Chris Martenson: Japan Is Now Another Spinning Plate In The Global Economy Circus

Tyler Durden's picture

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Japan Is Now Another Spinning Plate In The Global Economy Circus

At the circus, you are sometimes treated to the spinning plate act where a performer tries to keep an improbable number of plates spinning at once, racing from one plate to the next as their wobbles indicate the need for another dose of momentum. Considering the number of spinning and wobbling plates that our central planners are managing, it's easy to be both amazed and anxious at the same time.

The difference between the spinning plate analogy and real-world economic and financial systems is that if a failure occurs out in the real world, it has a very high chance of spreading across and through the other elements of the system. Contagion is the fear, as if in finally toppling, one plate will crash into its neighbor and set off a chain reaction of falling plates.

To carry this metaphor, Japan is a wobbly plate.

For those who are in a hurry today, the bottom line is that Japan is in serious trouble right now and is a top candidate to be the next black swan. Here are the elements of difficulty that concern me the most, each one serving to reduce Japan's economic and financial stability:

  • The total shutdown of all 54 nuclear plants, leading to an energy insufficiency
  • Japan's trade deficit in negative territory for the first time in decades, driven largely by energy imports
  • A budget deficit that is now 56% larger than revenues (!!)
  • Total debt standing at a whopping 235% of GDP
  • A recession shrinking Japan's economy at an annual rate of 2.3%
  • Renewed efforts underway to debase the yen

As I wrote a shortly after the earthquake in March 2011, Japan is facing an economic meltdown. If it is not careful, it may well face a currency meltdown, too. These things take time to play out, but now almost exactly a year after the devastating earthquake of 2011, the difficulties for Japan are mounting -- as expected.

Exacerbated by the earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s current predicament has been developing over many years and represents the aftermath of a burst financial bubble (involving stocks and real estate), an inability to let failed institutions actually fail, and repeated and stubborn attempts to preserve what ultimately could not be sustained.

Where many analysts predicted that the tsunami would be GDP positive because of the re-building that would follow, I predicted economic difficulties would be the main result due to broken supply chains, reduced factory output, and increased drag due to rising energy imports.

The Big Story – Energy

Japan is like the world’s largest petri dish, and the experiment at hand is about what happens to an advanced, industrialized economy when its electricity production is cut. As always, our view is that energy is the master resource. Our observation is that complex systems behave in unpredictable ways when starved for energy, but directionally, they tend to shrink and ‘simplify.’

Electricity is a critical form of energy, and thus the amount of electricity produced and a country’s GDP are very highly correlated. Sure, there is always some easy conservation that can be done that would allow an electricity shortfall to be met without any serious economic impacts. Street lights can be turned off, air conditioning and heating can be moderated, and other low-impact conservation efforts can reduce electricity consumption without doing much more than lowering utility revenues.

However, there is a certain point beyond which conservation can do no more and electricity restrictions begin to bite into economic activity. Plants end up running slower or even shutting down, productivity declines, and work can stagnate.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan relied on nuclear power for 30% of its total electricity production. As of March 26, 2012, that number is going to be 0%.

Japan's trade deficit balloons to record high as nuclear crisis pushes up fuel imports

As public worries grew, nearly all the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan were stopped for inspections. The government wants to restart at least some of the reactors, after checking for better tsunami and quake protection.

Resource-poor Japan imports almost all its oil. Until the Fukushima disaster, the country had trumpeted nuclear technology as a safe and cheap answer to its energy needs.

Now, Japan is importing more natural gas and oil as utilities boost non-nuclear power generation. Imports of natural gas in January vaulted 74 percent from a year earlier and imports of petroleum jumped nearly 13 percent.


Japan's KEPCO to shutdown its last nuclear reactor

TOKYO, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- Japan's Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) is going to shutdown its last nuclear reactor for a regular check, the No. 3 reactor at Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui, central Japan, late on Monday afternoon.

KEPCO said that the shutdown operation would be completed by Tuesday morning. With this shutdown, there are only 2 operating commercial reactors remained out of 54 all over Japan.

According to the local media, the remaining two reactors, the No. 6 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture will be offline on March 26. 


If you are thinking that shutting down some 30% of a nation’s electricity production capacity is an extreme move, you are right. 

A Breach of Trust

There’s very good reason to suspect that the Japanese nuclear plants may not be re-opened anytime soon, as there is now enormous distrust of government authorities, especially after the release of a report last week charging that the government had secretly considered evacuating Tokyo even as it was downplaying both the severity of the Fukushima accident and the risks:

Nuclear Crisis Set Off Fears Over Tokyo

Feb 27, 2012

TOKYO — In the darkest moments of last year’s nuclear accident, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public, an independent investigation into the accident disclosed on Monday.

The 400-page report, due to be released later this week, also described a darkening mood at the prime minister’s residence as a series of hydrogen explosions rocked the plant on March 14 and 15. It said Mr. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would allow the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns.

The report quoted the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as having warned that this “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns could have resulted in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles to the south.

“We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai,” Mr. Edano was quoted as saying, naming two other nuclear plants. “If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself.”

The report also described the panic within the Kan administration at the prospect of large radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods that were stored in relatively unprotected pools near the damaged reactors. The report said it was not until five days after the earthquake that a Japanese military helicopter was finally able to confirm that the pool deemed at highest risk, near the No. 4 reactor, was still safely filled with water.

“We barely avoided the worst case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time,” Mr. Funabashi, the foundation founder, said.


After this damaging assessment, the people of Japan have every right and reason to be suspicious of official pronouncements about the safety of the remaining nuclear power plants. The Fukushima disaster is horrible and still unfolding, despite its near disappearance from the news.

We did an incredible job of covering that disaster, drawing upon experts, parsing the data, buying satellite images, and coming to our own conclusions. Very early in the situation, we advised people in Tokyo to get out, even as the Japanese government harbored those same ideas but spun a different tale. Our assessment of the disaster, especially after the entirely-too-energetic explosion of Reactor #3, was far more serious than the official story and did not jibe with what most people were being fed by official sources and the mainstream media.

At any rate, Japan has now shut down nearly all of its reactors for maintenance and safety reviews, and it is our assessment that re-starting them will take longer than currently planned due to public opposition and distrust of Japanese officials. Such are the wages of violating the public trust.

The Economic Impact of Shutting Down the Plants

Japan is facing a summer of extreme electricity shortages, and this will impact the economy quite significantly. With shortages of as much as 25% of peak load, imports of oil and gas running into the trillions of yen, and consumers facing as much as a 20% hike in their electricity bills if the import costs are entirely passed along, it is clear that a serious challenge looms for Japan, especially this summer.

Nuclear-Free Summer Looms Over Japan’s West in Risk to Recovery From Quake

Feb 28, 2012

Japan’s economic rebound from the deepest contraction among advanced nations after Greece and Portugal may be stunted this year as power shortages threaten its western region.

The Kansai area, which accounts for about a fifth of Japan’s economy and escaped the worst of electricity cutbacks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, last week lost its final operating nuclear plant. Power supply may be up to 25 percent less than peak summer demand if plants are not restarted, according to Kansai Electric Power Co.

Shortages drive up costs and force manufacturers to shift work schedules to lower-use periods, disrupting supply chains and adding to reasons to go abroad. 


One other factor to consider here is that the fossil fuel plants -- natural gas (NG) and coal -- are currently running flat out to make up the shortfall. Many of these plants, especially the NG plants, were not designed for sustained max-load power generation. Their design parameters were for them to be peak load plants, operating flat out for brief bursts, not sustained periods. It remains to be seen if these plants can cover operate at capacity for very long.

In 2011, these assessments of the impact of shutting down Japan’s nuclear power were made:

The following are some estimates of an economic impact if all of Japan's reactors went offline.


Power generation costs would rise by over 3 trillion yen ($38 billion) per year if Japan replaced nuclear energy with thermal power generation.  Higher electricity costs would lift production costs by 7.6 trillion yen per year. The ministry did not provide estimates of how such an increase in costs would affect economic output.


Shutting down nuclear power permanently would reduce economic output by 2.5 percent per year -- equivalent of over 14 trillion yen -- over the next decade.

"Higher electricity costs would increase costs for corporations and individuals and weigh on both capital spending and consumption," said Daiwa's Mikio Mizobata, senior researcher.


- Fossil fuel imports would increase by about 3.3 trillion yen in the first year after all the nuclear power reactors are shut down, which would shave 0.4-0.5 percent of Japan's gross domestic product.


Because imports subtract from GDP (while exports add), any additional spending on fossil fuels to replace the shut-in nuclear power will subtract from Japan’s GDP. Remember, Japan has virtually no domestic fossil fuel production, so they have to import 100%.

And Import They Have…

Japan’s trade deficit

Trade Deficit in Japan Hits Record

Feb 19, 2012

Japan posted a record trade deficit in January as the yen’s strength and weaker global demand eroded profits at manufacturers and slowed the nation’s recovery from the earthquake and tsunami last year.

The trade gap widened to 1.48 trillion yen ($19 billion) and shipments dropped 9.3 percent compared with a year earlier, as energy imports surged, the Ministry of Finance reported on Monday in Tokyo.

Shipments to China, Japan’s largest market, fell 20 percent from a year earlier, the biggest decline since August 2009. Exports to Europe slid 7.7 percent and shipments to the United States advanced 0.6 percent.

The earthquake and tsunami led to the idling of nuclear plants and a surge in energy imports. Japan’s liquefied natural gas imports rose 12.2 percent to a record in 2011 as power utilities increased thermal power generation.

Energy needs accounted for most of the gain in imports in January.



It is a very big deal that Japan is slipping into negative trade territory for the first time in three decades. Last spring I was writing about how the global flow of funds -- the massive tide of liquidity sloshing back and forth -- involved Japan to a large degree. Japan was the hub of a massive carry trade, was buying huge amounts of US Treasurys and, in general, was a vast emitter of liquidity flows to the world.

With its reconstruction costs and now with its trade deficit, Japan becomes a net consumer of funds. In other words, the flow of funds reverses. This represents, at the very least, a change to the global liquidity tide charts.

In Part II: Implications of a Collapsing Japan, we lay out the case for how close to the brink of economic crisis Japan truly is, and why the country is likely to stumble faster and further in 2012 than the shaky situation in Europe that is currently grabbing the world's attention.

Make no mistake. A material retrenchment of the Japanese economy will have profound impact across the globe. One notable example: If Japan has to stop buying US Treasuries to direct capital to its domestic needs or -- even worse -- begins selling Treasuries for the same reason, the Federal Reserve will have to put its printing presses into overdrive to make up the gap. 

Got gold?

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

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dasein211's picture

Japan just had a tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe. Anyone who thought it wouldn't matter is delusional.

Spastica Rex's picture

Plenty of those folks around.

FEDbuster's picture

Life in the Matrix.

BTW didn't Kyle Bass say these same things all last year?

Ahmeexnal's picture

gold plummets back to the 1600s.

time to buy with "ambas dos manos".

BigJim's picture

 Japan is like the world’s largest petri dish...

What a terribly pejorative way to refer to the Japanese people. Like they're amoebae or something!

I've always thought of them being more like voles, myself.

Floordawg's picture

Not that I necessarily disagree with that notion, but your the fuzzy fuck that said "BUY SILVER" back in September at... $43.

"Chupa mis huevos gordos, puto."

Ahmeexnal's picture

and?  silver is for real men. if you can't handle the volatility, why don't you go back to "investing" with your monster high dolls?






Floordawg's picture

I'm all for the PM's, and all in tough guy.

Now why don't you head back to the mirror and check out how your Nancy Reagan power suit fits.

dubbleoj's picture

Yep, his speech at the EuroCatalyst event 2 months ago was phenomenal and he said Japan was next

BigInJapan's picture

Yes, and most of them are right here in Japan.

Future Tense's picture

It's funny that everyone is now focused on the sovereign debt of Europe, Japan, and the UK and have forgotten all about what happens to the American banks when the commercial real estate loans that have been pushed back until 2013 - 2015 begin to mature (and explode).  The following provides an excellent outlook on the commercial real estate market in the years ahead:

Caviar Emptor's picture

Agree. I was all over this here on ZH a few months back. There were several earthquake tremors already felt and 2012 will be the start of the unravel. You know who will be a troubled bank on short order. 

JohnKozac's picture


The brewing bubble in higher education – in 2000 student debt made up 3 percent of all household debt. Today it has doubled to 7.5 percent and has grown by 511 percent in the last decade.

There is high-quality evidence suggesting that higher education is deep in a bubble.  When I examine the weakness in the housing market I also think of the massive expansion of debt with student loans.  The biggest expansion in student debt occurred in a decade where household incomes stalled out.  Many of the recent graduates are struggling to find good paying work so it has become much tougher for these young professionals to purchase homes.

Until and unless "they" allow the free market to actually work, we will be in a quagmire..perhaps for 20+ years like Japan.

Conrad Murray's picture

WSJ Headline - "Student loan debt hits home for Bernanke. His son, who is in med school, to rack up $400K of student loan debt"

MachoMan's picture

ben prints an even $500k, uses 400k to pay off loan, and extra 100k is parked at tbtf bank never to see light of day due to lack of decent borrowers and too low rates.

Race Car Driver's picture


Daddy could print that in Franklin's on a short roll and put it in the kids lunchbox before school.

AnAnonymous's picture

Why not? US of A by its position is specific.

You know, US citizens can hammer it, a pyramid does not collapse by its top. It collapses through its bottom.

Looking at the top makes easy to sell stories but you cant escape reality, Japan, Europe and the UK are under the US in the pyramidal structure of the US world order so...

EscapeKey's picture

Are you kidding me? The banks will be bailed out once again, and the bill put on the taxpayer.

There is precisely 0% chance that the banks will ever be required to shoulder the burden of their bad investments.

AnAnonymous's picture

Yes, the tax payer.

Funny that even with shock articles made on US citizen government raising more revenues from debt than tax collection, the tax payer mantra is so popular among that tribe of US citizens that wish to perceive themselves as people who abide by reality.

No, the burden is endured by anyone who allow immediate consumption, in a top to bottom pattern.

The banks do not bail out anyone
The tax payer bail out no body

Countries that keep 'accepting' fiat money in exchange of their commodities are bailing the world out.

BigJim's picture

 Countries that keep 'accepting' fiat money in exchange of their commodities are bailing the world out.

Correct. But more to the point, their US-sanctioned/appointed/maintained rulers are the ones accepting US fiat.

If the people of Saudi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq etc themselves had their way, I doubt the USD ponzi would last til nightfall.

Vlad Tepid's picture

Finally something substantive and contributory!  Keep it up.

fuu's picture

"Japan just had a tsunami and a nuclear catastrophe."

360 days ago...

dasein211's picture

If the radiation half life is in the millions of years and if you were there to experience it AND if the economic effects take a few months to push through... It just happened.

fuu's picture

I was simply commenting that it was nearly a year ago.

Silver Bug's picture

Japan has been a ticking time bomb for a long time now. It is quite amazing how long they have been able to extend and pretend. Their day is coming soon though.

Caviar Emptor's picture

True dat. Japan has simply been riding strategic partner coat-tails. Before the tsunami ever happened there was the decline in auto market share. And before that the decline in consumer electronics dominance and steep decline in market share. Even chemicals and heavy industry. Needless to say that all roughly coincided with the bursting real estate bubble and deflationary "balance sheet recession" (hate that term, but I do think it applies as one issue but does not see the real big picture)

MachoMan's picture

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that they really do make great stuff...  tvs and autos are ace...  but I don't think ben is interested in allowing a fire sale exchange rate.

pavman's picture

I recently read that you can borrow from Japan @ 0.1% interest rates thanks to the carry trade.  Thinking I should buy a house w/ a 30 year Yen mortgage.... it'll be all that much simpler to pay back when the bottom drops out of the Yen currency and they have to start talking quadrillions of Yen debt.  Contrast that with the 53.5% Greek bond rate... hmm.

Is it me, or does it seem like Japan is the pressure valve for Euro/US currency idiocy?  Almost like they've taken perception marketing to the next level.

MachoMan's picture

all countries are pressure valves...  everyone has to reach the same pressure at all times or else risk blowing up...  hence why uncle sugar has all the cards and orchestrates the whole mess.

AnAnonymous's picture

Wake me up when the bomb explodes.

Because the bad, bad situation is that Japan can put its nuclear plants off line, and make up for the loss by importing other types of energy...

Very bad, bad situation.

trav7777's picture

and oil goes up in price...gee, WHODA THUNK THIS SHIT?

Japan has NO CHOICE but to restart all of the reactors.

At some point, SOMEONE is going to have to have the fucking adult conversation about what to do with spent fuel.

Instead however, we get counterfeit ideas that end up crowding out truth, such as "you can have power without power plants."

AnAnonymous's picture

Made me laugh.

No choice? When?

From basic observations, the Japanese have proven they could shut up their nuclear plants and go for oil, in spite of their so called bad situation.

And indeed, in an environment of high oil prices, which states even more how bad their so called bad situation is.

Japanese had the choice not to let their nuclear plants go off line.

This is right now. Not in the future.

Kicking the can is so US citizen.

Ahmeexnal's picture

Don't look now, but Japan has been buying iRanian oil....and paying with....G-LD.


sullymandias's picture

What to do with all the spent fuel? That's easy. Up the space elevator, give it a little nudge, and it'll fall into the sun in a few decade's time.

No space elevator yet, but that's going to be a real boost to world GDP when they start building it!

BiggerInJapan's picture

Japan CANNOT HAVE ANOTHER meltdown. all rest is bollocks since fukushima was already too much.

Vlad Tepid's picture

Wake me up what Japan discovers it's sitting on the motherlode of geothermal and tidal energy...

JennaChick's picture

Have made a ton of money going long USDJPY when Armada Markets wrote a couple of weeks ago that this is it. Japan is going down big time!

BigJim's picture

Wall Street is littered with now-homeless bond traders who decided 'this was it!' and it was time to short JGB.

Don Birnam's picture


"Where Lesbians Find Love"

Are these all Limbaugh's former sponsors who have now signed with ZH ?


VulpisVulpis's picture

You'll find that the ads are catered to relevant browsing history on your computer via cookies, so, the question is


Pinkwinking lately?

Conrad Murray's picture

I love these comments. Never gets old seeing slimy perverts outed by questioning the ad serving.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to investigate this opportunity involving a Chinese midget and a donkey.

GeneMarchbanks's picture


Donny Boy! Tell me, are you one of the 99% of men?

Citxmech's picture

The side-bar ads are not all the result of cookies - I'm always getting "free credit score" ads and "Russian" and "Thai" women "looking for love" ads, and I assure you I have never performed any searches that should result in any of these.

BigInJapan's picture

I get Bentley ads...


I drive a 650cc Mitsubishi minivan...

Ahmeexnal's picture

You base your premise on the (utrue) fact that you are the only one using your computer (and/or WIFI link).

Temporalist's picture

Citx depending on your surfing habits you are being served as a demographic, a male, middle age, credit card owner, mortgage/home owner, small business owner/self employed, car owner, single.  I'm sure that demo is prominent on ZH as well so combining the two leads to those ads.


That is me guessing but no need to reply I'm just saying that you will be served on any information they believe they have.

Cliff Claven Cheers's picture
I had to google it.



Anal Bleaching

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azusgm's picture

May have been reading Ann Barnhardt's latest.