Business / Economy

Japan Finance Minister Taro Aso plays down need for stimulus after tax hike

Reuters, JIJI

Finance Minister Taro Aso on Friday dismissed the need to boost fiscal stimulus to counter the impact of the consumption tax hike, despite expectations the government and the Bank of Japan may act to reduce pressure on the world’s third-largest economy.

The government rolled out a twice-delayed tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent on Tuesday in a move seen as critical to addressing the nation’s tattered finances. But there are fears the higher tax could hurt consumer spending and tip the economy into yet another recession.

This has led to speculation Tokyo will step up fiscal spending, though it has already taken measures to mitigate the pain in light of the severe economic downturn that followed the first stage of the tax hike to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting, however, Aso said he saw no major confusion among retailers and shoppers because corporate earnings and household incomes were solid.

While the U.S.-China trade war warrants attention, “We are not facing such a situation that stimulus should be taken immediately,” Aso said.

Expectations for further BOJ easing grew after Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda pledged in July to act preemptively. Signs have also emerged recently that the central bank’s nine-member Policy Board may be tilting toward further easing as global pressures intensify.

“We expect the Bank of Japan to maintain its ultra-loose monetary policy settings, and we would not rule out further easing measures if growth falters below their expectations,” Fitch Ratings said in a statement issued Friday.

“We would also not rule out additional fiscal stimulus, possibly from a supplementary budget early next year, to counter cyclical headwinds.”

Earlier on Friday, economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters it was necessary to carefully watch consumption trends as there are worries the hike may weigh on consumer sentiment.

Fitch affirmed Japan’s ‘A’/Stable rating in July, taking the tax hike and offsetting measures into account. The tax hike will help reduce Japan’s gross general government debt-to-GDP ratio to just over 220 percent by 2028, from 232 percent at present — still the highest among Fitch-rated sovereigns.

The ratings agency expects GDP growth to slow after a strong first half as external demand weakens due to slowing global growth and the U.S.-China trade war.

Growth momentum likely faltered in the July-September quarter, as highlighted by weakening consumer confidence and slowing purchases of durable goods, it said, adding that it estimates full-year 2019 growth at 0.8 percent, slowing to 0.3 percent next year.

A Cabinet Office survey showed earlier this week that consumer sentiment in Japan weakened for the 12th straight month in September, hitting its lowest since the survey started in April 2013.

The seasonally adjusted consumer confidence index dropped 1.5 points from the previous month to 35.6, ahead of Tuesday’s consumption tax increase. The index was lower than the 37.1 marked during the first stage of the hike in April 2014.