Tokyo, Japan. Picture: ISTOCK
Tokyo, Japan. Picture: ISTOCK

Tokyo — Japanese business sentiment worsened for the first time in two years in the quarter to March, a central bank survey showed on Monday, as rising raw materials and labour costs weigh on an otherwise steady economic recovery.

A strong yen and simmering fears of a trade war, triggered by US President Donald Trump’s move to impose tariffs on Chinese goods, could further undermine corporate morale if threats of retaliation escalate, analysts say.

But few analysts expect the economic recovery to falter as confidence remains at a decade-high and companies plan to increase capital expenditure.

"Yen gains since late January have eroded manufacturers’ sentiment, but solid global economic fundamentals helped offset the pain. Overall, you can say business confidence held firm," said Yuichiro Nagai, a Barclays Securities economist.

"Fears of a global trade war have had a limited impact on business sentiment so far. But depending on development of US trade policy, protectionism could weigh on the outlook." An index measuring big manufacturers’ confidence fell by two points to plus 24 in March, the Bank of Japan’s quarterly "tankan" survey showed, matching a median market forecast of plus 25.

Nonmanufacturers’ sentiment worsened by two points to plus 23 against a median forecast of plus 24, deteriorating for the first time in six quarters.

Both big manufacturers and nonmanufacturers forecast business conditions would sour three months ahead, the tankan showed, reflecting looming uncertainty over the fallout from Trump’s trade policy and a strong yen.

"This should not be taken as a turning point for Japan’s eco-nomy although sentiment deteriorated slightly," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

"Concerns are high over possible retaliation against US tariffs, but the global economy remains in a gradual recovery, which is good for Japan’s value-added exports." About 70% of companies replied to the survey by March 12, after Trump unveiled steep tariffs on steel and aluminium imports but before his announcement of anti-China tariffs.

Big manufacturers expect the dollar to move about ¥109.66 on average during the year that began in April, much weaker than the present ¥106.

If the yen’s gains continue, manufacturers may be forced to cut their optimistic profit forecasts — a worry for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is pursuing growth with reflationist policies.

Labour shortages 

Labour shortages weighed on sentiment as economic recovery and a dwindling working-age population push the jobless rate to a 25-year low.

A tankan index measuring capacity constraints showed that companies saw the job market at its tightest since 1991.

"Labour shortages are having a negative impact, particularly on labour-intensive service-sector firms," said Satoshi Osanai, senior economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.

He said rising wages could stoke a "virtuous growth cycle" of consumer spending, rising prices and increased investment if companies could pass on their higher costs to generate profit.

"The key to making this happen is whether consumers are willing to spend their increased earnings, but so far there’s little sign of that happening."

Slow wage growth and companies’ reluctance to raise prices have kept inflation well below the Bank of Japan’s elusive 2% target.