In the years following the global financial crisis, economists and investors have gotten very comfortable with very high, and seemingly persistent, government debt. The nonchalance may be underpinned by the assumption that globally significant countries that can print their own currencies can’t get trapped in a sovereign debt crisis. However, it now appears that Japan is preparing to put this confidence to the ultimate stress test.
For the better part of 20 years, successive Japanese governments and central bankers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to use quantitative easing strategies to pump up a deflated asset bubble. The economy has by and large not responded. The sustained and impressive growth that Japan delivered during the 45 years following the Second World War (which had made the country one of the most successful economic stories in world history), has never returned. For the last 20 years Japan has offered a “zombie” economy characterized by low growth, stagnation, and exploding government debt. The Japanese government now owes approximately $12 trillion, a figure representing more than 200% of GDP. The IMF expects that this figure will reach 245% by the end of this year. This gives Japan the unenviable title of having the world’s highest government debt-to-GDP ratio. But Shinzo Abe, the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan, and Haruhiko Kuroda, his newly-appointed Governor of the Bank of Japan, feel much, much more debt needs to be issued to turn the economy around.