With the return of Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party to power in Japan, the market for US Treasuries may be losing its last external pillar of support. Re-elected on September 26th, Abe has quickly set a course for limitless inflation, saying Japan must “free itself from deflation and the strong yen.” This is significant to the global economy as Japan is the largest foreign power left with a strong appetite for US Treasuries. If this demand falters, the Fed may be the only remaining buyer of new Treasury issuance.
This election marks Abe’s second turn in the premier’s seat. He first held the position from 2006 to 2007, when he abruptly resigned as the first of a string of unpopular one-year premierships. Notably, in the intervening time, the LDP lost its lower house majority to an opposition party for the first time since its formation in 1955. The victors, the Democratic Party of Japan, had been formed in 1998 on a platform of reducing corruption and making Japan more progressive.
Unfortunately, as we know from our past century of experience in America, progressivism is not the cure for an ailing economy. The DPJ was predictably unsuccessful at reining in the bureaucracy, but did manage to push through a damaging doubling of the national sales tax and additional entitlement spending.
Similarly to President Obama’s 2008 election, the Japanese people were sold a lot of rhetoric about hope and change and, lacking any sincere alternatives, decided to give the new guys a shot. The results were equally disappointing on both sides of the Pacific.
While American voters decided to throw good votes after bad in 2012, the Japanese preferred to return to the devil they know. The only problem is, he’s still a devil.
Abe has essentially promised to return to the failed but feel-good policies of LDP government for the last 3 decades; namely, he will prop up failing industrial giants and attempt to print his way out of an economic slump.
Saving Grace or Pain in the $%&?
The yen hit a post-war high against the US dollar in 2011 and has remained strong. For sound-money enthusiasts, this has been cause for celebration. But for Keynesian demand-siders, it’s a crisis.
Rather than attribute decades of sluggish growth to an interventionist industrial policy, Abe and his cadres are blaming the strong yen. In response, Abe has called for the Bank of Japan to target at least 3% inflation.
For some time, the only saving grace for Japanese citizens who are unable to find jobs or secure financing has been that prices have been stable or falling. Abe intends to rob them of that salve while doing nothing to address the underlying infection.
While some Americans may feel a self-interested sense of relief that one of the major dollar-alternatives is being undermined from within, they are misunderstanding the knock-on consequences of this move.
The Last Major Pillar
For the Treasury to continuing having successful auctions at current rock-bottom interest rates, someone has to be purchasing. A lot.
Before 2008, most of the demand came from foreign central banks – especially China. Since the financial crisis began, China and many emerging market banks have dramatically reduced their purchases and even become net sellers.
The deficit has been made up by the Federal Reserve, domestic personal and institutional investors, and a few foreign holdouts led by Japan. In fact, Japan is about to overtake China as the largest foreign holder of US government debt.
This is significant in that the other two sources of funding – Fed and US domestic – are essentially intertwined. The more Treasuries the Fed purchases, the higher inflation becomes, which harms the US economy even further, which leaves domestic funds less wealth to invest in Treasuries. In my view, the foreign influx of capital has been the key third pillar that has kept this vicious domestic cycle from playing out in full.
How It Crumbles
Prime Minister Abe’s plan to devalue the yen could thus be disastrous for both US and Japanese government finances. As the yen devalues, Japanese domestic investors – who make up the bulk of owners of Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) – will be under intense pressure to sell out and find higher yields elsewhere.
This flight of capital will threaten Tokyo with default, so the likelihood is that the Bank of Japan will begin directly buying JGBs on an even larger scale (as our Fed has done since the financial crisis) instead of buying US Treasuries. They may even become net sellers of Treasuries in order to finance their bailout of Tokyo while controlling inflation.
This will, in turn, put tremendous pressure on US Treasury investors. As the outflows mount, the Fed will no doubt announce another program to buy Treasuries under the guise of promoting economic stability. If the Fed becomes the permanent crutch of the Treasury, we can expect inflation to get higher and higher – driving more and more investors out of Treasuries.
It is clear that Washington and Tokyo are but two sides of the same coin. Japan’s debt-to-GDP is about 212%, while the US has just crossed 100%. Both are highly dependent on domestic investor interest in government debt to keep the charade going, and neither have prospects of paying their debts without real write-downs for investors.
Unfortunately, neither government is using the time before this real crash strikes to even attempt to shore up their positions. The platform of Shinzo Abe seems poised to undermine Japan’s ability to continue subsidizing US government debt. Left without any significant external supports, Treasuries will be in an extremely weak position when attention shifts from the EU sovereign debt crisis to the our own tattered finances.
Fortunately, there are ways for investors to escape Abe and Obama’s tandem cliff-dive. Recent data shows that China continues to build a viable alternative. The South Korean won and Taiwan dollar are now significantly more correlated to the movements of the yuan than the yen or the US dollar. These booming economies will sustain demand for commodities as they build real wealth. With the old statesmen of sovereign debt compromised, I expect the up-and-comers to continue to turn to gold and silver in droves.
Peter Schiff is CEO of Euro Pacific Precious Metals, a gold and silver dealer selling reputable, well-known bullion coins and bars at competitive prices.
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