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Weak Japan data offer latest bad news for Abenomics

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Japan on Friday published a string of mostly weak data, the first major figures since news that world's number three economy had slipped back into recession.

[TOKYO] Japan on Friday published a string of mostly weak data, the first major figures since news that world's number three economy had slipped back into recession.

A key inflation gauge showed prices fell in October from a year ago, while spending by households also dropped in a double blow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's high-profile growth blitz, dubbed Abenomics.

The weak figures came despite signs that Japan's labour market remained tight, with the headline unemployment rate at a two-decade low of 3.1 per cent, down from 3.4 per cent in September.

Earlier this month, official figures showed that Japan's gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 0.2 per cent in the July-September period, or an annualised contraction of 0.8 per cent, marking the second straight quarterly decline.

That poor reading has prompted Tokyo to consider a special stimulus package to counter the downturn.

The economy dipped into a brief recession last year after consumers tightened their belts following an increase in Japan's consumption tax, which dealt a blow to signs that Abe's bid to spur the once-stellar economy was working.

That downturn spurred the Bank of Japan (BoJ) to sharply increase its already massive bond-buying programme - a cornerstone of Abenomics - effectively printing money to boost lending.

While Tokyo's efforts sharply weakened the yen and stoked a stock market rally - beefing up firms' profits - its impact on an economy beset by years of deflation has been less convincing.

The figures on Friday showed that core inflation, which excludes volatile fresh food prices, fell 0.1 per cent in October, marking the third consecutive monthly decline.

Falling gasoline prices were the key culprit in pulling the index down, the internal affairs ministry said.

Meanwhile, household spending for the month fell 2.4 per cent, underscoring concerns that consumers remain cautious.

"The recent weakness in activity has left a sizeable amount of spare capacity that will dampen price pressures for a considerable time," Marcel Thieliant from Capital Economics said in a commentary.

The latest figures will turn attention back to the BoJ ahead of its policy meeting next month to see whether it adds to its 80 trillion yen ($653 billion) annual stimulus programme.

Last week, Japan's central bank held fire on expanding the scheme despite news of another recession and evidence of weak exports.

However, the BoJ has been forced to cut its growth outlook and push back the timeline for a key inflation target as earlier, more optimistic predictions failed to come true.

The price target is a key part of Japan's bid to exit years of deflation.

Falling or stagnant prices may sound good for consumers but tend to act as an incentive to put off spending in the hope of paying less for goods down the road.

That, in turn, tends to hurts companies' expansion and hiring plans, denting the wider economy.

Abe has staked his reputation on a mix of fiscal spending, aggressive monetary policy easing and structural reforms, but overhauling the highly regulated economy has been slower than many had hoped.

Japan's economy, once Asia's biggest, has been overtaken by rival China, while it struggles with a challenging demographic outlook that is expected to see its population shrink by tens of millions in coming decades.

AFP