June 10, 2019 / 12:31 AM / 8 days ago

Japan's first-quarter GDP grows at faster pace, but trade war blunts outlook

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s economy grew slightly faster than initially estimated in the first quarter, thanks to stronger capital spending, but analysts say global trade tensions remain a drag on growth and raise risks to the outlook for the export-reliant nation.

FILE PHOTO: People walk on a street at Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, Japan, February 12, 2017. Picture taken February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

The world’s third-largest economy is facing growing downward pressure as the U.S.-China trade war intensifies and global demand wanes, while at home consumers are reluctant to spend.

“Although capital spending was revised up, it is expected to deteriorate as foreign demand continues to weaken due to the U.S.-China trade tensions,” said Hiroaki Mutou, chief economist at Tokai Tokyo Research Institute.

“Consumer spending remains weak as wages have not risen as previously expected. If external demand worsens further, it could dampen both corporate and consumer sentiment and rein in their spending.”

The economy grew an annualized 2.2% in January-March, stronger than economists’ forecast for 2.1% annualized growth and the preliminary reading of the same rate of expansion, Cabinet Office data showed on Monday. In the fourth quarter, gross domestic product (GDP) rose an annualized 1.8%.

The annualized growth rate translates into quarter-on-quarter expansion of 0.6% from the previous quarter, compared with a 0.5% growth in the initial reading and the median forecast.

The capital spending component of GDP rose 0.3% from the previous quarter, versus the median forecast for a 0.5% increase and the preliminary 0.3% fall.

Private consumption, which accounts for some 60% of GDP fell 0.1% in the first quarter from the previous three months, unchanged from the preliminary reading.

The revised GDP confirmed imports fell faster than exports in the first quarter, underlining the broadening pressure across the economy as consumers grow more cautious.

That may explain why a separate Cabinet Office survey showed a worsening in sentiment in a key group of employees. The called “economy watchers” sentiment index, which measures business confidence among workers such as taxi drivers, hotel workers and restaurant staff worsened to about a three year low in May.

Group of 20 finance leaders on Sunday said that trade and geopolitical tensions have “intensified”, raising risks to improving global growth, but they stopped short of calling for a resolution of the deepening U.S.-China trade conflict.

The Bank of Japan is among major central banks that could come under pressure to ramp up its already massive stimulus program, as the trade dispute raises fears of a global recession. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has said rates could be kept ultra-low for at least one more year to support the economy.

Net exports - or exports minus imports - added 0.4 percentage point to growth, while domestic demand contributed 0.1 percentage point to GDP - both were unchanged from the initial reading.

Japanese exports contracted for the fifth month in April due to a slump in shipments of chip-making equipment to China, while a private survey last week showed the nation’s manufacturing activity swung back into contraction in May as export orders fell at the fastest pace in four months.

The data underlined the growing threat to the economy from the bruising Sino-U.S. trade war, and has stoked speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may delay a sales tax hike for a third time to avoid a further blow to consumer spending.

However, the government has indicated it will go ahead with the sales tax hike to 10% from 8% in October, barring a big economic shock on the scale of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Mutou at Tokai Tokyo Research expects the government to raise the tax, saying its plans for a host of stimulus steps would help ease its effects on households.

Reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu, writing by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Shri Navaratnam

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