Monday, May 30, 2011

In Japan, the same old problems

TOKYO — Mega-disasters like Japan’s earthquake-tsunami are deadly and dramatic, but economists who study them are in near-total agreement: They don't cause much long-term economic damage, particularly in developed countries.

But in Japan, that rosy outlook comes with a caveat. A full recovery would leave Japan merely with the same gloomy economy it had in the first place, well before the northern coastline was flattened on March 11.

Macroeconomists who have studied big disasters around the world over the past decade have found that major economies are generally strong enough to perform a repair job. And in this case, the disaster spread across hundreds of miles, but it didn’t strike an economic center; the battered Tohoku region accounted for just 2.5 percent of Japan’s economic output.

But the world’s third-largest economy must now perform two repair jobs at once, reconstructing a coastline while also grappling with a shriveling population, a growing social-welfare burden and a massive sovereign debt. This latest disaster elongated the list of problems for an economy that already had too many.

“The economy’s long-term trend, fundamentally, doesn’t change,” said Kazumasa Oguro, a macroeconomist at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

But then Oguro added, “the basic trend before this was deterioration.”

Researchers who study disasters describe a two-step economic impact, with a short-term blow that is followed by a quick, neutralizing wave of private investment, new jobs and government spending.

That’s the pattern Japan saw when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in January 1995. The industrial port city lost 6,400 people. Some 100,000 buildings collapsed. The country’s economy grew 1.9 percent that year, and in less than 1 1 / 2 years, Kobe’s industrial production had nearly returned to normal.

In the two months since the March double-disaster and nuclear emergency, Japan has endured only the first economic aftereffect, crystallized last week when the government announced that, between January and March, its economy contracted at a 3.7 percent annualized rate. That second consecutive quarter of shrinkage tipped Japan into a recession.

The news doubled as a shorthand for all that had happened since the earthquake. Some 200,000 jobs were lost as a result of evacuation and building destruction, according to one research firm. Toyota suspended all domestic production until April 17 and is now operating at just 50 percent of usual levels. Concerned about Japan’s disaster-vulnerable supply chain, some companies, such as Nippon Steel, drew up plans to expand operations overseas.

The country also faces long-term energy shortages resulting from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant and other shuttered nuclear plants. Forced blackouts appear unlikely, but businesses are being asked to conserve energy. To avoid peak electricity times, some automakers plan this summer to close their factories on Thursdays and Fridays — and keep them open on Saturdays and Sundays.

As reconstruction money flows into the disaster region, though, economists expect Japan to experience a period of growth, beginning in the third quarter. Japan’s economy minister, Kaoru Yosano, called the recession a “temporary phenomenon” and predicted that the economy will still expand 1 percent this year.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Japan to build 100,000 homes for tsunami survivors

Japan's government proposed a special $50 billion (4 trillion yen) budget to help finance reconstruction efforts and plans to build 100,000 temporary homes for survivors of last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The twin disasters destroyed roads, ports, farms and homes and crippled a nuclear power plant that forced tens of thousands of more people to evacuate their houses for at least several months. The government said the damage could cost $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he was moved by his conversations with victims during a recent tour of shelters.

"I felt with renewed determination that we must do our best to get them back as soon as possible," he told reporters.

The government approved an extra $50 billion (4 trillion yen) to help finance the rebuilding, in what is expected to be only the first installment of reconstruction funding. About $15 billion (1.2 trillion yen) will go to fixing roads and ports and more than $8.5 billion (700 billion yen) will go to build temporary homes and clearing rubble.

"This is the first step toward rebuilding Japan after the major disasters," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said.

More than 27,000 people are dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11. About 135,000 survivors are living in 2,500 shelters set up in schools and community centers. Many others have moved into temporary housing or are staying with relatives.

As part of the government's recovery plan, it will build 30,000 temporary homes by the end of May and another 70,000 after that, Kan said.