The last time Masao Namiki bought machinery for his company, Emperor Hirohito had just died, Japanese investors took the Rockefeller Center as a trophy, and a new central bank chief was about to prick the bubble economy. It was 1989.
The $1 million Namiki borrowed to outfit his workshop with computerized lathes and drills almost bankrupted him as orders from clients Canon Inc., Panasonic Corp. and NEC Corp. evaporated. As interest rates cranked up to 6 percent, crashing stock and land prices wiped out $15 trillion in wealth and triggered an economic malaise that still drags on.
The bubble, and the five recessions since, help explain why business owners like Namiki aren’t buying into investor euphoria over new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign to end deflation. Even after the steepest five-month slide in the yen for 18 years made global companies like Toyota Motor Corp more competitive and Japan the world’s best-performing major stock market, Namiki said he’s still not ready to invest.
“If we had the orders I’d think about adding equipment, but right now the work’s just not there,” the 72-year-old said at his small factory in Tokyo’s Ota district, where he and a handful of employees have made thousands of steel molds for phones, stereos, and keyboards. “The manufacturers are still in wait-and-see mode.”
The reluctance to borrow and spend of companies like Namiki’s that don’t operate abroad and make up the bulk of Japan’s economy is the biggest threat to Abe’s plans, said Nomura Research Institute Chief Economist Richard Koo.
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