As the credit crunch era has developed we have seen many countries discover that past relationships between the level of unemployment and the rate of wage growth no longer exists. Actually if we look back we see that there had been changes before the credit crunch but it has both exacerbated them and brought them into focus. This issue is particularly pronounced in Japan where the unemployment and employment numbers are very strong. From Japan Macro Advisers.
The Japanese economy keeps adding jobs. 200K new jobs were added in August 2017. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 2.8% in August, remaining at the lowest rate in 23 years.
The stand out number is an unemployment rate of a mere 2.8% which is rather extraordinary especially if we recall estimates of full employment from the past as it is below them! How can this be? Well as even economic concepts do not mean what they say as for example central bankers talk of “price stability” when they mean inflation stability usually at 2% per annum. The concept of full employment was and indeed is like that as it does not mean everyone has a job. It always assumed some frictional unemployment or people temporarily out of work and that implied a higher unemployment rate than Japan now has. If we look at other measures the numbers are also strong.
Japan’s job offers to applicant ratio also remained constant in August at 1.52, the highest ratio since February 1974. The new job offers to applicant ratio slightly declined to 2.21 from 2.27 in July, but it is still close to its historical high and continues to show there are more than two vacant jobs to one applicant.
However we also need to note that there is a particularly Japanese feature to this which is on its way to other countries with demographics issues.
The work age population in Japan, defined as the population of the age between 15 and 64, has been shrinking rapidly. In 2016, it fell by 0.7 million people. In 2017, it is projected to shrink further by 0.8 million in 2017. While the Japanese economy is making ends meet by higher labor participation from its senior citizens, the labor resource limitation is an issue Japan needs to address soon.
Work till you drop is perhaps the new theme here.
What about wages?
The story of my time online covering Japan is that since the Abe government came to power there has been prediction after prediction that wage growth will pick up. Regular readers will be aware that some news organisations such as Bloomberg have regularly reported that wage growth has picked up but the truth is that so far there has been no real sign. If we move from the past hype to reality we see that according to the official data real wages fell by 0.9% in 2013, 2.8% in 2014 and 0.9% in 2015 before rising by 0.7% in 2016. Putting it another way the real wage index which was 103.9 in 2013 was 100.7 in 2016.
If we return to Japan Macro Advisers we see this.
The wage report for August was encouraging. Total wages rose by 0.9% year on year (YoY), the highest increase in the last 12 months. Basic and overtime wages rose by 0.6% YoY, the highest rise since April 2016.
We learn a lot there as growth of a mere 0.9% is “encouraging”?! If we switch to real wages the picture is not because they were 0.1% lower than a year before. They are optimistic because of what is essentially a challenge to the unemployment data as they hint at a change in underemployment.
The report shows that 30.5% of workers covered in the survey were part-time workers, a decline of 0.2% point from a year ago. The government does not publish a seasonally adjusted series, but in our own estimation, we see a clear sign that the part-time ratio is starting to decline.
This matters because.
Part-time workers receive one-third of wages that regular workers receive. There are other important benefits such as social security, and the job security is far stronger for regular workers.
Why might wages growth remain weak?
An interesting facet of the issue was highlighted yesterday by the Wall Street Journal.
Facing the tightest labor market in Japan in 43 years, Gatten Sushi recently hired two Chinese kitchen workers and a Filipino waitress who calls out “Welcome” to customers, each for about $10 an hour.
For a country which in many respects prides itself on being homogenous the situation below represents quite a change.
Japan added 400,000 foreign workers in the four years through 2016, surpassing one million for the first time, or nearly 2% of the workforce, labor ministry data show. That is still low compared with the U.S.’s 17% of foreign-born workers but enough to sway the labor market in urban centers like Tokyo.
This is something familiar these days where countries in effect import immigrants to help cope with poor demographics such as an ageing population but there is a catch.
RDC’s Mr. Fukui said foreign workers help the company keep prices flat, especially at budget places like a conveyer-belt sushi restaurant where Vietnamese workers in masks and plastic gloves place fish atop small rice balls formed by a robot. They are useful in other ways too: Sometimes they help out by serving foreign tourists in their own languages, and Mr. Fukui hopes they will continue working with the company even when they go back home to help it expand overseas.
There is a clear implication here that foreign workers are being used as a way of keeper wages lower. This can work because whilst the wages are low for Japan they are high for elsewhere.
Minimum wage in Japan, too low to attract many native-born workers, is still generous for many other Asians. In 2015, Japan’s minimum wage was 21 times higher than that of Vietnam, 12 times higher than in Nepal, and triple that of China, data from Dai-Ichi Research Institute show.
As to this being a permanent situation well maybe not.
Most foreign workers cannot stay permanently owing to immigration rules. Mr. Abe has repeatedly said he doesn’t want large numbers of immigrants in low-paying jobs coming to Japan for the long term.
This has been announced since last weekend’s election according to Reuters.
Japan’s government is considering expanding tax incentives for companies to encourage them to raise wages, three people involved in discussions told Reuters, as many firms remain hesitant to spend their cash reserves on salary increases.
As the existing tax breaks are not working this sounds rather like the approach to QE ( QQE in Japan) where like Agent Smith in The Matrix series of films the cry always goes up for “More”
There are lessons here because Japan has for some time run a policy of declaring pretty much full employment. What I mean by that is that when I worked in Tokyo some 20 years ago people were employed to count you walking across bridges and lifts in the Ghinza shopping district had operators to save you from the arduous task of pressing a lift button! Of course many other countries are now facing up to the issue of what low levels of unemployment really mean.
The next issue is demographics where Japan is the leader of a pack you would rather not be in. Yes it is welcome people are living longer but it has a shrinking population too. Even it has accepted some immigration but as you have seen earlier on its own terms. As the Abe administration is nationalistic that could easily change, But the immigration that has taken place looks like it has affected wages in some occupations. If we look at the restaurant sector it seems clear that to attract Japanese labour wages would have had to have risen if viable.
That conclusion is not far off dynamite as we are so often told that immigration does not depress wages as this from Noah Smith of Bloomberg reminds us.
Normally immigrants don’t depress native wages, but in Japan, given investment constraints, they actually might. Still…skeptical.
If you have workers coming in from much poorer countries to work in particular sectors then surely it must depress wages in them or make them rise more slowly. I can see that there are areas it is unlikely to affect as for example Eastern European construction workers in the UK or Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant workers in Japan may have no impact at all on many other skills but to say they have no impact in their areas seems strange. Also what happens in their home country?
But if we return to the pattern of Japan upon which immigration has been only a recent thin screen then we see that for all the media and Ivory Tower hype the road on what it has been on for 2 “lost decades” now poses a question for our future.
Wages in Japan has been steadily falling in Japan since 1998. Between 1997 and 2012, wages have fallen by 12.5%, or by 0.9% per year on average. ( Japan Macro Advisers).
But we cannot just simply assume we will be “Turning Japanese” in every respect as this from the UK Office for National Statistics has reminded us today.
UK population projected to grow from 65.6 million in 2016 to 72.9 million in 2041
Me on Core Finance TV