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Japan’s Fiscal Crisis Comes of Age

TOKYO – Has Japan’s political paralysis finally lifted? The recent agreement, after a long debate, between the government and leading opposition parties to double the consumption tax – from 5% to 8% in 2014, and then to 10% in 2015 – suggests that it has. But there is a real risk that the government will mistake this measure for the end of the reform process. In fact, it is – or should be – only the beginning.

By virtually any measure, official Japanese debt is the highest in the world. The total outstanding volume of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) is an almost unfathomable $9 trillion, only just below the $10.5 trillion in outstanding debt for the full 17-country eurozone, which has more than triple the population.

So grim has Japan’s fiscal position become that bond issuance has exceeded tax revenue since 2009. Taxes cover less than half of government spending. And last year’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster only made a grim fiscal picture worse by requiring huge new spending on reconstruction. Japan issued a record ¥55.8 trillion ($693.5 billion), or 12% of nominal GDP, in government bonds during the last fiscal year.

Of course, Japan’s fiscal problems have been mounting for decades. Annual tax revenue has fallen 30% since the country’s property bubble burst in 1989, owing to slow growth and deflation, with tax cuts implemented as stimulus measures during the 1990’s recession playing a subsidiary role.