UBS On Japan - Are You 'Abe'liever?

Authored by Duncan Wooldridge via UBS,

We totally get why many are excited by the recent cyclical improvement in the Japanese economy. However, just because industrial production is turning up on the back of exports and 1Q GDP grew more than expected doesn’t mean Abeconomics is working. Our colleague, Paul Donovan, correctly pointed out these improvements occurred before the Bank of Japan aggressively started to ramp up base money and there’s been no structural reform to date. Hence, most of the improvement in Japan is probably best described as a standard cyclical improvement in the aftermath of very depressed growth that was also heavily influenced by last year’s downturn in global trade. Recent positive momentum in the economy will likely be sustained for a few more quarters and then of course later this year and early next year consumption should accelerate ahead of a consumption tax hike scheduled for April 2014. So for Abe-believers there will be fuel to support their optimism. However, once you move beyond that and think about what comes afterwards things look more challenging.

Can Japan sustainably lift aggregate demand above supply? If that cannot be done then it’s hard to see deflation resolved in a fundamentally positive way. Aggregate demand is heavily influenced by demographics and exports. We published chart 1 recently and it shows that historically the growth rate in Japan’s labour force is an excellent indicator for inflation. That’s because the growth in the labour force affects the level and growth of aggregate wages since total wages equal the number of workers multiplied by wages per worker. That has an affect on consumption and aggregate demand. We did some back of the envelope calculations that suggest even with wages per worker growing by 1% the aggregate wage level might not rise.


Meanwhile the consensus is busy writing report after report on what Japan means for Asia. In our view, the more interesting question is what does Asia mean for Japan? Exports will play a vital role in Japan’s efforts to raise aggregate demand above supply. So here’s the problem. We’ve argued consistently that Asia is 5 years into building a credit bubble in an effort to substitute credit-led domestic demand to offset trend weakness in external demand.

Our central thesis back in 2009 was that Asia’s willingness to increase leverage would be helpful to growth, asset prices and profits in the region, and by extension intra-Asian trade. But we also argued that with time and higher leverage Asia’s credit-led growth would suffer from diminishing marginal benefits of taking on more debt. That is arguably where much of the region is today and partly explains why Chinese growth is beginning to disappoint expectations.

It’s highly likely that Asian economic growth a few years from now will slow significantly as the region’s credit-led growth policies become progressively less effective and produce untoward headwinds for growth. After all, there is always a significant slowdown in growth waiting for you on the other side of any aggressive credit expansion. The problem for Japan is that over 50% of her exports go to Asia. Hence, improving exports are currently helping cyclically but a slowdown in exports – led by weakening Asian demand -- a year or so out is likely. A slowdown in exports to Asia along with a shrinking Japanese consumer base will make it more difficult for Japan to sustainably inflate aggregate demand relative to capacity or supply.

This is especially true since capacity is sticky and Japan arguably has too much capacity. A country’s capital stock, along with labour, allows it to provide goods and services to the population; i.e., to meet aggregate demand. Japan has the highest per capita capital stock in the world despite having a shrinking population that is expected to accelerate over the next few decades. The only country in our sample that presently looks similar to Japan is Germany.

However, that’s not an apple to apple comparison. First, it’s true that Germany’s capital stock is high, far higher than the US, and its population is shrinking. But in Germany’s case its internal demographics are far less important because it is part of the European Union and importantly labour can move freely between Germany and other EU members. Hence, even though Germany’s population is shrinking its labour force continues to grow unlike Japan, and as we mentioned earlier that affects aggregate demand. Secondly, Germany shares the same currency with its major trade partners, which gives it a competitive advantage in many respects.

So we sum it all up like this. There are definitely signs that Japan’s economy are improving cyclically. However, structurally demographics remain a major headwind to raising aggregate demand. We feel many investors have not yet considered what slower growth for Asia will mean for Japan in the medium term. This will make it more difficult to raise aggregate demand above supply since capacity is sticky and Japan already has excess capacity.