The sluggish rebound in Japanese exports — which seems to have encouraged a small recovery in industrial output — came to a halt in May, according to preliminary figures released in Tokyo this morning.

At the same time, the rich country’s group, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) forecast overnight that unemployment in its 30 member countries could hit 57 million by the end of next year, up 20 million from the end of 2008.

Japan’s exports in May fell 40.9% from May of 2008, and were down 0.3% from April in the first month on month fall since February. The May outcome was worse than the 29.3% fall forecast from the market.

April saw a reported 39.1% from in exports from the same month of 2008, leading analysts to forecast a slight recovery in the economy in the June quarter.

Imports fell 42.4% from a year earlier, and the trade surplus shrank 12.1% to 299.8 billion yen (or $US3.1 billion), according to the Finance Ministry’s report. That’s a sign that the recession in the Japanese economy remains deep, despite many analysts claiming they could see an easing. 45.5% in March and a record fall of 49.4% in February.

Imports fell 35.8% fall in April from April 2008, after March’s 36.7% fall, so the May figure was a noticeable worsening.

The importance of this news can be overstated; but when added to the fact that Chinese exports fell in May by more than the market expected (and against market expectations), and European and German exports turned down in April, the last reported month, there’re signs the global economy is not in a recovery phase.

Add this news to the impact of yesterday’s World Bank update, the OECD’s new forecasts out tonight, and the US Federal Reserve’s post-meeting statement early tomorrow morning, our time, and you have the makings of what could be an interesting few days for markets, investors and governments.

The OECD gave us a flavour of its thinking overnight with a gloomy forecast on global unemployment: it predicted that the rate of unemployment in the industrial world could reach 10% in 2010, the highest level since 1970s. That’s up from 7.8% in April.

That said, there’s general agreement we will see positive growth around the world by the fourth quarter of this year at the latest, and tepid growth in 2010. But the more monthly figures we get from major exporters like Japan, China and Germany, the more those forecasts of a growth rebound will be questioned.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey