Tag: japan

Which Nation Will Be the Next European Debt Domino…or Will It Be the United States?

Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart shows the same countries (2011 data), and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

America’s Number One! America’s Number One!…Oops, Never Mind

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to be at the top of a list. And now that Japan has announced a five-percentage point reduction in its corporate tax rate, the United States will have the dubious honor of imposing the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the report in the New York Times.

Japan will cut its corporate income tax rate by 5 percentage points in a bid to shore up its sluggish economy, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said here Monday evening. Companies have urged the government to lower the country’s effective corporate tax rate — which now stands at 40 percent, around the same rate as that in the United States — to stimulate investment in Japan and to encourage businesses to create more jobs. Lowering the corporate tax burden by 5 percentage points could increase Japan’s gross domestic product by 2.6 percentage points, or 14.4 trillion yen ($172 billion), over the next three years, according to estimates by Japan’s Trade Ministry. … In a survey of nearly 23,000 companies published this month by the credit research firm Teikoku Data Bank, more than 44 percent of respondents cited lower corporate taxes as a prerequisite to stronger economic growth in Japan. … A 5 percentage-point tax rate cut is unlikely to do much to solve Japan’s woes, however. An effective corporate tax rate of 35 percent would still be higher than South Korea’s 24 percent or Germany’s 29 percent, for example. … Meanwhile, the government is trying to offset lost tax revenue with tax increases elsewhere, which could blunt the effect of reduced corporate tax burdens.

I suspect the Japanese government’s estimate of $172 billion of additional output is overly generous. After all, the corporate tax rate in Japan will still be very high (the government originally was considering a bigger cut). And foolish Japanese politicians will probably raise taxes elsewhere. But there will be some additional growth since the corporate tax rate is an especially damaging way to collect revenue.

But I’m not losing sleep about Japan’s economic future. I hope they do well, of course, but my bigger concern is the American economy. The U.S. corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent (including state corporate burdens) already is far too high, particularly since America adds to the competitive disadvantage of U.S.-domiciled firms by being one of the few nations to impose an extra layer of tax on foreign-source income. Japan’s proposed rate reduction, however,  means the high tax rate in America will be an even bigger hindrance to job creation.

It’s also worth noting that the average corporate tax rate in Europe has now dropped to less than 24 percent, so even welfare states have figured out that a high tax burden on business doesn’t make sense in a competitive global economy.

Sometimes you can fall farther behind if you stand still and everyone else moves forward. That’s a good description of what’s happening in the battle for a pro-growth corporate tax system. By doing nothing, America’s self-destructive corporate tax system is becoming, well, even more destructive.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Chinese Economic Tiger

The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom — which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per-capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per-capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Scores have improved, but the Economic Freedom of the World report ranks China 82 out of 141 nations, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. That would be good for the Chinese people. And since rich neighbors are better than poor neighbors, it also would be good for America.

China Now World’s 2nd Largest Economy: Ho Hum

China is now officially the world’s second largest economy, overtaking Japan in the quarter that ended in June and likely for all of 2010. While the story has been widely reported (more than 1,500 articles on Google News this morning), it is less significant than it first appears.

The news will probably ruffle the feathers of the China hawks, who will see in it a threat to America’s influence in the world, but China’s rise to no. 2 is really another sign of the world returning to normal.

China is home, after all, to one-fifth of mankind. Its population of 1,330 million is more than 10 times that of Japan (127 million) and more than four times that of the United States (310 million), according to the CIA Factbook. So even though China’s gross domestic product is now larger than Japan’s, its GDP per capita is still only one tenth that of its east Asian neighbor.

If China sticks to its path of market liberalization, it’s close to inevitable that its GDP economy will eventually surpass that of the United States in overall size. That news event is likely to grab headlines in 15 to 20 years based on current rates of growth. Even then, China’s per capita GDP will only be a quarter of what we enjoy in the United States.

China’s rank as no. 1 will be nothing new in history. According to the late British economic historian Angus Maddison, China’s economy had been the largest in the world for most of the past two millennia. In his magisterial 2001 book The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Maddison estimated that as recently as 1820 China’s GDP was 30 percent larger than the economies of Western Europe and the United States combined (p. 117).

After centuries of war, civil strife, and self-imposed isolation, China is only now rightfully reclaiming its rank as one of the world’s largest economies. That development is nothing to be feared.

What’s Going on in Japan?

Two weeks ago in Defense News, I argued that America’s alliances are growing increasingly detached from American security interests.  With reference to Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ visit to the newly-minted government in Japan, I wrote that

after imploring [new Japanese PM Yukio] Hatoyama to continue Japan’s minuscule contribution to the war in Afghanistan and not to reconsider the deal to realign U.S. forces in Japan, Gates was asked whether the U.S. military role in Japan might be scaled back. Offering the obligatory reference to the countries’ “shared interest” in regional security, Gates admitted that “the primary purpose of our alliance from a military standpoint is to provide for the security of Japan … It allows Japan to have a defense budget … of roughly 1 percent of GDP.”

This is an excellent reason why the Japanese should support the alliance, but it raises the question of why U.S. taxpayers should want to pick up the tab for Japan’s security.

FutenmaMCAS Futenma

But the Hatoyama government seems intent on reopening old wounds.  Aside from its insistence on renegotiating the Futenma agreement on shifting US forces around in Japan, now comes the news that the just-elected Democratic Party (DPJ) is going to (*ahem*) open the kimono and reveal “evidence of a decades-old secret pact between Tokyo and Washington that allowed U.S. ships and aircraft to carry nuclear weapons on stopovers in Japan.”

The idea of a Japanese government breaking Japanese law in order to allow American military vessels to carry nuclear weapons in Japan is wildly unpopular among Japanese.  In large part, this is a pretty transparent move by the DPJ to stick it to the now out of power Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) by tying them to illegal and secretive practices that huge majorities of the Japanese public oppose.

But the broader point is that for those of us who have been advocating a larger role in Asia for Japan and a smaller one for the United States, the increasingly independent nature of the new DPJ government ought to be seen as a feature, not a bug.  If the Japanese are really feeling their oats and aren’t too excited at continuing the LDP’s lockstep alliance with the United States, more power to them.  If they want fewer US troops in Japan, terrific.  We’re militarily overextended as it is and have serious economic problems to deal with.  The Bush administration took some baby steps in this direction.  The Obama administration should keep the ball rolling.

American officials ought to be quietly thinking about how to use the developments in Japan to start handing off responsibility for defending Japan to the Japanese government.

Weekend Links

  • Cato v. Heritage on the Patriot Act, Round II. Today’s topic: “Where are the demonstrated examples of abuses of liberties because of the Patriot Act? Are there any provisions of the law that civil libertarians would find acceptable?”
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Is Buying an iPod Un-American?

We own three iPods at my house, including a recently purchased iPod Touch. Since many of the iPod parts are made abroad, is my family guilty of allowing our consumer spending to “leak” abroad, depriving the American economy of the consumer stimulus we are told it so desperately needs? If you believe the “Buy American” lectures and legislation coming out of Washington, the answer must be yes.

Our friends at ReasonTV have just posted a brilliant video short, “Is Your iPod Unpatriotic?” With government requiring its contractors to buy American-made steel, iron, and manufactured products, is it only a matter of time before the iPod—“Assembled in China,” of all places—comes under scrutiny? You can view the video here:

In my upcoming Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I talk about how American companies are moving to the upper regions of the “smiley curve.” The smiley curve is a way of thinking about global supply chains where Americans reap the most value at the beginning and the end of the production process while China and other low-wage countries perform the low-value assembly in the middle. In the book, I hold up our family’s iPods as an example of the unappreciated benefits of a more globalized American economy:

The lesson of the smiley curve was brought home to me after a recent Christmas when I was admiring my two teen-age sons’ new iPod Nanos. Inscribed on the back was the telling label, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” To the skeptics of trade, an imported Nano only adds to our disturbingly large bilateral trade deficit with China in “advanced technology products,” but here in the palm of a teenager’s hand was a perfect symbol of the win-win nature of our trade with China.

Assembling iPods obviously creates jobs for Chinese workers, jobs that probably pay higher-than-average wages in that country even though they labor in the lowest regions of the smiley curve. But Americans benefit even more from the deal. A team of economists from the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine applied the smiley curve to a typical $299 iPod and found just what you might suspect: Americans reap most of the value from its production. Although assembled in China, an American company supplies the processing chips, a Korean company the memory chip, and Japanese companies the hard drive and display screen. According to the authors, “The value added to the product through assembly in China is probably a few dollars at most.”

The biggest winner? Apple and its distributors. Standing atop the value chain, Apple reaps $80 in profit for each unit sold—an amount higher than the cost of any single component. Its distributors, on the opposite high end of the smiley curve, make another $75. And of course, American owners of the more than 100 million iPods sold since 2001—my teen-age sons included—pocket far more enjoyment from the devices than the Chinese workers who assembled them.

To learn a whole lot more about how American middle-class families benefit from trade and globalization, you can now pre-order the book at Amazon.com.