Japanese Manufacturer Confidence Index Unexpectedly Improves

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Sentiment among large Japanese manufacturers improved for the first time in three quarters in June, a positive sign that runs counter to indications of a slowing economic recovery.

The Bank of Japan’s Tankan big manufacturer index rose to 15 from 12 in March, beating economists’ forecasts for an unchanged reading. The index is projected to improve to 16 in September, with large companies across all industries planning to boost capital expenditure by 9.3 percent in the year through March 2016, the BOJ said.

Improved business sentiment could help buttress an economy that BNP Paribas SA says may have slowed this quarter on weaker production and exports. The challenge for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to get companies to follow through on their investment plans and plow more of their record cash hoard into the world’s third-biggest economy.

“Strong earnings improved sentiment, even though hard data such as production and exports are lackluster,” Citigroup Inc. economist Kiichi Murashima said of large manufacturers. “Views on prices haven’t demonstrated that inflation is in an uptrend.”

Murashima noted that sentiment among small and medium-sized companies, which more directly reflects domestic economic conditions, “isn’t getting any better.”

Expansion in Japan’s economy is forecast to slow to 1.4 percent in the second quarter from an annualized 3.9 percent in the first three months of the year. JPMorgan Chase & Co. economist Masamichi Adachi predicts the economy will slow to a standstill, while BNP’s Hiroshi Shiraishi says a contraction is possible.

Economic Headwinds

Abe is trying to sustain a recovery while reining in the world’s heaviest debt burden through spending constraints. More than two years since the Bank of Japan began record monetary stimulus to spur 2 percent inflation, consumer price gains are barely above zero.

Sentiment among large non-manufacturers rose to 23 from 19 three months earlier. The increase in capital expenditure planned by big companies across all industries this fiscal year compares with a cut of 1.2 percent projected three months earlier.

Marcel Thieliant, an economist at Capital Economics, advised not to read much too into the large improvement in capital expenditure plans because firms tend to turn more optimistic in the second quarter.

Large manufacturers based their plans on the assumption the yen will average 115.62 per dollar in the year through March 2016. The yen was little changed at 122.48 against the dollar as of 11:55 a.m. in Tokyo.

A weaker yen boosts overseas profits when repatriated to Japan while it increases the cost of imports.

Abe urged Japanese business leaders in June to make “bold” decisions and step up investment spending. Companies held a record 241 trillion yen of cash and deposits at the end of March.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the size and scope of the improvement in sentiment in the first paragraph.)

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