Japanese factories churned out a better-than-expected performance in April, but the upbeat data Friday was tempered as the export powerhouse remained mired in deflation.
Economists were keeping a close eye on a string of data released Friday morning — including factory output, unemployment, inflation and household spending figures — for clues as to whether a plan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his hand-picked team at the Bank of Japan (BoJ) was taking hold.
Dubbed “Abenomics”, the policy prescription of big government spending and aggressive central bank easing to stoke the world’s third-largest economy has helped push the yen into a steep decline which benefits Japan’s exporters.
Investors have cheered the moves, sending the Nikkei 225 soaring since December as the benchmark stock index skyrocketed nearly 60 percent at one stage before jaw-dropping volatility in the past week saw a 7.3 one-day tumble and another decline of more than 5.0 percent on Thursday.
The index had bounced back in early Friday trade, rising 1.80 percent, as markets reacted to a weakening yen and the economy ministry figures which showed an April factory output rise of 1.7 percent rise over a month earlier.
The rise, the fifth-consecutive monthly increase, was evidence “industrial production shows signs of picking up at a moderate pace”, the ministry said.
Separate figures showed the nation’s jobless rate was flat at a multi-year low of 4.1 percent last month.
The data comes after Japan said this month its economy grew again in the quarter to March, confirming its exit from recession.
On Wednesday, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development slashed its growth forecast for the world’s most advanced economies, except Japan, in an apparent nod to the country’s prospects.
Tokyo and the BoJ have also upped their annual growth estimates while the International Monetary Fund was to release its own outlook later Friday.
But a survey of manufacturers Friday showed Japanese producers were cautious, expecting May factory output to be flat before slipping 1.4 percent in June.
Also Friday, household spending came in lower than expected while Japan’s consumer prices fell 0.4 percent year-on-year in April, underscoring the tough task in reversing years of falling prices that have crimped private spending and business investment.
Japan’s stubborn deflation is a key target of Abe’s economy-boosting measures, with the Bank of Japan pledging to meet a two percent inflation target within two years.
However, some observers — and even several BoJ board members — have cast doubt on the ambitious target.
“I don’t think inflation will pick up by this autumn,” Daisuke Karakama, market economist at Mizuho Corporate Bank, told Dow Jones Newswires.
“The question will be what the BoJ is going to do this autumn and next spring. There aren’t many cards left in their hands” after the bank unleashed huge monetary easing measures earlier this year, he said.
The BoJ moves — similar to the US Federal Reserve’s massive bond-buying programme, known as quantitative easing — have helped weaken the yen with the Japanese unit trading around 101 against the dollar Friday, about 25 percent lower than late last year.
A weaker currency makes exporters more competitive overseas and inflates repatriated foreign income which, in turn, tends to lift their shares.
But it also makes imports more expensive and has sent Japan’s energy bills soaring as Tokyo turned to pricey fossil-fuel alternatives after shutting nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima atomic crisis two years ago.
Yen weakness was partly to blame for Japan earlier this month posting its worst April trade deficit on record.
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