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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Japan's Economy Contracts At An Annualised 15.2% In The First Three Months Of 2009

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Japan’s economy shrank at a record rate last quarter as exports collapsed and businesses drastically cut back on investment spending. Gross domestic product fell by an annualized 15.2 percent in the three months ended March 31, following a revised fourth- quarter drop of 14.4 percent, according to the Japanese Cabinet Office. The economy contracted 3.5 percent in the year ended March 31, the most since records began in 1955.

Japan's economy is exports dependent, and exports fell by an unprecedented 26 percent during the last quarter, forcing most companies to drastically cut production. In fact industrial output was down 18.1% on the previos quarter and 34.5% year on year.

GDP fell 4 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis, more than double the 1.6 percent drop in the US, and well above Europe’s record 2.5 percent contraction. Due to the impact of deflation, without adjusting for price changes Japan's economy actually shrank 2.9 percent in nominal (current price) terms in the quarter.

Weaker domestic demand was the biggest contributor to the decline, reducing GDP by 2.6 percentage points, the most since 1974. But this was unevenly distributed between consumer demand and investment. Consumer spending held up reasonably well - and only dropped by 1.1 percent (see chart above) while business investment was down a record annual 10.4 percent, and a massive 35.5% over the last quarter. And companies are likely to keep cutting spending because the decline in external demand has left factories operating well below capacity level, and semi idle workforces can only be retained for so long.

“There is a huge problem of over-capacity,” said Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist at Credit Suisse Group AG in Tokyo. “That means capital spending is not likely to pick up.”

The slump in housebuilding has also deepened, and home construction was down by 25% quarter on quarter.

Shrinking More Slowly?

A number of reports over the past month suggest that the contraction in what is still the world’s second-largest economy may slow (second derivative decrease) for the first time in a year this quarter) as exports begin to stabilise (albeit at a low level) and Prime Minister Taro Aso’s 15.4 trillion yen stimulus plan, announced in April, has some effect.

The most recent Nomura/JMMA Japan Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index reading rose to a seasonally adjusted 41.4 in April from 33.8 in March, the steepest gain since data were first compiled in October 2001. However the index remained below the 50 threshold that separates contraction from expansion for the 14th straight month.

The Economy Watchers index, a survey of barbers, taxi drivers and others who deal with consumers, climbed to 28.4 in March from 19.4 in February, the second-biggest jump on record, according to the Japanese Cabinet Office.

Japan’s consumer sentiment alos rose - to a five-month high - in March, and the confidence index climbed to 28.9 from 26.7 in February. The index has now advanced for three consecutive months since after plunging to 26.2 in December, its lowest level since the government began compiling the figures in 1982.

Exports also increased in March from a month earlier, as firms across the globe who had run down stocks started to rebuild them.

Still, the failure of export demand to do more than simply stabilize will probably limit the scope of Japan’s recovery. Toyota, Hitachi, and Panasonic have all recently forecast continued production and job losses in the current business year. Panasonic said only last week it plans to close about 20 factories this year and proceed with the 15,000 job cuts announced in February.

Paul Krugman, speaking as far as I can see at a seminar in Ho Chi Minh city, had the following to say, which I pretty much agree with.

“Just about all of the economic indicators out there are suggesting that the free-fall has come to an end, that we’ve stabilized,”

“Probably the worst in terms of shocks to the system is over.....The acute stress that we had last fall after the failure of Lehman has been reduced,” he said. “Interest-rate spreads on commercial paper are way down, interest-rate spreads on corporate debt are down a little bit. The spread on interbank lending is down....“I don’t think we’ve hit bottom, but the bottom is not too much further below us,” he said. “My big concern is that we don’t hit the bottom and bounce, we hit the bottom and stay there. It’s not obvious where recovery comes from.”

It's like someone hit a very sensitive mechanical device with a large sledgehammer, this sent the device reeling under the impact smashing a lot of the works in the process, and now the shock absorbers have done their work and the vibrations are slowing we will be able to assess the true extent of the damage.

He also seems to be warning the US dollar can experience a "Japan-style carry" effect.

“The U.S. dollar is going to fall quite a lot, or at least significantly,” he said. “The demand for dollars has been temporarily inflated by the crisis. Good news is actually bad news for the dollar. If things stabilize, then the safe-haven demand for dollars falls off.”

So the second derivitive is falling. We should not see more 15.2% annual contractions in Japan, but this does not mean GDP will not keep on falling -for how long? This is the part we still don't know.