Japan says prices 'rising moderately' for first time in more than five years

Wed Feb 19, 2014 5:31am EST
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By Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government described consumer prices as "rising moderately", using that wording for the first time since October 2008, a sign that the economy is making steady progress towards exiting 15 years of stubborn deflation.

The government, in its monthly economic report on Wednesday, stopped short of declaring victory in its battle against deflation. But officials said signs that price rises are spreading justified the more upbeat description.

The assessment, following a similar view on Tuesday by the Bank of Japan, comes even as the world's third-biggest economy grows less than expected and faces headwinds from a looming sales-tax increase.

Growth stagnated in the fourth quarter at an annualized 1.0 percent rate, a tick slower than the third quarter and well below forecasts of 2.8 percent, weighed by weak exports, private consumption and capital spending. This followed a big monthly drop in machinery orders, a leading gauge for business investment.

One of Japan's key trading partners and closest political allies, the United States, expressed concerned about the outlook. "Japan's economy has been largely driven by domestic demand over the last two years, but the outlook for domestic demand has clouded," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a letter, obtained by Reuters on Tuesday, to the Group of 20 big industrial and developing powers.

Nonetheless, Japan's Cabinet Office said in the monthly report that the economy is "recovering moderately," backed by private consumption and pickup in capital spending.

"The fourth quarter growth undershot the market forecast but it still exceeded Japan's potential growth rate, so it's appropriate to describe the recovery as moderate," said an official in charge of compiling the report.

Analysts say the success of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's strategy, which has got the economy motoring on a cocktail of hefty fiscal spending and monetary expansion, will depend on companies sustainably raising wages and spurring consumption and business investment.   Continued...

A woman rides a bicycle past outside a food store in Tokyo February 17, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino