The Endgame: Japan Makes Another Move

It’s a doozie. On December 24, the cabinet approved a draft budget for fiscal 2012 whose headline numbers were horrid enough: ¥90.3 trillion ($1.173 trillion) in outlays, ¥42.3 trillion in tax revenues, and a deficit of ¥48 trillion. 49% of the outlays are to be covered by issuing bonds, a record even for Japan. But it gets worse. Accounting shenanigans gloss over the fiasco by removing two items from the general budget: the reconstruction budget of ¥3.8 trillion and pension payments of ¥2.6 trillion. When they’re included, the deficit jumps to ¥54.4 trillion.


Fiscal 2012 Draft Budget trillion
General budget ¥  90.3
Reconstruction budget, left out of general budget ¥    3.8
Pension payments left out of general budget ¥    2.6
Total budget ¥  96.7
Estimated tax revenue ¥  42.3
Deficit to be funded by borrowing ¥ -54.4
Percent of budget to be funded by borrowing 56.2%


The Japanese government will have to borrow 56.2% of every yen it spends in 2012. But it gets even worse! Japan regularly passes “supplementary budgets” during the year—four of them in 2011, the last one on December 1 for ¥2 trillion. So there may be a few in 2012 as well, which could push borrowing requirements toward a dizzying 60% of outlays.

Despite the near-zero interest rate policy the Bank of Japan has been pursuing for years, interest expense on the debt—at 230% of GDP by far the highest in the developed world—will eat up ¥21.9 trillion in 2012, a stunning 51.8% of tax revenues! If yields on 10-year JGBs were to rise from 1% to 2%…. Better not think that way. Keeping yields near zero is simply a matter of survival.

Funding these deficits and rolling over the gargantuan debt has been made possible by the institutional setup and cohesive psychology of Japan Inc.: 95% of JGBs are held within Japan. Individuals directly or indirectly hold over 50%. Government-owned or controlled institutions hold over 40%. Among them: the Government Pension Investment Fund, the government-owned Post Bank, financial institutions the government can lean on, and the BoJ. Foreigners hold 5% for decorative purposes.

But two of the strengths of the Japanese economy that have supported the absurd deficit levels—a high savings rate and a large trade surplus—have collapsed. The savings rate is in the low single digits, and the trade surplus has turned into a ¥2.2 trillion ($29 billion) trade deficit in 2011 through November.

In November, imports grew 11.4% over a year ago, in part due to liquefied natural gas imports—up 21%. Since the Fukushima disaster, utilities have shut down reactor after reactor for scheduled maintenance but have not restarted them. Of the 54 reactors, only six are operating (one was shut down December 26, three more will be shut down in January). To make up for the shortage, utilities have revved up natural gas plants—though reductions in power consumption have also been implemented.

Exports dropped 4.5% from a year ago. Exports to China, Japan’s largest export market, declined 7.7% while imports grew 6.6%. Japan used to have a trade surplus with China. No more. The pace of offshoring is picking up, particularly in the auto and tech industries. While a weaker yen could slow down that trend, it would also drive up the cost of imports, including fossil fuels and raw materials—posing additional strains on the struggling economy.

The strategy for keeping it all glued together for a few more years? An increase in the unpopular consumption tax from the current 5% to 10%. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda proposed it in November. The opposition howled. Noda’s approval rating has dropped from 63% to 44.6% in the four months he has been in office. In pushing the consumption tax, he might run into a buzz saw. And if it passes, it will constrain consumption even further.

“Japan’s budget-making processes and its reliance on public debt have reached their limits,” Finance Minister Jun Azumi told a news conference on December 24, the winning understatement of the year. And what solutions did he propose? Well, pass the consumption tax “and somehow reverse the falling birthrates.”

Reverse the falling birthrates? If that ever happened—doubtful in the current social climate—it would unleash a new wave of government expenditures (schools, healthcare, etc.) for two or three decades before it would generate a boom in productive and tax-paying members of society. But keeping the system glued together for that long would require a miracle. And for a finance minister to count on a miracle seems a bit silly.

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