Japan falls into recession, monetary expansion awaits

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Japan’s economy unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter, failing to escape a mild recession and playing into the hands of a government pushing for more aggressive monetary expansion that’s drawn international criticism.

While a 0.1 percent drop in output defied expectations of a slight uptick after two quarters of contraction, economists expect the economy will slowly recover this year with the help of bolder monetary and fiscal stimulus and an improving global economy.

The Bank of Japan also struck a more positive note on the economy while keeping its policy on hold after it boosted its monetary stimulus and doubled its inflation target to 2 percent a month ago.

Markets, however, have no doubt that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will keep pushing the central bank for more, given the still fragile state of the economy. A return to rising prices also appears far off after nearly two decades of low-grade deflation.

Monetary expansion against deflation

Those expectations for further easing have sent the yen into retreat, driving it down nearly 20 percent against the dollar since November and stirring an international debate over whether Japan was effectively using aggressive money printing to steer the yen lower. Tokyo has defended its action, saying its policies are aimed at pulling the country out of deflation, not at nudging down the yen, and Governor Masaaki Shirakawa is expected to reinforce that argument when he will attend his last Group of 20 finance leaders’ meeting in Moscow this weekend.

Japan has said the Group of Seven rich nations accepted Tokyo’s view when it declared in a statement on Tuesday that fiscal and monetary policies would not be directed at devaluing currencies. But remarks from former BOJ governor Kazumasa Iwata yesterday are likely to rekindle the international debate on Tokyo’s true motives.

The yen is still overvalued from a trade perspective and the reversal of the currency’s strength is essential for the Bank of Japan to achieve its 2-percent inflation target, Iwata was quoted as saying by a Japanese ruling party official.

Iwata, considered one of the leading candidates to replace Shirakawa when he leaves his post in March, said the dollar at 95 yen was appropriate.

Iwata heads a private economics think-tank and now has no policymaking role.

 

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