Look to Japan's Ageing Industrial Sprawl for Roadblock to Abenomics

Japan Factory Output Surprises With October Jump; Recovery Eyed
Alan Levenson | Stone | Getty Images

For a close-up view of where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies could falter, skip across Tokyo Bay to the sprawling Kimitsu steelworks, once a must-see icon of Japan's export boom.

By the early 1970s, Kimitsu in Chiba had become the hub of the world's largest steel operation. It provided the sheet metal for the first wave of Japanese cars sold overseas and the beams to build the first skyscrapers in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, inspiring Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on a 1978 visit to build a copycat mill in China.

But last month Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, fresh off a merger that created the world's second-biggest steelmaker, announced it would shut down Kimitsu's No. 3 blast furnace, part of a sweeping restructuring meant to shed overcapacity at home in the face of unrelenting competition from China and South Korea.

"It makes no sense to revive it," the Kimitsu plant manager, Ichiro Sato, told reporters on a tour last week. "We want to operate without bringing it back."

That same caution is echoed by Japanese manufacturers in industries from autos to electronics.

Despite signs of an early stirring in consumer spending, a weaker yen and a recent rally in stock prices, companies remain deeply reluctant to invest in new plants and equipment even though the existing capital equipment -- like Japan's workforce - is ageing.

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This reluctance could be the biggest challenge to Abe's policies aimed at driving Japan out of a decade and a half of falling prices and stagnant growth by getting the Bank of Japan to flood financial markets with yen.

The idea is that the BOJ's policies will reduce long-term interest rates to make borrowing cheaper and simultaneously encourage businesses to invest by turning around long-entrenched expectations of deflation into a belief prices will rise.

The risk is that unless Japanese companies and households start to borrow and invest and wages rise, the transmission between the BOJ's monetary policy and the rest of the economy will remain uncertain.

"We are not seeing many manufacturers planning production capacity increase or building new factories," Atsushi Miyanoya, the head of Bank of Japan's Nagoya branch, told reporters last week. The branch oversees central Japan's economy, a hub of manufacturers including Toyota Motors.

(Read More: Japan Exports Rise as Weak Yen Helps; Business Mood Up)

Uphill Task

Still, Abe's efforts have so far sent Tokyo stocks to five-year highs and weakened the Japanese currency to nearly 100 yen against the dollar, pushing up profits of many exporters, like Toyota Motors. Some companies, like

Bridgestone, have taken advantage of low interest rates to tap the corporate bond market for funding.

Abe contends that corporate appetite for capital spending has been recovering rapidly since the end of last year, although not all data supports that.

Corporate sentiment has improved under Abe, the BOJ's quarterly "tankan" survey published this month shows. But, big companies said they planned to cut capital expenditure by 2 percent in the current business year.

More than a third of companies are worried about domestic demand stagnating, a Reuters survey of 240 companies released on Friday shows. A quarter said they were likely to increase output in Japan because of the weaker yen.

Longer-term comparisons also suggest Abe faces an uphill task. Capital spending in 2012 was 16 percent less than 2007. Early this year, factories were using about 19 percent less production capacity than in 2007, suggesting it will be some time before they need to invest in new industrial space.

(Read More: Japan Firms Eye Price Rises in Response to Weaker Yen)

The last time when Japanese manufacturers were actively deciding to build new plants in Japan was some six years ago, when the yen was around 120 yen against the dollar. At the time, companies like Toyota, Honda Motors and Panasonic were looking to invest in plants at home.

But the yen's rise over the following five years to a record high of 75 yen to the dollar in October 2011, raised doubts about the economics of the investment decisions and prompted a scramble to try to move production overseas.

'Time and Effort'

Reflecting the pressures on Japanese manufacturers, spare production capacity at carmakers is expected to grow in the years ahead. IHS Automotive forecasts that carmakers' 2012 capacity utilization in Japan of 84 percent will fall to 80 percent in 2013 and to 76 percent in 2018. In 2005, the industry had been using 90 percent of its capacity in Japan.

The only positive sign for new investment now, economists say, is that many companies need to invest to update outdated production equipment even if they keep output steady.

"Manufacturers may not increase production capacity. But equipment is getting old, so it is going to be necessary to make changes," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

(Read More: Japanese Banks Say Hola, Go Local as They Woo Overseas Borrowers)

Even so, manufacturers are unlikely to fundamentally increase production capacity at home because demand in Japan -- where population peaked in 2008 -- is unlikely to grow in the long run.

Toyota, for one, has said it has frozen plans to build any new plants in Japan or overseas in the next three years. The automaker, which battled to keep capacity in Japan during the yen's surge, has no plans to expand its domestic output.

However, it does plan to expand output abroad, announcing on Friday that it would increase production at its existing U.S. Kentucky factory by 10 percent.

"It will take a great deal of time and effort to bring back what has left Japan. The yen, which stayed below 80 against the dollar for too long, has hurt the automotive industry more so than people imagine," Toyota President Akio Toyoda said in February.