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Indicators Point to Recovery of Japan’s Economy [ 2010.05.08 ]

[NewsJapan.net] Recent indicators suggest that the Japanese economy is on a steady recovery course, moving even faster than previously expected and avoiding the possibility of a second dip even though it continues to be infested with persistent deflation and unemployment, which are worrying the government and the central bank as they struggle to lift the economy out of the malaise.

On April 1 the Bank of Japan announced its quarterly survey of business sentiment (dubbed the tankan) for March. The survey, one of the most closely watched indicators, said that the business sentiment of large manufacturing corporations had improved for the fourth consecutive quarter, by 11 points, to the highest level in the post-Lehman-shock period. The indicator is calculated based on the difference between the number of companies that view business as being in good shape and those that consider business to be in bad shape. In the March survey, the indicator improved to minus 14 from minus 25 three months earlier. The margin of improvement, moreover, was the largest in six months. The indicator of business sentiment is obtained by surveying 11,684 companies.

The improvement took place thanks, among other things, to the weakening of the yen against the dollar, which benefited such export industries as automobiles and electronics. When the latest survey was conducted on March 10, the exchange rate was 90 yen to the dollar, compared with 84 yen to the dollar at the time of the previous survey in December, raising the possibility that corporate profits for the fiscal year (ended March 31, 2010) would be larger than expected. According to the March tankan findings, major manufacturing corporations anticipated a year-on-year increase of 49.3% in ordinary recurring profits for the fiscal year, because companies assumed an average exchange rate for fiscal 2010 of 91 yen to the dollar.

Expanding emerging markets also helped boost business sentiment in the Japanese corporate sector, with many leading companies stepping up their capital investment in such countries as India and China.

In reflection of the upbeat tone of the tankan findings, Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa stated at a press conference following the bank’s policy board meeting on April 7 that “The green shoots of sustainable recovery have come into sight” and “Concern over a second dip has considerably receded.” He added, “Compared with January, business is evidently moving in a better direction.” The policy board unanimously decided to keep the benchmark interest rate at 0.1%.

Earlier, on March 15, the government issued its monthly economic report for March, which upgraded its assessment of the state of the nation’s economy to “steadily improving.” This was the first such upgrading in eight months since July of last year, when the government’s report described the domestic economy as “starting to show some signs of recovery.” According to The Nikkei on March 16, when the March report was issued, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Naoto Kan said that he was “noting some budding signs of sustainable domestic private demand recovery” on the strength of a halt in the decline of capital investment thanks to the recovery of corporate profits.

Despite these upbeat trends, however, deflation and unemployment remain persistent concerns amid weak domestic demand. Behind the deflation is overcapacity in industry, which is causing a supply-demand gap of huge proportions. A high level of unemployment leads to weak consumer spending, which is a major factor behind the sluggish domestic demand.

A major question is who bears the greater responsibility for fixing the problem of deflation, the government or the central bank? Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and BOJ Governor Shirakawa met on April 9 and agreed that the government and the central bank would work together on the issue. There is intensifying speculation that the central bank has been coming under increasing pressure from the government to take further steps for monetary relaxation. One option left for the central bank, observers suggest, is to extend the period of the new operation to supply three-month fixed-rate (0.1% per annum) funds to the market, which was introduced last December, to six months. Some analysts even see the possibility of increased government bond purchase by the central bank.

Editorial Comments (April 2)

Three newspapers unanimously called on corporations, which are enjoying rising profits, to be more aggressive in their investment and other strategies for growth.

The Yomiuri Shimbun editorial, titled “Tankan encouraging, but economy still shaky,” said, “It is disturbing to note there has been scant increase in capital investment during the last quarter, a factor indispensable for putting the economy on the road to a self-sustaining recovery led by domestic demand. During fiscal 2009, leading businesses nationwide, including manufacturers, experienced a record 30 percent decrease in corporate investment in plant and equipment, while their capital expenditure plans for fiscal 2010 are expected to post minus growth. It will be essential to encourage private-sector investment in energy-saving, environmental and other growth fields. We hope the government will quickly devise specific measures to nurture promising businesses, including tax cuts on investment.” It concluded, “What should this nation do to expand domestic demand by cashing in on its own export drive to benefit from overseas demand? The government and the private sector must join hands to exercise wisdom in crafting a new growth strategy.”

The Asahi Shimbun, in its editorial headlined “Take one step forward for investment and employment,” argued, “[To enable many people to really feel the recovery], corporations have come to the point where they should take a step forward toward expansion of capital investment and employment.” It went on, “If a second dip of business is avoidable and unless there is an unexpected turmoil, the outlook seems all right. Is not this a time for corporations to rid themselves of over-caution and assume a positive attitude in parallel with growth in Asia?”

The Mainichi Shimbun, in its editorial headlined “Time for aggressive management,” referred to prospects for a sharp increase in corporate profits in the new fiscal year and raised the issue of how companies were going to use these profits. It commented, “After the Lehman shock, cash and deposits kept by companies have swelled to the tune of 210 trillion yen in total. The economy will not improve unless this much money is recycled to funds that lead to personal consumption and new investment. Companies, however, remain cautious about both wage increases and investment in equipment.”

(Copyright 2010 Foreign Press Center, Japan)

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