Good news from Japan?

It is well known that Japanese government debt stands at very high levels; according to one estimate debt was 161% of GDP as of March 2003. For purposes of comparison, here are some figures.

The little-known good news, if you can call it that, is that most of these debts are inter-governmental in nature. For instance the central bank holds a large quantity of Japanese governmental debt. After making the appropriate adjustments, the Japanese public sector owes net consolidated debts of 62% of GDP. This is lower than the OECD average.

An additional estimate suggests that Japan must increase its tax rates by three to nine percentage points, to make good on its obligations. Note that Japanese taxes are currently second lowest in the OECD, after South Korea. The worst case scenario is that Japan must increase its tax rates to Western European levels.

Here is the researcher’s home page. The page promises that the relevant paper will be available shortly. The 26 June to 2 July issue of The Economist offers a good summary of the paper; the author also argues that Japanese demographic problems are not as serious as is often believed.

My take: OK, it seems fair enough to cancel out inter-governmental debt: “they owe it to themselves.” But why stop there? Remember the old Keynesian line?: “We owe it to ourselves”. Why not cancel out debt altogether? The most important statistic is not the final debt level, rather the estimate of how big a tax increase will be needed to restore fiscal order. Note that Western Europe “gets away” with its current levels of taxation only because the rest of the world does not follow suit. So the worst case scenario is nothing to be complacent about.

But overall the cited result cheers my heart. I’ve been bullish on Japan for a long time. As catatastrophic economic problems go, a bad banking system is something you can fix, albeit slowly.


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