Japanese Q3 2010 GDP growth hit out of the ballpark but set to fall flat next quarter

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This post is a guest contribution by Rebecca Wilder, author of the News N Economics blog.

The Japanese economy grew 3.9% at a seasonally-adjusted annualized rate in Q3 2010 and over 2X the pace in Q2 2010 (data here). According to Bloomberg, the headwinds to Q4 growth are household consumption and the yen:

Consumption, accounting for about 60 percent of GDP, led the gain as households stepped up purchases of fuel-efficient cars ahead of the expiration of a subsidy program and as smokers stocked up before an Oct. 1 tobacco-tax rise. The yen’s climb to a 15-year high will probably dampen growth this quarter as companies from Sharp Corp. to Nikon Corp. cut profit forecasts.

To be sure, the surge in real GDP growth is unlikely to be sustainable, but it’s not because of the yen’s strength, per se. True, consumption growth is more likely to print on the lefthand, rather than the righthand, side of the 0-Axis. However, the yen on a trade-weighted basis and in real terms hovers at its historical average, hence the currency poses less of a risk to growth.

The chart illustrates the contributions to non-annualized quarterly growth (not annualized, GDP grew near 1% in Q3) from each of the GDP components: private consumption (C), investment (I), inventory build (Inv), government consumption (G), and net exports (NX).

The Q3 pace of growth is almost certainly not sustainable and has a decent chance of turning negative in Q4 2010 for the following reasons (see charts below text for illustration):

* The biggest contribution to Q3 growth came from consumer spending, +0.66%. Investment contributed positively, 0.11%, but has been trending downward. Key data points are inauspicious for consumer spending: the unemployment rate is hovering stickily around 5% and October auto sales saw a 27% annual decline, as green auto subsidies expired.

* Although the JPY/USD has appreciated 14% since the middle of 2010, the real effective exchange rate, the economic driver of a country’s trade balance, has been stable over the same period (see final chart below) and in line with its longer-term average. So, while I don’t expect net exports to turn negative per se, any additional impetus to growth is unlikely to come from trade.

* Therefore, the key to growth is final domestic demand, and more specifically consumer spending. That’s a stretch.

Source: Rebecca Wilder, News N Economics, November 15, 2010.

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