David Pilling from Tokyo, on how the rate of deflation in Japan is accelerating. Not good news.And just as I was getting used to talking about the 'slow burn' deflation.The rise in the yen isn't going to help any, either.
Japanese deflation gathered pace in the first quarter with year-on-year prices falling 3.5 per cent - their fastest drop on record. The fall may fuel fears that Japan, which has managed to co-exist with relatively mild deflation since the mid-1990s, could be sliding into a deflationary spiral. Japanese prices - as measured by the gross domestic product deflator, considered a more accurate measure than the consumer price index - have been falling more or less continuously since 1995. Annual price falls have averaged between 1 and 2 per cent for most of that time. Friday's figures showed deflation accelerating in fiscal 2002, a year in which Japan was growing out of recession, to minus 2.2 per cent, a record for a full year.
The figures were released along with GDP data showing that growth in the first quarter fell to almost zero, leading some economists to conclude that the economy was on the brink of yet another recession. Nominal growth fell 0.6 per cent in the March quarter, or minus 2.5 per cent on an annualised basis. Paul Sheard, economist at Lehman Brothers, said: "If you look at the chart it looks horrible. It looks as though deflation is going through the floor." However, the headline figure exaggerated the picture, he said, because the GDP deflator in the first quarter of 2002, when Japan began to pull out of recession, was positive. "It's something of a statistical fluke, though deflation is deflation and it is not a good sign."Shuji Shirota, economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, said "unprecedented deflationary pressure" had been stoked by a big cut in the winter bonuses of government employees, as well as by a fall in the price of PCs and other electrical machinery.
The issue of deflation has split the government, with officials disputing its causes and disagreeing over its effects. Heizo Takenaka, economy and financial services minister, on Friday said falling prices posed a threat. "Deflation remains severe. While pursuing structural reform we must also press on with efforts to end deflation." This week, Eisuke Sakakibara, former vice-finance minister, said Japan could live with mild deflation so long as it prevented the economy tipping into a destructive spiral of falling prices. He said deflation was the structural result of global productivity gains and would likely spread from Japan to the US and Europe. Mr Takenaka drew some comfort from the fact that real growth for fiscal 2002 was 1.6 per cent, above the 0.9 per cent the government had predicted. Much of that was based on exports, which have begun to slow, and on surprisingly robust consumer spending. In the first quarter of this year, consumer spending, which accounts for 60 per cent of GDP, rose 0.3 per cent quarter on quarter. Mr Sheard said real growth of about 1 per cent a year over the past decade was welcome, but he pointed out that the economy was shrinking in nominal terms. Nominal GDP for fiscal 2002 fell to �499,000bn, the first time it has dipped below �500,000bn in eight years.
Source: Financial Times