According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Japan is quickly turning into developed world’s sickest economy and could soon tip into an uncontrolled downward spiral. Evans-Pritchard reported last week in the Telegraph that Japan is reaching the point of no return where it won’t be able to meet its obligations and could enter a debt death spiral.
While Evans-Pritchard is one of my favorite writers, at the end of the article he comes to the wrong conclusion about what the West should learn from Japan. Evans-Pritchard suggests that too much government spending resulting in too much debt is the root cause of Japan’s problems and that the West needs to take notice and get government spending under control. While Evans-Pritchard is correct that Japan’s debt habit is unsustainable, the country’s debt problems are the result of its population imploding and the fuse finally burning out on its demographic time bomb. The Land of the Rising Sun is in trouble because it suffers from an insular society that discourages immigration and implicitly encourages low birth rates. For the last 50 Japan has been slowly committing demographic seppuku and now the inevitable is taking place, i.e., Japan’s population is crossed the tipping point so that its work force is both relatively old and shrinking and as a nation Japan can’t sustain its standard of living.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Japan is facing deflation, falling domestic demand, stagnant to shrinking GDP and, as of recently, a low national savings rate. They are all the result of Japan’s bad demographics.
Virtually all economics students learn that when the work force of a nation shrinks it is difficult if not impossible to sustain economic growth and a vibrant economy. Also, retirees tend to consume less than families that are raising children and as each generation ages towards retirement it tends to consume less and less causing domestic demand to shrink. Aging populations also have low savings rates because most retirees continue to spend (particularly on healthcare) but stop working and cash out of their retirement nest eggs to live.
If the Japanese economy keeps on tracking demographic models, its problems will worsen until eventually a there will be an unsolvable crisis. There is inevitability that Japan will continue to decline and only radical social reform will change the outcome.
The lesson that the U.S., EU and Great Britain needs to learn from Japan is that every country’s population is the feedstock for its economy and if we don’t take care to make sure our population is dynamic, healthy and growing sooner or later bad economic things will happen. In Japan’s case, large structural deficits are the byproduct of bad demographics and not the cause of its problems.