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Estimated Earthquake Losses Could Reach 16-25 Trillion Yen [ 2011.04.07 ]

[NewsJapan.net] The scale of the direct economic loss of roads, houses, businesses and infrastructure in the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Pacific coastal area of northeastern Japan, which Prime Minister Naoto Kan described as “in some regards the most severe crisis in the 65 years since the end of the Second World War,” is estimated by the government at somewhere between 16 trillion and 25 trillion yen. In terms of its impact on the nation’s real GDP, government economists cite an additional net drop of 0.2-0.5% in fiscal 2011.

The estimate announced by the Cabinet Office on March 23 did not include the possible effects of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station damaged by the quake and tsunami and the rolling blackouts that followed. As of March 23, the government conceded that “they are certain to have a negative impact on the Japanese economy, but we have no idea how great their impact will be” (The Nikkei, March 24).

Damage done by the catastrophic disaster to infrastructure, such as houses, harbors, roads and factories, is concentrated in seven Pacific coastal prefectures, particularly in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima which among them account for 80% of the total damage. As of 12:00 noon on March 25, the National Police Agency announced that more than 27,000 people were either confirmed dead or unaccounted for, and the numbers could rise as the entire scale of the catastrophe is yet to emerge.

A huge amount of money is deemed certain to be needed for reconstruction, considered likely to take 4-5 years. The government is preparing extra budgetary appropriations and other supportive measures that will eventually run to several trillions of yen. How to raise this much money is a big problem for the government, which is already laden with gargantuan debts. So overhauling the budget draft for fiscal 2011 including such policies as child benefits, free high school tuition, and individual compensation to farmers, all pledged in the election manifesto of the Democratic Party of Japan, is considered inevitable. The opposition Liberal Democratic Party is even considering a proposal for temporary tax hikes geared to reconstruction work.

The impact on industry is also considerable since manufacturing plants of key components and parts for high-tech products, such as automobiles, aircraft, and communication tools, are concentrated in the Tohoku region and many of them have been forced to suspend operation because of damage caused by the earthquake. Major products include batteries, liquid crystal panels and engines, for which Japanese companies play a key role in the global supply chains. Assembly plants in not only Japan but also North America, Southeast Asia and other parts of Asia are already feeling the impact.

Another major negative factor for the long-term future of the Japanese economy is the electricity shortage arising from reduced generation capacity at power plants crippled by the earthquake, including the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Rolling blackouts in the Tokyo metropolitan area are disrupting factory operations and train services on which commuters depend. While the power supply is gradually returning to normal, there is fear that it may again fall short of demand during the summer heat when air conditioners are switched on.

In the wake of the earthquake, the Tokyo stock market plunged, as did markets in other parts of the world. The Nikkei average on March 15 fell 1,015 to 8605.15, the largest single-day drop since the Lehman shock. While it rebounded considerably on the following days, the market basically remains unstable. In addition to possible prolonged effects of the earthquake on industrial activity and consumer sentiment, many analysts say that uncertainties over the future of the Fukushima nuclear power station and its impact on the energy future must be cleared for the stock market to recover stability.

Another important development on the financial market triggered by the earthquake was a sharp rise on March 17 in the value of the Japanese currency against the U.S. dollar---to an all-time high of 76.25 yen to the dollar on the Tokyo Foreign Exchange. This led the Japanese government, with the endorsement of the other G-7 major economies, to intervene in the currency market. The action worked to dampen the yen to an 81-82 range to the dollar. The Japanese currency has remained at around 81 to the dollar since.

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