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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Consumer Sentiment Rises As Exports Slump - But Where, Oh Where Is The Recovery?

Japan put in a pretty negative export performance in May. Even shipments to China show little sign of improvement, and the general impression is that hopes for a quick recovery in global demand are looking very premature.



On the other hand a 42 per cent year-on-year fall in imports in May left Japan with a trade surplus of Y299.8bn for the month - something that will help push gross domestic product back toward growth this quarter, but a trade surplus where imports fall faster than exports is not the same as a surplus where exports grow faster than imports, and certainly for the global economy it isn't.


The Details

Shipments fell 41 per cent by value year-on-year amid a rising yen and continuing weakness in sales in key markets for electronics and automobiles. May’s year-on-year drop was greater that the 39 per cent one recorded in April, while seasonally adjusted exports slid 0.3 per cent from the previous month, after having risen in both March and April.

Nonetheless Bank of Japan data showthat when inflation and currency changes are stripped out, exports were up 5.1 per cent in May. And - depending on what the June numbers look like - exports in the second quarter of the year will certainly be up on exports in the first quarter by somewhere between 7% and 10%. Shipments to the U.S. fell 45.4 percent in May after dropping 46.3 percent in April.

Exports to Europe were down 45.4 percent following a 45.3 percent year on year drop in April.

Shipments to China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, fell 29.7 percent, more than April’s 25.9 percent. Exports to Asia slid 35.5 percent from 33.4 percent a month earlier. Japan’s exports to the rest of Asia were also well up, over 5% month on month, marking the third straight month of increases. Going by what we have seen so far, it looks like exports to the region will rebound strongly in the second quarter, and we may see growth of 15%+ over the previous quarter, following a drop of more than 20% in the first quarter over the last three months of 2008.




But even while exports to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are rebounding (see chart below) those to India are still falling, and the situation in other a number of other key emerging markets is hardly improving.



If China’s exports fall faster than global demand, that opens up space that allows others to cut back less. The alternative — fast Chinese export growth amid a shrinking global economy — would be a sure source of trouble. But China still isn’t really acting as a locomotive for overall global demand growth.
Brad Setser

Confidence On The Rise

The Export aituation stands in fairly strong contrast with the mood of consumers and small businessmen inside Japan. Japan’s household sentiment rose to a 14-month high in May, leading many to conclude that Japan's deepest postwar recession may be easing. The confidence index climbed to 35.7 from 32.4 in April, according to the Cabinet Office in Tokyo. The index has now improved every month since it hit a record low of 26.2 in December.


At the same time confidence among Japanese merchants and small traders rose to a 14-month high in May The Economy Watchers index, a survey of barbers, taxi drivers and others who deal directly with consumers, climbed to 36.7 from 34.2 in April, the highest level since March 2008.


OECD Revises Down Forecast


While the Bank of Japan appears increasingly hopeful that the worst of the slump is or will soon be over, there are plenty of doubts about how robust and enduring any coming recovery is likely to be. As I am trying to stress it is one thing bringing a halt to the decline in exports, and quite another to ramp them back up again. Many companies are now operating well below output capacity, and there is a limit to how long they can do this without laying off part of their workforce. So unemployment, which has been rising, looks set to rise further.



In its world economic forecast, the OECD said Japan’s huge fiscal stimulus packages would begin to support growth from the second half of 2009, but that the economy was nevertheless on course to contract 6.8 per cent in the year as a whole. With the effect of fiscal stimulus set to ”begin to fade” in 2010 and only a ”relatively modest upturn” in world trade expected, the OECD is now forecasting Japanese GDP growth of only 0.7 per cent in 2010. To put this in perspective, if these forecasts are fulfilled Japan GDP will be back at the 2004 level at the end of 2009, and will not reach the 2005 level until 2011, at the earliest. Since these are key years for Japan in preparing to bear the weight of all those extra dependent elderly the output loss is deeply significant. And remember, prior to 2005 we had all those lost years, so another little data point, in 2009 GDP will be only something like 4% up on 1997 - 12 years later!



Randall Jones, head of the OECD’s Japan and Korea desk, argues that such anaemic growth will be far from enough to stem the huge output gap, with the liklihood that Japan is set for ”persistent deflation” - an outcome that will only add to the difficulty of addressing the rapidly growing fiscal debt burden.



The Cabinet Office’s Consumer Confidence Survey price forecasts are a key indicator of Japanese household inflation expectations. The price forecast index for May, published in June, confirmed that individual inflation expectations have fallen further. 38.6% of survey respondents said that they expected prices to be higher in one year’s time, down from 42.3% in the April survey. This is the 10th consecutive month of decline. At the same time, 22.3% of survey respondents said that they expected prices to be lower in one year’s time, up from 21.6% in the April survey, the eighth consecutive month the percentage has increased.




Japan's government went back on 220 billion yen ($2.3 billion) of planned welfare spending cuts this week and effectively put fiscal reform on hold for a decade as it adopted a new long-term reform target to allow it to issue a record amount of bonds to combat recession. The economic policy outline for 2009, which serves as the basis for compiling next fiscal year's budget, will only add to unease at Japan's ability to manage its colossal public debt.


Doubts also abound as the government led by Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party could lose power after more than half a century of almost unbroken rule in elections that must be held by October, according to media polls. The economic policy outline points to a fatal flaw common to both the LDP and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which has its best shot ever at taking control: Neither have a credible plan to lower Japan's debt burden and provide a high level of social services to a rapidly ageing population. "Fiscal discipline is a common issue for Japan, the United States and Europe," said Yuuki Sakurai, chief executive and president of Fukoku Capital Management.

Senior members of the LDP twice rejected draft versions of the 2009 economic outline, which is drawn up by the top advisory Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, as they sought to delete a pledge to cut annual increases in welfare spending.Giving up on that pledge and the old fiscal reform target marks a rollback of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's reform drive to limit spending and reduce the size of government.

Japan now aims to stabilise its ratio of debt to gross domestic product by the mid-2010s and to lower it steadily by the beginning of the 2020s, according to the outline. The government also plans to halve the ratio of the primary budget deficit to GDP in at least five years after the economy recovers. The primary budget deficit excludes debt issuance and servicing costs.

Japan's fiscal condition is the worst among major economies, and the government expects the ratio of its long-term debt to gross domestic product to hit 170 percent by the end of 2009/10. The country's primary budget deficit is expected to rise to 8.1 percent of GDP this fiscal year, up from 3.9 percent in 2008/09. Japan’s debt burden will probably spiral to 197 percent of gross domestic product next year, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso looks set to abandon a government pledge to curb social welfare spending following a decision of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week. Japan is about to drop its goal of trimming growth in the welfare budget by 220 billion yen ($2.3 billion) in each of the five years through 2011 in what is only the latest sign that the country is losing its battle to contain what is currently the world’s largest public debt.

Japan's initial goal of a achieving a primary balance by 2011/12 has thus been pushed back 10 years following the government decision to sell a record 44 trillion yen of new debt in the fiscal year to next March to finance both regular spending and stimulus packages. Tax revenue for the year which ended last March came in 5 percent short of government estimates, and the government could issue even more bonds to make up for the shortfall, according to an unsourced report in the Nikkei financial daily.

The Cabinet also reiterated earlier promises to raise the ratio of the public contribution to basic pensions to 50 percent after 2010, to recycle laid-off workers into the caregiver industry and to consider tax exemptions with one-time payouts for the poor. The country’s ageing population is driving up spending for medical care and pension payments, and welfare costs are already eating up more than a quarter of this year’s budget. Indeed these costs rose 14 percent from the year earlier even after the government applied the 220 billion-yen spending cap restriction.

"We have to allow for a natural increase in welfare spending," Finance Minister
Kaoru Yosano told reporters after the Cabinet approved the outline. "The message
we've heard on social services is to stop making cuts that are impossible to
make. Past government policy allows us some flexibility to respond as the
situation changes."

The deep underlying problem is that this situation is no longer a temporary one. Japan has now been stuggling with such difficulties since the mid 1990s at least, and has become increasingly dependent on exports to live. So the flexibility they are looking for may now simply not be there.

The most likely prognosis is that a lot of what we are hearing is election talk, and that the long proposed onsumption tax hike looks more and more probable and imminent. Evening taking the new targets for fiscal consolidation involving a return in the primary balance to surplus within 10 years we may be looking at a 7% rise in consumption tax (from 5%to 12%) as early as 2011. The rhetoric may lead markets to not expect a rise in the consumption tax at any early date, but the reality may be that this is the only option left and that the ground is steadily being prepared for just such a move.

Looking For The Door


Despite the fact that the recession has been extraordinarily deep, and that recovery is bound to be a long, hard and protracted affair, the debate among market participants has now shifted towards possible BOJ exit strategies. In fact a full exit from the monetary easing process is not at all either likely or contemplateable in the short term. However, it is not impossible that the BoJ decide not to renew the temporary measures that are scheduled to come to end in September, like the outright purchases of Commercial Paper and corporate bonds, the Special Fund-Supplying Operations to Facilitate Corporate Financing.

Despite all the speculation the reality is that the BOJ’s view on the economy is still very cautious. Governor Masaaki Sirakawa limited himself this week to saying that the central bank will decide how to deal with the temporary measures “by the end of September in a predictable manner to market participants.” The Bank of Japan also said that the recession is easing as fiscal stimulus measures worldwide spur demand and companies increase production. But Governor Shirakawa has also cited the reduction in inventories both in Japan and overseas as one of the reasons for the bottoming out of the economy, and stressed that it is what happens to final demand - domestically and overseas - after this reduction in inventories comes to an end which holds the key to any long term improvement in the economic situation.


In its Monthly Report of Recent Economic and Financial Developments the BOJ revised its basic view of the economy upwards for the second consecutive month. In April, the Bank were saying that “Japan’s economic conditions have deteriorated significantly”, but this was revised in May to the view that “Japan’s economic conditions have been deteriorating, but exports and production are beginning to level out”, and in June to the view that "Japan’s economic conditions, after deteriorating significantly, have begun to stop worsening".

This has been widely seen as an indication that the BOJ has revised its view on the economy upward, but the BOJ itself has been trying to discourage this interpretation. At the press conference, Governor Shirakawa said that the BOJ's view on the current state of the economy was in line with the forecast made in the Outlook for Economic Activity and Prices report published on 30 April, namely that “the pace of deterioration in economic conditions will likely moderate gradually and start to level out”, thus emphasizing that the BOJ has not changed its view. To reinforce this point, using the analogy of a weather forecast, he said that if the weather forecast for the following day turns out to have been right, this does not mean that the forecast has been revised.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Facebook Links

Quietly clicking my way through Bloomberg last Sunday afternoon, I came across this:


Facebook Members Register Names at 550 a Second

Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social-networking site, said members registered new user names at a rate of more than 550 a second after the company offered people the chance to claim a personalized Web address.

Facebook started accepted registrations at midnight New York time on a first-come, first-served basis. Within the first seven minutes, 345,000 people had claimed user names, said Larry Yu, a spokesman for Palo Alto, California-based Facebook. Within 15 minutes, 500,000 users had grabbed a name.


Mein Gott, I thought to myself, if 550 people a second are doing something, they can't all be wrong. So I immediately signed up. Actually, this isn't my first experience with social networking since I did try Orkut out some years back, but somehow I didn't quite get the point. Either I was missing something, or Orkut was. Now I think I've finally got it. Perhaps the technology has improved, or perhaps I have. As I said in one of my first postings:

Ok. This is just what I've always wanted really. A quick'n dirty personal blog. Here we go. Boy am I going to enjoy this.
Daniel Dresner once broke bloggers down into two groups, the "thinkers" and the "linkers". I probably would be immodest enough to suggest that most of my material falls into the first category (my postings are lo-o-o-ng, horribly long), but since I don't really fit any mould, and I am hard to typecast, I also have that hidden "linker" part, struggling within and desperate to come out. Which is why Facebook is just great.

In addition, on blogs like this I can probably only manage to post something worthwhile perhaps once or twice a month, and there is news everyday.

So, if you want some of that up to the minute "breaking" stuff, and are willing to submit yourself to a good dose of link spam, why not come on in and subscribe to my new state-of-the-art blog? You can either send me a friend request via FB, or mail me direct (you can find the mail on my Roubini Global page). Let's all go and take a long hard look at the future, you never know, it might just work.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Japanese nationals and $135 billion

Border bust equals possible international incident-missing TARP funds?

I have written a bit regarding this at the above link...a developing story worth at least a glance.

Scott

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No "Green Shoots" Here - German and Japanese Capital Goods Output Continues Its Fall

Well, as I was busying myself yesterday scratching around looking for green shoots in Turkey. I couldn't help notice this coming in over the radar from Germany, courtesy of Bloomberg:

German exports fell more than economists forecast in April as the global crisis restrained demand, keeping Europe’s largest economy mired in a recession. Sales abroad, adjusted for working days and seasonal changes, fell 4.8 percent from March, when they rose a revised 0.3 percent, the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden said today. Economists expected a 0.1 percent decline in April, according to the median of 10 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey.
So German exports have not touched bottom yet - they are still falling. Since the German economy is export dependent, then this implies the obvious, the German economy is still contracting. I don't think anyone ever doubted this, but looking at the way some of the material has been presented recently, it wasn't always clear.



Indeed year on year, exports fell by 22.9%, the fastest rate so far, although since these annual stats are not working day corrected I wouldn't read too much into that just yet, since you really do need to average across March and April due to the Easter impact.




According to GDP data for the first three months of this year, German companies invested 16.2% less in machinery, equipment and vehicles in Q1 than they did in the last quarter of 2008.




But perhaps this fall in investment bottomed out after the first quarter? Well, apparently not, since according to the Economy Ministry in Berlin today, German industrial output declined again in April (over March) with the lead role being taken in the fall by investment goods. Manufacturing output was down 2.9 percent from March (when it rose 0.6 percent), and from a year earlier by 24.2 percent (when adjusted for working day changes).



Output of investment goods such as machines slumped 6.4 percent in April from the previous month, and by 29.6 percent year on year (following a 23.9 percent drop in March). Production of intermediate goods fell 1 percent and manufacturing output slipped 2.9 percent from March. Output of consumer goods rose 0.5 percent in April from the previous month. Energy production was up 5.8 percent and construction output rose 0.5 percent.

And despite the fact that many were putting a brave face on yesterday's April industrial orders data, orders for investment good were down month on month by 4.4 percent in April (following a 5.6 percent rise in March over February.

German industrial orders, a key indicator in Europe's biggest economy, were stable in April compared with the previous month, the economy ministry said on Monday. Orders had risen strongly in March, their first rise in six months, and the ministry said the latest reading, a change of exactly zero percent, showed a "noticeable improvement in the medium-term perspective" for German industries. The March figure was revised slightly higher moreover to a gain of 3.7 percent from a previous estimate of 3.3 percent. Analysts were divided on what the steady result meant, but most saw the glass as half-full as Germany struggles to pull out of its worst post-war slump.

Export orders for investment goods were down 5.1 percent following a 9.1 percent increase in March. Year on year, export orders for investment goods were down no less than 46 percent (down from only a 34.9 percent annual drop in March). Anyone who can see signs of a developing recovery here - the German Technology Ministry said they saw signs of a "noticeable improvement in the medium-term perspective" (see citation above) - might like to explain to me how, since I certainly can't see it.

Similar results were found in a survey by Frankfurt-based trade association VDMA. German plant and machinery orders dropped an annual 58 percent, the most since data collection started in 1950, after falling an annual 35 percent in March, according to the association. Export orders were down 60 percent while domestic demand dropped 52 percent. The VDMA is forecasting a decline in orders of between 10 percent and 20 percent for the year as a whole.

“Signs of a trough aren’t recognizable yet,” according to VDMA Chief Economist Ralph Wiechers.


Japan A Similar Picture

Now Japan’s economy - just to remind ourselves - shrank at a record rate in the first quarter as exports collapsed and businesses drastically cut back on investment spending (an almost identical picture to the German one). 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. The economy contracted 3.5 percent in the year ended March 31, the most since records began in 1955.

As in Germany, employment and consumer spending held up reasonably well - only dropped by 1.1 percent year on year. But 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.



While industrial output bounced back a bit in April, general machinery products continued to fall, and were down 14.5 percent month on month, a sign that managers remain wary of upgrading factories and equipment before they are convinced an economic recovery has taken hold. If you look at the chart below (click on image for better viewing) you will see that the year on year drops (indicated by black triangle) in machine output continued to be massive in April, with production of general machinery down almost 50 percent on the year.



And the future continues to look very bleak. Japanese companies plan to slash capital-investment spending by 16% in 2009 according to the business daily Nikkei, the steepest drop in the history of their survey. Companies suggested they expect to spend 22.7 trillion yen ($230 billion) on capital investments in fiscal year 2009, a 4.28 trillion yen decrease from a year ago, according to the survey which covered 1,475 firms.

Previously the steepest cut in spending was a 12% decline in 1993. This year's decline marks the second year in a row that capital-investment spending dropped.The Nikkei reported that with 15 of 17 manufacturing sectors planning capital-investment cuts, spending by manufacturers overall is expected to drop a record 24% to a total of 11.7 trillion yen.

According to the survey, electronics firms will spend 3 trillion yen, a 29% drop from a year ago, and automakers said they'd spend 2.3 trillion yen, a 33% decrease. Among manufacturers, only the food and pharmaceutical industries intend to increase spending.

And the picture painted in the Nikkei survey is reinfored by the latest data from the Cabinet Office for Japanese machinery orders, which fell to a 22-year low in April, falling 5.4 percent over March and hitting 688.8 billion yen ($7.1 billion), their lowest level since 1987. And as core industries contract, the deflation problem only deepens. Producer prices tumbled the most since 1987 in May sliding 5.4 percent from a year earlier.

And the conclusion of all this? Well it is clear that there will be no recovery lead by export dependent economies like Japan and Germany. But this is not the big problem. The big problem is who is actually going to lead the world forward with a new round of import growth? At the present time this is a question without an answer.

And talking of which, I can only agree with this sentiment from Brad Setser:

"Like everyone else, I am curious to see what China’s May trade data tells us. If China truly is going to lead the global recovery, China needs to import more – and not just import more commodities for its (growing) strategic stockpiles."

Brad, you will find if you follow the link over, has been busy digging for green shoots over in the Korean trade data, but he had a hard time finding them.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Bernanke Choppers make an appearance...in Japan

The facetious title of this piece refers of course to US Federal Reserve chairman Benjamin Bernanke's well known reference to dropping bundles of cash from helicopters as a last resort to fight deflation.

Edward Hugh noted in the previous post here that "The government...have begun distributing 12,000 yen ($125) to each resident in March to encourage spending." I've found a few reactions to this monetary action by the Japanese authorities:

How to Claim your 12,000 yen and Highway Holiday Discount

12,000 yen cash handout - vast majority would rather see it spent elsewhere...WhatJapanThinks.com

Paul Krugman visits Japan...Japan Economy News

Japan clears cash hand-out bill...BBC

Mr. Aso's Cynical 'Stimulus'...Far Eastern Economic Review

Such a measly sum(per individual) seems to me to be merely a token gesture. Of course, this seems to be what Bernanke in the US has been threatening for a while; to simply print cash and hand it out to the citizenry. The Japanese action is certainly not of the scale one might imagine when thinking of the Bernanke scenario. For that reason, it seems likely to be a non-event as far as the soundness of the yen as a currency is concerned.

But given the length of time that Japan's monetary authorities have been using all the tools at their disposal to bring the country out of near deflation/outright deflation, one has to wonder whether the yen will be unmasked as having been debased to an extreme degree.

Monday, June 01, 2009

More Than "A Whiff" Of Deflation In Japan

Well, as Claus pointed out in his last post, Japanese data is pretty much a mixed bag at the moment. Industrial output shot up in April, and the May PMI data suggested that the easing of manufacturing contraction continued in May. However household spending and retail sales fell, unemployment rose, and the CPI reading suggested the Japanese economy is once more getting itself firmly wedged in deflation territory. So while the industrial data offers some much needed short term relief, the mid term outlook is still pretty bleak.

Industrial Output Surges

Well, as Bloomberg kindly pointed out, industrial output surged the most in 56 years in April. Production rose 5.2% from March, marking the second monthly gain, according to data from the Trade Ministry. The increase was faster than the 3.3 percent consensus forecast, and companies said they planned to boost output in May and June as well. The headline reading, which registered the sharpest hike since March 1953, when it rose 7.9 percent, was well above the average market forecast of a 3.2 percent increase in a Kyodo News survey.




The seasonally adjusted production index was thus up for the second straight month, and stood at 74.3. To put this in perspective we are now more or less back where we were in January, and still well below the 100 base level of 2005.


At the same time as making the announcement the ministry upgraded its basic assessment of industrial production for the first time in 20 months, saying, "Developments for a recovery are to be seen", although it needs to be emphasised that what can be seen are still only the developments which could - ultimately - lead to a receovery, not recovery itself. And at this point, with world trade flat, investment and consumption falling, and unemployment rising, it is not really clear where the recovery could come from. The ministry official who gave the press briefing pointed towards the upturn in Japanese exports to China, and this is certainly a valid reference, but exports to China alone cannot pull Japan out of deep recession (see chart below), indeed the actual level of exports is still only a third up on December's low, and still only two thirds of the high hit last summer.


Shipments to China, which is now Japan’s biggest trade partner, fell 25.8 percent in April from a year earlier. The rate of decline thus fell for a third straight month, suggesting Beijing’s $585 billion stimulus package is having an effect, at least as far as Japan exports go. Month on month exports to China we more or less stationary, but they are up around 60% from January's low point. In fact shipments to China are now about a third larger than those to the US, and 40% larger than those to the EU.

Output of electronic parts and devices, which was up 15.7 percent from March, lead the overall advance together with increased production of semiconductor integrated circuits for mobile phones and portable music players. The output of chemical products also increased, up 13.8 percent, on rubber products for automobile tires. Transport equipment makers saw a 7.0 percent rise in their production as exports of passenger vehicles to Europe and North America grew.

Meanwhile, general machinery products continued to fall, and were down 14.5 percent month on month, a sign that managers remain wary of upgrading factories and equipment before they are convinced an economic recovery has taken hold. If you look at the chart below (click on image for better viewing) you will see that the year on year drops (indicated by black triangle) in machine output continued to be massive in April, with production of general machinery down almost 50 percent on the year.

Data last week also showed Japan's core private-sector machinery orders fell 1.3 percent in March, wiping out a 0.6 percent rise in February but it was a much smaller decline than the median market forecast for a 4.5 percent slide. From a year earlier, orders fell 22.2 percent in March compared with 30.1 percent in February. The Cabinet Office said the “pace of declines has eased,” changing the wording of its assessment from “the orders trend continues to decline.”



The position of Japan's manufacturing in May appears to be following a similar trend according to what we can see from the latest Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) survey, since while the survey found that activity in the Japanese manufacturing sector fell for the fifteenth successive month, the drop in output was the smallest seen in just over a year. I wouldn't attach too much importance to the discrepancy between the PMI survey and the actual output outcome at this point, since the survey methodology (which is normally pretty reliable) is probably struggling a little at this point to handle the severity of the shock in the manufacturing sector and calibrate results. The general direction of an easing in the annual rate of contraction is in harmony on both readouts.

In fact, the seasonally adjusted headline Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rose sharply in May to 46.6, from 41.4 in April, pointing to the slowest deterioration in operating conditions for nine months.



May’s survey also showed that incoming new orders received by Japanese manufacturers fell for the fifteenth month running. But again the rate of decline continued to ease from December’s record drop to the smallest contraction in the weakest in the current sequence. While foreign order levels continued to fall, they did so at a much slower rate as improved orders from China continuing demand weakness in other regions (such as the US and Europe). May’s survey pointed to a sixth successive monthly decline in the prices charged by Japanese manufacturers for finished goods.

Although still sharp, the latest drop in output charges was the weakest since last December. Strong competitive pressures and falling raw material prices were cited as key factors undermining manufacturers’ pricing power in May. Average cost burdens faced by Japanese manufacturers fell for the sixth month running in May. Despite remaining steep, the rate of decline eased to its weakest for four months. Lower raw material prices were reported to have depressed costs during the month, with steel frequently mentioned by panellists. Levels of business outstanding fell again in May, extending the current period of decline to sixteen consecutive months. Despite slowing to its weakest since last August, the rate of backlog clearance was still steep in the May survey period. Evidence provided by the survey panel linked the latest decline in work-in-hand to spare capacity resulting from falling workloads.

The PMI report also showed that Japanese manufacturers reduced their workforces for the tenth straight month in May. The rate of job shedding remained sharp, despite easing to its weakest for six months. Of those firms that reported a decline in employment, the majority attributed this to the non-renewal of temporary contracts and lower output requirements.

Unemployment On The Rise

Japan's unemployment climbed again in April and the current 5 percent (seasonally adjusted) jobless rate is the highest since November 2003. Job seekers found it harder to secure work and the ratio of positions available to applicants slumped to 0.46 (from 0.52 in March), matching the lowest ever recorded - in June 1999. The jobless rate rose to 5 percent from 4.8 percent in March, according to the government statistics bureau.




Not surprisingly, with unemployment rising and output down Japanese wage earners' total cash earnings fell in the year to April for the 11th decline in a row, as companies cut costs amidst growing uncertainty as to whether or not the pick-up in overseas demand will last. Total cash earnings fell 2.5 percent in April from a year earlier to 272,453 yen ($2,85). In March, wages fell a revised 3.9 percent from the previous year, the largest decline in nearly seven years.
Overtime pay, a barometer of strength in corporate activity, fell 18.8 percent in April from a year earlier, compared with the previous month's 20.8 percent decline, which was the biggest fall on record. Overtime pay has now fallen for nine successive months.




Consumer Prices Show More Than A Whiff Of Deflation


Japan’s general (headline) index of consumer prices fell for thrird month in April, adding to signs that the recession will initiate a resurgence of Japan's long run deflation dynamic. Consumer prices on both the general and the core (excluding fresh food) indexes declined 0.1 percent from a year earlier, according to the latest data from the statistics bureau. The "core-core" index (excluding both fresh food and energy) was down 0.4% year on year, the fourth successive month of decline.

Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa said last week that price declines will accelerate through the middle of the year ending March 2010 as demand slackens and crude oil continues to trade lower than last year’s record. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Japanese economy is now, once more, entrenched in deflation, and given the continuing weakness in the economy, it’s hard to see consumer prices reversing course and opening up an exit strategy for the Bank of Japan from the present highly accommodative monetary policy.


Indeed, in what is probably a harbinger of things to come core prices in Tokyo fell 0.7% in May from a year earlier, the biggest drop in six years, according to the report, and the first such decline registered in Tokyo since September 2007. Core prices - ie those excluding fresh food will are expected to fall by 1.5 percent in this fiscal year and 1 percent in the next, according to the central bank policy board forecast last month, and obviously there is lots of potential downside risk here.




Wholesale inflation - the cost companies pay for goods and fuel - dropped at the fastest pace in 22 years in April, and prices paid for services declined for a seventh month. And the drop in prices may be worse than the numbers show. Core prices would have declined by an additional 0.2 percentage points had the government not temporarily waived the gasoline tax in April last year. Furniture retailer Nitori announced last week that it will cut prices by as much as 40 percent on May 30. The company has launched five price-cutting campaigns in the past year. Supermarket operator Daiei have also just lowered prices on 1,000 items of clothing, food and household goods, expanding discounts to 6,000 items.

But despite falling prices and abundant offers household spending was down again in April (by 1.3% on a year earlier) for the 14th consecutive month. The impression one has is that even if Japan’s economy return to some slight positive growth in the second quarter, if we start looking beyond, there will are very strong downside risks. The deterioration in employment and falling income will likely exert a growing influence in the months ahead, taking a toll on consumers and the economy. We’ll start to see the impact of massive output cuts become clearer in the job market which will leave households with little ability to support the economy.


Unsurprisingly Japan’s retail sales fell for an eighth month in April as worsening job prospects and declining wages deterred shoppers. Sales slid 2.9 percent from a year earlier after decreasing a revised 3.8 percent in March, the Trade Ministry said



So it is evident that Japan's worst postwar recession is now spreading to households. Consumer spending is too weak to support a recovery, given the deterioration in the job market and Japan’s economy will remain fragile in the absence of stronger growth in external demand.

The Bank of Japan and the government continue to put a brave face on things, and both have now raised their assessments of the economy for the first time since 2006 on signs that exports and production are starting to stabilize. Both, however, continued to point to weakness in consumer spending and rising unemployment as risks to a recovery.

Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa seems reasonably convinced that the economy will resume growth this quarter after a record 15.2 percent contraction in the previous three months. The central bank cut the key interest rate to 0.1 percent in December, and has since bought corporate debt and expanded government bond purchases to revive the economy.

The government, on the other hand, have begun distributing 12,000 yen ($125) to each resident in March to encourage spending. Prime Minister Taro Aso’s administration has also cut highway tolls and introduced a programme of incentives to purchase environment- friendly televisions, refrigerators and air-conditioners.

But all of this amounts to paddling up river with a strong wind in your face. Japan's output gap widened to a record in the first quarter as supply grossly exceeded demand, which could push Japan further into its second bout of deflation just under two years after the BoJ officially announced the country had broken lose from its stranglehold. The output gap, which measures the estimated balance between demand and supply in the economy, fell to 8.5 percent in the three months ended March 31, according to the Cabinet Office, a significant increase in the 4.5 percent registered in the last three months of 2008. Thus despite the recent resurgence in the monthly output number we should not forget that output is still around a third lower than it was a year ago, and if things don't change soon deflation could easily become a very big problem, especially for the government, whose gross debt is fast approaching 200% of GDP.