Recession risks prod BOJ to strengthen forward guidance in April

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Japan flag Reuters

Risks of a recession and heightening global uncertainties pushed Japan's central bank to commit to keeping interest rates at super-low levels for at least one more year, a summary of discussions at the April policy review showed.

The nine-member board also debated the pros and cons of ramping up stimulus further, with one member warning that further declines in borrowing costs could do more harm than good to the economy, the summary showed on Friday.

"Depending on overseas developments and the impact of a scheduled domestic sales tax hike, there remains a risk Japan may slide into recession," a board member was quoted as saying.

At the April meeting, the BOJ kept intact a pledge to guide short-term interest rates at minus 0.1 percent and long-term rates around zero percent via aggressive bond buying.

But it put a time frame on its forward guidance for the first time by telling investors it would keep rates at super-low levels for at least one more year, in a move to dispel any doubt over its commitment to its ultra-easy policy.

Some in the board warned of a gloomy price outlook in April, complaining of weak inflation expectations and uncertainties over the prospect of hitting their 2 percent price goal through the fiscal year ending in March 2022, the summary showed.

One board member said the BOJ must be ready to ease policy further "decisively and flexibly" if the economy lost momentum towards achieving 2 percent inflation, the summary showed.

Another member argued, however, that further monetary easing could be counter-productive as it would hurt commercial banks and discourage them to lend out money.

"Further declines in interest rates could aggravate the demerits of monetary easing more than boosting the economy," according to the summary.

Escalating U.S.-China trade tensions have hit exports and factory output, stoking fears Japan's economy may have suffered a contraction in the first three months of this year.

Some analysts fret a scheduled domestic sales tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent in October may also cool consumption.

The BOJ is in a bind. Years of heavy money printing have failed to fire up inflation to its 2 percent target and left it with little ammunition to fight the next recession.

Prolonged easing has also added to pains for regional banks, already facing slumping profits due to an ageing population and an exodus of borrowers to big cities.