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Some Economists, Officials in Asia Seize on the Positive on Economic Data

Recent economic data from Asia continue to show big declines in key indicators. But some economists say there are hints of a recovery.

Every economist in Asia has probably been asked this question: is the worst over yet? The numbers across the region are conflicting.

There is bad news: Japan's economy contracted an annualized 15 percent rate in the first three months ending in March from the same period last year - its deepest fall in more than 50 years. Exports - a key component in the economy - shrank 26 percent.

But there are what some describe as "green shoots" of recovery. Consumer confidence in the world's second largest economy reached a 10-month high in April. Exports increased in March from February.

Kaoru Yosano, Japan's finance minister, looks forward. He says it seems the January to March period was the worst and that the economy is turning up a bit.

Elsewhere, officials say things are looking up too. Indonesia's president says recovery is in sight by next year, while Hong Kong's financial secretary expects a slight rebound in exports by the end of the year. Taiwan's president proclaimed the worst is over, although the economy is still in recession.

Singapore's president warned of a worse year, with the economy contracting by between six to nine percent. However, on Thursday, Singapore's Trade Ministry said the decline in the island's gross domestic product - a measure of overall economic activity - slowed in the first three months of the year, compared with the previous quarter.

There are mixed signals too from one of few economies in the region that is not in recession - China. Retail sales in April rose 15 percent from last year. Authorities see this as proof that China's $586 billion economic stimulus package is working.

But exports continue to plummet, dropping nearly 23 percent in April from the same month last year. Industrial output, a measure of factory production, fell more than seven percent, a bigger-than-expected decline.

Xu Lin is director-general of fiscal and financial affairs at China's National Development and Reform Commission. He says the economy has shown signs of a rebound since November, as seen in electricity consumption figures - an indicator for industrial activity. He says the government's main concern now is to maintain this momentum.

"The current indicators have shown that the economic recovery is moving in a "V" shape. But some indicators may not support that. But we cannot say by the indicators in April that we can prove that the "V" shaped recovery has been changed to a different direction," he said. "But if there will be more indicators to show that the recovery is changing the direction, then maybe we have to take additional measures to further consolidate the "V" shape."

A "V" shaped recovery is the best anyone can hope for - the economy bottoms out quickly and sharply recovers. However, economists also talk about a "U" shaped recovery, where there is a longer slump before a gradual upturn. Worse is the "L" shaped recovery - which means a sharp drop and then no real growth for a long time, or a "W" shaped recovery - when the economy starts to recover, then quickly falls back into recession.

Alan Oster, group chief economist of the National Australia Bank, says a "W" recovery will be unlikely because of the massive amounts of government money pumped into the world's economies over the past year.

"You push a lot of money into economies - through interest rates and fiscal policies - I think the machine works. To get to "W" you need something else - you need an interest rate followed by an oil price shock, which is what the '80s were," said Oster. "You need to say to me something else is going to come along and clobber us."

Governments in the region have been spending their way out of the crisis - handing out cash to citizens, building new highways, funding new programs, to revive business activity. Some countries, such as China, have indicated that they will take additional measures if their first stimulus efforts are inadequate.

"For the central government, I think we have enough resources to support the economy to move to the "V" shaped recovery," said Xu.

No matter the shape of the recovery, economists say one thing is certain: when Asia passes the worst of the crisis, the economic landscape will have already changed. Asia's export-driven economies will have started to seek a less vulnerable growth model. Xu says, in the aftermath of the slump, China's exporters will face different business conditions, and the economy will have to rely more on domestic demand for growth.