For the last 30 years, we've heard a steady mantra that the endless expansion of all types of U.S. debt, from government to credit cards to junk bonds, threatens our prosperity. We've heard it for so long that many of us now tune out the warnings.
Moreover, when looking around the world, many other nations are in worse shape than the U.S. Dubai, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Austria are just a few of the names that come to mind.
But what is going on in Japan is truly disturbing. The finance minister of the world's second-largest economy recently resigned and was hospitalized for high blood pressure and other health-related ailments. His predecessor committed suicide last summer.
Finding a new finance minister with the requisite skills and the willingness to take the job is only one of Japan's problems. According to the Web site Visual Economics, Japan's government debt-to-GDP ratio is 170.4%, compared to 103.7% in Italy, 62.6% in Germany and 60.8% in the U.S. If Japan's central bank were to raise interest rates from 1% to 4%, debt-servicing costs would eat up the entire government budget.
Each of these nations mentioned face their own set of unique challenges. With individual savings rates in the high teens, Japanese consumers are much less leveraged than Americans are.
But the Asian nation is confronting a host of problems that only loom on the U.S. horizon. Demographic issues like an aging population and declining birth rates spell big long-term trouble for Japan, Europe and, some say, China due to its one-child policy.
In America, the sheer quantity of debt that the U.S. Treasury is forced to sell every month poses its own challenge. What happens if foreigners decline to purchase our debt and cash-strapped Americans don't have the means and desire to buy it either?
That's one of many questions I hope to explore when I interview Dave Rolley, a global fixed income expert at Loomis Sayles, on the subject of sovereign debt in a Webinar on February 23. Meanwhile, let's move on.
Every so often in our business lives, we come across somebody who lights up any room he or she walks into. When I became editor of Financial Planning in 1990, all the sharp people in this emerging profession told me one person I had to meet was Don Pitti, then president of J.&W. Seligman.
When we finally had lunch in late 1990, it took a slow learner like me less than 60 seconds to realize what they were talking about. Five years later when a young reporter wanted to explore the idea of building a practice based on hourly fees, I told him to call Don, who said if he were a young person he would be out doing exactly that. Four years later, Sheryl Garrett did.
After "retiring" from Seligman, Don went on to create the Financial Services Institute at St. John's University in New York City, chaired the Foundation For Financial Planning and remained active in a host of activities. On December 18, Don died suddenly at the age of 80.
On page 23, you can read a moving remembrance by Igor Tomic, a St. John's colleague, who relates some interesting stories about Don, including stories of how he occasionally played second trumpet to some of the most hallowed names in jazz.
Don will be greatly missed, but his infectious enthusiasm will endure.
Evan Simonoff, Editor-in-chief
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your opinion.