A provocative analysis of Japan’s economic prospects

I highly recommend WHEN JAPAN COLLAPSES, released today over at The Burning Platform. While the tone of the piece is a bit hyperbolic, the author has gathered a solid set of data shown in chart form to back up his thesis. That is as follows:

“If the market demands an interest rate of anything more than 3.5% to buy their debt then Japan will not have the revenue to service its debt. As the interest rate approaches 3.5% Japan must use all its tax revenue to pay interest on its debt. It becomes readily apparent that Japan will eventually be forced to default on their debt. There are no good options left. A minor uptick in interest rates will sink the 3rd largest economy on the planet. The near failure of a 3rd world country (Greece) turned the world upside down. The failure of Japan would likely touch off a worldwide crash.”

The key is that any significant shift away from the current global patterns of trade and investment flows will likely lead to major defaults, as governments and central banks have used up their textbook policy options and the results have been maintenance of a delicate balance at best.

Further, the Japanese are coming to the conclusion that much of the money spent on public works “stimulus” has turned out to be a waste.  The New York Times documented this in Japan’s Big-Works Stimulus Is Lesson published in February 2009:

Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world while failing to generate a convincing recovery. Between 1991 and 1995, Japan spent some $2.1 trillion on public works, in an economy roughly half as large as that of the United States, according to the Cabinet Office.

Dr. Ihori of the University of Tokyo did a survey of public works in the 1990s, concluding that the spending created almost no additional economic growth. Instead of spreading beneficial ripple effects across the economy, he found that the spending actually led to declines in business investment by driving out private investors. He also said job creation was too narrowly focused in the construction industry in rural areas to give much benefit to the overall economy. He agreed with other critics that the 1990s stimulus failed because too much of it went to roads and bridges, overbuilding this already heavily developed nation. Critics also said decisions on how to spend the money were made behind closed doors by bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry, and often reflected political considerations more than economic.

In Hamada, residents say the city’s most visible “hakomono,” the Japanese equivalent of “white elephant,” was its own bridge to nowhere, the $70 million Marine Bridge, whose 1,006-foot span sat almost completely devoid of traffic on a recent morning. Built in 1999, the bridge links the city to a small, sparsely populated island already connected by a shorter bridge. “Roads and bridges are attractive, but they create jobs only during construction,” said Shunji Nakamura, chief of the city’s industrial policy section. “You need projects with good jobs that will last through a bad economy.”

An additional quote from the New York Times gives the full scale of the public works spending and its result:

In total, Japan spent $6.3 trillion on construction-related public investment between 1991 and September of last year, according to the Cabinet Office. The spending peaked in 1995 and remained high until the early 2000s, when it was cut amid growing concerns about ballooning budget deficits. More recently, the governing Liberal Democratic Party has increased spending again to revive the economy and the party’s own flagging popularity.

In the end, say economists, it was not public works but an expensive cleanup of the debt-ridden banking system, combined with growing exports to China and the United States, that brought a close to Japan’s Lost Decade. This has led many to conclude that spending did little more than sink Japan deeply into debt, leaving an enormous tax burden for future generations.

It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that Japan’s economic prospects are grim.

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