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Tokyo Reawakening After Disaster

Consensus on long-term effects to Japan's economy is emerging.

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The costs of the earthquake and tsunami began to come into sharper focus Tuesday as the Japanese returned to work after a three-day weekend and many stores and offices in Tokyo reopened.

While most forecasters expect the global economic recovery will continue relatively unimpeded, the Japanese economy and domestic and foreign brands doing business in the country will surely take a hit from the March 11 earthquake and the tsunami and nuclear crisis that followed. Tiffany & Co. warned Monday that its first-quarter sales in Japan would fall by 15 percent.

“There will definitely be an impact on retail and luxury goods, but I would be surprised if it was more than a loss of 10 to 15 percent in the case of this year, and I would expect Japan to recover quite strongly next year,” said George Wallace, chief executive officer of MHE Retail, the London-based retail consultancy.

“When we see these images of the disaster, people tend to react very strongly, but looking forward, while it’s a massive shock, it won’t affect the whole country — Japan has a population of 120 million people,” Wallace said.

Francesco Trapani, chief executive officer at Bulgari SpA, told Reuters it would be “normal” to expect lower revenues for one or two quarters.

“Bulgari is not quantifying losses,” said a London-based financial analyst. “It’s hard to get any quantification, but Tiffany’s figure is a starting point. Whether it’s clothes or leather goods or watches, they’re all discretionary purchases.”

Burberry might also feel some pain. The company, which declined comment, has apparel licenses and a joint venture with Sanyo Shokai Ltd. and Mitsui & Co. Ltd.

“The company has guaranteed royalty payments from its Japanese licensees, and the company will not chase those payments if its licensees have suffered,” said a European luxury goods analyst who requested anonymity. “My feeling is that Burberry will take a voluntary hit on royalty payments in the current [fourth] quarter.”

The World Bank Monday estimated that the multiple catastrophes in Japan could cost the nation 2.5 percent to 4 percent of its GDP, or $122 billion to $235 billion. The immediate effect on GDP would be a reduction of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, but growth could accelerate by midyear as the rebuilding process begins to take shape.

Despite the country’s murky outlook, investors were at least somewhat bullish on Tuesday and the Nikkei 225 rebounded 4.4 percent after being closed for the spring equinox Monday. The proxy for shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange is still down 6.1 percent for the year.

Markets in Europe and the U.S. fell modestly as traders paused to gauge both Japan’s prospects and the international military campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. On Wall Street, the S&P Retail Index fell 0.4 percent, or 1.87 points, to 499.38, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped 17.9 points to 12,018.63. The DAX slipped 0.5 in Frankfurt and the FTSE 100 fell 0.4 percent in London.

Meanwhile, getting back to business can certainly only help Japan’s prospects.

Hennes & Mauritz Japan plans to reopen its Tokyo headquarters today and has shuttered its temporary offices in Osaka, according to a spokeswoman. The chain has not decided when it will reopen its Tokyo stores, which closed late last week.

Many fashion houses and luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Christian Dior and Chanel, reopened their headquarters and flagships Tuesday after the three-day weekend.

Despite the cancellation of Japan Fashion Week, Etw Vonnegut pushed ahead with its fall show, drawing several editors even with rain and cold weather in Tokyo.

But life is anything but normal for retailers in Tokyo. Some have had to cut back on store hours to conserve energy as there are still rolling blackouts in the outlying parts of the city. Aftershocks from the earthquake persist and could continue for weeks or months.

And Japan’s fiscal problems could be trickier than is widely believed.

James Smith, chief economist at Parsec Financial Management, said the country would eventually have to tap more expensive international markets to pay for its rebuilding effort.

“Some day they’re going to be selling 10-year Japanese government bonds and there won’t be any money left in Japan and they’ll have to go to the global market and their interest rates will triple,” Smith said.

“It’s an absolute disaster and there’s no good way to keep their budget deficit from growing through the roof,” he added. “They’d have to raise taxes or cut spending by about 14 percent of GDP and that’s pretty scary.”

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