I dedicated a major section of the 2012 Outlook to the coming Japanese debt crisis. I want to push further on this topic today because when bond yields are low, as they are today in Japan, investors pay absolutely no attention to that nation's balance sheet.
The following chart shows the 10 Year government bond for Greece from January 1998 (8%) to October 2009 at under 5%. During Halloween in Greece in 2009, there was not one report, discussion, or mention of trouble in their bond market.
Before we move forward, it is important to understand that at these points (October 2009) both these countries were insolvent and their debt should have been rated as junk. A junior finance analyst at a local community college could have spent 15 minutes reviewing their balance sheet in terms of income, expenses, and future debt projections and come up with the fact that their bonds had no right being close to the "risk free" ratings they held.
There were a few select hedge fund managers that took the 15 minutes to do this math and loaded up on insurance protection against both Greece and Portugal bonds entering default, which at the time cost them close to nothing to carry the insurance payments and had close to infinite upside should the bonds enter trouble. (The most prominent name is Kyle Bass who did the same thing during the subprime crisis back in 2007 - 2008.)
Let's fast forward to today. The following chart shows Greek 10 Year bonds from January 1998 to January 2012. As you can see, the chart, in just a few short months, has gone parabolic. Any demand for Greek bonds has disappeared and any investors holding the debt have dumped in mass. The country financially has suffered a heart attack and now lives only on life support from the IMF and bailouts from the rest of Europe.
Portugal: Rising Tide Of The 10 Year Bond).
I will attempt to dig into the current Japanese finances further using a highly specialized form of financial modeling called algorithm CS. Also known as common sense.
Japan Post Holdings, the largest financial institution in the world holds over $1 trillion in Japanese government bonds, which makes up 75% of their total holdings. The retirement fund is now liquidating (selling) $80 billion per year in government bonds to pay out benefits, and they want to further diversify (sell more bonds) their holdings.
Japanese banks hold a staggering 25% of their assets in government bonds. Bonds lose value when interest rates rise, so if the interest rates (currently below 1%) rise just a small amount to say 2%, it will destroy the balance sheet of every major bank in Japan.
The savings rate in Japan has been enormously high for the past 20 years (Japanese people were buying government bonds to save for retirement). It has now fallen to 2%, and will soon go negative (Japanese people will be selling government bonds every month to pay for living expenses during retirement).
There are ETF's available to short long term Japanese government bonds. As a word of caution, there are those who tried to short subprime bonds and sovereign debt bonds early and although they were right, they had to wait and take losses in the short term to realize the gains on their investment.
You must have both patience and perseverance to be first in a winning trade.
For more on this coming disaster see: 2012 Outlook: Japan's Debt Crisis