It seems “debt,” “Greece,” “crepe,” or any other words that might relate to the current Euro crisis prompts a flurry of activity on stocks around the world. But if you thought Greece’s and Italy’s debts were high, there exists a country with an even higher debt-to-GDP ratio. Surprisingly, it also has some of the lowest government bond rates in the world. Let’s take a look at this macro mystery.
Japan’s 2011 gross public debt as a percentage of GDP is estimated by the IMF at 234%. Compare this to down-but-not-yet-out Greece’s at 139% and Italy’s at 119%, and the United States’ at 99%. With those numbers, you may ask how Japan hums along while investors berate Europe for their lack of strict budget controls and U.S. politicians wrestle to cut the deficit.
This is because of one main difference: 95% of Japan’s debt is Japanese-owned. Compare this to Greece, which owns 29% of its debt. The Japanese have been happy to fund their government at incredibly low bond rates, currently around 1.1% for a 10-year bond. Why don’t the Japanese invest elsewhere for higher returns? For one, Japan likes to keep its yen in the country. This is due to a natural bias to favor one’s domestic investments (home bias), the strength of the yen, and domestic institutions’ required participation in bond auctions. Also, it’s difficult to find domestic positive returns. The Nikkei, since Japan’s trouble in the early 1990s, has lost about half its value
December 13, 2011
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