Japan's Trade Deficits & Halting Nuclear Power

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/17/2013 11:02:00 AM
Deficit-running Japanese are about as unnatural as surplus-running Americans, but we now have to reconsider this conventional wisdom. (Things change, my dear.) Recent years have witnessed an unwelcome turnaround in Japan's trade balance as it has swung from surplus to deficit in a fairly big way. While recent easy money "Abenomics" have lifted the general economic outlook there, there is a good reason why most analysts are less sanguine about the prospects for fixing the trade balance.

A contributing factor to this degradation in the external balance has, of course, been Japan's rising import bill from energy imports in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident. With practically all of its nuclear powers shut, the nation's energy needs have been met largely by imports because Japan has few energy resources of its own. Not only do rising energy costs dent the spending power of Japanese consumers then as their electricity bills rise, but they also dent Japan's supposedly "mercantilist," export-oriented orientation:
So far, power companies have applied to restart about a dozen of Japan's 50 reactors. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to see the reactors back on line, as they are a vital part of his plan to turn the economy around. Since the Fukushima disaster, Japan has been forced to import huge amounts of coal, liquid natural gas and other fuels.

Mr Abe's government blames these imports for the huge trade deficits posted by Japan since 2011. The average household electricity bill has risen by 30% since Fukushima, denting the government's attempts to boost consumer spending.
One of the Abe government's campaign promises was to bring these nuclear power plants back online. (His Liberal Democratic Party has long been supported by the energy industry for better or worse.) However, even if all fifty existing reactors were to come back in operation as they likely will in a few years' time, the interesting thing is that it is estimated that Japan would still run an external deficit:
After the 1979-1980 oil shock, Japan bounced back smartly, exporting millions of its cheap, durable and fuel-efficient cars and iconic electronic gadgets such as Sony Corp's Walkman. Today, however, there is no turnaround in sight.

Even though increased fuel imports since the March 2011 Fukushima disaster have been a major drag on trade, restarting all of Japan's nuclear reactors would not bring it back into the black, estimates suggest.

The only one of Japan's 50 reactors in operation was shut for planned maintenance on Sunday, with no firm date for bringing back an energy source that had covered about a third of the country's electricity needs.
The "real" culprit may be Japan offshoring production to nearby countries over the years to cope with rising production costs at home due to yen strength. This trend has only accelerated in recent times, causing a diminution of recorded Japanese export output:
That is because of the "hollowing out" of Japanese manufacturing as firms shift production and procurement overseas. Years of yen strength contributed to that shift, but the currency's retreat failed to reverse the trend as the desire to move closer to faster growing markets, tariffs, lower taxes and labor costs all played a role.

A Cabinet Office survey of manufacturers showed the share of overseas production of Japanese companies rose to 17.7 percent last year from just over 13 percent a decade ago and is seen reaching 21.3 percent in five years.
Japan temporarily shutting down its nuclear reactors that account for a third of its energy needs will likely be remembered as a short-lived, awkward moment in its postwar history. However, its shift to running trade deficits is probably becoming more structurally ingrained. As Don Henley once sang--here with admittedly unlikely regard to huge Japanese trade surpluses--those days are gone forever; it should just let them go.