What lies ahead
Illustration: Adam Fitzcharles

What lies ahead...

Japanese Finance / HR executives most pessimistic in Asia, study shows

Is the economy ready to recover? It appears to depend on who you talk to and where you look.

On the positive side, government officials and top bankers increasingly say that the financial markets appear to be through the worst. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has said that the U.S. economy and financial markets have improved. And many private economists are predicting the beginning of an overall economic upturn either late this year or in early to mid 2010. All of this suggests that the worst of the recession may be over.

Despite these encouraging signs, a recent study we conducted with finance, HR and executive-level managers around the world found that Japanese professionals see little chance for an upturn in the domestic economy any time soon. In fact, they are the most pessimistic among their Asian colleagues over when growth will resume.

Our survey of 4,830 finance, human resource and senior managers from 22 countries, with 293 respondents in Japan, found that only 15 percent believed the Japanese economy would start to improve within 2009. This compared with 26 percent in Australia, 31 percent in Singapore and 39 percent in Hong Kong.

Instead, the largest number of respondents in Japan, 30 percent, believed that a recovery would not take place until early 2011 or even later. In the other Asian markets, only 13 percent were that pessimistic in Australia, 11 percent in Singapore and just 6 percent in Hong Kong.

This unfortunately suggests that the export-led nature of Japan’s economy means that any recovery will likely be delayed in comparison to other markets, further evidenced by the record annualized 15.2 percent drop in GDP in the three months to March.

On the job stress increased, skill gap remains in finance and accounting

This pessimism is also taking its toll in how finance and accounting staff view their own situation at the office. 42 percent of those surveyed in Japan said that current economic conditions have created more stress for their department and 32 percent said that there are now greater workloads than before.

These figures show that even in times of uncertainty about the future, it is important to closely monitor staff morale. The worst thing a manager can do in this climate is to assume that good people have no where else to go.

Further, the global downturn has not meant the end of the skill gap in finance and accounting, with 74 percent of the respondents saying there was at least one sector where they were facing recruitment challenges. 18% said they were having difficulties in finding finance managers, 14 percent in finding tax and treasury specialists and 12 percent internal auditors. Only 13 percent overall said they were not having difficulties finding qualified staff.

The percentage of respondents saying they are having problems finding good staff are actually higher than for last year’s survey when it stood at 65 percent. There are clearly more people looking for work but the key – as always – is finding the people with the proper skills in this very demanding area.

The survey found that the sharp decline in the economy has prompted many firms (47 percent) to freeze hiring, but 28 percent say that they are still adding staff numbers despite the grim economic outlook.

Whatever the pace of the economic recovery, it is clear to many companies that the new world will represent even greater regulatory and compliance needs.

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I've never been one to put much stock into what the HR managers or for that matter the run-of-the-mill economists say, simply due to their track record in this area and the fact that most people are 'momentum traders'.

Good times can never end; Bad times will never get better.

For instance, if you polled these same HR managers up until about June 2008, they would have told you all was looking great and it was business as usual -- by September the bottom had fallen out and their faces were ashen in color.

They were the last to know when the economy was failing and they'll be the last to know when it is improving.

Similarly with most economists, it is still amazing to me that the vast majority could not see what was coming nor the severity of it despite the obvious signs -- the final warning to take shelter was the collapse of Bear Sterns in 2007 and the industry and government regulators' statements that it would be 'contained'.

But I agree with you, and the good news is, that there is a ton of opportunity in the market right now!

In fact for new market entrant or new business venture, the opportunities are unprecendented (you'd probably have to go back 8 years to find another opportunity like this).

New winners and market entrants will emerge and are emerging while older encumbents or those that have failed to manage their businesses properly will be washed away.

Because in a strong market, every company and manager looks like a leader. But after the storm passes, we clearly see the reality of the situation.

-- James