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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Japan's Imports Rebound In July, But Trade Surplus Narrows

Japan's exports rebounded in July, a month which saw China replace the U.S. as the nation's largest customer. Overseas shipments were 8.1 percent from a year earlier, after declining for the first time since 2003 in June, according to data from the Finance Ministry in Tokyo today. Exports to China climbed 16.8 percent while shipments to the U.S. were down 11.5 percent on the year.




Exports to China rose to a record 1.29 trillion yen, exceeding the value of those sent to the U.S. for the first time. Shipments to the U.S. fell to 1.28 trillion yen, the 11th consecutive month of annual decline. Goods shipped to Asia advanced 12.7 percent to 3.86 trillion yen, the highest ever, and exports to Europe gained 4.1 percent, the first increase in three months.



Imports however also surged by 18.2 percent last month, the fastest pace in two years, narrowing the trade surplus to 91.1 billion yen ($830 million). Oil climbed to a record $147 a barrel in July. Japan imports virtually all of its fuel. So - as we can see in the chart below - in headline GDP terms the net trade effect is declining steadily at the moment. And bond prices rose and yields fell on the trade deficit news, with the yield on the 1.5 percent bond due June 2018 falling 3 basis points to 1.41 percent at 4:18 p.m. in Tokyo at Japan Bond Trading Co., Japan's largest interdealer debt broker. The price rose 0.260 yen to 100.776 yen. The yield is now at its lowest level since April 21.



Imports to many emerging economies continued to grow, with Russia up an annual 45.8%, Indonesia up an annual 35.4%, Vietnam an annual 27.2% and Brazil and annual 50.5%. Of course all of these are oil exporters, and imports from them all rose substantially too.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Japan's Economy Contracts In Q2 2008

Japan's economy contracted in the second quarter of 2008, bringing the country to the threshold of its first recession in six years, as exports fell and consumers spent less. Gross domestic product was up by 1% over the second quarter of 2007, but down by 0.6% over Q1 2008. So the recession many observers were anticipating in the last quarter of 2007 may now have arrived in the second quarter of 2008. If this is the case the reason is pretty clear, flows of funds (following the sub-prime related credit bust in the OECD world) into some key emerging markets mainained Japanese exports at a much higher level than could have been anticipated. Now - on the back of rising inflation and central bank tightening those economies themselves are actually slowing.



Exports fell the most since the 2001-2002 recession, robbing Japan of the engine that drove its longest postwar expansion, while record fuel and food prices deterred spending at home. Japan joins four more members of the Group of Seven countries in having a quarterly contraction this year, with the others being Germany, France, Canada and Italy. In fact the only two economies in this group which haven't contracted are the US and the UK.




Exports were down 2.3 percent, the first drop in three years, while imports fell at an even faster pace of 2.8 percent. The net consequence was that the trade balance was more or less neutral on this quaters GDP performance. The contraction was thus almost entirely due to changes in domestic demand. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than half of the economy, decreased 0.5 percent from the previous quarter. Private demand, which includes company and consumer spending, accounted for 0.4 percentage point of the economy's quarter-on-quarter contraction. Business investment slipped 0.2 percent. Housing investment slid 3.4 percent as homebuyers held back from new condominiums because of rising prices and banks tightened lending to developers. The other 0.2% of the contraction came from a reduction in public investment.

This last point is important, since it draws attention to another important structural feature of the Japanese situation.



The latest IMF report on their Article IV Consultation with Japan makes an important point :

"Fiscal consolidation has paused this year and the authorities' medium-term plans fail to build on recent progress. The FY2008 budget targets a broadly unchanged primary deficit (excluding social security) with a slight increase in total expenditures due to higher social security costs and lower tax buoyancy, while the net public debt ratio is estimated to rise to 94 percent of GDP, up from about 85 percent of GDP three years ago. The authorities' revised fiscal plans continue to target a primary balance by FY2011. Under staff's lower growth projections, the authorities' plans would be insufficient to prevent net public debt from continuing to trend up."


The data down at the bottom of the IMF link is useful since it is possible to see the steady decrease in the government fiscal deficit from 2004, although this is now projected to rise again in 2008. It is clear that there is a substantial reduction in public investment ongoing in Japan, and this has borne the brunt of the plan for reducing the annual deficit (although obviously domestic construction will remain permanently weak) while of course current spending has to trend structurally up due to the growing elderly dependence.



Anyway, the bottom line is even during what many claim to have been "the longest Japanese expansion in recent history" the annual deficit hasn't been able to get much below 3%, and the debt to GDP has climbed steadily - incidentally the 94% number the IMF cite differs from the more widely cited OECD figure of 179% of GDP (2006), since basically it doesn't allow for accumulated liabilities under the social security system.

So now everyone expects slippage on the 2011 fiscal balance deadline, and it will simply be interesting to see how and when the ratings agencies react. As has been seen in Germany, raising consumption tax in an export driven economy is basically a "no-no", and the last time they tried it in Japan (in 1998) they sent themselves off into the most severe recession of the whole lost decade and a half, so what they are going to do to bring the deficit under control is a real head-banger I would say.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Japanese Consumer Confidence Drops Again In July

Japanese consumers became the most pessimistic they've been in at least 26 years, indicating their spending is unlikely to trigger a recovery in the world's second-largest economy. The sentiment index dropped to 31.4 last month from 32.6 in June, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo, the lowest since the government began compiling the figures in 1982. The government last week said Japan may be in a recession as rising prices damp profit growth, prompting some companies to cut wages and hiring. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is scheduled to announce an economic stimulus package this month to ease the impact of higher oil and food prices on an economy that shrank last quarter.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Japan - Gearing Down for a Recession

By Claus Vistesen Copenhagen

In my last note on Japan, I asked how much longer Japan could continue to fight off the incoming recession faced with a continuing shaky outlook on exports as well as a domestic economy steadily slowing down. Well, it seems as if the answer to this question can now be provided. With the recent news that industrial production continues its slowdown as well as the news that exports actually fell in June I am thus confident to stick with my call that Japan will enter a recession at some point in 2008-09. The exact timing will be suggested below.

In fact, a recession seems to be almost a foregone conclusion at this point since if we look at the recent messages emanating from official Japanese authorities, they are indeed bracing themselves for something ugly. Perhaps someone from the statistics department sent a primer of the Q2 GDP figures (due 13.08.2008) to parliament? I sure don't know, but the cabinet office recently released a statement in which the slump in industrial production and exports were used as impetus to argue that the cycle has now definitely turned. The secretary general of the ruling LDP party also chimed in as he notes how especially the economic situation en dehors de Tokyo increasingly resembles a recession. Shigeru Sugihara head of the Cabinet Office's statistics department also noted recently how the economy is very likely to have entered a recession. Finally Bloomberg connects the threads by suggesting that the Japanese economy may have shrunk -0.6% in Q2 after an impressive 1% showing in Q1. These numbers are built on the illusive median forecasts at this point but are indicative of what to expect.


As per usual, this note will feature a look at developments in prices, domestic demand, industrial production (and exports) as well as the JPY. Obviously, the main thrust will be what exactly to expect in terms of the downturn; how serious it will be and how the BOJ and MOF will act.


Cost-Push Thrust Continues - To the Consumers' Lament

Adding to the pressure on Japanese consumers, prices rose at its highest pace in June as the main inflation index clocked in at an all time high of 2.0%. Moreover, the US style core price index also managed to eek out a slight increase at 0.1%. This is the second time this year that the core of core index is in the positive but on an aggregate basis Japan remains in deflation.


As ever, the point to take away is how headline inflation from cost-push pressures not necessarily will lead to an underlying effect on core-of-core prices. This is to say that it is difficult for companies to push forward cost-push inflation through the value chain in a situation where real wages are falling and where domestic demand, in general, is structurally weak. This broken link between headline inflation and core inflation and the congeniantly weak demand can be connected to the demographic profile of Japan. Quite simply, Japan does not posses the domestic demand to generate demand-pull inflation to any significant degree and this is reflected in the core-of-core index. Moreover, this is also why those much discerned second round effects are not very likely to materialise in Japan's context domestic demand dynamics do no support this as external demand slows.

Finally, this also underpins the lack of activity in corporate capex to spill-over into the domestic economy as so many pundits have been expecting during the recovery. It is important to understand the dynamics in this regard. As such, macroeconomics 1-0-1 tell us how to treat excess domestic investments over savings as a leakage which leads to an external surplus (otherwise S=I, and capacity for investments would be a lot smalle than is currently is the case). This rather mechanic perspective is important in so far as it shows us how activity in the corporate sector may be responding to external demand rather than domestic demand. And thus, we have the ensuing disconnect between industrial activity and domestic demand.

In light of the fact that oil seems to have peaked, for now at least, it appears that Japanese consumers not to mention companies may have experienced the worst of things. However, Morgan Stanley's Takehiro Sato seems to be less sanguine than official estimates from Japanese authorities. Alongside colleague Takeshi Yamaguchi he estimates that it will take in the region of 6-12 months for the current back drop in energy and food prices to have a material effect. This suggests that the cost-push thrust is set to linger throughout 2008 and perhaps some time into 2009.

Shifting gears over to consumption the Japanese consumer thus seems to have firmly caved in. With wages now falling, in nominal terms too, it does not take much of an economic literate to see that Japanese consumers are getting sandwiched at the moment. Wages in Japan fell back 2.9% (in real terms) in June and this marks a third consecutive drop this year. The meager evolution in wages has been a consistent feature of the Japanese economy throughout this so-called recovery. Yet, now that cost-push inflation is being added to the equation it is predictably feeding strongly into domest consumption expenditures, which still constitute the largest, if shrinking, share of Japan's GDP (55%).




It is now quite clear that domestic consumption in Japan is contracting and even though expenditures in June contracted less than in previous months the overall trend is one of a slump. Given the trajectory of real wages and inflation this is not particularly surprising but does mean that with external demand now also faltering, Japan is left without any kind of real growth engine.

As per ususal Ken Worsley provides the details of the monthly consumption report through which we learn how especially spending in durables and semi-durables contributed to the decline. If SY is right with respect to the lag in which falling energy prices feed through to the price indices it is difficult to expect a rebound in H02 2008.


Corporate Capex and Exports - The Final Dam Breaks

Perhaps the most significant snippet coming in off the wire since we last convened to look at Japan was the news that Japanese exports actually shrank in June on a y-o-y basis. Coupled with a rising import bill as a result of surging headline inflation, it means that the monthly trade surplus decreased a whopping 89% on a y-o-y basis [3].

If the level of Japanese exports is heading inexorably down, the trend in foreign demand composition is also interesting to consider. It shows that while a savvy Japanese export industry indeed did manage to decouple from the US or more aptly recouple to the big emerging markets, it cannot de-couple from the world. This is the nature of being dependent on exports and foreign asset income to grow. In this light, both exports to the US and Europe dropped at a hefty pace in June, the former being the 10th straight decline and the latter seing a second consecutive drop. Exports to emerging markets and not least China expanded, but at a much slower pace suggesting that the current account margin is narrowing.

Yet, Japan's external is not only about exports.

In fact, the recent years' increase in Japan's positive external position owes more to the accumulation of foreign assets than to exports per se. This is also I point I latch on in my note on how Japanese savings, as a function of its demographic profile, will tend to go for yield.

In 2007, the net foreign asset position of Japanese savers (i.e. both companies and households) stood at around 250 billion Yen of which around 75-80% was made up of debt instruments. This makes up a nice cushion off of which to pull income. Add to this the currency gain as the continuation of outflows, due to the low interest rate environment, will tend to keep value of the Yen down (more about that below). I think it is important for investors to lock on to this trend as it tells a lot about global capital flows.

An additional point here would be that since the majority of Japan's foreign asset is in debt, the income flows will be less affected, from the credit crunch, than if it has been tilted towards equity (although one has to assume that asset income will go down with global growth). Obviously and depending on the kind of debt you own, defaults and yield obtained from securities you own and those you buy will depend greatly on where, and in what, you choose to invest.

Ultimately however, the point remains that as Japan external balance is now contracting, in relative terms, it will have a substantial impact on aggregate economic performance.

With exports faltering it should not come as a surprise that industrial output and capex are also slowly but surely trending downwards. On a m-o-m basis production dropped 2.8% and on a seasonally adjusted index (see this graph) it appears that the high levels of the latter part of 2007 are now replaced by one of those famous lower plateaus. In a quarterly perspective, it can also be seen below how the cycle now seems to have turned.


Judged by forward looking indicators and production assements, it appears that the first two quarters of 2008 may well have seen a q-o-q contraction of industrial output. However, it also seems clear that industrial activity may have a long way to fall as it enters the current correction with a lag. Especially the likely reluctance of external demand to reach hitherto heights will make it difficult for Japanese firms to build up production. It would subsequently mean that production plans will need to be further downscaled.

Sato and Yamaguchi (SY) field some pretty grim numbers for the potential course of industrial activity and manufacturing. They consequently forecast, based on information from previous recessions, that total output may have to come down as much as 6%. SY also indicate that the recent Tankan survey may have been too optimistic in its top line outlook. Should this turn out true, production assessments will have to be further cut.

There is still however some disagreement on the actual outlook here. Bloomberg consequently features a more sanguine analysis in a recent article. The point would then be that forward looking indicators in the form of equipment and machinery orders declined less than forecast. This might be true in so far as goes Bloomberg's own meadian forecast but I think it is quite difficult to see anything remotely positive in the incoming figures. Whether the incoming slowdown will resemble the 2001 recession is another question of course, but at this point I think that it is also an irrelevant one.


The JPY - Macrofundamentals to Take Over?

With the recent turmoil surrounding the near bust of Fannie and Freddie Mae many FX punters would perhaps expect it to be a sure bet to buy some Yen crosses. Consequently, more than notional evidence has suggested how traditional carry trade crosses (CHF and JPY) have been negatively correlated with risky assets. In times of market turmoil and volatility, the only thing a savvy currency trader thus need to do is to pile up on JPY and CHF longs as she was betting on the unwinding of short term highly leveraged carry trade positions. If it was ever so easy.


I am unsure as to whether the correlation is broken entirely, but it is quite obvious that is has weakened significantly in the past two months. As such and while I would still expect the JPY to react on extreme risk aversion two other factors are at work. The first, I think, is related to the recent drop in headline inflation from oil in particular. Not only has this boosted the USD across the board and by derivative the USD/JPY, it has also provided a cushion for stocks and other risky assets. This story has been roaming financial market punditry for the better part of the last month, and suggests the importance investors ascribe to the adverse effects of inflation.

The other factor is more structural in nature and relates to the points made above on Japan's positive income balance and net investment position. In this way, Japan quite literally needs to ship its capital and goods abroad in order to grow. This is a simple reflection of the country's demographic structure and subsequent low domestic interest rate environment. This decline in home bias can thus be considered a lingering structural trend, as it effectively links up with Japan's demographic profile[2]. The conclusion is consequently that the JPY is set to stay weak and steadily weaken against its trade partners. This would apply for the level of the JPY in particular.

If we add the fact that exports of goods and services are now actually falling and the terms of trade shock from a high oil price, the immediate outlook is for further JPY weakness.

Obviously, I still owe somewhat of an explanation since when does one effect take over from the other?

My immediate response to this question would be that an increased decline in home bias, low domestic interest rates, and the subsequent steady outflow of funds (and goods and services) will dominate and keep the JPY down. In this way, I do not deviate much from Stephen Jen with respect to fundamentals. Yet, this is also a discussion about the nature of capital flows. In this way, the fundamentalist view would hold that the JPY is being held down by plain and simply unlevered outflows or more aptly; diversification out of Japanese risky assets with respect to the market portfolio.

However, there is another perspetive too. If the low JPY is primarily driven by carry trade positions and levered bets against the uncovered interest rate parity it would make sense for the JPY to be sensitive to reversals in the market. This indeed has been the focus of many articles and op-eds over the course of credit turmoil and beyond. For example, we learned recently that the number of margin trading accounts in Japan has now exceeded 1 million and that the funds attacted to these accounts rose 13.5% y-o-y totalling 6.3 billion USD. In this context, the actions of Ms. Watanabe and other savvy Japanese housewives represent an important case in point. Of course, with the recent change of tact in the Aussie and the Kiwi (at least against the USD) one has to wonder whether in fact the fundamentals of the trade is changing, if only for a while.

I will forgive my readers if the conclusion may be a tad bit difficult to discern on this topic. As stated, I hold the view that outflows (levered and non-levered) will continue to keep a lid on the JPY's appreciation. However, the extent to which the JPY will react on sudden spurts of volatility is still something to be aware of, and is likely to depend on the level of levered carry trade positions.


A Recession it is Then - So, What About Policy Response?

I think that SY manage to pin point the situation quite neatly when they note how Japan lost two engines in Q2 2008; personal consumption and exports. Of these two, the latter will by far have the biggest impact since in the case of the former, it never really got past first gear during the present and so-called recovery.

SY roll out the big forecasting kit in their attempt to give an impression of when Japan's economy may hit the trough; with the assumption being that it peaked in Q4 2007. The conclusion is that Japan is set to hit bottom in Q1 2009 after which it will steadily pick-up. There can be no doubt that this argument is solidly built upon historical performance measures. However, I don't think that the recession as such is the major news point here, in the sense that such things come and go. The key for me is the regularity by which recessions have hit Japan since 2000 and the subsequent nature of the "recoveries". In this way, I am not expecting a recovercy as such, in the sense that unless exports find a new decisive foothold towards external demand, Japan is likely to limping ahead very close to a zero growth rate.

This brings us neatly over to the policy reactions from all this.

Obviously, with growth now slowing the quants in the treasury are being forced into revising their revenue models. Specifically, the objective to balance the budget by 2011 may now be nothing but a good faith declaration on paper with no real bearing towards reality. One immediate consequence here is obviously that issuing more sovereigns to finance government spending is out. In fact, with a public debt/GDP ratio close to 170%, any faint muttering as such would be sure to prompt the rating agencies into attack mode.

Moreover and as per usual, the prospect of increasing the incoming consumption tax is rearing its head. In May, Economics and Fiscal minister Yosano, from the LDP, consequently suggested that Japan double a planned 5% consumption tax by 2015. No one can deny that the government's top line needs additional input, but it is also important to understand that levying tax on consumers will only further solidfy Japan's growth path whereby domestic demand stays weak and the economy relies on exports to grow. There is nothing wrong with that per se. The problem however is that export dependency will become a structural tendency for many economies during the next decade so Japan will finds its growth strategy more crowded as we move forward. [4]

Regarding monetary policy, the BOJ held rates steady during their last convention and is widely expected to maintain this stance for the forseeable future. SY are fiddling with the BOJ moving in with a 25 basis point cut in Q2 2009. I am not willing to look that far ahead. Given the already low level of interest rates anything short of a sharp backdrop into deflation or a very severe slowdown would not justify, I think, a move back towards ZIRP. This may happen and the data should be watched closely in this regard. For now however, I am sticking to my guns that the BOJ is likely to stay on hold.


Notes

[1] See the following notes in particular; Japan - Still Fighting off the Recession; When Will the Strength Ebb Out? and Inflation Returns to Japan - Tightroping Between a Slowdown and Recession

[2] See this note and also Morgan Stanley's Stephen Jen (here and here)

[3] See this chart

[4] See further points on export dependency here


Disclosure (c.f. Seeking Alpha agreement): Trading out of a monopoly money account with the following FX positions: short AUD/USD, short NZD/USD, short EUR/USD, and short EUR/JPY.

Economy Watchers Index Falls Again In July

Sentiment among Japanese small businesses fell in July to the lowest level since the last recession as higher food and oil prices discouraged consumers from spending. The Economy Watchers index, a survey of barbers, taxi drivers and others who deal with consumers, dropped to 29.3, the lowest since October 2001, from 29.5 in June. An index of forward looking conditions two to three months ahead dropped to 30.8 from 32.1.



The Japanese government yesterday admitted that the economy is "weakening" for the first time since 2001. The worsening economy coupled with continuing inflation will probably mean that the Bank of Japan will keep its benchmark interest rate at 0.5 percent for the time being at least, although, with oil prices dropping the next move is more likely to be down than up.



It is highly likely that Japan's economy contracted in the last quarter, bringing the country to the brink of its first recession in six years, as exports fell and consumers spent less. Exports may well have fallen by around 2.4 percent over the quarter. Export shipments had increased in every quarter except one since the most recent recession in 2001.

The economy may well have sontracted by some 0.6 percent from the first quarter, when it grew 1 percent, about twice the average pace of the expansion that began in 2002. The Cabinet Office will release the preliminary Q2 GDP report on Aug. 13.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Japan Leading Indicator Drops Again and June Machinery Orders Fall

The Japanese government conceded yesterday that Japan's longest running postwar period of economic expansion might now be over as it reported a drop in its key measure of underlying economic conditions for June. The June coincident indicators index fell a preliminary 1.6 per cent and the government downgraded its assessment of the economy to "deteriorating". This effectively constituted an admission that the economy had probably entered a recession.

The coincident index, a composite of statistics including production and the ratio of jobs to applicants, fell to 101.7 in June from 103.3 a month earlier. A three-month moving-average of the index fell for a fourth month in June to 102.2 from 102.5.



The Cabinet Office declares the economy has worsened if the index has fallen for one month and the three-month moving-average has declined for three or more months. The leading index, which signals the direction of the economy for the next three to six months, fell to 101.7 from 103.3.





Machinery Orders Drop In June


Orders for Japanese machinery dropped back again in June. Equipment orders, which signal capital spending in the next three to six months, declined 2.6 percent from May, when they climbed 10.4 percent, according to the Cabinet Office in Tokyo this morning. Some analysts are reading the fact that total orders only fell by 4.8% m-o-m as a sign that the recession that Japan now seems to be in will not be a long one. I fail to understand the rational grounds for such a point of view.

Japan is an export dependent economy, and overseas orders were down 12.1% on the month. With China now evidently slowing and most of Europe and the United States headed for recession later in the year it is hard to see any imminent improvement in the export situation, indeed the position is basically quite the contrary. Added to this most of the important emerging market customers are now struggling with energy and food price induced inflation which is leading to a general monetary tightening across the central banks. Thus it is hard to see any imminent relief in sight. Things are very likely to get considerably worse before they get better.