Business / Corporate

Japan's traders call 2015 pivotal year as oil, yen aid growth

Bloomberg

Japan’s biggest trading houses are calling 2015 a pivotal year for the world’s third-largest economy as cheap oil, easy money and a weaker yen promise to boost growth.

Twenty-five years on from the bursting of the bubble economy, which brought decades of deflation, the nation is at a turning point with potential for “painful improvement” in the areas of employment, agriculture and health, Marubeni Corp. Chief Executive Officer Fumiya Kokubu said in a New Year’s greeting to staff, posted on the trading house’s website.

A confluence of factors gives Japan a unique advantage, according to Mitsubishi Corp., the nation’s biggest trader.

“Japan, possibly for the first time, is in a situation where there’s cheap oil, a weak yen and zero interest rates,” Mitsubishi CEO Ken Kobayashi said in his New Year’s greeting. “After a wobbly political period, it is now time to set forth mid- to long-term government policy.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called and won an early election in December to regain momentum for an economic strategy that seeks to pair monetary easing with business deregulation. Among other changes, Abe is seeking to weaken the influence of the JA Group, the nation’s largest agricultural lobby, and encourage companies to raise wages.

The prime minister has said he will pursue more reforms this year and the economy will be his priority.

“We’re ready for a mind reset and to put our backs into the effort to make this a year of economic growth,” Kobayashi said. “The key word this year is ‘implementation.’ This’ll be the year of implementation of economic policy.”

As crude oil prices fell almost 50 percent last year, the impact on Japan’s trading houses has been “tremendous” as the companies rely on sales of energy, metals and minerals for a significant part of their profits, Itochu Corp. CEO Masahiro Okafuji said in his New Year’s greeting to staff, also posted online.

That development should help Itochu, which has steered investments in recent years to nonresource assets, to earn profits on par with its two bigger rivals Mitsubishi and Mitsui & Co., Okafuji said.

Movements in currencies, crude oil and geopolitics will be the three dominant themes of 2015, according to Sumitomo Corp. CEO Kuniharu Nakamura.

The trader, which said in September that profit in the year to March 31 will be almost wiped out by a ¥240 billion writedown of U.S. shale and other assets, is on target to boost net income to ¥400 billion by 2019, Nakamura said.

This year may bring geopolitical challenges and commodity-market volatility, according to Mitsui CEO Masami Iijima. Still, it will be mostly positive for the global economy, he said.

“Globalization is continuing to draw us closer together, and it has become clear that when countries share closer links they also share deeper responsibilities,” Iijima said in a New Year’s message posted on Mitsui’s website.

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