By William Pesek
Investor Jim Rogers has a very specific reason for not buying Japanese government bonds: extinction.
The Singapore-based chairman of Rogers Holdings can't fathom how a $5.5 trillion economy can, in the long run, avoid defaulting on a roughly $12 trillion debt with a shrinking population. A few years back, he concluded: "If the current birth rate, which is the lowest in the major developed countries, continues, there will be no Japanese. Who will pay the enormous debt?"
It's a valid question, especially as the nation's deflationary funk, a product of the 1990 bursting of its economic bubble, deepens. More and more, markets are buzzing about the chances of Japan becoming the next Greece.
That's unlikely because about 95 percent of government debt is held domestically. While this factoid is well known, one particular possibility it affords Japan isn't: debt forgiveness on a national, and indeed unprecedented, scale.
Yes, if things unraveled the way the bears expect, Japan could always appeal to nationalist tendencies for survival. Is that an unlikely event? Yes. A tough sell? Absolutely. But my sense is that if Japan were facing the kind of financial Armageddon some fear, such a step isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
Greece is having trouble getting foreigners to take a haircut on its bonds. Japan might have more success getting its masses to take losses on the piles of public debt stashed under the tatami mats. For all its problems -- weak growth, deflation, ugly demographics, political paralysis -- Japanese are still sitting on about $15 trillion of household savings. That steady demand for bonds is why 10-year yields are just 0.94 percent.
One of the most moving sights I've ever seen was the gold donations in South Korea in 1998, just after the nation received a humiliating multibillion-dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The "Collect Gold for the Love of Korea" campaign saw millions voluntarily turn over the family jewels to the government to help the economy. The bears should remember that if Japan does fall off a proverbial cliff, the nation enjoys the ultimate financial backstop: 126 million people who want Japan to survive.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
For more quick commentary from Bloomberg View, go to the Ticker.
-0- Feb/17/2012 19:28 GMT