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In Japan, there's hand-wringing aplenty over the dwindling current account surplus. That's probably not surprising for an economy that has long equated export strength with economic vitality. But the worrywarts are missing something. Look behind the decline in exports and surge in imports and you'll see the outlines of a fundamental restructuring of the country's economic profile that's quite positive.
The collapse in global trade growth, from a record 12.8% last year to 4.3% so far this year, has hit Japan hard. So has the 12% depreciation of the yen to the dollar over the past year. Export growth to critical markets in Asia, the U.S., and Europe are down 6% to 11% year on year. As a consequence, Japan's current account likely will be halved this year, to around $54 billion.
Nonetheless, the stream of imports into Japan's former fortress keep surging ahead, even in the face of an economy that isn't growing. And it is not just low-end fare like cheap Chinese clothing or rice from Thailand. As Japanese manufacturers strive to cut costs by exporting production to offshore facilities and outsource to increasingly competitive Asian suppliers, higher-value imports, such as lenses for digital cameras and displays for mobile telephones, are increasingly part of the mix.
Consumers are getting a cheaper variety of foreign goods to choose from. Corporate Japan also is lowering its production and sourcing costs. If Japan can truly develop into the import superpower it has always vowed to become, the structural changes on its balance of payments could be a win-win situation all around.
Yet many in Japan live in fear of the country becoming a net importer of goods, services, and capital. With budget deficits as far as the eye can see, they imagine Japan facing the scourge of twin deficits that the U.S. faced in the late 1980s. It's an unjustified fear. Although exports will decline relative to gross domestic product, Japan will still draw on returns from its past overseas investments and returns on its big holding of U.S. Treasuries and Euro-bonds. These billions will continue to flow in and buoy up the current account. What's more, the likely trend is for more outward investment by Japan Inc., and that will likely keep the overall current account in a surplus for years to come.
Ordinary Japanese certainly have plenty to fret about--job insecurity and the banking mess are two worries that come to mind. But the structural adjustments that are now being reflected in the current account surplus, should be welcomed, not feared.