Japan Post, enabler of government debt

The Asia Times has an article arguing that one factor giving Japan some financial leeway is its continued ownership of Japan Post Bank. It’s an interesting read that reviews the history and recent politics of the issue:

[T]he Japanese government has a captive funding source: it owns the world’s largest depository bank. As US vice president Dick Cheney said, “Deficits don’t matter.” They don’t matter, at least, when you own the bank that is your principal creditor. Japan has remained impervious to the speculative attacks that have crippled countries such as Greece and Iceland because it has not fallen into the trap of dependency on foreign financing.

Japan Post Bank is now the largest holder of personal savings in the world, making it the world’s largest credit engine. Most money today originates as bank loans, and deposits are the magic pool from which this credit-money is generated. Japan Post is not only the world’s largest depository bank but its largest publicly owned bank. By 2007, it was also the largest employer in Japan, and the holder of one-fifth of the national debt in the form of government bonds.

Japan Post Bank started diversifying away from low-interest government bonds into more lucrative investments. In December 2010, sources said it was considering opening its first overseas office in London, “aiming to obtain the latest financial information there to help diversify its asset management schemes.”

But that was before the crippling tsunami and the nuclear disaster it triggered. Whether they will finally force Japan Post’s privatization remains to be seen. Other vulnerable countries have sold off their assets only to wind up in debt peonage to outside creditors.

The Japanese government can afford its enormous debt because the interest it pays is extremely low. For the private economy, public debt IS money. A large public debt owed to the Japanese people means Japanese industries have the money to rebuild. But if Japan Post is sold off to private investors, interest rates are liable to rise, plunging the government into the debt trap it has so far largely escaped.

The Japanese people are intensely patriotic, however, and they are not likely to submit quietly to domination by foreigners. They generally like their government because they feel it is serving their interests. Hopefully the Japanese government will have the foresight and the fortitude to hang onto its colossal publicly owned bank and use it to leverage its people’s savings into the credit needed to rebuild its ravaged infrastructure, avoiding a crippling debt burden to foreign interests.

In a sense, having a reliable buyer of government debt is attractive, but this system is not sustainable, nor can it be “leveraged,” as far as I can tell. Japan Post Bank’s deposits have been falling steadily, both because of the aging population and the unattractive interest rates. The whole reason the bank wants an overseas office is because it is interested in chasing yields in riskier investments, a desperate attempt to provide any sort of meaningful return on deposits. Over the short term, keeping the system in place makes sense, but longer term the country needs to wean itself off excessive debt and retool for a declining population, if that’s even possible.

Update: The writer of this piece works for the Public Banking Institute, a think tank organized to promote the concept of government-owned banks in the US.

2 thoughts on “Japan Post, enabler of government debt”

  1. Japan is impervious to the speculative attacks that crippled Greece because they have their own currency and it’s impossible for them to default. In the worst case they can print more money to pay off their debt. The yield on Japanese government bonds is determined entirely by the risk of inflation. Who the creditors actually are is largely irrelevant.

    Iceland is a totally different case from Greece because the debt problem that they had was private debt. Before the recession they had public debt of only 29% of GDP. It’s now much higher of course, but again, they have their own currency and in the worst case they can inflate their way out of the debt.

  2. Wouldn’t that make the Japanese government the world’s largest Keiretsu?

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