olympus scandal showed how corporate cronyism safeguarded an insular old-boys club. The radiation leaking from Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) reactors in Fukushima was a reminder of how dangerously top-down Japan is in a bottom-up economic world.

The Japanese news media is part of the problem. Change requires a vibrant and independent press policing leaders. Japan's press is subject to a not-so-subtle form of control. If a reporter gets too enterprising and writes stories that government ministries or companies do not like - say, by questioning Tepco's radiation readings - the sources dry up, making it hard to be effective. So, most play along.

The country could probably keep its head down and its sense of uniqueness intact for a few more years were it not for China. Japan is now an incredibly expensive property in a poor neighbourhood. Yes, it will be decades before China matches Japan in per-capita income, if it even can. Yet the competitive energy being unleashed by 1.3 billion incredibly industrious people means the status quo in Tokyo is no longer possible. Deflation is here to stay as developing Asia chips away at high-cost Japan's market share and its prided egalitarianism.

Investors trying to predict the next debt crisis after Europe's tend to look to Washington or Beijing. What about Tokyo? Those betting against Japanese bonds have not made much on the trade. Yet consider one inauspicious milestone reached this year.

On Jan 9, young people in Japan celebrated Coming of Age Day, donning kimonos, visiting temples and partying the night away. This year, only 1.2 million Japanese turn 20, half as many as the figure in 1970. A shrinking population complicates efforts to repay a US$12 trillion (S$15 trillion) debt more than double the size of the economy.

It does not take a Nobel Prize to know that paying off debt gets harder when you are running out of people.

The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist.

The opinions expressed are his own.