Japan Inc’s earnings tell worrisome global story

August 7, 2012

By Wayne Arnold

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

At first glance Japan Inc’s earnings look dazzling. Operating profits at the country’s four biggest manufacturers quintupled in the latest quarter, relative to same period last year. Growth in the U.S. and a post-tsunami rebound in Japan overwhelmed the drag from weaker economies in Europe and China. But the message is actually more sobering: the buffer from such slow-growth economies is unlikely to last.

The total annual revenues of Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Hitachi are a little less than $600 billion, about half from outside Japan. Their combined story is pretty close to the story of the global industrial economy.

Not surprisingly, in this quarter Europe was the weak link: sales there for the big four shrank in the three months ended June 30, led by Nissan’s 13 percent decline in revenue. Sales into Asia were better, growing 23 percent overall, but were held back by diversified industrial giant Hitachi’s 15 percent drop. Thanks to slowing demand from China, Hitachi’s heavy construction equipment and power systems couldn’t compensate for weak sales of LCD TVs. China’s slowdown also hit global copper prices, pushing down Hitachi’s sales of electronic wires and cables.

Japan’s carmakers managed to restore production after the earthquake and tsunami in March, 2011, in time to catch a 24 percent rise in second-quarter car sales in the United States. But the U.S. economy now appears to be flagging, and with it car sales.

A similar fate may await Japan Inc. in its most important market, Japan. There sales grew 44 percent, as production revived and the government started to roll out $240 billion in reconstruction spending. Hitachi will undoubtedly reap part of that windfall, but the government is also cancelling a $1,200 subsidy for purchases of cleaner automobiles.

In sum, sales growth in both the U.S. and Japan should slow in the second-half, while the troubles in Europe and China are far from ending. Of course, things could be worse. The four giants predict annual sales will grow just 13 percent, with net profits rising 55 percent. But the best part of the recovery looks to be history.

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