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BOJ holds fire, flags risks to growth, financial system

Central bank keeps monetary policy steady and trims its inflation forecasts

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Mr Kuroda stresses the BOJ has no plans to raise interest rates to give financial institutions a breather, saying the priority was to keep rates very low and help inflation accelerate to its 2% target.

Tokyo

THE Bank of Japan (BOJ) kept monetary policy steady on Wednesday and slightly trimmed its inflation forecasts as global trade frictions clouded the economic outlook, reinforcing views the central bank is in no rush to trim its massive stimulus.

But the BOJ issued a slightly stronger warning on financial vulnerabilities than it did three months ago, reflecting growing concerns that years of ultra-low rates were hurting bank profits and could discourage them from increasing lending.

"Prolonged downward pressure on financial institutions' profits from low interest rates... could destabilise the financial system," the BOJ said in a quarterly report assessing the long-term economic outlook and risks. "Although these risks are judged as not significant at this point, it's necessary to pay close attention to future developments."

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In the previous report in July, the BOJ only said such risks were not materialising. BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda said the central bank will be mindful of how its policies affect financial institutions, as they could start to curb lending if their profits shrink too much.

But he stressed the BOJ had no plans to raise interest rates to give financial institutions a breather, saying the priority was to keep rates very low and help inflation accelerate to its 2 percent target.

"We have absolutely no plan to change our zero per cent target for 10-year government bond yields," he told a news conference. "There could be times ahead where we would need to consider various steps. But for now, we have no pre-set plans in the works to address market function problems," Mr Kuroda said. "The biggest goal of monetary policy is to achieve 2 per cent inflation at the earliest. We would take necessary and sufficient steps for this purpose."

As widely expected, the BOJ maintained a pledge to guide short-term interest rates at minus 0.1 per cent and long-term rates around zero per cent by a 7-2 vote. Caught between heightening external risks to growth and the mounting demerits of prolonged easing, the BOJ is set to keep policy steady for some time, analysts say.

"If it weren't for the trade friction, the BOJ would be looking for ways to normalise policy. Normalisation is off the cards for now," said Hiroshi Miyazaki, senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. "There is no need to ease policy, but at the same time the BOJ can't normalise policy due to worries about trade and the chance the yen will rise."

In the quarterly report, the central bank cut its core consumer inflation forecast for the current fiscal year ending March 2019 to 0.9 per cent from 1.1 per cent three months ago. It also slightly trimmed its price forecasts for the following two years and now projects inflation to hit 1.5 per cent in the year ending in March 2021 - short of its 2 per cent target.

Inflation has remained subdued despite Japan's steady economic expansion, forcing the BOJ to maintain stimulus despite the impact on bank profits from years of near-zero rates.

The central bank took steps in July to make its policy framework more sustainable, such as allowing bond yields to move more flexibly around its target. But the measures have done little to revive bond market trading or give relief to banks.

In a semi-annual review of Japan's banking system, the BOJ warned that risk-taking in Japan's financial sector hit a near three-decade high as they struggle to earn profits.

Adding to headwinds for meeting the BOJ's price target, a recent batch of weak data suggests Japan's economy may have peaked. REUTERS