Economy skids, clouding BoJ’s rate hike targets

Fragile recovery: People in an underground subway concourse in Tokyo. Japan’s economy suffered a 2% contraction in the first quarter, official data show. — AFP

TOKYO: Japan’s economy fell faster than expected in the first quarter as the weak yen continues to batter consumers, throwing a fresh challenge to the central bank’s push to get interest rates further away from near zero.

Preliminary gross domestic product (GDP) data from the Cabinet Office yesterday showed Japan’s economy shrank 2% annualised in January-March from the prior quarter, faster than the 1.5% drop seen in a Reuters poll of economists.

Downwardly revised data showed GDP barely grew in the fourth quarter of 2023, due to downgrades to capital expenditure estimates.

While preliminary capital spending data is often subject to heavy revisions in the final release, the across-the-board declines in all GDP components suggest Japan’s economy had no major growth engine in the first quarter.

That could create some hesitation for the Bank of Japan (BoJ), which raised interest rates in March for the first time since 2007 and has since signalled its intention to continue tightening policy.

“It would be possible that the timing of rate hikes could be pushed back depending on how the GDP may rebound in the current quarter,” said Yoshimasa Maruyama, chief market economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

He said while the economy would certainly rebound in the current quarter due to rising wages, uncertainty remains around consumption in the service sector.

The latest GDP reading translates into a quarterly contraction of 0.5%, versus a 0.4% decline expected by economists. Revised first quarter figures will be released on June 10.

The weak yen has created a two-speed economy in Japan, with the export and tourism sectors broadly benefiting from a more competitive exchange rate but households and small businesses squeezed by inflated costs of imported goods.

Toru Suehiro, chief economist at Daiwa Securities, said the yen’s weakness complicates the question of whether the BoJ should maintain its monetary stimulus or continue to unwind it.

“The adverse effects of a weaker yen are becoming a cause for concern so one can argue that interest rates should be raised,” Suehiro said.

“Although real wages are likely to turn slightly positive in the second half of this year, the level of real wages will not rise sharply as the yen continues to weaken.”

Japan’s large businesses delivered the biggest wage hikes in three decades this year, which the BoJ says provided the conditions needed to finally end decades of radical monetary stimulus.

However, thrifty households have since tightened their purse strings as price hikes outpaced wage gains, squeezing real incomes and diminishing their purchasing power.

Private consumption, which accounts for more than half of the Japanese economy, fell 0.7%, bigger than the forecast 0.2% drop. It was the fourth straight quarter of decline, the longest streak since 2009.

Economists are hopeful the first-quarter weakness will prove temporary and expect the drag to growth from an earthquake in the Noto area this year and the suspension of operations at Toyota’s Daihatsu unit to dissipate. — Reuters

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