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What 110 Yen to the Dollar Means for Japan’s Consumers

What 110 Yen to the Dollar Means for Japan’s Consumers

The weakening yen is starting to squeeze Japanese consumers as prices rise for everything from Burgundy wine to instant noodles, threatening Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to revive the country’s economy.

The currency slid to 110 yen to the dollar yesterday, the lowest level in six years, making imported goods and materials more expensive. Though inflation is one of Abe’s monetary goals, the yen’s sharp slide undermines steps to boost consumer spending and endangers public backing for his economic program.

“When I go to the supermarket now, I hesitate to buy things like cheese, as it’s gotten so expensive,” said Akiharu Katsuta, 40, a call-center employee in Tokyo.

The success of Abe’s plans for a sustained economic recovery after two decades of stagnation depends on consumers, since they account for about 60 percent of gross domestic product. They’ve turned cautious as the sales tax rose and companies, including many that profited from the weaker yen, have failed to raise wages enough to keep up with inflation.

Supermarket sales fell for a fifth straight month in August, following an April jump in the consumption tax to 8 percent from 5 percent. Wages adjusted for inflation fell 2.6 percent in August from a year earlier, the 14th straight monthly decline, according to the labor ministry.

“You have to be very cautious on the outlook for consumption,” said Izumi Devalier, a Japan economist at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. “Households feel structurally poor because of the tax hike.”

Coffee Beans

Asahi Group Holding Ltd. plans to raise prices on Burgundy wine it sells beginning in November. Nissin Food Products Co., inventor of the world’s first instant noodles, is increasing their price in January and UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., Japan’s biggest supplier of beans to retailers, will sell them for 25 percent more from November, the companies said last month.

“If the yen weakens any further, the negative impact on Japan’s economy will increase,” Sadayuki Sakakibara, head of Japan’s business lobby Keidanren, told reporters in Tokyo on Sept. 29. A weaker yen pushes up the cost of gasoline, increasing costs for drivers, he said.

“I’m definitely not happy about the weaker yen,” said Mikiko Kudoh, an office worker in Tokyo.

Consumers like Kudoh add to pressure on Abe, who must decide whether to raise Japan’s sales tax to 10 percent as planned next year. The increase this April plunged the economy into its deepest contraction in five years as the government tries to cap gains in the developed world’s highest debt burden.

Toyota, Hitachi

Japan’s biggest employers, including Toyota Motor Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Panasonic Corp., have benefited from the yen’s drop. A weaker currency makes their exports more competitive and increases the value of overseas earnings when converted into yen. Japanese companies’ pretax profit rose to a record 17.5 trillion yen ($161 billion) in the quarter ended March 31, according to figures from the finance ministry.

In the five years prior to Abe’s call for unprecedented monetary easing, the Japanese currency averaged 85.69 yen to the dollar and never rose above 93.03 yen, prompting manufacturers to move production out of the country and fueling declines in consumer prices.

The yen’s drop since Abe started his campaign to become prime minister helped fuel a 23 percent gain in the benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average in 2012, followed by a 57 percent surge last year, the biggest annual gain since 1972.

Japanese companies indicated they may boost investment by the most since 2007 as sentiment among big manufacturers unexpectedly improved, providing encouragement for Abe’s revitalization effort. Large companies see capital spending rising 8.6 percent in the year through March, according to the Bank of Japan’s Tankan survey released in Tokyo yesterday.

Cutting Meat

The stock rally also initially helped boost consumption of luxury goods and stoked optimism that 15 years of deflation and the economic doldrums it accompanied were ending. This year, the pressure on consumers has begun to weigh.

“We’ve cut back on imported meats on week nights for sure,” said Thomas Gowing, 37, a salesman at ICAP Totan Securities Co. in Tokyo. “My wife is even more sensitive to the prices for these things.”

Abe’s failure so far to broaden the recovery beyond the direct benefits of a weaker currency and unprecedented monetary easing has damped enthusiasm, leaving the Nikkei down 1.3 percent this year, as of yesterday.

Fast Retailing Co., which is Asia’s largest clothing retailer and accounts for 8.9 percent of the Nikkei, has fallen 15 percent this year. Aeon Co., the nation’s largest retailer, is down 22 percent.

Japan GDP

The government is closely watching the effects of the weaker yen and will take appropriate measures, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Tokyo yesterday. He said there were also positive effects as seen in the Bank of Japan’s Tankan report on manufacturing companies.

“The Bank of Japan and the government should work to ensure the currency is stable so that the overly weak yen doesn’t have a serious effect on the costs of households, small-and medium-enterprises,” Natsuo Yamaguchi, chief representative of Japan’s New Komeito party, said in the country’s parliament today.

Japan’s gross domestic product shrank an annualized 7.1 percent in the April-to-June period, the most since the first quarter of 2009. The economy is projected to have rebounded last quarter, posting growth of 3.4 percent, according to the median estimate in a survey by Bloomberg News.

That rebound would be threatened should the yen weaken further, adding to the risk of the economy falling into recession, according to a former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan.

“The impact to the overall economy is not necessarily all positive; rather, negatives may be outweighing,” Kazumasa Iwata, the deputy from 2003-2008, said in an interview on Sept. 19 in Tokyo.

The yen slid yesterday to the lowest since 2008, and will probably drop to 112 to the dollar next year, according to 80 economist estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Japanese consumers have started to expect that imported foods will become too pricey.

“I don’t go to import food shops much recently,” said Kazuha Hemmi, who works in the overseas section of a company in Tokyo. “Some of them stopped selling bargain products.”

(Updates with comments from lawmaker in 20th paragraph.)