BOJ officials ‘disappointed’ with unambitious salary talks

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Bank of Japan officials are increasingly expressing disappointment at subdued annual wage talks, according to people familiar with the discussions, making next week’s monetary-policy decision a closer call.

Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda has said publicly that pay raises have been muted given the tighter jobs market and surging corporate profits. His concern has been echoed by officials as the central bank’s board prepares for a Jan. 28-29 meeting, according to the people, who asked not to be identified as the talks were private.

The BOJ is considering cutting its inflation forecasts and postponing the timing for reaching a price target as a renewed decline in oil prices raises the chances of inflation failing to pick up, according to the people. A postponement would be the third in less than a year.

The central bank’s current forecast has it hitting 2 percent inflation around the six months through March 2017.

Labor unions’ decision to seek a smaller gain for the year starting in April compared to the current fiscal year indicates that inflation expectations are not rising, the sources said. Kuroda has said he is counting on these expectations and a positive output gap to propel Japan to the price goal.

Widespread concern about limited wage increases underscores how this month’s policy decision is increasingly seen as being in play. JPMorgan Chase & Co. on Monday advanced its forecast for expanded monetary easing to April, while declining to rule out a Jan. 29 move. A strengthening yen threatens to undercut wage talks, and makes the BOJ’s 2 percent inflation target even more distant.

It is becoming increasingly likely that an annual increase in base salaries next fiscal year will be lower than this year as labor unions at Japan’s biggest companies are seeking a smaller gain in the spring wage talks.

Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby, did not recommend that its members accept a base-salary increase for the next year. That was the first time in three years that they have refrained from doing so, TV Tokyo reported Tuesday.

The umbrella labor group representing workers at Toyota Motor Corp. and its related companies said it is cutting in half the minimum increase it is seeking for next fiscal year compared with the talks this year.

At this point in companies’ activities, momentum is not growing for wage increases, despite a tight labor market, the central bank said in a quarterly regional report released Monday.

A potential roadblock to further monetary easing is the political climate in the run-up to midyear elections. Lower energy costs are a boon to households that have been cutting back on spending amid weak income gains. The BOJ acting to counter the effects of deflationary pressures could be unpopular before the July vote, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces an Upper House election. He has not ruled out a Lower House ballot as well.

On the business front, some corporate executives are resisting any expansion of the already record monetary stimulus. Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said Monday that the central bank should not ease more amid concerns about the sustainability of its asset purchase program, according to the group’s website.

The yen strengthened about 3 percent against the dollar since the previous BOJ meeting on Dec. 18, the most among major currencies. A strong yen was a factor in Japan’s prolonged deflation, weighing on exporters’ profits and lowering the price of imported goods.

Former Vice Finance Minister Eisuke Sakakibara said last week that while doubts over the global economy are strengthening the yen, the currency probably will not gain enough to hurt Japan’s exporters.

JPMorgan’s Masaaki Kanno expects the BOJ’s price projection will be cut to 0.8 percent from 1.4 percent for the year starting in April.

There is a good chance that the central bank will postpone the timing of reaching the inflation target to around fiscal 2017 or the second half of fiscal 2017, said Kanno, who is also a former BOJ official.

The central bank assumed the Dubai crude oil price will gradually rise from $50 per barrel when it updated its inflation outlook in October. The commodity fell to $24.22 Monday, the lowest since 2003 after never approaching the BOJ’s estimate.