March 5, 2010


Japan’s Slow-Motion Crisis
Kenneth Rogoff, 3/02/10, Project Syndicate)

Two decades ago, Japanese workers could expect to receive massive year-end bonuses, typically amounting to one-third of their salary or more. Now these have gradually shrunk to nothing. True, thanks to falling prices, the purchasing power of workers’ remaining income has held up, but it is still down by more than 10%. There is far more job insecurity than ever before as firms increasingly offer temporary jobs in place of once-treasured “lifetime employment.”

Although hardly in crisis (yet), Japan’s fiscal situation grows more alarming by the day. Until now, the government has been able to finance its vast debts locally, despite paying paltry interest rates even on longer-term borrowings. Remarkably, Japanese savers soak up some 95% of their government’s debt. Perhaps burned by the way stock prices and real estate collapsed when the 1980’s bubble burst, savers would rather go for what they view as safe bonds, especially as gently falling prices make the returns go farther than would be the case in a more normal inflation environment.

Unfortunately, as well as Japan has held up until now, it still faces profound challenges. First and foremost, there is its ever-falling labor supply, owing to extraordinarily low birth rates and deep-seated resistance to foreign immigration. The country also needs to find ways to enhance the productivity of those workers it does have.

Inefficiency in agriculture, retail, and government are legendary. Even at Japan’s world-beating export firms, reluctance to confront the ingrained interests of the old-boy network has made it difficult to prune less profitable product lines – and the workers who make them.

As the population ages and shrinks, more people will retire and start selling those government bonds that they are now lapping up. At some point, Japan will face its own Greek tragedy as the market charges sharply higher interest rates.

The government will be forced to consider raising revenues sharply. The best guess is that Japan will raise its value-added tax, now only 5%, far below European levels. But is it plausible to raise taxes in the face of such sustained low growth?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 5, 2010 6:54 PM
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