The Old Economies Strike Back

TOKYO – The impact of Abenomics on Japan’s economy is gradually beginning to be felt. Annual GDP growth in the first quarter has been revised upward, to 4.1%, exceeding market expectations and providing a strong indication that the Japanese economy is finally recovering, after two decades of stagnation. Consumer spending is particularly robust, as wages show signs of upward movement.

Moreover, the currency depreciation in the wake of the Bank of Japan’s efforts to increase the annual inflation rate to 2% is expected to benefit exporters, though a substantial effect on the trade balance is yet to be seen, probably owing to higher import costs. In particular, thermal electricity plants have replaced the country’s nuclear plants – offline since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 – and the weak yen has hit the import bill for oil and gas hard.

Japan’s growth revival comes at a time of increasing economic uncertainty in much of the developing world. For example, Japan’s trade statistics for May indicate that exports to the United States increased at a double-digit pace year on year, to around ¥5.1 trillion, while exports to China were sluggish, reaching ¥4.8 trillion. Indeed, the US has overtaken China as Japan’s main export market, as America’s economy, too, recovers from half-a-decade of sluggishness.

In China, by contrast, exports in May rose by just 1% year on year – the lowest rate since last July – while imports fell by 0.3%. Exports to Japan were down by 5.7%, while exports to the US and the European Union decreased by 1.6% and by 9.7%, respectively, with both falling for three months in a row. As a result, the trade surplus continued to fall, to $20.4 billion, fueling growing concern about a Chinese slowdown.