Japan economy stalls as incomes, spending languish

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's vital signs remained weak in July, as wages fell further and household spending dropped, signaling continued weakness in the world's third-largest economy.

Data released Friday showed inflation was flat, with the core consumer price index that excluding volatile fresh food prices, at 3.3 percent, was the same as a month earlier. Much of the increase stems from a 2 percentage point increase in the sales tax in April, which has since sapped much of the steam from Japan's recovery.

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government and central bank have sought to spur inflation on the premise that it would goad businesses and consumers into spending more instead of saving money in anticipation of lower prices in the future.

That strategy, dubbed "Abenomics," has made some headway in ending the long spell of deflation that slowed growth for much of the past two decades. But inflation remains below the official target of 2 percent, excluding the boost from the tax hike, and so far there are only scant signs of the desired "virtuous cycle" of higher corporate spending to sustain growth in the long term.

Real incomes fell 6.2 percent in July from a year earlier, as the unemployment rate edged higher, to 3.8 percent from 3.7 percent in June. Softness in the labor market would counter any moves toward higher wages that might help spur more consumer demand.

The economy contracted by 6.8 percent in the April-June quarter, following a surge early in the year as businesses and families stepped up buying ahead of the sales hike, which raised the consumption tax to 8 percent from 5 percent. The government plans extra stimulus spending to counter tax hike's lingering effects.

Industrial production did rise slightly in July, by 0.2 percent in July from the month before, but was down 0.9 percent from a year earlier in seasonally adjusted terms, the Ministry of Trade and Industry reported.

"Today's data on industrial production and retail sales show that the economy continued to stagnate at the start of the third quarter," economist Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics said in a commentary. Although a survey showed companies expect output to increase in August and gain further momentum in September, "these forecasts have tended to overestimate the future pace of expansion in the past," he said.

Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda told fellow central bank chiefs earlier this month that the bank plans to continue its "extremely accommodative monetary stance" until inflation has risen to the bank's 2 percent target. He said the bank's support could be expanded if necessary.

With inflation "running out of steam," growth is likely to moderate even after the recovery resumes as expected in coming months, Credit Agricole said in a research note.

It said that rising inventories "will weigh on the recovery of production into months ahead."