Why does Japanese public debt have little impact on bond yield levels?

Japan is top of the table in accumulating government debt and with a record stimulus to cushion the impact of COVID-19 it is approaching debt levels of 250% of GDP. So how does Japan manage to keep its government bond yields so low (see graph below) and investor confidence high that it can avoid default?

Source: FT

To finance this debt, the Japanese government issues bonds known as JGBs. These are snapped up in enormous volumes by the Bank of Japan (BoJ), the country’s central bank that is officially independent but in practice closely co-ordinates economic policy with the government.

Bond Prices vs Yield

Like any investment the buyer of the bond wants to get the greatest return. Bond prices and interest rates (yield) move in opposite directions and an easy way to consider this is zero-coupon bonds. Here the interest is derived by the difference between the purchase price of the bond and the value of the bond on maturity.
Bond price $920 – Maturity value $1000. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-80 ÷ 920) x 100 = 8.7% return. However a lot depends on what else is happening in the bond market. If interest were to increase and newly issued bonds were giving a return of 10% the 8.7% return is no longer attractive. To match the 10% the original bond price would have to decrease to $909. The bond’s rate of return = (1000-909 ÷ 909) x 100 = 10% return

Reasons for low rates on JGB’s

Japanese Government Bond (JGB) is a bond issued by the government of Japan. The government pays interest on the bond until the maturity date. At the maturity date, the full price of the bond is returned to the bondholder. Japanese government bonds play a key role in the financial securities market in Japan.

The BoJ has recently been buying up billions dollars of Japanese government bonds keeping interest rates around 0% in the hope of increasing the inflation rate to its 2% target. Therefore any rise in bond yields triggers a buy action from the BoJ. As of 2019, the central bank owns over 40% of Japanese government bonds. The BOJ’s government bond holdings rose 3.4% from a year ago to 486 trillion yen ($4.5 trillion) as of March 2020, roughly 90% the size of the country’s economy, according to the central bank’s earnings report for the previous fiscal year.

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