Japan business sentiment perks up as hit from pandemic begins to ease

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An employee wearing a protective face mask and face guard works on the automobile assembly line during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the factory of Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp. in Kawasaki

By Leika Kihara and Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese business sentiment improved in July-September from a 11-year low hit three months ago, a key central bank survey showed, in a sign the economy is gradually emerging from the devastating hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

The data offers some hope for new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s efforts to achieve an economic revival from the crisis and pave the way for hosting next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.

The headline index for big manufacturers’ sentiment improved to minus 27 in September versus minus 34 in June, which was the lowest level since June 2009, the Bank of Japan’s closely watched “tankan” quarterly survey showed on Thursday.

The result compared with economists’ median estimate of minus 23 in a Reuters poll. While still indicating most companies’ outlook remains downbeat, it was the first sign of improvement in 11 quarters.

“The big manufacturers’ index turned out a little weaker than expected, reflecting an uneven recovery,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute.

“While automakers’ sentiment rebounded sharply, confidence among capital goods makers is weak. Capital expenditure may weaken in coming months as companies put off non-urgent spending plans amid slumping profits,” he said.

Japan’s factory activity posted its longest streak of declines on record in September, a private sector survey showed on Thursday. The survey showed output, new orders and work backlog contracted again, although at a more modest pace.

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The sentiment index for big non-manufacturers also recovered to minus 12 from minus 17 in June, which was the worst reading since December 2009. Analysts polled by Reuters expected the index to hit minus 9.

Manufacturers and non-manufacturers expect business conditions to improve three months ahead, the tankan showed.

The survey also showed big firms plan to raise their capital expenditure by 1.4% in the current business year to March 2021, versus 3.2% projected in the June survey and economists’ median estimate of a 1.3% increase.

Japan suffered its biggest economic slump on record in the second quarter as the pandemic and anti-virus measures crippled demand, and analysts expect any rebound to remain modest as fears of a second huge wave of infections weigh on consumption.

The BOJ has kept monetary policy steady since ramping up stimulus in March and April to cushion the economic blow.

BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has said the central bank stands ready to loosen policy further if Japan’s recovery is derailed. But many analysts expect the central bank to stand pat for the time being given its limited tool-kit to prop up growth.

The tankan’s sentiment indexes are derived by subtracting the number of respondents who say conditions are poor from those who say they are good. A negative reading means pessimists outnumber optimists.

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