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A Jobs View on the Crisis in Japan

Adam Rust's picture

Posted March 18, 2011

The trajedy in Japan is already changing the near future for many Americans. The impacts of this crisis are so large and so awful that it seems impossible to imagine that anything positive can come from it.

In spite of that, there is a bright side. No one wants to gain from a tragedy, but many

Americans are going to be a part of the recovery.

I think that there is good news here for some of American's struggling families.

One of the slow crises in America has been the loss of manufacturing jobs. While highly educated Americans have made the transition to the new information economy, many of the people that worked in our factories have had more trouble. You can see the story on a macro level in the weak economies in places like Ohio and Michigan. The relative success of Pittsburgh can be traced to its own re-birth and re-adaption to the new way. The ascent of places like Silicon Valley, Austin, and the Research Triangle Park region underscore how some places have been able to grow.

The crisis in Japan is going to help many manufacturing firms in the United States. That should translate into some relief for American workers.

Losers:

Re-insurance: This is well on the way to being the most expensive disaster in history. Katrina costs were estimated at between $50 and $60 billion. The earthquake itself has already cost about $15 billion and that does not include any claims relative to the radiation fallout.  Re-insurance firms, which compensate companies that pay out claims to consumers, will be shaken. Long-term, the costs are borne by higher premiums. That means that everyone will pay in the long-term, although some re-insurance firms may not be around long enough to see that recovery.

GE: Unfortunately, the failing reactors in Japan were designed by General Electric.

Global warming: One of the often ignored aspects of nuclear energy is that it creates fewer emissions. Coal, which is still the largest source of electrical production in the United States, is dirty even when it is labeled "clean." Less nuclear probably means more coal.

Anyone that builds nuclear reactors: Maybe we should say "built."

Mixed Results

Utilities with Nuclear Plants: No new nuclear plant has been built since Three Mile Island. If this event means that more years pass before another is built, then it only goes to help those companies with existing plants.

Winners

Coal companies: see above. One curb on the growth of coal is in Japan, which is the world's largest coal importer. Much of that coal goes into Japanese steel.  To the extent that Japan can't make as much steel, then it will push that demand to Korea or to the United States.

US Manufacturing: For years, Japan has been one of the largest suppliers of cash in the world. People in Japan can borrow money for virtually nothing. Plenty of investors borrow funds and then lend them out overnight. There is a small arbitrage on this short-term trade. Now, it looks like that excess cash will be coming back into Japan. The yen's value is soaring. This is unfortunate for Japan's economic prospects. It makes Japanese goods expensive and America's exports that much less costly.

GM, Ford, Chrysler: American car manufacturing already sells millions of cars in Asia every year. There are several major Toyota and Honda plants near to Fukushima. When the drop in the dollar is