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Japanese debt situation stable for now

9 Feb 2012 by Jim Fickett.

Recently Japan's Ministry of Finance released their quarterly newsletter, dated January. Estimates of future debt continue to rise:

Compare Italy, currently much in the headlines, with Japan. The question is, who will keep buying Japanese bonds, and for how long?

If we compare the share of debt held by various sectors in 2009

with the current breakdown,

we see that the central bank, other banks, and foreigners have increased their share, while pension funds and households have decreased their share. This might mean that demand from households is dropping as increasing numbers of retirees cash in their savings. Or, given that, for reasons that escape me, Japanese bonds are considered a safe haven from the crisis in Europe, it might mean that demand from investors has been driven up as people run from European assets. Probably there is some of both things going on. However given that yields continue to be very low, there is, overall, no shortage of demand for now.

(All graphs courtesy of the MOF; click last one for larger image.)

This is one of those situations that is fine as long as it is fine, but catastrophic if it starts to deteriorate. Even with the extremely low current interest rates, debt service is a fourth of the government budget. The minute rates start to rise significantly we will be in a situation where the government cannot pay, but must either default or inflate.

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