"Japan's Demography Will Eventually Crush Its Economy"
Mark Adonis at Forbes is the latest to argue that demographics will be doom of the JGB market. The trigger for his musings is the fact that the number of births in Japan has hit an all-time low. He correctly argues that we will be reading similar headlines in early January for about 20 years or so - Japan has "record demographic loss" in the previous year.
His ominous conclusions:
So far Japan’s economy, particularly its government bond market, has been remarkably resilient in the face of all of this demographic pressure. But this can’t continue forever. At some point it will become clear to everyone that Japan has rung up debts that it has no ability to pay back other than through printing money: there simply aren’t going to be enough economically productive citizens. I don’t know precisely when this realization will occur. The graveyards are famously full of traders who bet against Japanese government bonds, and you’d need to have a very large appetite for risk to try to precisely time such a huge change in sentiment. But I have a suspicion that a few more cycles of terrifying headlines (“births at an all-time low! deaths at an all time high!") ought to do the trick.
Why This Worry Is Incorrect
Mark Adonis is an expert on demographics, but he does not hold himself out as having expertise in government bond markets. He at least realises that "graveyards" are full of people who bet against the JGB market. (Although an investor would have to be remarkably silly to lose a lot of money betting against JGBs at current yield levels.)
I will return the favour and opine on demographics. We should not care what percentage of the population is old, rather we need to look at the dependency ratio - the ratio of non-working citizens to working citizens. And guess what? Little kids and adolescents do not work. If you have a baby boom, you are increasing the number of non-producing members of society. However, if you look at the historical record, OECD nations had no difficulty in providing for everyone during their post-World War II baby booms.
The reason why this is possible is that modern capitalist economies are demand-constrained; there are sufficient economies of scale that it is easy to flood any market with overcapacity. The only trick for a business is being able to be profitable when faced with limited demand. All that will happen is that the present mind-boggling variety of goods and services that are available would be slightly smaller than otherwise, as there is less room for new small businesses. (Larger businesses have greater economies of scale, and they would push out smaller firms if there is a struggle to find workers.) And it is unlikely that the global overcapacity in manufactured goods will disappear as long as we remain in our current economic regime. Japan has ample foreign currency assets to finance the purchase of imports.
Additionally, demographics is an extremely slow-moving structural factor. Even if Japan starts to hit output capacity constraints (which as I argue above, is unlikely), it would take a long time to get there. The Japanese government can shift monetary policy within days, and fiscal policy within months. There is no way that these instruments can be overwhelmed by the slow pace of demographics.
(Slightly) Negative Population Growth Is A Good Thing
Japan bears are throwing everything at the wall, and hoping something will stick. I have seen two complaints about Japan in other articles:
- Japan is vulnerable because it is dependent upon imports of resources from overseas, and they are in an increasingly rough geopolitical neighbourhood; and
- the Japanese population is shrinking towards nothing!
They fail to see that these two complaints are actually contradictory - shrinking your population is an entirely sensible policy if faced with resource constraints. By contrast, the American policy of growing its population through immigration, doing nothing to encourage conservation and hoping that energy imports will magically be created by petrochemical fairies is not exactly a brilliant long-term plan. (Closer to home, Canadian policy is similar. Our cold weather helps Canadians be one of the largest per capita users of energy in the world. But Canada's large natural endowment of energy resources relative to our small population makes it hard for local politicians to worry about constraints.)
People who grumble about geopolitical risk from shrinking population are somewhat behind the times - 70 years, to be precise. Nuclear weapons have changed military doctrine, and massed infantry and tank charges are no longer the pinnacle of Great Power strategy. Japan is currently behind the American nuclear umbrella, and I have little doubt that Japan has the ability to develop its own nuclear arsenal extremely rapidly if it chose to do so.
The unfortunate part of his article is that his conclusions are boring. Concluding that the JGB market will sell off some time in a multi-decade period is not exactly going out on a limb. But if I read between the lines ("a few more cycles of terrifying headlines") would create an estimate of a JGB crash potentially starting around 2018. As a result, I will add this prognostication to my "JGB Collapse" list.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2015