Japan Inc. builds mountain of cash

by Toru Fujioka


Japanese companies’ cash holdings rose to a record last quarter, highlighting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s struggle to spur the investment and wage increases needed to end a 15-year deflationary malaise.

Corporate holdings of cash and deposits rose to ¥224 trillion, up 5.9 percent from a year earlier, according to a Bank of Japan report released Thursday.

The yen’s 17 percent slide against the dollar this year has boosted exporters’ profits, contributing to a cash pile similar in size to Russia’s gross domestic product. As Abe campaigns to reflate the world’s third-biggest economy, he’s relying on company spending to drive a longer-term recovery once the jolt from the unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus wears off.

“Companies still have a deflationary mindset,” said Shinichiro Kobayashi, a senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. “It will take a while for them to start to increase investment and wages.'”

The Bank of Japan’s latest Tankan survey showed large companies lowering their projections for investment this fiscal year, which ends in March. Regular wages excluding overtime and bonuses fell 0.7 percent in October from a year earlier, a 17th straight monthly decline.

The BOJ on Friday kept its unprecedented easing while signaling progress in its fight against deflation, targeting an annual expansion of ¥60 trillion to ¥70 trillion in the monetary base. The decision was in line with forecasts of all 35 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.

In an interview this month, Abe urged companies to increase wages faster than the cost of living to break the legacy of deflation.

“What we want is for wages to rise more than prices,” Abe said in an interview in the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo. “We want to enter a virtuous cycle as quickly as possible,” where economic growth propels corporate profits, employers raise compensation and workers spend more, he said.

The prime minister has called four meetings since September with union and business leaders to persuade them to build a consensus on the need for higher wages. The next one was to be held Friday, with those attending to include Hiromasa Yonekura, head of the Keidanren business lobby and chairman of Sumitomo Chemical Co., according to the Cabinet Office.

The central bank’s artificial efforts to stoke 2 percent inflation are adding urgency to the task as consumer prices start to pick up as the weakened yen makes energy and food imports most costly. In addition, Abe needs to navigate the economy through the first stage of a sales-tax increase in April that will damp consumption and is forecast to trigger a quarter point contraction.

Large firms plan to boost spending 4.6 percent in the year ending March, compared with a 5.1 percent projected three months ago, the BOJ’s “tankan” survey said this week.

“We still don’t find any evidence that corporates are really starting to get confident about the sustainability of the recovery and actually ramping up domestic investment,” Izumi Devalier, a Japan economist at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong, said this week. “And that remains a worry in an environment where consumption is going to weaken next year.”

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