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VERSACE: U.S. will feel ripples from Japan’s distress

- - Thursday, March 17, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Last week, Japan was hard hit by an earthquake and tsunami and subsequent damage as the natural disasters' effects are felt — most notably thousands of injured and dead, nuclear concerns and strong aftershocks.

Simply horrific.

Given the damage and massive rescue efforts, it comes as no surprise that Japan's economy will be at a near standstill near term. Toyota and Nissan halted production at all of their 20 factories. Other companies — including Kirin Holdings, Fuji Heavy Industries, GlaxoSmithKline, Nestle and Sony — have halted operations.

It is clearly a tragedy, and while many think of Japan as a country far away (the distance from Tokyo to Los Angeles is 5,478 miles), the ripple effects likely will be felt in the U.S. economy, given the strong trade relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

According to data from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Japan was the fourth-largest importer of U.S. goods in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available; the total was $147 billion in imported goods that year. A larger view that includes both goods and services, shows that Japan imported $270 billion goods and services in 2009. Machinery and equipment, fuels and oil, foodstuffs, chemicals, textiles and raw materials are some of the larger categories of goods imported by Japan. The net effect positions Japan behind only Mexico, Canada and Europe as a trading partner.

This is but the latest in what is now a series of issues that call into question the viability of the domestic economic recovery. The other issues include renewed unrest in the Middle East and subsequent impact on oil and fuel prices; inflationary concerns amid the ripple effect of commodity price increases that may pressure consumer spending; the federal deficit and risk of a federal government shut down; and public sector job cuts as federal, state and local governments look for ways to close budget gaps.

According to Gallup's March 10 findings, 72 percent of Americans cite the domestic economy as the most important problem facing the country today. Even before the disasters in Japan, the weight of these other issue took their toll on the American consumer. Gallup's Economic Confidence Index worsened to minus 24 in February, from minus 21 in January, as Americans' optimism about the U.S. economy receded from the three-year high reached in January.

The net effect is a crimping in economic growth, and given the global nature of trade and the economy, odds are we will hear earnings updates and outlook revisions from those most affected directly or indirectly from Japan's disasters and near term standstill in the coming weeks. As such, shares in machinery and equipment, fuels and oil, foodstuffs, chemicals, textiles and raw materials, and auto parts companies are likely to come under pressure near term as investors try to assess the impact. I suspect this will result in another leg down in the market as these are digested in terms of the impact to domestic economy measures such as industrial production and gross domestic product.

Those same construction and heavy equipment companies, infrastructure plays as well as clothing, pharmaceuticals and others that will see weaker demand near term should see a resulting acceleration in demand as Japan rebuilds. As is often said, hindsight is 20-20, and several quarters from now the Japanese economy likely will resemble a V-shaped recovery — an economic disruption followed by a strong incremental demand for a number of industries. Often times, these tragedies result in compressed valuations as the darkest is assumed; however, for the prudent investor, once the dust settles and the pullback in the market has occurred, investor opportunity is to be had.

Good hunting.

Chris Versace, the Thematic Investor, is director of research at Think 20/20, an independent equity-research and corporate-access firm in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at cversace@washingtontimes.com. At the time of publication, Mr. Versace had no positions in companies mentioned; however, positions can change.