Japan’s taxpayers are already rebelling against small tax increases needed to limit escalating deficits. This leaves little room for hope that future taxpayers will accept the larger tax increases needed to repay debts.
Japan’s demographic decline will be hard to reverse—and even in the best-case scenario, the positive effects of a reversal would not be felt for decades. The economy, roughly speaking, is as healthy as it is likely to become. Yet the government seems incapable of steering away from the cliff, a characteristic that should strike no one as uniquely Japanese—just look at how the European leadership has behaved over the past half decade, or how you can polarize American politicians with the phrase debt ceiling.
A crisis in Japan would most likely manifest as a collapse of confidence in the yen: At some point, Japanese citizens will decide that saving in any yen-denominated asset is not worth the risk. Then interest rates will rise; the capital position of banks, insurance companies, and pension funds will worsen (because they all hold long-maturing bonds, which fall in value when rates rise); and fears of insolvency will surface.
Japan has some buffers against calamity—particularly, its assets held outside the country (including more than $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves) and its unmatched ability to export. Nevertheless, the real value of the roughly $14 trillion in government bonds will fall significantly once people fully realize that the tax base is aging and shrinking. Presumably, the yen will also depreciate, perhaps sharply.
The fact that government debt is held mostly by Japanese citizens is not sufficiently reassuring. The same was true in Germany during the 1920s and Russia during the 1990s, yet in both cases the elderly lost their savings to high inflation. Today, Italian and other European savers who hold their own government’s debt are already nervously edging toward the exits. As in Europe, the financial system in Japan could face a wave of insolvencies, triggering a broader loss of confidence.
The shock felt around the world will result not just from the realization that Japan is unable to meet its pension and other social obligations. Investors will also be horrified to see the disappearance of the private savings previously used to buy government debt, whether through debt defaults and bank failures or through high inflation. For ordinary Japanese, public promises about retirement benefits and price stability will be broken just as their private savings for retirement collapse.
No one can predict the timing, but without radical political change that creates a more responsible fiscal trajectory, this will happen.
The most worrisome implication of Japan’s increasingly precarious position, particularly in the wake of the 2008 crash and Europe’s ongoing crisis, is that our financial systems appear to be returning to their inherently unstable nature, which plagued the 19th and early 20th centuries. Financial institutions back then were not too big to fail—they were too big to save. Their balance sheets dwarfed most governments’ ability and willingness to provide support.
Through the development of central banks and active fiscal and monetary policy, the rich world has managed to avoid serious depression for seven decades. Yet big finance—which tends to grow ever larger when crises are rare and credit risks seem muted—hides deep political flaws, the costs of which compound over time. Relative to the size of the world economy, global debt markets overall are two to three times their size in 1970.
Bankers and politicians seem to enable the worst characteristics and behaviors of the other. The past few years have led us to focus on half of that phenomenon: the degree to which government guarantees have facilitated irresponsible risk-taking on Wall Street. And this is, of course, an issue that demands continued attention.
But Japan illustrates the other half of the phenomenon—the extent to which finance has allowed and encouraged politicians to make attractive short-term decisions that are eventually damaging. This may ultimately yield worse crises than the one we faced in 2008 or the one now unfolding in Europe. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy found their own ways to economic devastation, but each road was paved with easy credit. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first encourage to borrow cheaply.
Of course, the U.S. is not immune. The immediate problem is not Social Security: that program’s promises can still be covered by modest taxes, and significant immigration has helped prevent a demographic decline like the one Japan is seeing. Nonetheless, the U.S. needs to issue government debt worth about 25.8 percent of GDP this year, to roll over its debts and finance the deficit. About half of the federal government’s debt is already held by foreigners. And a tax revolt has been building since the mid-’70s. Today, one side of the political spectrum refuses to consider rebuilding revenue to the pre–George W. Bush levels—and proposes to cut taxes further. The other side resolutely defends spending programs and middle-class tax breaks. Health-care spending, meanwhile, keeps rising—largely because powerful lobbies can veto meaningful cost control.
Perversely, interest rates on U.S. government debt are lower than at any other time in living memory—the result, largely, of economic dangers elsewhere. The Europeans have ruined their economies—and we have benefited from the consequent inflow of capital to our government debt, which has pushed rates down. When Japanese investors begin abandoning their home country, we will benefit again.
These benefits are temporary. Yet politicians have a hard time paying serious attention to fiscal deficits while foreign capital floods in. Even once the U.S. economy recovers, will the government really get its debt under control?
The financial sector is a powerful lobby. What policies does it demand? Financiers want pro-bailout policies kept in place—particularly the massive implicit guarantees against failure that they receive. And they want continued deficits. Our financial titans pay lip service to fiscal responsibility, but they primarily want to pay fewer taxes—irrespective of what this means for government debt. Indeed, bigger deficits create larger markets for government debt and all of its derivative products, which in turn allow the financial sector’s profits to grow larger. Many politicians are only too happy to oblige.
Elderly Japanese refuse to consider changing their pension system. The euro elite have closed their eyes to the unsustainability of their currency union. And the U.S. has Wall Street in the driver’s seat. We all have political systems that have figured out how to promise far more than can be repaid, and how to work with the financial sector to opaquely transfer resources to powerful groups—at a cost, it is often said, to be paid by future generations.
Increasingly, however, it appears that future generations will not be the only ones harmed by our decisions; we are already feeling the negative impact. In recent decades, financial sectors throughout the rich world grew at historically unprecedented rates; now they are dangerously outsize relative to the rest of the economy. Changing that dynamic in any orderly way looks extraordinarily difficult. Yet history suggests it will change, and soon. The era of large-scale, uncontrolled financial booms and busts—last seen in the 1930s—is back.