Saturday, 27 November, 2021

Japan’s prices rise on higher energy costs

TOKYO: Japan finally has an inflation pulse and the gains are much stronger than they first appear, a factor that could start to influence speculation over the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) policy path.

While the first rise in key consumer prices in 18 months was just 0.1 per cent in September, once the impact of slashed mobile-phone fees is removed, core inflation is closer to 1.4 per cent, showed a Bloomberg calculation, report agencies.

The sharp reductions in cellphone charges stem from a campaign of public pressure on mobile carriers to reduce fees by former prime minister Yoshihide Suga.

Unlike the debate over whether accelerating inflation around the world is transitory, the impact of cheaper phones in Japan will be temporary and will drop out of data next spring, likely causing a sharp rise in the key inflation figure.

“When the effects of mobile-phone fee cuts fade out in April, the inflation readings will jump up and people will have to recognise that inflation is happening even in Japan,” said Takuji Aida, the chief economist at Okasan Securities.

Price growth at 1.4 per cent would be the strongest in 6.5 years.

While sharply higher commodity costs are the main driver of the uptick, there is anecdotal evidence that some businesses are carefully asking households to embrace higher price tags.

Nisshin Seifun, a flour mill company, announced a price hike last week. In search of understanding, it devoted a web page to explain the decision with charts of the

US dollar-yen exchange rate and the rise in shipping costs.

Citigroup economists said on Friday (Oct 22) that inflation could reach around 1.5 per cent in spring next year when the phone factor disappears.

In the case of a further rise in oil prices and a weaker yen, it could even hit 2 per cent, analysts at Morgan Stanley wrote in a report.

While those are big ifs, those kinds of readings could give the central bank scope for tweaking its policy settings.

“The BOJ might conduct adjustment to steepen the yield curve to some extent” in the second half of 2022, taking advantage of higher inflation to take a step aimed at ensuring financial system stability, Takeshi Yamaguchi and Hiromu Uezato of Morgan Stanley wrote in their note.

In July 2018, when Japan’s inflation was around 1 per cent, the BOJ loosened its control of 10-year bond yields, a move that 79 per cent of economists labelled as stealth tapering.

“I don’t think we are at a point where the BOJ should take action, but we are at a point where we need to watch inflation very carefully,” said Nobuyasu Atago, former head of price statistics division at the BOJ and chief economist at Ichiyoshi Securities.

“Once the market starts to realise that inflation is there and tests the level of the yield target, the BOJ could act in response to that by widening its band,” he added.

The bank has a zero per cent target for 10-year government debt and allows movements of a quarter percentage point either side of it.