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Japan's debt volcano and its structural weaknesses.

A strong economic bio-data both before World War II and up until the mid 1980s led by continuous drive for achieving higher economic growth presented Japan as an economy to emulate. The outside world looked at Japan in admiration to identify the miracle behind the Japanese economic achievements. This impressive economic revival in Japan reversed with the twin asset bubble crisis of the late 1980s where the Japanese stock market and real estate market crashed. The reversal of Japanese economic fortunes showcased the modus-operandi in which Japanese political Economy functioned and highlighted number of policy areas which needed priority remedial action.

Among the policy areas which required priority policy action, the fiscal policy reforms remain utmost given the unprecedented growth of Japanese debt stock that could be compared to a volcano waiting to erupt. There are many reasons for the unprecedented growth of debt stock in Japan. At the outset, this paper explores the possible reasons that led to fiscal imprudence resulting Japan to carry the largest debt stock among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. This paper does not intend to cover the institutional structure in which the Japan's debt financing functions. The institutional structure for debt financing comes under the Financing Bureau of the Ministry of Finance remains very much the same except for the 2005 initiative of an Advisory Council of Debt Management under the Cabinet Office. This paper also covers some of the policy reforms introduced in Japan mainly to reform the financial sector with the aim of making free, fair and competitive financial market in Japan. Secondly this paper presents some structural weaknesses of Japan's fiscal woes. The paper concludes with highlighting some policy choices the policy authorities could explore in addressing the debt problem in Japan.

Fiscal Deficits and Unprecedented Growth in Japan's Government Debt

In Japan, the Budget Bureau of the Ministry of Finance has the primary authority to formulate the budget based on budget requests of various ministries and agencies into a final budgetary framework. In carrying out this function, the Ministry of Finance sets forth the basic principles that are then sued by ministries and agencies to roughly estimate their budget. However, in reality, the age old practice of budget formulation behind the closed doors of political power still continuous based on the budget deliberations taken place before hand among the majority political parties and the ministries. This document is presented to the Diet often as a formality of ratification under a parliamentary/cabinet system in Japan. Pampel and Muramatsu (1995) explain that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the party which governs Japan since LDPs formation in 1955 to-date except for a shorter duration of less than one year, recognized its authority to govern by adopting policies designed with greater endeavor and commitment to ensure high economic growth. The party tied its fortunes to power by expanding the national economic pie rather than trying to take ever larger slices for itself or for its support base from a pie of a fixed economic size. From this steadfast economic growth desire, one could argue that at times of economic fortunes, the expansion of national economic pie is not hard given its ability to rake higher revenue sources to the government. But at times of economic hardships, continuation of such policy requires aligning towards deficit financing by issuing more and more debt. In Japan deficit budgets have become the norm irrespective of whether the economy is in good shape or in doldrums often as a result of political maneuvering over fiscal sustainability.

Another possible reason is the syndrome of economic expansion as the "cure for all ills" which pushed Japan into expansionary fiscal policies at the expense of fiscal prudence. This compelled Japan to run deficit budgets and resorted to bond financing ever since the abolition of balanced budget policy in 1964. The fiscal deficit in Japan has expanded on a fast pace starting from the energy crisis in 1973 resulting first negative real growth in the economy in 1974. The deteriorating fiscal position of the government raised concerns about fiscal sustainability and by 2006, large government budget deficits have resulted in building the gross public debt to over 160 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by making the Japan highest indebted country among OECD. The growth in gross public debt in Japan could be seen in Figure I.


The exceptionally low level of interest rates in Japan could be considered as another reason that hides the dangers of rapidly growing debt burden. Since the economic downturn in late 1980s, the interest rates in Japan often remain close to zero. For the last twenty fiver years, as depicted in the Figure II, the interest payments for government bonds remained less than two percent of GDP. Because of extremely low level of interest rates, the venomous impacts of huge debt stock are almost not felt in policy maker's mindset and there appears little sense of crisis among people in general. As such, the policy makers could easily pass on the debt burden to future generations. Given this scenario, marginal increase in interest rates couple with requirement to service maturing debt could result in severe debt pressures given bigger debt stock in the country.

Another reason as Kotaro (2004) explains, "behind the escalation of Japan's fiscal problems in the 1990s, another major factor, however, is the rigidity of Japan's fiscal system which was unable to adjust to the changing macroeconomic and political structure during the post-bubble period. Also, there is no denying that the progression of political fragmentation-starting with the end of the many decades of single-party rule by the LDP, followed by a shift to a coalition regime--served as yet another factor that contributed to fiscal expansion". Under coalition governments, LDP not only need to satisfy its support base but also required to garner support from its coalition partners by extending fair share of economic pie to coalition support base leaving fiscal prudence aside. The recent change of power in upper house of Japan in favor of opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) also contributed to conservative policy measures in addressing the ever escalating fiscal problems.


Some measures to revitalize the Financial Sector

From another perspective, it would be not correct to conclude that the impending dangers of ever compounding debt stock in Japan have not attracted the attention of policy makers. Beginning early 1990s, Japan has tried many forms of financial and economic structural reforms to revitalize its economic glory and thereby to solve its problems of reliance on debt financing.

If the twin asset bubble crisis-collapse of real estate and stock market-triggered the collapse of Japanese economic fortunes in mid and late 1980s the parallel banking crisis due to non-performing loans fast tracked the desire among Japanese authorities to introduce the 1996 Big Bang (1) comprehensive financial deregulations. The Big Bang deregulations were aimed at creating free, fair, and open financial market.

Also, many efforts in transforming the financing structure or ownership structure of big Japanese businesses with the purpose of bringing forth general public interest in bonds ownership has still left policy authorities much to ponder. Referring into the financial structure in Japan, Suzuki (1980) explains that one of the salient facts about the postwar Japanese financial system is its large dependency of indirect finance. During the postwar period, the indirect finance share of non-financial sector corporation roughly remained closed to 70 percent. This statistic remains high comparison to major OECD countries. However, the real size of indirect finance is underrepresented by the fact that bonds issues by big corporations in Japan were usually subscribed by the financial intermediaries (major banks). This type of indirect finance is known as "disguised loans" making the true share of indirect finance close to 90 percent in the non-financial sector up until early 1980s. However, Cargill and Royama (1988) and Ito (1992) pointed out that considerable change has taken place overtime to the indirect finance structure in Japan. But, the challenge is to see how far these structural changes have penetrated into the Japanese financial markets to influence general public.

Although many of these efforts have gained some momentum, the slow revival of the economy left government of Japan with not much option other than striving to energize the economy by introducing many fiscal stimulus. Since August 1992, large-scale economic measures have been undertaken, more that dozen supplemental budgets adopted, permanent tax cuts implemented, and an economic stimulus plan to boost public investment was enacted. But none produced the anticipated economic revival.

Deficit financing by the Japanese Government remained the worst among he OECD countries. The government driven by hopes of fast business recovery and economic growth, continued to pile up huge debts and failed to notice the growing dangers of mounting government debt stock. The optimism of economic revival at least gave way into prudence by 2004 where the Prime Minister J. Koizumi's Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP) put fiscal structural reform as the Japan's top priority in their budget deliberations.

Structural Weaknesses in Japan's Debt Structure

However, even with accelerated measures to bring forth fiscal discipline, it has failed so far to address the menace of ever expanding debt scenario and this could be analyzed by reviewing the structure of Japan's government debt in comparison with major OECD countries.

(i) Investor Structure

The Investor base of Japanese government bonds is one of the areas which require much attention. The broader investor base facilitates investments by large number of diversified investors with diverse risk profiles. The diversified risk profiles help to absorb volatility at times of severe financial market distress. Also, diversified investors provide incentives or energize financial institutions to design financial products and thereby address individual risk profiles and lower transaction costs.

Major category of diversified investor structure is the institutional investors and foreign investors including mutual funds. Often, the institutional and foreign investors provide a different perspective to the bond market against domestic and individual investors. The institutional investors, such as pension and insurance funds, play a critical role in boosting liquidity in government bond markets and play a leading role in bulk market transactions. They promote a wholesale market for government bonds, increase arbitrage activities through their diversified portfolio and boost liquidity particularly in long-term securities. Therefore, the role of wholesale traders (institutional and foreign investors) provides a countervailing force in financial systems dominated by banks. The transactions of wholesale traders sometime uses the "over the counter" facility to avoid price volatility and facilitate clearing of market mismatches. Foreign investors can also play an important role in broadening the investor base and enhance liquidity in secondary markets.

Individual investors play a much greater role in developed bond markets through mutual funds, which diversify risks on their behalf. Many countries have, therefore, promoted mutual funds and some have set up specialized gilt funds for promoting small scale investors. The director participation of individual investors in bond markets on the ground that this would reduce the reliance of governments on captive institutional investors, promote an investment culture outside traditional savings, promote investment decision making by individuals and make financial markets competitive.

The broadening the Japanese Government Bond (JGB) investor base in Japan lags far behind the diversified investor base seen in OECD countries. The JGB market could not penetrate yet into individual and overseas investor bases as they only holds negligible 6 to 7 percent whereas general government affiliated institutions and Bank of Japan (BoJ) hold nearly 60 percent of JGB stock. There is no noticeable change in recent years in JGB holdings by private sector financial, insurance and nonprofit institutions. The Figure II shows the trend in breakdown of JGB ownership.


The major financial powers in the OECD show a contrastingly different ownership structure (Appendix -I, Table I and II). In united Kingdom (UK), Germany and United Sates of America (USA) government securities holdings by general government and central banks amounts to 3.8 percent, 0.4 percent and 29.3 percent respectively. The government securities holdings by overseas and individual investors in UK, Germany and USA amounts to encouraging 30.4 percent, 61.8 percent and 54.4 percent respectively. The Figure III illustrates the contrasting ownership structures of JGB and USA government securities in the year 2004.

(ii) Liquidity of the JGB Market

The liquidity in JGB market is another factor that needs attention in matured financial markets. The liquidity of a bond market measures and refers through its relative tightness, depth and resilience.

Tightness is the buying (bid) and selling (ask) spread of bonds, lower the spread, higher the market liquidity. The depth is the ability of a market to handle large volume of transactions without incurring larger changes in prices. Resilience refers to the speed with which bond markets clears its price fluctuations. Based on the theory of asset demand, the liquidity is positively related to the demand of an asset. A study by Bank for International Settlements (BIS, 2001) and Mohanty (2002) reveal that on liquidity criteria Japan lag behind matured bond markets (Appendix II). Accordingly, the spread of mostly traded "on the run" JGBs are 7-9 basis points (2) whereas the spread of similar bonds in USA is narrow as 1 1/2-3 basis points.
Breakdown of JGB Holders-Japan

Individual Investors       3%
Others                     1%
General Government        42%
Central Banks             14%
Financial Institutions    36%
Overseas                   4%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Breakdown of Government Securities Holders-USA 2004

Individual Investors      11%
Others                     2%
General Government        14%
Central Banks             16%
Financial Institutions    14%
Overseas                  43%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

(iii) Turnover of the JGB Market

The ratio of turnover against average bond stock in JGB market is around 6.9 times (Appendix II). The turnover ratio in USA is almost four times of Japan the BIS (2001) and Mohanty (2002) argue that many emerging markets in Asia show higher liquidity than JGB market. In matured US Dollar and Euro bond markets, the spreads play an important role in making markets liquid and broad base the ownership. In this light, Yen dominated JGB market may find harder to attract overseas investors until such time Asian economies increasingly prefer Yen denominated JGBs as one of their reserve instruments/currencies.

(iv) Government Bonds/ Private Sector Bonds

The dominance of Public sector bonds in Japan compared with major OECD countries is another impediment, where expansion of investor base get hindered by possible colluded behavior of state affiliated investors. Also, in economic sense, the presence of huge public sector debt crowed-out resources for private bonds. According to the BIS (2001), for the year 2000, the size of public sector bonds in Japan accounts for 76 percent of total bonds outstanding in Japan (both public and listed private) whereas in UK, Germany and USA the size of public sector bonds comparatively low of 49, 43 and 56 percent respectively (Appendix III).

The modern day developments in Japan in the form of aging society where senior citizens prefer t avoid risks and happier with simple financial instruments like savings, declining saving levels, exceptionally low interest rates and two decade old economic stagnation could be partly contributed to the anomaly of many impediments discussed above in making JGB popular among general public.

Therefore, present status of diversification in JGBs requires further penetration into different investor groups and the market liquidity requires further tightening to make Japan a free, fair, and open financial market. As Naguchi (1998) argues the relics of wartime economy is far-reaching, the indirect financing discourage risk taking and thus Japan need to overcome the 1940 system. Further, the existence of guided or disguised financial arrangements in Japan led by major banks, the influence of bureaucratic regulation and the Japanese so called golden treasures (3) prevented individualism take lead contrary to established value in Japanese finance. The same reason, could be argued, left JGB market comparatively less developed compared to its OECD peers given its size and speed in which it accumulates debt.

Policy Options

With these structural deficiencies, the efforts of fiscal reforms focused on bringing down Japan's huge debt stock will not be easy and will take longer than expected leaving the power by expanding the economic pie.

Many measures taken so far centered on bringing back the economic glory of pre-bubble Japanese economy. However, given the current global financial turmoil and economic recessions it would be imprudent to put all the eggs in economic basket and wait until such time Japanese economy fully recover to pay off huge debt amounts. Fast economic recovery, of course, will enable Japan to reduce its debt to GDP ratios and also will ease new debt piling up. Therefore, policy makers in Japan need to understand that postponing the debt burden to future generation could not be continued given greater social welfare responsibility of younger generations in an aging economy. Both governing and opposition political parties need to set strict policy priorities as the way forward to attain fiscal prudence.

In the budgetary process of Japan, two particular views, "political view" and "agency view", appears to ignore fiscal prudence. The political view of budgetary allocations is often meant for realizing politicians' own intentions. Accordingly to this view budget is to be utilized for the purpose of giving favourable treatment to the industry or region relevant to their own political power base. On the other hand the agency view insists on the necessity for valid consideration of the possibility of "government failure" in addition to the market imperfections. Thus certain agencies need to be maintained at the expense of tax payers' resources. Although, the influence of these views getting less importance in recent years, emergence of political fragmentation and weak governments may give space for these views. Thus, the political consensus needs to be introduced to fight re-emergence of such views and thereby practice fiscal prudence.

The continuous lower interest rate environment can not be sustained with loose monetary policy and need to let go it Japan's debt authorities are serious in attracting foreign and individual investments. Also, the debt maturity profile could be extended if the investors are compensated according to the time duration (long term bonds) and allowing government affiliated institutions to make investment decision on the basis of investment merit.


In the light of fiscal prudence, it is crucial to centralize budgetary decision-making authority in Japan into an independent organization as already initiated under the CEFP with a mid to long term budgetary framework. On the other hand, reform measures that need to be undertaken should be prioritized with consensus among all the stake holders with strict discipline and flexibility. This type of an arrangement could sail through the test of time rather than mere institutional reforms.

In order to achieve these objectives, both politicians and bureaucrats need to increase the transparency of the Japanese budgetary system. Only then, the government could seek people's understanding regarding the need to raise desired revenue either y way of increasing revenue through income and consumption tax or by limiting its adherence to expanding the economic pie. Such move will restore public confidence and support the government initiatives in restraining future generations from taking the every escalating debt burden in Japan.

Breakdown of JGB Holders (in percentage share)

Year                                     1999     2000     2001

General Government (a)                   40.0     35.4     40.9
Bank of Japan                            11.9     11.6     14.9
Private Financial Institutions (b)       36.1     38.6     32.8
Securities Investment Trusts and
  Securities Companies                    3.0      4.6      3.6
Overseas                                  5.1      6.0      3.6
Households                                1.8      2.5      2.6
Non Financial and Non Profit
  Institutions                            2.1      1.3      1.6

                                          100      100      100

Broader Breakdown of JGB Holders (in percentage share)

General Govt. and BoJ                    51.9     47.0     55.8
Private Sector Financial, Insurance
  and Nonprofit Institutions             41.2     44.5     38.0
Overseas                                  5.1      6.0      3.6
Households                                1.8      2.5      2.6

                                          100      100      100

Year                                     2002     2003     2004

General Government (a)                   41.8     41.0     41.1
Bank of Japan                            15.0     15.0     14.4
Private Financial Institutions (b)       32.4     34.3     32.5
Securities Investment Trusts and
  Securities Companies                    3.9      2.4      3.1
Overseas                                  3.4      3.5      4.3
Households                                2.4      2.6      3.3
Non Financial and Non Profit
  Institutions                            1.1      1.2      1.3

                                          100      100      100

Broader Breakdown of JGB Holders (in percentage share)

General Govt. and BoJ                    56.8     56.0     55.5
Private Sector Financial, Insurance
  and Nonprofit Institutions             37.4     37.9     36.9
Overseas                                  3.4      3.5      4.3
Households                                2.4      2.6      3.3

                                          100      100      100

Source: Bank of Japan

(a) General Government includes Fiscal Loan fund, Postal Savings,
Postal Life Insurance and Public pensions.

(b) Private Financial Institutes include Domestic Banks and Private
Life and Nonlife Insurance Companies.

Breakdown of Government Securities in Major OECD countries (in
percentage share)

Year                     Japan    United     Germany    France    USA

General Government         41.1        0.1        0.0       1.2    13.5
Central Banks              14.4        3.7        0.3       0.1    15.8
Financial institutions     35.6       65.1       37.9      66.4    14.2
Overseas                    4.3       21.4       40.7      29.3    43.0
Individual investors        3.3        9.0       21.1       2.6    11.4
Others                      1.3        0.7         --       0.4     2.1
                            100        100        100       100     100

Sources: Bank of Japan and Ministry of Finance, Japan.

Appendix II

Country             Typical bid-ask spread (1)

                    "On the                "Off the
                    run" bonds             run" bonds

India                        1                      --
Hong Kong                   5-10                    --
Singapore                    5                    10-15
Indonesia                    --                     --
Korea                        1                      1
Malaysia                    3-5                    5-10
Philippines                  --                   25-50
Thailand                    2-3
Brazil                       2                      50
Chile                                               --
Colombia                     40
Mexico                     10-15                  10-25
Peru                                                --
Czech Republic                                      20
Poland                                             5-25
Israel                                              --
Saudi Arabia                                        20
United State                 3                      6
Japan                        7                      7
Germany                      4                      5
United Kingdom               4                      4

Country             Most

India               10 years
Hong Kong
Singapore           3 months 1,2,5,7,10,15 years
Indonesia           3 years
Korea               3 years
Malaysia            3,5,10 years
Philippines         2,5,7,10 years
Thailand            5-7 years
Brazil              Fixed rate bill (4)
Chile               8 years
Colombia            5 years
Mexico              3 years
Peru                5 years
Czech Republic      10 years
Hungary             3,5,10,15 years
Poland              2-5 years
Israel              5-10 years
Saudi Arabia        2-5 years
United State        1,2,5,10,30 years
Japan               2,4,5,6,10,20 years
Germany             2,4,5,10,30 years
United Kingdom      5,10,20,30 years

Country             Ratio of               Daily
                    turnover to            volume of
                    outstanding            OMO by the
                    stock in               central bank
                    2000 (2)               in 2003

India                        3                     105
Hong Kong                    22                     --
Singapore                   4.7                     --
Indonesia                   0.5                    1097
Korea                       9.1                    5290
Malaysia                     24                    2375
Philippines                  --                    1010
Thailand                    1.1                    1250
Brazil                       --                     --
Chile                       3.5                    289
Colombia                    0.2                    248
Mexico                      2.5                    790
Peru                         --                     23
Czech Republic               1                     485
Hungary                      --                     --
Poland                       31                    4290
Israel                       46                    0.3
Saudi Arabia                0.5                    702
Memo                         --                     --
United State                 22                     --
Japan                       6.9                     --
Germany                      --                     --
United Kingdom               7                      --

(1) in basis points (2) average in percentage (3) average in
millions of US dollars (4) matures in May 2002

Sources: BIS Quarterly Review, March (2001), Mohanty (2002) and
Central Banks

Appendix III
Composition of Outstanding Domestic Debt-Selected Countries

                     All issuers       Public sector

                     US$ billions          share)

United State                 14335.8                56
Japan                         6329.0                76
Germany                       1603.4                43
Italy                         1213.3                77
France                        1005.7                59
United Kingdom                 851.5                49
Spain                          306.1                82
Brazil                         306.7                83
South Korea                    304.4                28
China                          261.3                66
Argentina                       83.7                31
Mexico                          68.5                81
Turkey                          47.5               100
Hong Kong, China                41.5                40
Poland                          30.5               100
Czech Republic                  20.9                78
Singapore                       22.3                39
Hungary                         14.9                97
Russia                           8.8               100

                     Financial         Corporate

                     (percentage share)

United State                      28                17
Japan                             13                12
Germany                           56                 1
Italy                             21                 1
France                            30                11
United Kingdom                    32                19
Spain                             10                 8
Brazil                            16                 1
South Korea                       33                40
China                             31                 2
Argentina                         69                --
Mexico                             6                13
Turkey                            --                --
Hong Kong, China                  49                11
Poland                            --                --
Czech Republic                    12                11
Singapore                         --                 9
Hungary                           --                 3
Russia                            --                --

Source: BIS Quarterly Review, March 2001


Bank for International Settlement, (2001): Quarterly Review.

Cargill, T. F. and S. Royama (1988): "The Transition of Finance in Japan and the Untied States: A Comparative Perspective", Stanfford, Ca: Hoover Institution Press.

Ito, T.(1992): The Japanese Economy, Cambridge--Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Kotaro, T., (2004):"Fiscal Problems of Japan: Toward Prescribing a Solution", Discussion Paper 04-J-006, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) Report No. 040.

Ministry of Finance Japan,(2004): "Understanding the Japanese Budget" Ministry of Finance Japan,(2005): "Guide to Japanese Government Bonds",

Mohanty, M. S.,(2002): "Improving liquidity in government bond markets: What can be one?", Paper no. 11, Bank for International Settlements.

Naguchi Y., (1998): "The 1940 System: Japan under Wartime Economy", Forecasting Japans Future: The Lessons of History.

Nakabyashi, Mieko,(2002): "Japan's Budget Process", Tokyo: Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Pempel, T. J. and Michio Muramatsu,(1995): "The Japanese Bureaucracy and Economic Development: Structuring a Proactive Civil Service," Chapter One in Kim, Hyung-Ki et al., eds., The Japanese Civil Service and Economic Development: Catalysts of Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shigemi Y., Kato S., Soejima Y., and Shimizu T.,(2001): "Market Participants' Behavior and Pricing Mechanisms in the JGB Markets", Working Paper 01-E-1, Financial Markets Department Bank of Japan.

Suzuki, Y., (1980): Money and Banking in Contemporary Japan, New Haven: Yale University Press.


(1) The "Big Bang" was the initiative to alter the face of Japanese financial structure prevailed since the World War II. The initiative promotes a) breaking down barriers to enhance competition by lowering or eliminating barriers separated different sectors of the financial industry. eg. allowing financial institutions to establish holding companies; b) freeing prices by reducing barriers to entry, freedom to set commissions for securities companies and liberalizing the auto insurance.; c) opening Japan to the world by liberalizing foreign exchange transactions; d) greater transparency in monetary policy and bank regulation eg. the new Bank of Japan law etc. ,

(2) A basis point is the smallest measure used in quoting yields on fixed income products. The important thing to understand is that one basis point is equal to one one-hundredth of one percentage point (0.01%) Therefore , 100 basis points would be equivalent to one full percent.

(3) The Japanese presents lifetime employment, seniority wage system and unionism as "golden treasures" of their work environment. However, in recent past, the prominence give into these factors by younger generation increasingly become low in importance.
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Author:Aazim, Mohamed Zain Mohamed
Publication:Political Economy Journal of India
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Date:Jul 1, 2009
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