This summer, many government officials and private investors finally seemed to realize that the crisis in the euro zone was not some passing aberration, but rather a result of deep-seated political, economic, and financial problems that will take many years to resolve. The on-again, off-again euro turmoil has already proved immensely damaging to nearly all Europeans, and its negative impact is now being felt around the world. Most likely there is worse to come—and soon.
But the economic disasters of our time—which involve big banks in rich countries, call into question the viability of government debt, and seriously threaten the reach of even the most self-confident nations—will not end with the euro debacle. The euro zone is well down the path to severe crisis, but other industrialized democracies are hot on its heels. Do not let the euro zone’s troubles distract you from the bigger picture: we are all in a mess.
Who could be next in line for a gut-wrenching loss of confidence in its growth prospects, its sovereign debt, and its banking system? Think about Japan.
Japan’s post-war economic miracle ended badly in the late 1980s, when the value of land and stocks spiked dramatically and then crashed. This boom-and-bust cycle left people, companies, and banks with debts that took many years to work off. Headline-growth rates slowed after 1990, leading some observers to speak of one or more “lost decades.”
But this isn’t the full picture: after a post-war baby boom, population growth in Japan decelerated sharply; the number of working-age people has declined fairly rapidly since the mid-’90s. Once you account for that, Japan’s economic performance looks much better. The growth in Japan’s output per working-age person—a measure of productivity for those who have jobs—has actually kept up with most of Europe’s, and has lagged only slightly behind that of the United States. Japan is a rich country with low unemployment. Its private sector is by no means broken.
So why is Japan’s government now one of the most indebted in the world, with a gross debt that’s 235.8 percent of GDP and a net debt (taking some government assets into account) that’s 135.2 percent of GDP? (In the euro zone, only Greece has government debt approaching the Japanese level.)
The Next Panic