Japan’s economy shrank for the first time in two years during the first quarter, contracting more than expected on a surprise fall in business spending and flat private consumption. Yet economists expect a rebound in the current quarter as the global economy regains traction.
Highlights of GDP report
Gross domestic product contracted at an annualized rate of 0.6 percent in the three months ended March 31 (estimate -0.1 percent). Growth in the last three months of 2017 was revised down to 0.6 percent from 1.6 percent. Private consumption was unchanged in the first quarter from the previous three months (estimate unchanged). The contribution of net exports, or shipments less imports, to GDP growth was 0.1 percentage point. Business spending declined 0.1 percent (estimate +0.4 percent) from the previous quarter.
Japan’s economy had expanded at well above its potential growth rate for a year, as strong export growth fueled production and investment, helping to raise wages and inflationary pressures. The first-quarter slowdown likely sapped progress on inflation — Goldman Sachs predicted core inflation fell in April to 0.7 percent. Yet most economists see GDP rebounding in the current quarter, fueled partly by better exports and production.
The decline was partly due to temporary factors such as higher vegetable prices and a drop-off in sales of smartphones, according to a statement released by Toshimitsu Motegi, the economy minister. The government expects the recovery to continue, centered around private consumption and investment, Motegi said.
“This will not be a turning point, but is temporary,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute. “Overall domestic demand was weak with sluggish consumption and capital investment. But people are earning more.” Growth will pick up from this quarter, but it will be slower than in last fiscal year, Minami said. “Weak consumer spending, capital spending and exports contributed to the negative GDP growth. These components should show some pickup in the second quarter as the global recovery continues,” said Masaki Kuwahara, senior economist at Nomura Securities Co.
“Consumer spending was dragged down by bad weather. Exports slowed because of weaker global demand for cell phones after good growth at the end of last year. The decline in capital spending was a surprise and that’s probably because companies were cautious as exports weakened,” Kuwahara said. “What I’m concerned about is overseas demand,” said Hiroaki Muto, chief economist, Tokai Tokyo Research Center.
“Exports are slowing down, which is in line with the consensus, but they slowed to 0.6 percent. If this trade-friction-like condition becomes the norm, I think this will move from an economic soft patch to a recession.” What Our Economist Says… Weak business spending, residential investment and stagnant private consumption were mainly to blame for the contraction, and a downward revision in private consumption and business spending in 4Q adds to the bad news for the Bank of Japan. However, the economy still looks fairly healthy after two years of expansion, and the outlook is for a rebound in 2Q, supported by stronger production and exports, as well as faster wage gains.– Yuki Masujima, Bloomberg Economics