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Are We Turning Japanese?

Posted by Larry Doyle on March 21, 2009 4:08 PM |

Many market participants and economists are very concerned that the United States has made many of the same economic blunders experienced by Japan during the 1990s. Japan experienced a period known as “The Lost Decade.”

Are decisions now being made in Washington a precursor to a similar scenario here in the United States? Many people think so. A friend shared a piece which highlights some of the major social and economic problems in Japan. Obviously the United States has a far different culture, society, and economic base than Japan, but will our fiscal deficits and our current policies lead us in the same direction as Japan? This piece, written by Tom Dyson, touches upon some of the social and economic dynamics at work in Japan. I think it will cause you to pause and reflect on our situation here in the United States. Are we making decisions and enacting policies which will cause a similar outcome?

Are we turning Japanese?

This Major World Currency Is About to Plummet
By Tom Dyson
March 18, 2009

“I had no place to stay and I wanted the police to take care of me,” said the 79-year-old Japanese woman. She had just slashed two people with a knife so the police would take her to jail. 

A “gray” crime wave is sweeping Japan. According to the UK’s Independent, people over 65 years old make up 10% of Japan’s prison population, the highest rate of incarceration for pensioners in the industrialized world. Another source reported Japanese pensioners were responsible for one in seven arrests last year, up from one in 25 a decade ago.

The surge in “senior crime” is so dramatic, the Japanese government recently earmarked $80 million to build special wards at three prisons to accommodate the elderly. They are fitting these prison wards with metal walkers and support rails. 

Japan has the second-lowest birth rate in the industrialized world. The birth rate to sustain a population is 2.1 per woman. In Japan, the birthrate has fallen below 1.2. Japan’s population fell for the first year in 2005. By 2050, if trends continue, Japan’s population will fall by 20%.

The other problem is life expectancy. It’s going up in Japan. So the elderly are becoming the largest segment of Japan’s population. Right now, 20% of Japan’s population is over 65 years old. By 2050, 40% of Japan’s population will be over 65 years old. In the U.S., the “65 and up” population makes up about 12% of society. 

“Gray” crime is one bi-product of Japan’s demographics. Here’s another byproduct in the society that ages and shrinks at the same time: It’ll bankrupt the Japanese government. 

First, there’s a much smaller workforce to pay taxes. The economy shrinks. Businesses pay less tax, too. Second, the elderly consume social security, health care, and pension resources. These are costs to the government. As the senior population rises, these liabilities increase. The elderly don’t pay income taxes. 

Since its recession began 20 years ago, Japan’s government has plowed trillions into its banking system via numerous bailout programs. In the last six months, for example, Japan’s government has authorized three stimulus plans totaling around $100 billion. This month, the Japanese government will give every person in Japan a check for 12,000 yen… about $120… to stimulate the economy. This program will cost the government another $20 billion. And this week, the Japanese prime minister suggested the largest bailout plan yet… putting the Japanese taxpayer on the hook for another $200 billion. 

As a result of all this spending, the Japanese government has built up the world’s most crippling debt load and budget deficit. Right now, the government of Japan owes $7.8 trillion to creditors. That’s $157,000 per person. This year, it’ll have to borrow another $1.1 trillion to make ends meet. 

Government debt to GDP is the ratio economists use to compare the indebtedness of countries. The UK has a government debt-to-GDP ratio of 48%. The U.S. has a government debt-to-GDP ratio of 75%. Japan has a government debt-to-GDP ratio of 187%. 

Now Japan’s economy is a shambles. For years, the Japanese have relied on exports to support their economy… but exports have dried up. In the last six months, Japan has lost almost a quarter of a trillion dollars from the decline in its exports. In January, Japan’s exports plunged 47%… producing a $9 billion trade deficit. This is Japan’s first trade deficit in 13 years and its biggest deficit in 25 years. 

When you consider the debt, the bad economy, and the coming population problem, it’s clear the Japanese government will never pay off the money it owes.

  • lizzy

    Do you think the Japanese stimulus programs were too small too? It doesn’t seem that the stimulus worked. A very sad story.

  • Larry Doyle

    The Japanese stimulus programs were the “ultimate bridges to nowhere.” Their programs did not generate consumer spending which is the necessary multiplier effect needed in an economy.

    The Japanese economy is the perfect example of the “paradox of thrift” promoted by John Maynard Keynes. While America has traditionally not saved enough, the case can easily be made that the Japanese save too much and their economy has not grown as a result.






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