Flawed Logic Destabilizing the World Financial System


Repeated downgrades of Japan by the ratings agencies due to flawed logic have been destabilizing both Japan and the financial world in general. Their monumental error can be traced to a lack of understanding the operational realities of a Government that issues its own currency. For the Government of Japan, payment in yen, its currency of issue, is a simple matter of crediting a member bank account at the BOJ (Bank of Japan). There is no inherent operational constraint for this process. Simply stated, Government checks (payable in yen) will not bounce. The BOJ has the ABILITY to clear any MOF check for ANY size, simply by adding a credit balance to the member bank account in question. Yes, the BOJ could be UNWILLING to clear ANY check, but that is an entirely different matter than being UNABLE to credit an account. Operationally, concepts of the BOJ not having ‘sufficient funds’ to credit member accounts are functionally inapplicable.

As a point of logic, the concept of ABILITY to pay being inherently revenue constrained is not applicable to the issuer of a currency. Any such constraints are necessarily self-imposed (including various ‘no overdraft’ legislation in some countries for the Treasury at the Central Bank). The issuer can always make payment of its currency by crediting the appropriate account or by issuing actual paper currency if demanded by the counter party.

An extreme example is Russia in August 1998. The ruble was convertible into $US at the Russian Central Bank at the rate of 6.45 rubles per $US. The Russian government, desirous of maintaining this fixed exchange rate policy, was limited in its WILLINGNESS to pay by its holdings of $US reserves, since even at very high interest rates holders of rubles desired to exchange them for $US at the Russian Central Bank. Facing declining $US reserves, and unable to obtain additional reserves in international markets, convertibility was suspended around mid August, and the Russian Central Bank has no choice but to allow the ruble to float.

All throughout this process, the Russian Government had the ABILITY to pay in rubles. However, due to its choice of fixing the exchange rate at level above ‘market levels’ it was not, in mid August, WILLING to make payments in rubles. In fact, even after floating the ruble, when payment could have been made without losing reserves, the Russian Government, which included the Treasury and Central Bank, continued to be UNWILLING to make payments in rubles when due, both domestically and internationally. It defaulted on ruble payment BY CHOICE, as it always possessed the ABILITY to pay simply by crediting the appropriate accounts with rubles at the Central Bank.

Why Russia made this choice is the subject of much debate. However, there is no debate over the fact that Russia had the ABILITY to meet its notional ruble obligations but was UNWILLING to pay and instead CHOSE to default.

Note that even Turkey, with lira debt in quadrillions, interest rates in the neighborhood of 100%, annual currency depreciation in the neighborhood of 50%, little ‘faith’ in government, and only inflation keeping the debt to gdp ratio from rising, has never missed a lira payment and never had a lira ‘funding crisis.’ Turkey has had problems with its $US debt, but not with its ability to spend lira. Government spending of lira is limited only by the desire to purchase what happens to be offered for sale. It is not and cannot be ‘revenue constrained.’ Operationally, Turkey has the same unlimited ABILITY to pay in its own currency as does Japan, the US, or any other issuer of its own currency.

The Turkish example, and many others, makes it quite obvious that ABILITY to pay in local currency is, in practice as well as in theory, unlimited. ‘Deteriorating debt ratios’ and the like do not inhibit a sovereign’s ABILITY to pay in its currency of issue.

So why have the ratings agencies implied that default risk for holders of Japan’s yen denominated debt has increased to the point of deserving a downgrade? Do they understand that ABILITY to pay is beyond question, and therefore are basing their downgrade on the premise that Japan may at some point be UNWILLING to pay? If so, they have never mentioned that in their country reports.

A few years back, due to political disputes, the US Congress decided to default on US Government debt. The only reason the US Government did not default was because Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was able to make payment from an account balance undisclosed to Congress. The US Government clearly showed an UNWILLINGNESS to pay that Japan has NEVER shown or even hinted at. Furthermore, again unlike Japan, the US continues this behavior just about every time the self imposed US ‘debt ceiling’ is about to be breached. And yet the ratings agencies have never even considered downgrading the US on WILLINGNESS to pay.

Therefore, one can only conclude 1) Japan has been downgraded on ABILITY to pay, and 2) The logic of the ratings agencies is flawed. In a world where currently there are serious ‘real’ financial problems to address, the ratings agencies have introduced a ‘contrived’ financial problem of substantial magnitude, as many regulations regarding the holdings of securities specify ratings assigned by the leading ratings agencies. Governments have chosen to rely on the ratings agencies for credit analysis, and downgrades often compel banks, insurance companies, pension plans, and other publicly regulated institutions to liquidate the securities in question.

Japan’s yen denominated debt qualifies for a AAA rating. ABILITY to pay is beyond question. WILLINGNESS to pay has never been questioned, even by the agencies engaged in recent downgrades. The destabilizing downgrades are the result of flawed logic.  

Warren B. Mosler

250 Australian Ave. So.
West Palm Beach, Florida  33401
(561)655-4900  (561)818-4039

March 2, 2002