Big manufacturers grew less optimistic about business conditions as global stock markets fell and concern about the future of the U.S. economy grew, according to the Bank of Japan’s latest “tankan” corporate sentiment survey released Monday.

The results of the quarterly survey, conducted from Feb. 23 to March 30, show that the headline index for big manufacturers, a key driver of the economy, fell to 23 points from 25 in the December survey, the first drop in a year.

“A global stock slump at the end of February dented the business sentiment of Japanese corporations, and industrial production (for manufacturing) has recently peaked,” said Takashi Imamura, chief economist at Marubeni Research Institute.

But the drop in sentiment might be an anomaly because the economy overall is steadily expanding, he said.

“Big companies were too pessimistic because of the global stock slump, which coincidently took place during the survey period,” he said.

The tankan index reflects the percentage of companies that say business conditions are favorable to those that say otherwise. A positive number means optimists outnumber pessimists. The survey covered 10,958 companies that were asked for details on their sales, profit, capital spending, hiring and overall sentiment.

One bright sign for the economy is that large manufacturers plan to increase annual spending on plants and equipment by 2.9 percent for the business year that started Sunday, the survey showed. Manufacturers usually have a pessimistic view of capital expenditures at the start of the year, waiting to revise their plans upward later on.

Compared with the previous year, however, the pace of investment is likely to slow because those same companies boosted investment 11.9 percent in the year that ended Saturday.

Sentiment at large nonmanufacturers stayed at about 22, the survey showed.

The financial condition of large companies remains pretty good overall, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said at a news conference.

“The gradual expansion of the economy is continuing,” the government’s top spokesman said.

Domestic economic growth is being led by capital spending and exports, Imamura said. But one major risk to Japan’s growth appears to be the U.S. economy. Economists said companies are more cautious now because the U.S. economy — Japan’s biggest export destination — is facing the risk of a slowdown that may dent exports.

Exporters are worried a surge in U.S. mortgage defaults in the subprime loan market will hurt spending there and slow Japanese exports, said Kazuo Mizuno, chief economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities Co.

According to the tankan, big manufacturers estimate that exports probably rose 12.6 percent in fiscal 2006.

“They are too upbeat about exports,” Mizuno warned.

He also noted that the gaps in sentiment between big, small and midsize companies are expanding. The tankan result for small-to-midsize companies, for example, is 8, down from 12 in the previous survey.

The tankan is often taken as an indicator for interest rate hikes, but the latest figures “will not probably change the widespread view that the central bank will be slow to make another rate hike,” said Imamura, adding the next hike will probably take place after the Upper House election in July.

The BOJ doubled interest rates to 0.5 percent in February.

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