Japan PM Suga's cellphone cut call adds to BOJ's headaches

TOKYO (Reuters) – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is making life tougher for the Bank of Japan as carriers respond to his calls to cut cellphone charges, a move seen as adding deflationary pressure on the country’s already weak economy.

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a mobile phone in front of the Bank of Japan building in Tokyo, Japan June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

Suga has publicly said he believes Japan’s cellphone fees are too high and that carriers are a monopoly, a message seen as resonating with younger voters.

Nodding to the pressure, major Japanese carriers NTT Docomo, KDDI and Softbank announced plans to cut charges by up to 20% from as early as March.

That could push down the core consumer price index, which fell 0.6% in January from a year earlier to mark the sixth straight month of falls, by as much as half a percentage point, analysts say.

The move highlights how deflation remains the BOJ’s primary headache, even as its U.S. and European peers face communication challenges posed by recent rises in inflation.

It also shows how in Japan, even seemingly straightforward government decisions can have vast ramifications for the BOJ, given the spectre of deflation.

“Unlike in the United States, government policies work to push down inflation in Japan,” said Mari Iwashita, chief market economist at Daiwa Securities.

“Japan is a country where companies struggle to raise prices because consumers are so sensitive to price hikes,” she added.

(Graphic: Japan is facing rising deflationary risks, )

(For an interactive graphic on Japan’s core consumer price index, click here tmsnrt.rs/3qAtiXc)

Cellphone fees have a big influence on Japan’s price gauge because they have the fourth highest weighting among the 523 components making up the core consumer price index (CPI).

The resulting fall in core CPI would mostly offset an expected boost from a recent rise in energy costs and the base effect of last year’s pandemic-induced sharp declines, analysts say.

Excluding any impact from cellphone fee cuts, analysts expect core consumer prices to start creeping up by mid-year but rise only modestly thereafter.

“Bottom line, Japan’s trend inflation is quite weak because demand is sluggish,” said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

To be sure, lower fees would give households money to spend on other items. Fees for a 20-gigabyte plan in Tokyo are highest among the world’s six major cities and triple the sum in London, according to a Japanese government survey last year.

But data so far paints a bleak consumption outlook.

Bank deposits jumped a record 15.5% in January from a year earlier to 827 trillion yen ($7.83 trillion), 1.5 times the size of Japan’s economy, as households save rather than spend.

Real wages fell 1.2% last year, the fastest pace of drop since 2014. Nearly three quarters of firms have no plan to offer blanket base pay hikes at this year’s labour talks, a recent Reuters poll showed.

Takumi Harada, a 27-year-old engineer, says he would consider switching plans to reduce the 6,000 yen in smartphone fees his family pays each month.

But he has no intention of spending the extra money on other items. “I think I’ll just save,” he said.

($1 = 105.5800 yen)

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