HAVING previously discussed the dollar and euro in depth, let’s turn the spotlight on the Yen for a moment. Axel Merk asks, Is Japan Zimbabwe?
The other day, when I was on a panel discussing unsustainable deficits in the US, Eurozone and Japan, the risk of inflation and Zimbabwe style hyperinflation came up. When asked about the difference about Japan and Zimbabwe, I quipped that there isn’t any. My co-panelists were all over me, arguing Japan is different.
Notably that Japan could not possibly go broke because, unlike Zimbabwe, it’s an advanced economy. The argument being that Japan produces goods the world wants.
To be clear: Zimbabwe and Japan are not the same. But are they really that different? Zimbabwe not only had a much weaker economy, but also much weaker institutions. But the old adage that something unsustainable won’t last forever may still hold.
The difference between Zimbabwe and Japan – and Europe and the US for that matter – is that advanced economies have more control over their destiny. However, all these regions have made commitments they cannot keep by continuing business as usual. A weak country may simply implode. A strong country has choices. The preferred choice these days appears to be to kick the proverbial can down the road.
The path an advanced economy with unsustainable finances takes is in many ways a cultural and political question.
Unsustainable government finances tend to be accompanied with unsatisfied citizens that have seen their standard of living erode, either because inflation has eaten away their purchasing power or because the government has taken away benefits. Such an environment is fertile ground for populist politicians to be elected. In the US, this may have been the rise of the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements. In Japan, a populist prime minister is in power.
What officials have in common is that they rarely blame themselves, but seek to shift blame on the wealthy, a minority group or foreigners. It’s no co-incidence that Abe wants to abandon Japan’s pacifist constitution; if Japan were able to balance its books, I allege that odds of such a discussion would be much lower. Similarly, by the way, Ukraine would not be in its current mess if it were able to balance its books. Japan unlike Ukraine, though, has well-functioning government institutions.
Inflation is a slow motion form of default. The “advantage” of inflation, as long as it doesn’t turn into hyperinflation, is that it is less prone to the so-called “contagion.” In a default the risk is that many solvent players are drawn into insolvency as a house of cards implodes.
The reason why a government default tends to start out as a slow motion locomotive before it falls off a cliff is because stakeholders want to buy time. In the Eurozone debt crisis, for example, risk-averse investors were caught off guard when they realized their peripheral Eurozone debt was not risk free. By now, everyone should know these securities are not risk free which reduces the risk of contagion, as these assets have mostly moved away from financial institutions to those that can bear the risk. No one is going to cry if a hedge fund loses money; similarly, if the International Monetary Fund loses money, the losses are ‘socialised’.
Back to Japan: Japan can continue on its current course as long as the market lets it. It’s impossible to predict if and when the market might lose confidence. The Eurozone debt crisis has shown that sentiment can switch rather suddenly, even for countries with fairly prudent long-term debt management, such as Portugal or Spain. It may be naïve at best to think that there will be plenty of warning should market sentiment shift.
What we do know is that central bank actions have masked risks. Risky assets don’t appear risky anymore. But of course they are still risky. So when volatility surges – for whatever reason, investors might flee with a vengeance.
A default, by the way, is not the end of the world. While the socio-economic impact on a country may be severe and a default may cause institutions to fail, especially those that own debt of the defaulting country, the reset button of default doesn’t affect everything. Government institutions may survive and so may many manufacturers. Japan induced hyperinflation to hit the reset button after World War II. Who says this can’t happen again? — globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com