Large manufacturers feeling confident about business conditions outnumbered those who are pessimistic in September for the first time in 33 months, a Bank of Japan “tankan” survey showed Wednesday. But analysts said it is still too soon to cheer.
With exports and continuing domestic demand for electronics goods and machinery giving companies a lift, the business sentiment index for major manufacturers stood at plus 1 in September, up from minus 5 in June.
It was the second straight quarterly improvement.
The index represents the percentage of companies reporting that business conditions are good minus those reporting that conditions are bad.
But conditions look far weaker for smaller businesses and nonmanufacturers, the tankan shows. Overall sentiment among large nonmanufacturers remained unchanged at minus 13, and although sentiment improved at smaller firms, pessimism continues to far outweigh optimism for nonexporters.
By underlining the role of exports in the economy, the quarterly tankan may give ammunition to corporations and politicians pushing for a weaker yen, while smaller firms are increasingly being left to fend for themselves, analysts said.
“For a small company, it doesn’t matter much if things are better if you’re still struggling to make ends meet,” said Hiroyuki Yagi, a corporate turnaround specialist for small firms and head of the consulting firm Central Research Institute, Inc. “The small-business owner is spending less and using his own salary to pay for employees.”
Small manufacturers polled are slashing projected spending this year by 8.2 percent from the previous year, the tankan shows. Meanwhile, large manufacturers said they are ready to translate more profits into factories and equipment, projecting a 11.1 percent rise in spending.
Pretax profits at all companies polled are projected to grow year-on-year by 10.4 percent for the current business year, with small manufacturers projecting a 26.9 percent boost in profits. But these profits will be funneled to pay off debts, Yagi said.
The protracted economic slump is increasingly highlighting the gap between the strong and the weak, as those with financial stamina finish paying off debts and begin investing in forward-looking equipment.
Senior politicians have affirmed that Japan’s economic structure still holds, and profits at large companies will trickle down and translate into business for subcontractors and smaller companies.
“If business is bad for big companies, business can’t get better for small companies; in this way, it is important that large companies and manufacturers work to pull the economy forward,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said.
That logic in turn is behind Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki’s rhetorical call Wednesday for “gradual changes in the exchange rate reflecting economic fundamentals.”
The very factors helping big companies now show signs of faltering. The dollar has fallen to settle at 111 yen, while surveys show 10-year lows in U.S. consumer sentiment, indicating Americans may not be as eager to buy more pricey Japanese products.
“The tankan shows recovery is export-led, and remains largely with the manufacturers,” said Peter Morgan, chief economist of HSBC Securities in Japan. A stronger yen may dampen the budding recovery.
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