Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Japan's downgrade may be the tip of the iceberg

Fitch's latest analysis confirmed our concerns about Japan's fiscal situation raised in this post a few weeks ago.
Fitch Ratings: - Fitch Ratings has downgraded Japan's Long-Term Foreign and Local Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) to 'A+' from 'AA' and 'AA-' respectively. The Outlooks on both IDRs are Negative. The Country Ceiling is downgraded to 'AA+' from 'AAA'. The Short-Term Foreign Currency IDR is affirmed at 'F1+'.

"The downgrades and Negative Outlooks reflect growing risks for Japan's sovereign credit profile as a result of high and rising public debt ratios," said Andrew Colquhoun, Head of Asia-Pacific Sovereigns at Fitch. "The country's fiscal consolidation plan looks leisurely relative even to other fiscally-challenged high-income countries, and implementation is subject to political risk."

Japan's gross general government debt is projected to hit 239% of GDP by end-2012, by far the highest for any Fitch-rated sovereign. This debt ratio would also have risen 61pp since the global financial crisis. This compares with a median of 39pp for OECD economies and 8pp for 'A' range sovereigns. Japan is less of an outlier when account is taken of its large pile of sovereign financial assets (worth about 80% of GDP on Fitch's calculations), but net indebtedness is still rising strongly.

Japan's Fiscal Management Strategy envisages declines in the government debt/GDP ratio only from FY21. Fitch regards this as a slow pace of consolidation given the scale of Japan's debt. Moreover, Japan's consolidation strategy is subject to political risk. The government's key revenue-raising plan is to hike the consumption tax to 10% by FY15 from 5% now. The measure is back-loaded (planned to start in FY14) and remains highly politically controversial.
Japan is on an unsustainable path with more downgrades on the way. Given global investors' concerns about sovereign debt, it's only a matter of time before rates begin to rise, tipping the "unstable equilibrium".

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