Japan out of puff after public works stimulus wears off

Nearly a year after Japanese people began to hope that their economy could turn around under new leadership, a sense of realism is replacing the euphoria.

Nearly a year after Japanese people began to hope that their economy could turn around under new leadership, a sense of realism is replacing the euphoria.

Economists and investors have grasped just how difficult it will be for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to sustain the growth of the past few months. Nowhere is that sentiment more evident than on the Japanese sharemarket. The Nikkei 225 Index is now nearly 40 per cent above where it started the year, but the gains during the past four months have been slight - just 3.4 per cent.

The economic recovery Abe engineered during the past year has been remarkable given the decades in which Japan languished. Buoyed by a pick-up in public works spending and a Bank of Japan policy of flooding the economy with low-interest money, growth has accelerated markedly. Deflation, the country's biggest economic problem, seems to have disappeared.

The Japanese central bank said this week that it expected the economy to expand 1.5 per cent in the year starting next April, up from a previous forecast of 1.3 per cent.

The yen, whose persistent strength weighed on Japan's export sector for years, has fallen more than 20 per cent against the US dollar over the past year, making Japanese goods more competitive in comparison with rivals from South Korea and elsewhere.

That has helped corporate earnings recover. Nippon Steel, for example, has raised its profit forecast for the year by 13 per cent, buoyed by government infrastructure spending, which has increased demand for steel in Japan. Honda Motor this week said it was on track for a 43 per cent jump in full-year operating profit.

For many ordinary Japanese and small businesses, however, the benefits so far are less tangible.

"There is no Abenomics effect at all here," say Wakana Otake, the owner of a shop that sells fancy ties in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo. "We heard luxury items sell well in department stores and so on", but her shop had felt no benefit so far.

"It's actually worse than last year, and last year was worse than the previous year. It's getting worse and worse for the last seven or eight years, I think. I wonder when I will finally see the bottom."

Her comments were echoed by Ryuichi Mizukami, who works at a nearby camera and photo shop. "Nothing has changed. Sales are about the same as last year. Prices are the same. We don't feel any Abenomics effect here yet."

Looking ahead, economists say some of the hardest work remains to be done. Japan's leaders still have not taken on the far-reaching structural changes to make the country's businesses more competitive. Without reform, economists fear Japan could slide back into the deflation mode that dogged it for more than a decade.

Nicknamed the "third arrow" of Abe's economic policy, reform efforts include making the labour market more flexible, improving productivity in the service sector, and bringing more women into the workforce. Under a growth strategy laid out in June, Mr Abe also set the goal of creating special economic zones that would relax some regulations and attract foreign investors.

But many of the plans laid out in June lack detail and risk being watered down, analysts say. Similarly, plans to lower corporate taxes - seen as crucial to bolstering Japan's competitiveness and encouraging foreign investment - will not be finalised until December.

"There is a sense that the series of strong announcements has been replaced by mere holding statements," says Gary Dugan, chief investment officer for Asia and the Middle East for wealth management company Coutts.

The third arrow of the recovery plan seems to be "veering off target", he says. "We have scaled back our optimism on Japanese equities until there are clear signs that measures to help the economy are being brought back on track."

Another problem is that the economic improvement of the past year has yet to directly affect many Japanese households. Although the job market is tight and unemployment is low, companies have so far resisted making large investments or raising salaries.

Government data this week underlined this point. Workers' total earnings edged up just 0.1 per cent in September, compared with a year earlier, and summer bonus payments rose just 0.3 per cent.

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