At an emergency meeting Friday, the Bank of Japan launched a new lending program worth ¥30 trillion ($279 billion) to support small businesses struggling amid the coronavirus but held off from adding major stimulus.
Following data released earlier in the day showing the nation’s key inflation rate falling below zero for the first time in more than three years, the BOJ kept its policy interest rates and asset purchases unchanged.
Instead, it chose to focus on the more pressing task of preventing bankruptcies, saving jobs and stopping an economic recession from turning into a financial crisis.
Combined with an earlier lending program and its buying of corporate bonds and commercial paper, the BOJ said its coronavirus response measures now totaled ¥75 trillion. The overall size of the record stimulus package announced by the government in response to the pandemic is ¥117 trillion.
“This was more a demonstration of the BOJ’s aggressive stance rather than the lending programs themselves,” said Masamichi Adachi, chief Japan economist at UBS Securities and a former BOJ official. “They are certainly trying to avoid the stigma of doing ‘too little, too late’ because that led to the yen strengthening after the global financial crisis.”
Still, for an emergency meeting, there was nothing in the way of surprising action that went beyond what the BOJ itself had already telegraphed. Even the new program had first been announced in April. The decision not to hold a briefing later in the day also meant Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda had no immediate opportunity to talk up the details of the new lending arrangements.
The program, due to run through March next year, won’t offer direct assistance to businesses like the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program. Instead, it will funnel money to companies via commercial banks and other financial institutions.
Like the BOJ’s other virus-lending program, the facility will encourage lending to companies by providing free loans to financial institutions and then paying them 0.1 percent interest on the amount they in turn lend out.
Adachi said it was difficult to compare the size and scope of the BOJ’s programs against those in the U.S. and Europe because of differences in the respective financial systems.
As for the possible re-emergence of deflation, economists warned that keeping the economy on track was also an important first measure to contain that risk. While the government has lifted its state of emergency for most parts of the country outside Tokyo and Hokkaido, data earlier this week showed exports plunging more than 20 percent and the economy falling into a recession that is expected to deepen sharply.
“The BOJ will say that inflation is temporarily weak because of the virus-hit economy and the plunge in oil prices, and that as soon as those effects disappear inflation will be back on a rising trend. But I don’t think that will be the case,” Adachi added.
“The Bank of Japan is moving swiftly to deliver more financial support for Japan’s hard-hit small companies, with a new ¥30 trillion loan program,” said Bloomberg economist Yuki Masujima. “If extended by commerical banks as intended, it would be a large dose — equal to 185 percent of total new loans extended in April.”
A bigger trigger to push the BOJ to lower its negative rate would be if central banks overseas introduced or lowered their negative rates first, causing the yen to strengthen, said Masaki Kuwahara, an economist at Nomura Securities.
A stronger yen would hurt exporters already hit by a demand vacuum in global trade, by further reducing the value of earnings overseas and potentially making products less price competitive.