Japan’s economy expanded at a rapid clip at the start of the year, the first hard evidence that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sweeping stimulus is beginning to rouse consumers and businesses into action even as risks loomed on the horizon.
Corporate investment, seen as an essential ingredient of a sustained recovery, fell for the fifth consecutive quarter, though analysts expect improved business sentiment will eventually translate into more spending.
GDP rose 0.9 percent from the previous quarter, against the median forecast of a 0.7 percent rise in a Reuters poll of 24 analysts.
That translated into an annualized 3.5 percent growth, the fastest in a year, and topped a 1 percent rise in the fourth quarter, cementing a turnaround from six months of contraction last year.
It also outpaced US growth in the same period for the second straight quarter. The last time Japan’s growth trumped that of the world’s biggest economy was in the first quarter last year.
“Personal consumption was really strong and exports did better than expected. Stock gains and expectations for higher salaries are driving consumption now,” said Hiroaki Muto, senior economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co in Tokyo.
The Japanese Cabinet Office data — which covers the first full quarter since Abe’s return to power in late December — is viewed as the first comprehensive report card on his plan to revive the world’s third-largest economy.
The solid readings validate Abe’s “three-arrow” strategy to break a deflationary cycle and should help him retain high support ahead of an election for the upper house of parliament in July. Victory would give his Liberal Democratic Party control of both houses of parliament.
The first-quarter gain mainly reflects the psychological effects of improved expectations boosting domestic demand, as households responded to the wealth-creating effects of a soaring stock market.
Abe is hoping to jolt the economy out of its two-decade-long slumber with his “Abenomics” policy mix of unprecedented monetary stimulus, extra budget spending and promised pro-growth policies, and analysts expect those efforts to pay off in the months ahead.
Sumitomo Mitsui’s Muto said that despite a slow recovery in capital expenditure the economy should maintain its momentum.
“The GDP data would suggest that things are going well for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heading into the upper house election,” he said.
The key to more lasting improvement will be whether the benefits reaped by exporters from the yen’s rapid retreat will filter through to a broader economy, kicking off a virtuous cycle of more jobs, higher wages, profits and investment.
This is crucial if Abe’s gamble is to pay dividends, with critics questioning the Bank of Japan’s plan to flood the economy with money to the tune of US$1.4 trillion in two years.
The bank’s plan to double its government debt holdings has sent the yen sharply lower against the dollar and boosted share prices by 70 percent since November, as Tokyo banks on Japan’s export-reliant economy kicking into high gear on the back of a cheap currency.
“There is certain demand for capex among companies as exports are expected to recover, some firms need to update their facilities and there will be positive effect from the government’s extra budget. I think capital spending will rise in April to June,” said Yuichi Kodama, chief economist at Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance.