In surprise, Japan’s economy grows in first quarter

Ben Dooley, The New York Times

Posted at May 20 2019 12:15 PM

Cranes are pictured against the sunset at construction site in the Toyosu district in Tokyo. Thomas Peter, Reuters/File

TOKYO — Japan’s economy expanded in the first quarter of 2019, countering expectations that growth in the country had stalled because of a slowdown in China that has hit Japanese factories hard.

The surprise expansion comes despite a generally gloomy global outlook. China, a major contributor to global growth, has been hit by its trade war with the United States and by its own efforts to contain its debt problems. Though China has made efforts to stimulate growth, further slowdowns could ripple through Asia and the rest of the world.

Japan’s economy, the third largest in the world, behind the United States’ and China’s, grew by an annualized rate of 2.1 percent in the first three months of this year, according to data released Monday by Japan’s Cabinet Office.

The growth came despite a decline in Japanese export figures that began in December on weakening demand from China and Europe. The change forced Japanese companies across a wide range of industries, especially in sectors that supply unfinished components to Chinese manufacturers, to make huge downward revisions to their earnings forecasts.

The release of the figures Monday was good news for the country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has made reinvigorating Japan’s economy a centerpiece of his appeal to voters.

For decades, Japan has been struggling to find its way out of the economic doldrums that began in the 1990s. Abe came to office in 2012 pledging to turn things around with a package of economic reforms, known as Abenomics. They included loose monetary policy, heavy government investment and reforms to sclerotic social and corporate structures that have suppressed the country’s economic performance.

Since then, Japan has largely experienced modest growth, except for a brief fall into recession in 2014 following an increase in the country’s consumption tax. But much of that success coincided with China’s remarkable economic rise.

Despite the positive economic data, Abe’s policies look set to face a difficult test now that Japan’s neighbor is slowing. He has committed to once again increasing the country’s consumption tax in October, this time to 10 percent from 8 percent. He says the increase is necessary to pay down the country’s huge debt and fund social programs that are expanding as the country’s population ages. Japan’s debt ratio is the highest among developed nations at roughly 2-1/2 times the country’s annual economic output.

Abe has already delayed the tax raise twice. His insistence on sticking to the October deadline has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from members of his own party, who argue that raising the tax now could push the country into recession.

Nevertheless, the Abe administration has said it will take an economic shock on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis to derail its plans.

Although overall trends in Japan’s economic data still suggest reasons for concern moving forward, the positive growth figures are likely to strengthen that resolve.

They may also open some space for Abe in his negotiations with the United States over a trade deal between the two countries.

President Donald Trump has frequently complained about the trade deficit between the United States and Japan and is using the threat of auto tariffs as leverage in trade negotiations with Tokyo that kicked off in Washington in April.

Trump arrives in Tokyo on Saturday to meet Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito. During the visit, he is expected to talk trade with Abe. Both sides have said they hope to come to an agreement quickly.

But with Japanese upper house elections coming in July, Abe may be leery of making any concessions to the US president that could be seen as potentially damaging to Japan’s economic situation.

2019 New York Times News Service