Slowdown in Japan Raises the Pressure on Abe
November 15, 2013
TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is now under more pressure to deliver on his much-promoted effort to improve the country’s long-term growth prospects, after a government estimate on Thursday showed that the economy had slowed in the quarter that ended in September.
Recent delays on measures that would liberalize Japan’s labor market or level the playing field for Internet-based start-ups have raised questions about how committed Mr. Abe remains to his proposals, especially when they encroach on powerful vested interests.
According to the preliminary figures released on Thursday by the government’s Cabinet Office, exports and consumer spending displayed signs of weakening after strong overall growth in the first half of the year. Japan’s gross domestic product slowed to an annualized rate of 1.9 percent in the quarter, down from 3.8 percent in the previous quarter. Growth had benefited from a bold monetary and fiscal push by Mr. Abe’s government to stimulate the economy.
The slowdown takes some of the shine off what had been a bright spot for an otherwise lackluster year for the global economy.
“The break from rising share prices appears to have hurt consumer sentiment,” Akira Amari, the minister for economic revitalization, said at a news conference after the release. “Looking forward, I hope domestic demand holds up to bring about a more certain recovery,” he said.
A breather from the feverish stock market rally that hit Tokyo in the first half of the year has slowed luxury purchases. More worrisome, companies have hesitated to start raising wages despite a rebound in their profits, a reluctance that Mr. Abe has taken to complaining about.
Another reason for the slowdown was a drop in net exports. Ever since Japan was effectively forced to close its nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, its costs for importing energy have soared, hurting its balance of trade. Exports to Asia slowed amid concerns about growth in the region.
A surge in smartphone shipments to Japan also made a dent in the trade balance. The popularity in Japan of Apple’s new iPhone 5S is most likely behind that jump in shipments, Kyohei Morita, chief economist at Barclays, wrote in a report this week.
Marcel Thieliant, an economist at the research firm Capital Economics in London, said that the Japanese economy was likely to regain momentum in the near term, and that the real worries would come after the tax increase.
“An acceleration in growth towards year-end and potentially into 2014 looks likely as spending is brought forward, but demand will surely slump in the second quarter despite the recently announced fiscal stimulus measures,” he said in a note to clients after the data release.
Any further slowdown could move Japan’s central bank to expand its already aggressive easing program. Haruhiko Kuroda, the Bank of Japan governor, has promised that he will do “whatever it takes,” especially to cushion the effects of the planned sales tax increase. The government has also promised a spending package of 5 trillion yen, or about $50 billion, to ease the pain of higher taxes.
There is increasing pressure on Mr. Abe to renew his attention to his promised economic overhaul, with some executives saying that the government’s commitment has been slipping.
Hiroshi Mikitani, an e-commerce entrepreneur and early supporter of Mr. Abe’s economic policies, assailed the government this week after it fell short on a promise to relax rules that limit sales of over-the-counter drugs on the Internet. The government has also appeared to step back from measures that could bring more fluidity to Japan’s rigid labor market. At the same time, Tokyo’s negotiations over an emerging Pacific trade pact led by the United States remain fraught, with opposition from an influential farming bloc.
The consequence of relaxed rules for online drug sales is not huge, but a dispute over those rules between a powerful lobby of brick-and-mortar pharmacies and online newcomers like Mr. Mikitani’s Rakuten mall has come to symbolize a wider battle to inject more competition into the Japanese economy.
日本智能手機出貨量的激增，也影響了貿易平衡。巴克萊(Barclays)首席經濟學家森田京平(Kyohei Morita)本周在一份報告中寫道，蘋果(Apple)新推出的iPhone 5S在日本非常火爆，這最有可能是出貨量激增的原因。
倫敦的研究公司凱投宏觀(Capital Economics)的經濟學家馬塞爾·蒂連特(Marcel Thieliant)說，日本經濟可能在近期重新獲得增長的動力，真正的擔憂將在增稅之後到來。
如果進一步放緩，日本央行可能會擴大已經很激進的寬鬆計 劃。日本央行(Bank of Japan)行長黑田東彥(Haruhiko Kuroda)已經承諾，將「採取一切必要行動」，特別是為了緩和即將生效的提高銷售稅的影響。政府還承諾了一項5萬億日元，約合500億美元的一攬子支 出計劃，從而減輕增稅帶來的痛苦。
安倍晉三經濟政策的早期支持者、電子商務企業家三木谷浩史 (Hiroshi Mikitani)本周對政府發出了指責，因為日本政府未能兌現承諾，放鬆對在網上銷售非處方葯的限制。政府似乎也沒有兌現一些可能給日本僵化的勞動力市 場帶來更大靈活性的措施。與此同時，由於來自一個有影響力的農業集團的反對，日本政府有關一項美國主導的新太平洋貿易協定問題的談判仍然不容樂觀。