The Trade Numerologist: The Japan solution

07 Nov 2017 John Miller

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's landslide win in Japan's October 22 elections is considered an endorsement of economic policies designed to maintain Japan's eminent position in global trade, and a sign the country will cement its rapprochement with the US, especially by importing more natural gas.

While China and the US grab most of the headlines, Japan is still the export powerhouse that often flies under the radar. Over the first six months of 2017, Japanese exports increased 8.6% to $336.6 billion, securing Japan's position as the world's fourth biggest exporter, according to data from IHS Markit's Global Trade Atlas.

Top ten exporters, first 6 months of 2017 (and pct. change)

China$1.1 trillion (+5.27%)South Korea$261.6 billion (+15.7%)
US$757.5 billion (+6.7%)France$256.6 billion (+1%)
Germany$693 billion (+2.9%)Italy$242.1 billion (+4.8%)
Japan$307.8 billion (+8.6%)UK$217.5 billion (+4.4%)
Netherlands$279.1 billion (+10.3%)Canada$215.2 billion (+10.8%)

After winning, Mr. Abe indicated he would continue the so-called Abenomics lower interest rates, government spending and structural reforms, which analysts credit for the country's strong economic and trade performance, and higher stock prices. Mr. Abe has already said he'd like to pass legislation that would reduce extra overtime pay and promote equal compensation for part-time workers.

For most of this decade, Japan seemed to have lost its export luster. After peaking in 2011 at $823.5 billion, Japanese exports declined four years in a row, landing at $624.9 billion in 2015. They then recovered in 2016, rising to $645 billion. In 2017, they're on pace to increase further, to $672 billion. Shipping and logistics firms should note that Japan's strength is still its technological manufacturing capabilities. It is the world's second biggest car exporter, after Germany, thanks to companies like Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

Japanese exports, 2016

Cars, trucks and parts$141.9 billion
Nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery and parts$124 billion
Optical, medical, photo equipment$98.3 billion
Iron and steel$38.2 billion
Plastics$35.9 billion
Organic Chemicals$24.5 billion
Ship and boats$23.4 billion
Oil, fuel, mineral wax$15.9 billion
Rubber$12.7 billion
Articles of iron or steel$9.3 billion

One key impact of the Abe reelection could be to push Japan further in its relationship with the US, and away from China. Mr. Abe has focused his foreign policy on reasserting Japan as a legitimate geopolitical player. One priority is to amend Japan's constitution to allow it to expand its military capability. If that happens, expect China to react with suspicion and possible trade barriers. Data indicates that Japanese companies are already moving more toward US markets. Japanese exports to the US have risen to $130.1 billion in 2016, from $126.1 billion in 2011, while exports to China have fallen to $113.9 billion from $162 billion over the same time period.

Mr. Abe has also embraced a relationship with Donald Trump. That's partly in the hopes that the US will prove an ally in tensions with North Korea, which this year has fired long-range missiles over Japan. But it's also with the expectation that Japan can soothe US concerns over its trade surplus. Japan's trade surplus with the US has increased to $62.6 billion in 2016 from $51.6 billion in 2011. Analysts expect exports to continue rising this year, especially after hurricanes devastated the US South, destroying billions of dollars of property, including tens of thousands of cars that need to be fixed or replaced.

The great US hope for restoring balance in its trading relationship with Japan is in natural gas. Since the 2011 Tsunami that decimated its nuclear power industry, Japan has had to import almost all its energy. But not from the US, which last year ranked only 10th among Japan's oil and gas suppliers.

Japanese oil and gas imports, 2016

Australia$18.9 billionMalaysia$6.1 billion
Saudi Arabia$18.9 billionIndonesia$5.8 billion
United Arab Emirates$16.7 billionKuwait$4.2 billion
Qatar$10.8 billionIran$3.3 billion
Russia$7.9 billionUS$2.3 billion

This is a trend that should turn around: The US has been ramping up natural gas production thanks to the shale revolution, and is spending over $150 billion on developing new gas export terminals, especially in Texas and Louisiana along the Gulf Coast.

The Trump administration is pushing to lighten regulations and increase US gas exports. The US is expected to add half of the additional gas export capacity the world is adding before 2020, propelling the US into the same league as countries like the UAE and Australia.

Japan is a key market. This year, it received the first ever shipment of natural gas from US excluding Alaska. Mr. Abe's government recently announced plans to spend $10 billion on infrastructure that will include terminals for shipping and storing gas for the Asian market, partly so Japan can help set prices, a concern for an energy importer.

US deputy energy secretary Dan Brouillette called the plan "fantastic."

The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit's unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit's Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.


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