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Japan's economy shrinks for first time since 2015

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Japan’s economy contracted by an annualised 0.6 per cent during the first quarter of 2018, ending the country’s longest run of growth since 1989 and dealing a fresh blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The slowdown, which was the first contraction in the economy since 2015, was worse than analyst expectations of a 0.2 per cent decline in gross domestic product. It marks the end of an eight-quarter run of uninterrupted growth and suggests the global economic environment is becoming less favourable for Japan.

But analysts do not think the fall is the start of a recession. Japan’s labour market remains extremely tight, with an unemployment rate of just 2.5 per cent, and other economic indicators point to a steady expansion.

“It does certainly seem that export momentum has peaked out,” said Izumi Devalier, head of Japan economics at Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. “We’re not expecting export contraction but you’re not really going to get as much push from export demand as you did in 2017.”

Details of the report showed a mediocre quarter but offered further evidence that a recession is not in prospect. Private consumption and investment were flat. Net exports contributed a modest 0.3 percentage points to growth, offset by a subtraction of 0.3 percentage points from residential investment.

“Residential investment continues to correct after the crackdown on apartment loans,” said Ms Devalier. The Financial Services Agency has forced banks to tighten standards on loans to private individuals for apartment construction after becoming concerned about the pace of credit growth.

The main cause of the unexpectedly weak GDP reading was a subtraction of 0.6 percentage points caused by companies running down inventories, after an inventory build-up in previous quarters.

Since inventories cannot grow or shrink forever, many analysts disregard them when looking at the underlying trend in the economy. A reading on final sales of domestic product, a measure of underlying demand at home, was flat in the first quarter compared with annualised growth of 0.1 per cent in the last quarter of 2017.

Although the figures do not suggest a recession, they do indicate Japan’s economy is coming off the boil, showing a fresh failure to shift from export demand to domestic consumption. Annualised, third-quarter growth in 2017 was revised down from 2.4 per cent to 2 per cent and fourth-quarter growth from 1.6 per cent to 0.6 per cent.

Naohiko Baba, chief economist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo, said the report was a “negative surprise”. He forecast a return to expansion but said: “We also see downside risk to our outlook in view of the large downward revisions made to historical data, and the steady decline in the pace of GDP growth.”

Ms Devalier said the weakness of consumption was tough to interpret. “If you just look at the fundamentals for consumption they’re really strong,” she said, with solid growth in worker incomes. Earlier in the year the weakness was blamed on bad weather but that explanation is becoming less plausible.

During five years of economic stimulus under Mr Abe, Japan has enjoyed steady growth, but struggled to break free of the deflationary mindset that set in as prices stagnated for two decades. Weaker economic growth will be of particular concern to Mr Abe as he wrestles with a series of scandals that threaten his government.

The initial report of Japan’s GDP is notoriously unreliable because it is based on limited source data. Large revisions are common with the second reading, which is due on June 8.

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Economy faces mounting risks

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KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad marked his 100 days in office yesterday with risks mounting against the economy.

Gross domestic product in the second quarter grew at 4.5 per cent, its slowest pace in over a year, the current-account surplus narrowed sharply and the currency is facing pressure as an emerging-market rout worsens.

After a shock election win in May, Tun Dr Mahathir has moved quickly to deliver on promises to fight corruption, review large projects and cut consumption taxes.

In a speech broadcast nationwide yesterday, Dr Mahathir said his government had realised over a third of its 60 election promises “to unshackle Malaysia from the issue of corruption and ensure good governance”. These measures included policies on declaring assets, bolstering anti-corruption institutions and protecting media freedom.

The political transition had an impact on the economy last quarter, with public sector investment contracting 9.8 per cent from last year.

Noting in his speech that the national debt was RM1 trillion (S$334 billion), Dr Mahathir listed infrastructure projects that have been put on hold, including the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High-Speed Rail, the third phase of the Mass Rapid Transit and the China-backed East Coast Rail Link.

Domestic demand remained strong and was buoyed by the scrapping of a 6 per cent goods and services tax in June, another election pledge.

Private consumption climbed 8 per cent last quarter from a year ago, while investment surged 6.1 per cent.

“The bigger picture we see going forward, private consumption will be modest as many Malaysians probably front-loaded their purchases ahead of the sales tax coming in September, so it’s hard to see how that’s sustained,” said Mr Brian Tan, an economist at Nomura Holdings in Singapore.

Central bank governor Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus said the economy will probably expand about 5 per cent this year, lower than the previous government’s projection of 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent.

BLOOMBERG, BERNAMA

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It looks like Trump is creating the kind of economy he promised

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Is President Trump fulfilling candidate Trump’s promises?

You can make a case that he is, based on some surprising and widely unexpected economic developments. Vice President Mike Pence, writing in The Des Moines Register, put it succinctly: “The evidence is clear: America is back.” He adds, “It’s no accident.”

Pence and other Trump enthusiasts can point to increasing macroeconomic growth. Growth rose 4.1 percent in the second quarter and is up more than 3 percent for the year. Unemployment was down to 3.9 percent in July. The S&P 500 stock index is up 6 percent since the Trump presidency, while the rest of the world’s stock markets are down 6 percent. These are numbers any recent administration would boast about.

More notable are positive trends among subgroups that weren’t doing so well before Trump took office. Former Obama administration chief economic adviser Jason Furman, writing for Vox, notes that in the past three years “recent wage growth . . . at the low end of the wage scale” is stronger than growth among the higher-paid.

Similarly, Bloomberg columnist and portfolio manager Conor Sen makes the point that job growth has been greatest among “goods-producing workers and the least-educated workers.”

Both Furman and Sen contrast current trends with those in the 1998-2001 period of torrid economic growth, when income gains were concentrated at the top of the economic spectrum and employment gains were concentrated in office jobs and “meds and eds” — the government-financed or heavily regulated health care and education sectors.

So maybe growing income inequality isn’t inevitable after all. And maybe the economic prospects of groups clustered at the low end of the economic scale are not as dire as has long been assumed.

The unemployment rate among young millennials — those over 25 — is only 5.1 percent, according to Sen, the lowest since the government began measuring this in 1994. So much for mom’s basement sofa. Black unemployment was down to 5.9 percent in May, and Hispanic unemployment was down to 4.6 percent in June, both the lowest number since the early 1970s, when government began tracking them.

Moreover, the labor force is expanding, with 600,000 entrants in June, notes American University economist Evan Kraft, writing in The Hill. Simultaneously, the disability rolls are decreasing. All of which suggests that incentives to work are returning to Appalachia and other previously forlorn areas where so many idle people have been driven to opioid dependency.

Blue-collar employers have been searching hard to fill job vacancies, ditching educational requirements and following the advice of liberal and conservative politicians to take a chance on former felons who have served their time, as the Manhattan Institute’s Aaron Renn reports.

Historically, Democratic candidates have promised to create economic opportunities for those starting off with disadvantages, especially racial minorities and those from non-college households. But recent Democratic presidents, like recent Republican presidents, have seen economic growth concentrated among the affluent, highly educated and well-positioned.

Candidate Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” however unspecific, was taken, and intended to be taken, as a promise to deliver different better results for the downscale. He constantly talked about reopening factories, strengthening manufacturing and encouraging blue-collar job growth.

As an electoral strategy, this seemed to ignore courting minorities and rely on an inevitably shrinking segment of the electorate. But the segment hadn’t shrunk enough (and its size was consistently underestimated, as The New York Times’ Nate Cohn demonstrated) to prevent Trump from winning 100 Obama electoral votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Maine.

Now it looks like Trump is creating the kind of economy he promised, with growth targeted at the downscale (including blacks and Hispanics) rather than the upscale, with lower economic inequality and with growth spreading to regions that have seen little of it for decades. Do you remember any mainstream media or liberal economist who envisioned such results?

Of course you can add caveats. You can say these numbers are just statistical noise, not harbingers or long-term trends. You can argue, as Furman does, that some of these trends started in the late Obama years. You can make the broader point that presidents’ policies have only limited economic effects, and that trends like the apparent revival of manufacturing may owe more to exogenous factors rather than to Trump’s policies.

So maybe this is not a case of promises kept but just dumb luck. Of course you can say the same thing — just dumb luck — about the 100 electoral votes Trump targeted and won. But after a while, you might wonder.

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Booming Economy May Be Little Felt as Voters Decide

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Booming Economy May Be Little Felt as Voters Decide

Republicans say the economy will help them in November. Democrats say it won’t. New data says the full story is more complicated.

Republicans are telling you that tax cuts and roaring economic growth are going to stop any “blue wave” in the midterm elections. Democrats say the lack of wage growth, even as corporate profits surge, will impel voters to change leadership in Congress.

It’s not that simple.

A new survey of nearly 10,000 American adults shows that the strong economy is rallying Republicans and maybe swaying some independents. But many voters still aren’t feeling the benefits of robust growth, and the tax overhaul passed last year looks as likely to hurt Republicans at the polls as help them.

The data, from a survey conducted in early August for The New York Times by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey, paints a more complex picture than strategists and pundits of either political stripe usually portray. And it helps explain why, out on the campaign trail, candidates have tended to tread lightly when it comes to talking about the economy.

Here’s a deeper dive into the latest numbers:

Americans are feeling good about the economy

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SurveyMonkey’s findings, based on five questions about Americans’ financial situation and economic outlook, show consumer confidence well above the level that would indicate a neutral view of the economy. Asked how their finances have changed over the last year, Americans are twice as likely to say they are better off than worse off, and they are even more optimistic about the future.

But even with further declines in the unemployment rate and accelerating economic growth, Americans’ confidence hasn’t risen since the start of the year. And their outlook for the next 12 months has actually slipped a bit in recent months. Other surveys, showing a similar pattern, have found that anxiety about a trade war has made some Americans less upbeat about the future, even as they feel good about their immediate situation. New data from the University of Michigan on Friday found that consumer sentiment slipped in early August, with lower-income households in particular expressing concern about inflation.

Views on the economy are highly partisan



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If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were held today, would you vote for the . . .?

Democrat

Republican

 

 

 

Total

36%

8

9

9

10

29

Definitely

 

Probably

 

Lean

 

Among those who say their finances compared to a year ago are…

Better off

11%

3

5

11

15

55

Same

11

15

46

11

9

8

Worse off

62

10

14

4

4

6

If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives

were held today, would you vote for the . . .?

 

 

Democrat

Republican

Total

29

36%

8

9

9

10

 

Definitely

Probably

 

Lean

 

Among those who say their financescompared to a

year ago are…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better off

11%

11

15

55

Same

46

11

11

9

8

15

Worse off

62

10

14

6


Notes: Excludes respondents who aren’t registered to vote, don’t plan to vote or wouldn’t say how they planned to vote.

Source: SurveyMonkey

By The New York Times

Among registered voters, more than 80 percent of those who judge themselves better off now than a year ago say they are at least leaning toward voting for Republicans in the midterms. That might suggest that the strong economy is serving as a big selling point for Republican candidates.

Complicating that story, though, is the fact that views on the economy have become starkly partisan in recent years. Hardly any Republicans — 5 percent — say they are worse off now than a year ago. At the same time, very few Democrats — 14 percent — say they are better off. Other questions reveal a similar split.

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That split is nothing new. When Barack Obama was president, it was Democrats who felt good about the economy and Republicans who were dour; as soon as Mr. Trump took over, partisan views flipped. That suggests that feelings about the economy are less a driver of partisan opinion than a reflection of it.

“I don’t think that there’s a lot that’s going to change on confidence,” said Laura Wronski, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey. “People’s responses are so consistent in terms of politics that there’s just not a lot of movement that’s possible.”

Independents could be crucial

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Democrats and Republicans might be too set in their opinions for the economy to affect their votes much. But what about the roughly 17 percent of Americans who don’t identify with either major political party? (In this article, we’re counting people who say they “lean” toward one party or the other as members of those parties.) Though relatively small, that group could be decisive in many narrow House races.

There are hints that the economy could sway them. Over all, independents who say they plan to vote in November tend to favor Democrats over Republicans by about 2 to 1. But that ratio is nearly flipped among independents who say their finances are better off than a year ago.

The economy appears to be a particularly significant factor for more affluent, educated independents — a group that could be crucial for Republican chances in November.

The tax law is motivating Republicans — and Democrats

When Republicans sped their $1.5 trillion tax cut package through Congress last year, they were certain it would work to their political advantage. (Voters, they reasoned, would be seeing fatter paychecks and turn out to thank Republicans at the polls.) Democrats said the opposite: that a bill that included large benefits for corporations and the wealthy would outrage voters and push them to throw Republicans out.

When it comes to firing up base voters, both parties were right: The poll finds that 69 percent of Republicans say the law makes them more likely to vote for a Republican candidate, while 73 percent of Democrats say the law makes them less likely to vote for a Republican. (Both numbers are based on registered voters who plan to vote this fall.)

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When it comes to swing voters, Democrats were right, the poll suggests. Just 12 percent of independent voters say the law makes them more likely to vote for a Republican. Nearly three times as many, 32 percent, say the law makes them less likely to vote Republican. A majority, 57 percent, say it doesn’t matter either way.

The economy might not be decisive

In modern American politics, the president’s party typically loses seats in a midterm congressional election. Republicans are hopeful that the accelerating economy will help them buck that trend this year. Party leaders including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, have pointed to the 1998 midterms, when President Bill Clinton was mired in impeachment proceedings but Democrats gained seats in the House anyway, in the midst of a booming national economy.

That election was an outlier. Political scientists — including Lynn Vavreck at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Seth Masket at the University of Denver, among many others — have shown that economic conditions matter far less to midterm results than presidential approval ratings. In 1950, when the economy grew at a blistering 8.7 percent for the year, President Harry Truman’s party still lost 28 seats in the House.

Voters’ perceptions of the economy this year fall roughly in between the last two midterm years when the unemployment rate was near 4 percent: 1998 and 2006. Shortly before the 1998 midterms, when Mr. Clinton and his party gained five House seats, two-thirds of respondents to a Gallup survey rated the economy as excellent or good. In 2006, when President George W. Bush’s party lost 31 seats and control of the House, 44 percent rated the economy as excellent or good. The most recent Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of respondents rate the economy similarly now.

If history is a guide, those numbers are less important than Mr. Trump’s approval rating, which is currently underwater: 44 percent of Americans approve of his performance, while 53 percent disapprove, the Times poll shows. That rating is much closer to Mr. Bush’s approval in 2006, which dropped below 40 percent in Gallup polls just before the midterm elections, than to Mr. Clinton’s in 1998, which rose to 66 percent by Election Day.


About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 9,558 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Aug. 6 to Aug. 12. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.

Ben Casselman writes about economics, with a particular focus on stories involving data. He previously reported for FiveThirtyEight and The Wall Street Journal. @bencasselman Facebook

Jim Tankersley covers economic and tax policy for The New York Times. @jimtankersley

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