Japanese factory output drops 3.3%

RECOVERY INTACT::The decline appears to be the result of manufacturers trying to avoid a build-up of inventory. Meanwhile, the applicant-to-job ratio is at a five-year high

Reuters, TOKYO

Wed, Jul 31, 2013 - Page 15

Japan’s factory output fell by the most in more than two years last month although the labor market improved, a sign Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pro-growth policies are bearing fruit, but still have far to go to establish a durable recovery.

The first fall in industrial production in five months largely reflected manufacturers trying to avoid inventory build-up, and they forecast a brisk pick-up this month.

The best levels of unemployment and job availability since 2008 augur well for the private spending that Abe has sought to trigger through aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus since he took office in December last year.

The batch of data serves as the six-month scorecard for Abe, who is seeking to strike a balance between reviving growth and fiscal consolidation, while facing a tough decision on whether to go ahead with a planned sales tax hikes from next year.

The 3.3 percent month-on-month fall in industrial output was the largest since March 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami ripped through Japan’s northeast coastal areas, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry data showed yesterday. It missed forecasts of a 1.8 percent fall in a Reuters poll due to lower production of cars amid decline in demand at home and abroad.

Output of semiconductors also decreased, reflecting weakening demand for smartphones in Asia.

Output had risen 1.9 percent in May, and the ministry stuck to its assessment the trend was showing a moderate pick-up.

Manufacturers expect output to rise 6.5 percent this month and fall 0.9 percent next month.

“I think there is no change in the trend that production is expected to stay on a steady recovery as June trade data was good, benefits from the yen’s weakness are appearing and domestic demand is solid,” said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute.

Data on the labor market showed the jobs-to-applicants ratio rose to 0.92 last month from 0.90 in May, meaning jobs were available for more than 9 out of 10 job seekers. This marks the strongest demand for workers in five years.

The unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent last month, its lowest since October 2008.

However, wage earners’ household spending unexpectedly fell 0.4 percent last month from a year earlier, compared with a median estimate for a 1 percent increase, suggesting rapid gains in private consumption may be moderating slightly.

“We see positive numbers emerging, including a drop in the jobless rate, which is one example,” Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters.

He said a decision on whether to raise the sales tax as planned next April would be taken in the autumn.

“Certainly the mood is looking up,” he said.

There are signs Abe is rethinking the sales tax hike out of concern it could derail a nascent economic recovery. Abe has ordered a study of alternatives for implementing the tax hikes, including introducing them more gradually, government sources have said.

Japan’s economy grew at an annualized 4.1 percent rate in the first quarter, led by firm private consumption and a pickup in exports, posting the fastest growth among major economies.