Earlier today we casually wondered whether the US stands to lose more by supporting China or Japan in their escalating diplomatic spat, considering the threat of a US Treasury sell off is certainly not negligible, a dilemma complicated by the fact that as today’s TIC data indicated both nations own almost the same amount of US paper, just over $1.1 trillion. In a stunning turn of events, it appears that China has taken our thought experiment a step further and as the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports, based on a recommendation by Jin Baisong from the Chinese Academy of International Trade (a branch of the commerce ministry) China is actively considering “using its power as Japan’s biggest creditor with $230bn (£141bn) of bonds to “impose sanctions on Japan in the most effective manner” and bring Tokyo’s festering fiscal crisis to a head.” I.e., dump Japan’s bonds en masse.
Should this stunning recommendation be enacted, not only would it be the first time in world history that insurmountable credit is used as a weapon of retaliation, it would mark a clear phase transition in the evolution of modern warfare: from outright military incursions, to FX wars, to trade wars, culminating with “bond wars” which could in the span of minutes cripple the entire Japanese fiscal house of cards still standing solely due to the myth that unserviceable debt can be pushed off into perpetuity (as previously discussed here).
Not needing further explanation is the reality that should China commence a wholesale Japanese bond dump, it may well lead to that long anticipated Japanese bond market collapse, as creditor after creditor proceeds to sell into a market in which the BOJ is the buyer of only resort in the best case, and into a bidless market in the worst.
The immediate outcome would be soaring inflation as the BOJ is forced to monetize debt for dear life, buying up first hundreds of billions, then trillions in the secondary market to avoid a complete rout, matched by trillions of reserves created out of thin air which may or may not be halted by the Japanese deflationary gate, and which most certainly could waterfall into the economy especially if Japanese citizens take this as an all clear signal that the Japanese economy is about to be crippled in all out economic warfare with the most dangerous such opponent, and one which just defected from the “global insolvent creditor” game of Mutual Assured Destruction.
Further complicating things is that Japan has no clear means of retaliation: it owns no Chinese bonds of its own it can dump as a containment measure. Instead, Japan is at best left with the threat of damages incurred on the Chinese economy should Japan be lost as a trading parting. It appears, however, that to China such a gambit is no longer a major concern:
Mr Jin said China can afford to sacrifice its “low-value-added” exports to Japan at a small cost. By contrast, Japan relies on Chinese demand to keep its economy afloat and stave off “irreversible” decline.
“It’s clear that China can deal a heavy blow to the Japanese economy without hurting itself too much,” he said. It is unclear whether he was speaking with the full backing of the Politburo or whether sales of Japanese debt would do much damage. The Bank of Japan could counter the move with bond purchases. Any weakening of the yen would be welcome.
Yes, but any offsetting Japanese hyperinflation would not, which is precisely what would happen if after 30+ years of dormancy the Japanese bond vigilantes were woken up by none other than a cuddly Panda bear with very murderous intentions.
Ironically, this terminal bond war escalation would also mean that Japan’s last ditch alternative is to threaten the US with dumping America’s bonds in turn if the US i) does not step up on behalf of Japan and ii) if Japan is forced to promptly convert debt from one denomination into another. The fallout effect would be most dramatic.
It is unclear if China will proceed with this “scorched bond” step: should this happen there is likely no turning back as it would force a market test of the entire developed world. And as our readers know all too well, the entire developed world is insolvent, and the only reason why it has perpetuated the illustion that all is well, is because being a closed system, nobody has the incentive to defect. Until now that is, when suddenly over a piece of rock in the East China Sea, China may find itself pulling the pin on the global debt grenade.
And even if this is not the final denouement, the market appears to already be pricing in several not much more favorable outcomes:
Markets are already starting to price in an arms race in Asia. Shares of China’s North Navigation Control Technology, which makes missile systems, have jumped 30pc in recent days.
China is becoming self-sufficient in defence. It was the world’s biggest net importer of weapons six years ago. It fell to fourth place last year.
Japan is at the other extreme. An official report this year – “A Strategy for Survival” – said Japan’s spending on its “Self-Defence Force” had shrunk by 4pc in 10 years. It called for “urgent” action to rebuild the country’s military.
One thing here is certain: Japan picked on the wrong country when two weeks ago it “purchased” the disputed Senkaku Islands. If it thought that China would just forgive and forget with a wink, it was dead wrong.
It now has several two options: undo all that has happened in the past fortnight, in the process suffering tremendous diplomatic humiliation, leaving Senkaku in the “no man’s land” where they belong, or push on, and suffer the consequences. And the consequences for the country represented by the question market in the chart below, would be tragically severe, as would they for the entire “developed”, insolvent and daisy-chained world