Japan’s exports fall most since 2009 as US demand slumps

Japan’s exports fall most since 2009 as US demand slumps
Weak global appetite for cars and slowing business spending could drag on Japan’s export-led economy. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 17 June 2020

Japan’s exports fall most since 2009 as US demand slumps

Japan’s exports fall most since 2009 as US demand slumps
  • Weak global appetite for cars and slowing business spending could drag on Japan’s export-led economy
  • Bank of Japan increases support through lending schemes for struggling businesses to $1 trillion

TOKYO: Japan’s exports fell in May at the fastest pace since the global financial crisis as US-bound car shipments plunged, bolstering expectations for a deeper contraction in the world’s third-largest economy this quarter.
Weak global appetite for cars and slowing business spending could drag on Japan’s export-led economy, as China-bound trade remains weak, dashing hopes mainland demand could offset the weakness seen in other major trading partners.
Official data out on Wednesday showed Japan’s exports fell 28.3 percent in the year to May, the largest slump since September 2009. The result was worse than a 26.1 percent decrease expected in a Reuters poll and extended double-digit declines for a third straight month.
US-bound exports — Japan’s key market — halved to mark the biggest annual drop since March 2009, due to more than 70 percent declines in shipments of cars and car parts. Japan is the world’s second-largest exporter of autos.
“As Europe and America started to re-open, exports may have hit the bottom in May,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.
“That said, as new cases of infections have risen in Beijing, it’s hard to expect a steady recovery. If such a situation drags on, it will deal a body blow to small firms, raising the risk of rising bankruptcies and jobless in the latter half of the fiscal year.”
US-bound exports fell to $5.48 billion, the lowest since February 2009, shrinking Japan’s trade surplus with the United States to $93 million, the smallest since records began in January 1979.
The plunge in US-bound exports weighed on Japan’s automaker stocks with Mazda Motor, Hino Motors and Isuzu Motors all losing more than 4 percent.
Globally, automakers are struggling to recover from heavy lockdowns, which pummeled car demand. In Japan, Nissan Motor Co. has announced plans to slash production capacity and its model range by about a fifth to help cut costs, following a slide in sales.
“We were expecting a tough year this year and next for the US market even before the coronavirus hit, but the virus has sped up the decline,” said Koichi Kawaguchi, Tokyo Managing Director at consulting firm Alix Partners. He expects it could take around seven years for sales to recover to 2019 levels.
Exports to China, Japan’s largest trading partner, fell 1.9 percent in the year to May, due to declines in chemical raw materials, cars and chip-making equipment. It followed the prior month’s 4 percent annual decline.
Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japanese exports, declined 12 percent, and exports to the European Union also fell 33.8 percent.
Japan’s economy slipped into recession for the first time in 4-1/2 years in the first quarter and is on course for its deepest postwar slump as the pandemic ravages businesses and consumers.
The Bank of Japan on Tuesday increased its support through lending schemes for struggling businesses to $1 trillion, which follows the government’s $2.2 trillion in fiscal packages to rescue the economy.
While the central bank expects a gradual economic recovery in the second-half, the collapse in trade and bleak sentiment surveys suggest industries are a long way from a sustained comeback.
Analysts warn the current quarter will be especially dire after the coronavirus forced consumers to stay at home and businesses to close their doors.
Highlighting the pain the health crisis has inflicted on corporate morale, manufacturers’ confidence fell to its lowest in 11 years, the Reuters Tankan survey showed on Wednesday.
Reflecting weak domestic demand as well as the collapse in crude oil prices, overall imports fell 26.2 percent in the year to May, the biggest drop since October 2009, the trade data showed.


Saudi CITC pushes for more tech listings on Tadawul

Saudi CITC pushes for more tech listings on Tadawul
Updated 02 August 2021

Saudi CITC pushes for more tech listings on Tadawul

Saudi CITC pushes for more tech listings on Tadawul
  • The CITC is aiming to enhance the investment environment in the telecoms and IT sectors

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) signed an initial agreement with the Saudi Stock Exchange pushing for more listing of technology operators in the Kingdom on the Saudi stock market.

The CITC is aiming to enhance the investment environment in the telecommunications and information technology sector, the postal sector and delivery applications, SPA reported.

Financial market listings provide greater investment opportunities and helps companies to expand and enter new markets, and develop products, CITC said.

It also contributes to strengthening corporate governance with a regulatory framework of high quality and institutional value.

This agreement comes in line with the Vision 2030 objectives aimed at making the Kingdom a leading global logistics platform and a connecting hub for the three continents.


Saudi mortgage lending surges 27 percent in first half of 2021 — SAMA

Saudi mortgage lending surges 27 percent in first half of 2021 — SAMA
Updated 02 August 2021

Saudi mortgage lending surges 27 percent in first half of 2021 — SAMA

Saudi mortgage lending surges 27 percent in first half of 2021 — SAMA
  • Saudi banks and financial institutions lent SR79 billion for residential mortgages H1 2021

RIYADH: Residential mortgage financing in Saudi Arabia jumped by more than a quarter in the first half of the year even as new lending slowed in the second quarter, central bank data showed.

Saudi banks and financial institutions lent SR79 billion for residential mortgages in the first six months of 2021, up from SR62.1 billion in the same period last year, SAMA said in its monthly bulletin. The number of transactions increased 14.2 percent to 153,054 in the period.

The value of mortgages provided in the second quarter slid to SR31.1 billion riyals from SR49 billion in the first quarter as the supply of new properties fell amid changes to the building code.

“The number of contracts increased in the first half, but temporarily decreased in the past three months, but due to the reorganization of property evaluation by the Real Estate Fund, and the application of the new Saudi building code with the temporary ambiguity until it is well understood, and the lack of supply of ready housing units,” Mohamed AlKhars, a member of the housing program advisory board and the chairman of Innovest Property Co. told Arab News.

“I expect the volume of financing and the number of contracts to gradually increase in the fourth quarter of 2021,” he said.

Financing for villas accounted for 80 percent of residential real estate loans in the first half of the year, with 15.9 percent for apartments and the remainder for land, the SAMA data showed.

“Villas are still more desired by citizens and more available in the market, and apartment supply is still low now, as the developers are still focusing on building villas due to low interest in apartments which might continue for a while,” AlKhars said.

The mortgage market has seen stratospheric growth since SAMA began collecting the data in 2016 when a total of 22,259 real estate loans were issued. In 2019, that number jumped to 179,220 from 50,496 the previous year, before reaching 295,590 in 2020.


Brent crude falls below $75 amid Chinese economy concerns, OPEC output

Brent crude falls below $75 amid Chinese economy concerns, OPEC output
Updated 02 August 2021

Brent crude falls below $75 amid Chinese economy concerns, OPEC output

Brent crude falls below $75 amid Chinese economy concerns, OPEC output
  • Chinese factory activity posts slowest growth since before pandemic
  • OPEC output reached 15-month high in July - Reuters survey

LONDON: Oil prices dropped, sending Brent crude back below $75 a barrel after a report showed Chinese factory activity declined as the world’s second largest oil consumer battles a resurgence in coronavirus infections.

Brent crude dropped 2 percent to $74.81 a barrel at 2:15 p.m. in London, after ending July at the highest level in more than two weeks.

The international oil benchmark climbed 2.5 percent last week after a rollercoaster month that saw it swoon from a two-year high of $77.16 on July 5 to $68.62 on July 19 before recovering to end the month at $76.33.

Concerns over the effect a resurgence in coronavirus cases might have on demand for crude were allayed on Wednesday when a report showed a bigger-than-expected drawdown of crude stockpiles the previous week.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures dropped 0.8 percent today to $73.24.

Chinese factory activity slowed in July to its lowest level since the start of the pandemic, data showed Saturday, as manufacturing was impacted by slowing demand, weak exports and extreme weather.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), a key gauge of manufacturing activity in the world’s second-largest economy, dropped to 50.4 in July from June’s 50.9, the National Bureau of Statistics said. A reading above 50 indicates growth.

“China has been leading economic recovery in Asia and if the pullback deepens, concerns will grow that the global outlook will see a significant decline,” Edward Moya, a senior analyst at OANDA, told Reuters.

Oil prices were also damped by a Reuters survey that showed oil output from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) rose in July to its highest level since April 2020.

An exchange of words over an attack on an Israeli-managed oil products tanker off the coast of Oman on Thursday appeared to provide little support to the crude market.

Iran will respond promptly to any threat against its security, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday, after the US, Israel and the UK blamed Tehran for the attack..


The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories
Updated 02 August 2021

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories
  • Only one of 34 companies visited by MIT researchers had spent heavily on robotics
  • Bulk of machines were from before the 1990s

CLEVELAND: When researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited Rich Gent’s machine shop here to see how automation was spreading to America’s small and medium-sized factories, they expected to find robots.
They did not.
“In big factories — when you’re making the same thing over and over, day after day, robots make total sense,” said Gent, who with his brother runs Gent Machine Co, a 55-employee company founded by his great-grandfather, “but not for us.”
Even as some analysts warn that robots are about to displace millions of blue-collar jobs in the US industrial heartland, the reality at smaller operations like Gent is far different.
Among the 34 companies with 500 employees or fewer in Ohio, Massachusetts and Arizona that the MIT researchers visited in their project, only one had bought robots in large numbers in the last five years — and that was an Ohio company that had been acquired by a Japanese multinational which pumped in money for the new automation.
In all the other Ohio plants they studied, they found only a single robot purchased in the last five years. In Massachusetts they found a company that had bought two, while in Arizona they found three companies that had added a handful.
Anna Waldman-Brown, a PhD student who worked on the report with MIT Professor Suzanne Berger, said she was “surprised” by the lack of the machines.
“We had a roboticist on our research team, because we expected to find robots,” she said. Instead, at one company, she said managers showed them a computer they had recently installed in a corner of the factory — which allowed workers to note their daily production figures on a spreadsheet, rather than jot down that information in paper notebooks.
“The bulk of the machines we saw were from before the 1990s,” she said, adding that many had installed new computer controllers to upgrade the older machines — a common practice in these tight-fisted operations. Most had also bought other types of advanced machinery — such as computer-guided cutting machines and inspection systems. But not robots.
Robots are just one type of factory automation, which encompasses a wide range of machines used to move and manufacture goods — including conveyor belts and labeling machines.
Nick Pinkston, CEO of Volition, a San Francisco company that makes software used by robotics engineers to automate factories, said smaller firms lack the cash to take risks on new robots. “They think of capital payback periods of as little as three months, or six — and it all depends on the contract” with the consumer who is ordering parts to be made by the machine.
This is bad news for the US economy. Automation is a key to boosting productivity, which keeps US operations competitive. Since 2005, US labor productivity has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.3 percent — below the post-World War 2 trend of well over 2 percent — and the average has dipped even more since 2010.
Researchers have found that larger firms are more productive on average and pay higher wages than their smaller counterparts, a divergence attributed at least in part to the ability of industry giants to invest heavily in cutting-edge technologies.
Yet small and medium-sized manufacturers remain a backbone of US industry, often churning out parts needed to keep assembly lines rolling at big manufacturers. If they fall behind on technology, it could weigh on the entire sector. These small and medium-sized manufacturers are also a key source of relatively good jobs — accounting for 43 percent of all manufacturing workers.

LIMITATIONS OF ROBOTS
One barrier for smaller companies is finding the skilled workers needed to run robots. “There’s a lot of amazing software that’s making robots easier to program and repurpose — but not nearly enough people to do that work,” said Ryan Kelly, who heads a group that promotes new technology to manufacturers inside the Association for Manufacturing Technology.
To be sure, robots are spreading to more corners of the industrial economy, just not as quickly as the MIT researchers and many others expected. Last year, for the first time, most of the robots ordered by companies in North America were not destined for automotive factories — a shift partly attributed to the development of cheaper and more flexible machines. Those are the type of machines especially needed in smaller operations.
And it seems certain robots will take over more jobs as they become more capable and affordable. One example: their rapid spread in e-commerce warehouses in recent years.
Carmakers and other big companies still buy most robots, said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, a trade group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But there’s a lot more in small and medium-size companies than ever before.”
Michael Tamasi, owner of AccuRounds in Avon, Massachusetts, is a small manufacturer who recently bought a robot attached to a computer-controlled cutting machine.
“We’re getting another machine delivered in September — and hope to attach a robot arm to that one to load and unload it,” he said. But there are some tasks where the technology remains too rigid or simply not capable of getting the job done.
For instance, Tamasi recently looked at buying a robot to polish metal parts. But the complexity of the shape made it impossible. “And it was kind of slow,” he said. “When you think of robots, you think better, faster, cheaper — but this was kind of the opposite.” And he still needed a worker to load and unload the machine.
For a company like Cleveland’s Gent, which makes parts for things like refrigerators, auto airbags and hydraulic pumps, the main barrier to getting robots is the cost and uncertainty over whether the investment will pay off, which in turn hinges on the plans and attitudes of customers.
And big customers can be fickle. Eight years ago, Gent landed a contract to supply fasteners used to put together battery packs for Tesla Inc. — and the electric-car maker soon became its largest customer. But Gent never got assurances from Tesla that the business would continue for long enough to justify buying the robots it could have used to make the fasteners.
“If we’d known Tesla would go on that long, we definitely would have automated our assembly process,” said Gent, who said they looked at automating the line twice over the years.
But he does not regret his caution. Earlier this year, Tesla notified Gent that it was pulling the business. “We’re not bitter,” said Gent. “It’s just how it works.”
Gent does spend heavily on new equipment, relative to its small size — about $500,000 a year from 2011 to 2019. One purchase was a $1.6 million computer-controlled cutting machine that cut the cycle time to make the Tesla parts down from 38 seconds to 7 seconds — a major gain in productivity that flowed straight to Gent’s bottom line.
“We found another part to make on the machine,” said Gent.


HSBC profit more than doubles as economies rebound, loan-loss fears ebb

HSBC profit more than doubles as economies rebound, loan-loss fears ebb
Updated 02 August 2021

HSBC profit more than doubles as economies rebound, loan-loss fears ebb

HSBC profit more than doubles as economies rebound, loan-loss fears ebb
  • HSBC reinstated dividend and released $700 million set aside for bad loans
  • Pretax profit was $10.8 billion versus $4.32 billion a year earlier

HONG KONG/LONDON: HSBC Holdings on Monday reported forecast-beating first-half pretax profit that more than doubled from a weak performance last year when it made huge provisions for pandemic-related bad loans.
Encouraged by an economic rebound in Hong Kong and Britain, its two biggest markets, HSBC reinstated dividend payments and released $700 million that had been set aside to cover potential bad loans. That compares with $6.9 billion in loan-loss provisions made in the same period a year ago.
Pretax profit for Europe’s biggest bank by assets came in at $10.8 billion versus $4.32 billion in the same period a year earlier and was higher than the $9.45 billion average of 15 analysts’ estimates compiled by the bank.
Revenue, however, fell 4 percent due to the low interest rate environment.
HSBC said given the brighter outlook globally as economies recover better than expected from the pandemic, it expects credit losses to be below its medium-term forecast of 0.3 percent-0.4 percent of its loans.
The bank also said that for the year, it could even make a net release of funds from earlier provisions rather than add to them, but it was hard to say definitely due to the unknown impact of government support programs, vaccine rollouts and new strains of the virus.
It plans to pay an interim dividend of seven cents a share after the Bank of England scrapped payout curbs last month.
Reflecting its better than expected loan performance, HSBC will move to within its target payout range of 40-55 percent of reported earnings per share within 2021, it added.