Welcome to our next stop in the Sovereign Crisis World Tour
What's old, slow, and deep in debt? If you said "Europe," you're absolutely right. If you said "Japan," you're even more absolutely right.
An aging population, weak economic growth, and prodigious debt pile all conspired to push up Italy's borrowing costs to unsustainable levels this past fall. But they all apply to Japan, and then some. Japan's government debt now stands at an incredible 230 percent of GDP, which is double Italy's. So how come Japan can borrow for 10 years at a measly 1 percent versus 5.45 percent for Italy, the world's eighth-largest economy. And why isn't anybody talking about the unthinkable: that Japan, the world's third-largest economy, could default?
Japan can borrow much more cheaply than Italy can for two reasons. First, Japan borrows in a currency it controls. Second, almost all of Japan's public debt is money it owes to its own people. Conversely, consider Italy. Because only the European Central Bank can print euros, it's actually possible for Italy to run out of euros. If investors think that this might happen -- or if they think that other investors think this might happen -- they'll dump Italian bonds and send interest rates soaring. It's a classic bank run, but on a national level.
The same can't happen to Japan, because it has its own central bank, the Bank of Japan (BOJ). Japan can't run out of yen. If a panic did grip Japanese bonds, the BOJ could step in as a buyer of last resort. More importantly, it's rare for a country to default on itself. Usually countries that default, like Iceland, are stiffing foreign creditors. Japan, however, has run massive current account surpluses for the past thirty years. They are net lenders to, rather than borrowers from, the rest of the world. Put simply, they don't at all rely on foreigners to finance their debt. Italy does.
But that might be changing. With their nuclear plants idled following the tsunami, Japanese energy imports have skyrocketed in the past year -- pushing them much closer to a point where they would need to borrow from abroad. It's not clear if is just a one-time blip, or the beginning of a new long-term trend. If it's the latter, Japan could be in trouble.
Foreign investors would probably demand higher interest rates on Japanese bonds than domestic investors. This isn't a question of patriotism. Rather, Japanese banks and insurance companies can be regulated into buying their government bonds, even at negligible interest rates. International investors don't face that pressure. They can shop around the globe for the best deal. So Japan would have to pay more to borrow. And that could be toxic. A vicious circle where higher interest rates increase deficits, causing investors to demand even higher interest rates could set in. The BOJ could intervene, but, in the nightmare scenario, all other buyers would disappear. Japan would be left with a grim choice between outright default and hyperinflation.