Japan Finances Nearly `Catastrophic,' Official Says

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Mar 9 07:07:39 MST 2001


NY Times, March 9, 2001

Japan Finances Nearly `Catastrophic,' Official Says

By STEPHANIE STROM

TOKYO, March 8 - Japan's finance minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, stunned his
political colleagues and the financial markets alike today by testifying
before Parliament that the government's finances were close to a
"catastrophic situation."

The yen weakened sharply, falling in value to 120.43 to the dollar, and
then rebounded after the markets had more time to digest Mr. Miyazawa's
comments. Initially, foreign currency traders bet that his remarks had been
deliberately aimed at weakening the yen, a tactic often recommended
recently as a way of halting the deflation that has gained momentum over
the last several months.

But when Mr. Miyazawa was told that his testimony had led some news
agencies to report that he was trying to weaken the yen, he had a tart
response. "Then the wire services are very stupid," he said.

His comments came amid a mounting sense of crisis. The economy seems to be
weakening day by day. Machine orders fell a startling 11.8 percent in
January from the month before, a much sharper decline than economists had
predicted. Concerns about the swift erosion of prices have reached a fever
pitch, and companies are steadily cutting their earnings projections.

There is an increasing sense that Japan must find new ways to address its
many economic problems. "We should look squarely at the reasons why we
could not make the economic recovery a certainty, despite the full measure
of financial and fiscal measures we took in the last 10 years," Masaru
Hayami, the governor of the Bank of Japan, told Parliament on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Finance said that Mr. Miyazawa's remarks to
Parliament merely repeated what the ministry has been saying for some time
about the need to curb government spending. He did, however, use far more
direct and arresting language than in the past, the spokesman said,
answering a question by saying, "As you said, the current fiscal condition
is very extraordinary and close to a catastrophic situation."

Ministry officials were somewhat surprised by Mr. Miyazawa's choice of
words. "It was unusually strong language to describe the current
situation," said Masaaki Omura, a ministry spokesman. "But while his
description was unusual, his message is exactly what we have been saying
all along, which is that the fiscal situation is serious and therefore we
need to think about restoring fiscal balance."

The Japanese government's debts have continued to swell and are expected to
amount to 130 percent of the country's total economic output by the end of
this month. This prompted a lowering of its sovereign-debt credit rating by
Standard & Poor's last week. Moody's Investors Service, which cut its
rating of Japanese sovereign debt in November, has warned that it may do so
again, and the third major rating agency, Fitch IBCA, Duff & Phelps, has
hinted that it, too, may cut its ratings.

The upper house of Japan's Parliament, the Diet, is debating the 82.65
trillion yen ($689 billion) budget proposal for the coming fiscal year,
which must be passed by March 31, when the current fiscal year ends. Some
members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said the deteriorating
economy needs more stimulus from the government. But either tax cuts or
increased spending would increase the debt, and the Finance Ministry
opposes that.

"It's not so clear what he was trying to say, but because the Diet is
currently in the middle of discussing the budget, it was probably aimed
more at his L.D.P. colleagues than at anyone else," said Robert Alan
Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Tokyo. "His view
is that the deficit is too large and has been for some time, and perhaps he
wants to restrain some elements in the L.D.P. that want to spend more."

Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/09/business/09YEN.html


Louis Proyect
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