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March jobless rate falls to four-year low

New female hires a positive sign but men lag

Kyodo

The unemployment rate fell to 4.1 percent in March, its lowest level since November 2008, the government said Tuesday, as some companies increased female employment in the hopes of an economic recovery boosting business confidence.

The figure was in line with expectations by economists at private think tanks that the jobless rate would improve for the first time in two months from 4.3 percent in February.

But an official at the Internal Affairs and Communications Minister said the government will watch developments in the labor market as the number of employed male workers decreased during the month.

Separate data showed that job availability improved, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The ratio of employment offers to seekers climbed to 0.86 in March from 0.85 in February, which means 86 positions were available for every 100 job seekers.

Some analysts said the data suggest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, aimed at bolstering domestic demand and conquering nearly two decades of deflation, have gradually rippled through the real economy.

As the yen is likely to remain on a weak note and the global economy could rebound, “exports are expected to bounce back, which would improve employment at home further,” said Masahiko Hashimoto, an economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.

In March, the number of women with jobs increased 480,000 to almost 26.7 million, while that of employed men fell 170,000 to just less than 35.8 million, the internal affairs ministry said.

For all of fiscal 2012, which ended March 31, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent from the previous year’s 4.5 percent.

The rate of job offers to seekers for the fiscal year was at 0.82, up from 0.68, improving for the third straight year.

The data also showed that consumption was robust last month as higher stock prices perked up consumer sentiment.

Average monthly household spending rose a price-adjusted 5.2 percent in March from a year earlier to ¥316,166, the internal affairs ministry said.

Household spending figures are a key indicator of private consumption, which accounts for about 60 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.

Consumer spending “has been picking up,” another official of the ministry said.

Aiming to jack up the economy, the administration led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is trying to promote what he calls the “three arrows” — bolder monetary easing, massive fiscal spending and growth strategies.

On the back of speculation that the Bank of Japan will seek to make financial conditions more attractive, the yen has fallen steeply against its major counterparts, including the dollar and the euro.

The Finance Ministry said in April that the yen weakened against the dollar by 16.1 percent on an average basis in March from a year earlier.

Share prices have also risen sharply. In March, the Nikkei 225 stock average rallied to the level it held before the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008.

A falling yen usually supports exports by making Japanese companies’ products cheaper abroad and increases the value of overseas revenue in yen terms, though it lifts import prices.