Tomoyo Morie, a housewife who lives in Tokyo with her husband and teenage son, is more afraid that inflation will wreck her savings than gyrating markets.
“I could lose out from currency and stock investments, but it’s even riskier over the long term to leave money in bank deposits when prices will likely climb,” said Morie, 46, who has been investing a third of her savings in funds and currencies in the past few years. “A sense of crisis is driving me.”
For economists, there is little evidence Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been able to revive inflation in Japan, where core consumer prices, stripping out food costs and the impact of last year’s sales tax hike, have hovered near zero.
Yet households are investing more in higher-yielding assets to protect their retirement nest eggs and surveys show expectations for living cost increases are still high as retailers cut portion sizes instead of raising prices.
“It’s not the price tag, it’s the volume that’s definitely getting smaller for the same price,” Morie said. “You don’t realize it when you buy, but you are in effect paying 10 percent more. My teenage son complains about the shrinking size.”
Stock and bond investment trust assets grew ¥9.4 trillion in the first seven months, the most since the same period in 2007, to ¥101.5 trillion, according to industry association data. A Cabinet Office survey showed 87.7 percent of consumers still expect prices will increase in a year, lower than in April but still well above the 3.3 percent anticipating a decline.
“Rising inflation expectations among Japanese households may be making them feel like deposit rates are even lower,” said Akito Fukunaga, the chief Japan interest rate strategist at Barclays PLC in Tokyo. “A sharp climb in investment trusts is an act by households to defend their assets.”
Bank deposit rates average 0.02 percent, while 10-year bonds yielded 0.38 percent Thursday.
Japanese government bonds have lost 0.4 percent this year through July, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch index, while the Nikkei 225 stock average gained 18 percent in the same period.
The 10-year break-even rate, the difference between yields on conventional and index-linked bonds that indicates inflation expectations, has averaged below 1 percent this year, compared with the BOJ’s 2 percent target.
Even relatively low inflation comes as a shock to households like Morie’s, who have become accustomed to falling prices in the past couple of decades. Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda expanded the central bank’s already record asset purchase program last October as a drop in oil threatened to intensify a “deflationary mindset” in the economy.
The BOJ can achieve its inflation target with the current level of monetary stimulus, even as it stands ready to adjust policy if needed, Kuroda said at a Japan Society event in New York.
Products including processed meat such as ham and sausages as well as soaps became more expensive in June from a year ago, signaling that higher costs are becoming more widespread, government data showed. More than 60 percent of the constituents of CPI went up in price.
“The number of items where prices have gone up is growing even when the overall CPI is shrinking,” said Shumpei Fujita, an economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting.
“That leads to a sense of burden from living costs. Essentials becoming more costly is prompting defensive moves to foster money.”
While gasoline and electricity expenses have come down on the back of a more than 50 percent drop in crude oil prices in the last 12 months, “sharp deflation” has been confined to limited items, said Fukunaga at Barclays. “Inflation is widespread.”
“How do I fill the gap between future price rises and deposit rates that don’t rise?” said Morie. “To make sure I can sustain the current living standard, I must do my best now to boost savings.”