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The sight of half-laden container ships plying the seas is another clue that this is no ordinary recession. Japanese exports almost halved in January. A geographic breakdown of Wednesday’s 46 per cent year-on-year drop in exports shows the buyers’ strike is global. Japanese exports to the US fell 53 per cent and to the European Union and Asia by 47 per cent. This follows an 18 per cent drop in China, 33 per cent in South Korea and 44 per cent in Taiwan.
Statistics are skewed by the Chinese lunar new year holidays. But lead indicators suggest there is worse to come. Throughput at China’s once bustling ports is thinning. After growing at an annual 20-30 per cent from 2004, volumes have now returned to 2006 levels. Chinese import processing, which leads exports by a month or two, plunged 50 per cent, year on year, in January, according to Citigroup.
Japanese export data now paint the same picture. Some of the biggest casualties in Wednesday’s figures were components: semiconductor exports, for example, were down 53 per cent, and car parts down 52 per cent. That will feed in to exports of finished goods bought directly by consumers.
Companies, including chip manufacturers and automakers, are responding by cutting production; but given their substantial inventories, there will be a lag before that helps earnings. For export-dependent sovereigns, the problem is more intractable. Rebalancing towards domestic demand, the obvious medicine, is tricky when joblessness is mounting and incomes shrinking. Fiscal stimuli have an unconvincing record, not least in Japan where jam today is often interpreted as higher taxes tomorrow – prompting recipients to save. In any case, many Asian politicians are simply not up to the job, either lacking the confidence of their electorate (Japan, Korea) or facing elections (India). The last time financial crisis collided with political dissatisfaction was more than a decade ago. Then, economic pain morphed into mass protests. The odds of social unrest staging a reappearance no longer look so remote.
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