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Monday, February 20, 2006

Japan Back With The Leaders?

The FT's David Turner had this incredible article in the FT over the weekend (behind the great firewall I'm afraid):

Growth puts Japan back with the leaders

Unexpectedly strong growth in the last quarter propelled Japan's economy once again into being a world leader, promising an end to 15 years in the doldrums when periodic economic revivals dissolved into false dawns.

The world's second biggest economy grew 1.4 per cent in the fourth quarter – far in excess of the 0.3 per cent growth recorded in the US and growth of 0.4 per cent in the European Union.


Japan's economy once again a world leader? IMHO this is terribly premature and extraordinarily ill-advised. In particular it is clear just how ill advised it is if you read another article in the same newspaper (this time David Pilling):

"The tightening of Japan’s labour market is arguably the single most important sign that the country’s economy, after years of adjusting in the aftermath of the bubble, has finally normalised."

Wrong David, the tightening of Japan's labour market is a sign that Japan is an ageing society, with a shrinking available labour force. This is not a good sign: show me your productivity numbers is what I say. To plagiarise Solow, we can see the crowth everywhere, except in the productivity numbers. Methinks we are in for some rude surprises.

"As a result of increasing job security, consumers, who until recently had been running down their savings to preserve their living standards, have opened their wallets a little further. That has persuaded companies to invest in capital and still more workers to meet what is expected to be steadily growing domestic demand."

Of course what is happening in Japan is a first, something of a great experiment (although there are signs that something similar may be happening in Italy, another society with similar problems). There has been a lot of speculation about just how the fact that the forseeable labour shortage would lead to a 'capital deepening' process as labour became relatively more expensive. Well, labour is becoming relatively more expensive, so now we will get to see how the capital deepening part works out in practice. This will be an interesting test for neo-classical theory.

Here are links to some more, and equally revealing articles in the FT:

Japan 'creating sub-class of poorly paid

Huge changes in Japan's labour market are creating a dangerous divide between well-paid, well-trained workers in permanent employment and a sub-class of poorly paid workers with low skills and fragile job security, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned.

The report, which makes calls to tackle deflation and assert fiscal control, highlighted the downsides of greater labour market flexibility.


Fewer Japanese

The future has arrived slightly quicker than expected in Japan, with the news that last year, for the first time since records started in 1950, the country's male population fell. The decline was fractional, and could be totally attributed to more men moving out of, rather than into, Japan, probably because of company transfers. Nonetheless, this was a demographic outcome waiting to happen because of the country's falling birth rate, which set a record low in population growth of only 0.05 per cent last year. Japanese experts are now predicting that next year will see the first decline in the country's overall population.

The shrinking of the workforce and the swelling number of pensioners is a trend occurring across many developed, and some developing, countries. Indeed, thanks to its one-child policy, China is forecast to see the ratio of working age people to pensioners collapse from more than 6:1 in 2000 to fewer than 2:1 in 2050 as that country ages faster than any other in history.