Japan’s Fiscal Demise: A Cautionary Tale For Our Times

By David Stockman, Budget Director under President Reagan and author of the bestseller, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America. This article originally appeared on David Stockman’s Contra Corner.

I remember it well. That is, the fiscal rectitude of the old Japan.

During early 1981 as the Reagan White House prepared its radical fiscal plan—what Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker famously called a “riverboat gamble”—we were visited by a high-ranking delegation from the Japanese finance ministry (MOF). It is no overstatement to say that they were absolutely shocked by the administration’s plan to enact a sweeping 30% income tax cut and double the defense budget, while expecting that it would all balance out as a result of surging economic growth immediately and large domestic spending cuts down the road.

The MOF men feared the worst, politely noting the possibility that there would be insufficient economic growth and spending cuts to pay for the Administration’s monumental tax reductions and defense build-up. Then the US would experience an outbreak of massive fiscal deficits—an unprecedented peacetime development that could roil the entire global financial system. In that apprehension the MOF men turned out to be dead right, and not because they were especially clairvoyant.

Back in those benighted times, fiscal rectitude was a widely shared commitment among government financial officials including Congressional Republicans and their conservative counterparts abroad and especially in Japan. Economic policy officials did not have to be hectored about deficits and the fact that there is no such thing as a fiscal free lunch. Indeed, notwithstanding a government led 30-year drive to rebuild their economy from the complete devastation of WWII, Japan’s public debt was only 50% of GDP as of 1980.

That was then. Today Japan’s public debt is 5X greater relative to the size of its economy and tips the scales at 250% of GDP. That is off-the-charts relative to all other large developed economies and has no parallel in previous history. In the interim, Japan succumbed to the Keynesian stimulus disease, betting that after its thundering financial meltdown during the early 1990s it could borrow and print its way back to the prosperity it had known during the period of its post-war economic miracle.

The chart below is thus a cautionary tale of our times. In exactly one generation of leadership, Japan’s fiscal rectitude was lost entirely. As is made clear in what follows, its fiscal equation is now beyond rescue. It is tumbling inexorably into a financial abyss that would not have been remotely imaginable by the MOF men who came to the White House in February 1981 bearing discrete admonitions of fiscal prudence.

Japanese debt as % of GDP

The slippery slope leading to today’s Keynesian demise starts with the fact that Japan’s post-war boom wasn’t a miracle at all. From the smoldering industrial ruins left by the allies’ final assault, the Japanese economy had bounded upward for three decades owing to a massive spree of public and private investment and a sweeping mercantilist industrial development and export promotion policy. The former depended upon an extraordinarily high household savings rate and the latter was fueled by blatantly protectionist policies that kept imports out and the yen’s exchange rate far below its true economic value.

Neither prong of Japan’s economic miracle was sustainable. By the mid-1980s the Japanese capital goods and export sectors were enormously over-built. This meant that the double-digit growth in fixed asset investment which had powered Japan’s post-war GDP growth was destined for a sharp fall. Likewise, sooner or later its exchange rate repression policies would trigger an explosion of counter-protectionism in Washington, meaning that the drastically undervalued yen feeding its towering export surpluses was heading for a sharp reversal.

That’s exactly what happened after mid-1985 when a new financial sheriff came to the US Treasury. James Baker had matriculated from the Texas School of “America first” economics and did not hesitate to lower the boom on Japan’s export driven prosperity by way of the Plaza Accords of September 1985. Under the pressure of Baker’s concerted global campaign of yen buying by the major central banks, Japan’s exchange rate soared from about 260 per dollar to 130 over the next several years.

Unfortunately, Japan did not use this rather brutal assault on its mercantilist economic model to rebalance and reform its economy. Instead, its government started down the slippery slope of Keynesian stimulus and financialization that has been corroding the foundations of its post-war prosperity for the last 25 years.

In the first round, the BOJ slashed interest rates in early 1986 in order to stimulate domestic expansion, but Japan’s problem was not that the cost of capital was too high or that it suffered from insufficient industrial capacity. In fact, it was already swamped with excess capacity in steel, autos, machinery, consumer electronics and much else.

So what Japan needed at the time was higher market clearing interest rates to thwart its now chronic over-investment in export capacity. Instead, the BOJ’s ultra easy money flowed into the financial sector, fueling a massive bubble in real estate and corporate stocks and bonds.

This initial round of financialization induced businesses to drastically expand their debt loads. Accordingly, non-financial debt in Japan nearly tripled from its early 1980s level. As is now well-known, this surging tide of both straight and convertible debt went into what was called “zeitech” or financial engineering. What it really amounted to was rampant speculation in real estate and financial assets–especially the stock of other companies within the Keiretsu groups around which Japan’s state-led development model had been organized. As shown below, the Nikkei stock index went parabolic, rising by nearly 4X during the 50 months after the Plaza Accord.

The bubble was especially acute in the real estate sector. At one point the value of land in Tokyo was equal to the total for the US. In barely a decade, land price in Japan’s largest city rose by 5X before the spectacular crash of the 1990s. And there is no doubt as to the cause: the BOJ unleashed a monumental speculative frenzy based on cheap debt and the perception that Japan was “different” because its central bank had everyone’s back.

The bubble burst in spectacular fashion. From top to bottom the Nikkei dropped by 80% and real estate values by even more.Yet the painful liquidation of the BOJ’s financial bubble during the early 1990s was only the prelude. What really happened was that the real economy in Japan went through a drastic downshift in its growth capacity owing to a more realistic exchange rate and the unavoidable disappearance of the double-digit growth rates of fixed assets which had accompanied the one-time expansion of its industrial plant during the boom era. Accordingly, its trend rate of real GDP growth fell from 4-8% rates during the boom years to just 1% on average during the 1990s.

This unwelcome slowdown reflected the laws of economics speaking out loud. Japan’s domestic economy was desperately inefficient and feather-bedded, its foreign markets were now crowded with fierce competition, and it was destined to experience a sustained period of sub-normal capital investment and real estate development owing to the vast overhang of capacity from the boom years.

Unfortunately, the mandarins who run Japan Inc did not understand that they had been booming on borrowed time during the post-war heydays, and that Japan’s now drastically imbalanced and debt-saturated economy would remain stuck in the mud in the absence of a through-going dismantlement of its rigged domestic markets and protectionist trade policies.

Here’s where the Keynesian disease insinuated itself, and it came naturally to a ruling party—the LDP—that had presided over Japan’s state-driven development model of the post-war years. The machinery of Japan’s politics was all about distribution of construction, credit, and corruption among the LDP’s constituencies.

In the halcyon times, this generated roads and bridges to export ports and thereby facilitated growth of production, jobs, and foreign markets—even if inefficiently done. But after the post-Plaza bubble crash, it merely churned out roads and bridges to nowhere. Paving the archipelago with cement, Japan’s politicians and bureaucrats did Keynes one better. Instead of digging holes and merely re-filling them, they dug gravel and limestone and turned it into pavement.The chart below shows the fiscal catastrophe which resulted. During the two decades after 1990, Japan’s government expenditures rose by 45%, while its general revenues fell by 15-20%. Accordingly, a massive permanent fiscal gap was opened that fueled the parabolic rise of its debt ratio shown above. And this wasn’t just garden variety fiscal profligacy. As shown below, during most of this century, Japan’s general revenues have not even covered 50% of its expenditures. The math is terminal.


To be sure, the Keynesians would complain that the above chart is not a picture of “runaway spending” as denounced by Republican orators from time immemorial. And no, it is not. Spending growth has averaged less than 3% per year since 1990.However, that observation is irrelevant to Japan’s circumstances and fails to grapple with the real fiscal driver. Namely, after 40 years of boom and the final BOJ bubble, Japan had reached a condition of “peak debt”. Already by 1990, total credit market debt—public and private—exceeded 350% of GDP, and by now it has soared to in excess of 500%.

This condition of credit saturation means that nominal GDP growth is stuck in the low single digits, and could be liberated from that plight only by a burst of supply side growth and entrepreneurial productivity that has no chance of emerging in the statist policy and political environs of Japan Inc. In fact, nominal GDP has gown by only 1% per year since 1990, reflecting Japan’s stagnant (and now shrinking) work force and tepid productivity growth.

But growth of 1% in money incomes does not leave any room for net tax reductions, and cannot remotely accommodate the spasm of public spending that have characterized Japan’s post-1990 Keynesian debauch. Yet prodded by mainstream economists in the US government and international institutions, Japan had dismantled its tax base in one effort after another to stimulate short-term investment. Its nominal revenues consequently fell continuously for nearly two decades. There is nothing like it in developed world experience.

Stated differently, the LDP politicians took charge of building bridges and the Keynesian economists provided the rationalization for dismantling the tax base. No more lethal fiscal combination is imaginable.

Except…..except that Japan Inc. has found it, and heartily embraced it in the form of Abenomics and its prior variants of QE and open-ended monetary expansion. Based on the lamentable advice of Ben Bernanke and other visiting fireman of the modern school of Keynesian central banking, Japan embraced the “deflation” myth and the destructive notion that the central bank must run its printing presses until inflation is revived to the 2% or so range—–thereby reflating nominal GDP, aggregate demand, and the wheels of production and jobs growth in the real economy.

To begin with, of course, Japan has not suffered from anything that remotely resembles honest deflation. In most recent months, Japan’s CPI level is in the exact place where it was 21 years ago in early 1993.

The only “deflation” that Japan has suffered has been financial sector deflation—real estate and equity prices and private borrowing. The heights reached during the 1980s bubble were utterly artificial, unstable and an enormous deformation of capital markets.

Nevertheless Japan adopted “ZIRP” in 1999 and thereby piled Keynesian central banking on top of its already hemorrhaging fiscal equation. As a consequence, BOJ’s balance sheet has exploded, rising from about 10% of GDP to nearly 50% today. That’s what it took by way of massive monetization of existing financial assets to pin Japan’s money market rates at zero and to push its yield curve outward along the flat line.

This amounted to financial repression on steroids, but it has been to no avail. During the approximate 15 years since it originally adopted ZIRP, Japan’s real GDP has limped along at 0.9% per year. This figure is not significantly different than the 0.7% rate it experienced in the post-crash 1990s.

But ZIRP has had enormous and untoward collateral effects that taken together comprise the proximate cause of Japan’s impending fiscal demise. First, Japan’s vaunted household savings rate—the feature that funded its post-war CapEx boom—has ended up in the dustbin of history. During the last two decades it has dropped from the high teens as a percent of disposable income to a US-style 3-4%.

This collapse of the savings rate will prove especially destructive for the retirement colony that comprises Japan’s demographic future. Saddled with towering public debts and rapidly shrinking work force, Japan will rapidly consume its accumulated savings as its retirement rolls soar. A decade or two down the road it will become an international pauper.

If it gets that far. The other collateral effect of ZIRP has been a gigantic fiscal lie. Namely, the delusion that Japan’s massive government debts can be financed at close to zero nominal carry cost for the indefinite future. After all, the 10-year bond now carries a yield of 0.51%—a rate which is close enough to free for government work. Yet even then, Japan’s interest carry cost has been consuming upwards of one-third of its current revenues.

That’s why the prospect of interest rate “normalization” is such a fiscal nightmare. Were Japan somehow able to stop the inexorable growth of its public debt, the annual revenue take shown above would be consumed entirely by interest payments under a scenario of normalized interest rates.

And that brings us to the folly of Abenomics and the BOJ’s latest round of QE—a madcap rate of balance sheet expansion that would be equivalent to $250 billion per month at the scale of the US economy. At this rate, the BOJ is absorbing almost all of the available government bond supply and on some days has actually left the private market bidless. Indeed, it is monetizing assets at such a frenzied rate that it has now become a major buyer of ETFs and other equities. In effect, the central bank in Japan no longer merely runs the casino; it has become the casino.

Still, it has only accomplished one thing: In the early run of Abenomics, the world’s fast money traders went all-in with the BOJ and drove its stock index from 8,000 to 16,000 in a matter of months. But the excitement is now all over, and the actual results are pitiful—even if you believe that printing money can actually create sustainable output growth and real wealth gains.

The fact is, after the most recent quarter’s GDP wipeout, Japan’s real GDP is only 0.8% larger than it was five quarters ago when Abenomics was installed at the BOJ.

And that ragged Keynesian excuse that all will be well once the jump in the consumption tax from 5% to 8% is fully digested? Here’s the problem: this is just the beginning of an endless march upwards of Japan’s tax burden to close the yawning fiscal gap left after the current round, and to finance its growing retirement colony.

So there is no possibility that Abenomics will result in “escape velocity” Japan style and that Japan can grow its way out of it enormous fiscal trap. Instead, nominal and real growth will remain pinned to the flat line owing to peak debt, soaring retirements, a shrinking tax base, and taxes which will rise as far as the eye can see.

Call that a Keynesian dystopia. It is a cautionary tale for our times. And Japan, unfortunately, is just patient zero. By David Stockman.This article originally appeared on David Stockman’s Contra Corner.

Japan’s economy has had, let’s say, its ups and downs. But since 2013, it has Abenomics, and its three arrows: promise, hype, and hope. Plus a huge bout of money-printing by the BOJ, tax cuts for Japan Inc., and a broad-based consumption-tax hike to hit households the hardest. Now the results are coming in. Read….  Abenomics Goes to Heck, in one Chart

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  7 comments for “Japan’s Fiscal Demise: A Cautionary Tale For Our Times

  1. larry says:

    Eh, its not really as bad as he says it is.

    He forgets most people are starved for yield anywhere. So a country at least having a positive GDP during times like this is a good thing.

    If the GDP were higher it would just mean it is a junk bond someone is holding for a short time hoping to make a few extra bucks until the normal economy picks up and they can jump ship.

    Besides if anything, the Japanese did the same thing as we americans did, where china picks up our spending tab. Most corporations don’t have to enough to fund their plans so lots of people own parts of a corporation. Its nothing new.

    Japan is # 2-3 economy and from this article they sound like a 2-3 economy.

    If anything this author and I should be happy of the current affairs in Japan since its easier for america to be number 1 still.

  2. Adam says:

    I’m not an expert on anything—just a 35 year long student and watcher of Japan. Mr. Stockman says near the end of this super long article that Japan will be an “an international pauper.” It’s all based on lots of charts and analysis, all valid enough, but he does not KNOW Japan. “Pauper?” This is nonsense. I have no charts and graphs to prove my point nor any great economic know-how but the worst that will happen, I think, is that Japan’s debt causes it to devalue the Yen and, yeah, the Japanese will be “poorer” but that is something that they know very well how to deal with. What Mr. Stockman doesn’t understand is the Japanese people (and their current infrastructure). OK, the yen goes to 300 a dollar. But, unlike REAL pauper countries (there are dozens I could name) in a matter of months the yen will be 280 a dollar. (In 1906 the Russians, a major European power, couldn’t believe that the navy of a country that only recently had consisted of top-knots and samurai swords had defeated them in war.)

    • Gil Obrero says:

      “but the worst that will happen, I think,”

      You think.. ………and as an admitted ignoramus on economy, just how does your so called thinking arrive at a conclusion that is not only perverse in its logic but but presumably entirely driven by your socialist Keynesian claptrap.

      Especially now as Japanese corporations of every size are abandoning Japan to escape the insanity, by shifting production off shore, outsourcing at record rates down to the smallest companies.

      • Larry says:

        See that is another example of the Japanese stealing from us americans. I think we were the first country to start outsourcing jobs to foreign countries.

        I mean how can Japan fail so badly if it adopts a lot of financial tricks we use in the states. They even used stock buy backs to help prop up their stock market the same way we do as well. But they just didn’t go as far as we did, so its fallen more then ours so far.

      • Adam says:

        My “perverse conclusions” are based on what I know about the people of Japan. Yeah, I know that Abenomics is BS. What I took issue with Mr. Stockman’s conclusion that Japan was headed towards pauper-dom.

        I will make this wager with any and all hot-headed Americans (pounding their keyboards) who think that Japan in headed toward destitution: In January 2016 take a walk down any street in middle class Midori Ward in Nagoya and report to the world WHERE the destitution and social breakdown is.

        Then do it in January 2017, too.

        You will see well dressed people walking dogs, houses with an average of 1.5 cars (repossessed cars? Impossible), kids going to cram schools, no homeless people, restaurants with help wanted signs and no police cars screaming to the next crime scene.

        Yeah, there’s less buying and less money in the bank and “less” economic activity than there was in 1989, but … anyway … while hot-headed Americans are loaded for bear and preparing for social collapse and while 10s of millions of American are in Stockman’s pauper-dom, the Japanese will be just fine thank you.

  3. Ben says:

    This is really a peculiar article. Apparently Mr Stockman hasn’t actually read Keynes, who advocated counter-cyclical fiscal policy: That the government should engage in deficit spending in bad economic times and run surpluses in the good ones.

    I believe believe we owe the policy of running continuous deficits to Reagan. ‘Don’t-tax and spend’ was his motto. If every reference to Keynes in this article is replaced with Reagan, it would actually make sense.

    • Raging Ranter says:

      Keynes himself is not at fault, nor is he the issue. It’s the modern economists who call themselves “Keynesians”. These are the target of Mr. Stockman’s ire. Modern “Keynesian” economics is a bastardized version of what Keynes believed in. Also, JMK himself was not a foolish man, and were he around today, he might well have abandoned some of his earlier beliefs when he watched them fail. Alas, his modern-day followers don’t seem to have any such ability to adapt to a changing world. Keynes was right about many things and wrong about many things. His followers simply refuse to accept where Keynesianism was wrong. That is hardly his fault.

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