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Japan's economy contracted in the July-September quarter, nudging the country towards recession/AFP

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Bank of Japan holds off easing, warns on ‘uncertainty’

Japan’s economy contracted in the July-September quarter, nudging the country towards recession/AFP

TOKYO, Nov 20 – The Bank of Japan held off launching fresh easing measures on Tuesday, despite growing calls for further stimulus to spur the economy and as it warned of a “high degree of uncertainty”.

The decision came days after the frontrunner to become Japan’s next prime minister vowed aggressive monetary easing to fix the nation’s financial woes if he is elected next month.

After a two-day policy meeting the BoJ said in a statement the European debt crisis, an unsteady US economic recovery and an export-denting territorial spat with China have all weighed on the country’s prospects.

“Japan’s economy is expected to remain relatively weak for the time being,” it said, adding: “There remains a high degree of uncertainty.”

The bank’s policy board, which also voted unanimously to hold rates between zero and 0.1 percent, said the economy “has been weakening somewhat” because of a slowdown in exports and factory output.

The world’s third-largest economy contracted in the July-September quarter, nudging it back towards recession and renewing calls for central bank action.

In October, the BoJ said it would expand an asset-purchase programme — its main policy tool — by 11 trillion yen ($135 billion) to 91 trillion yen in a bid to kickstart growth as recovery from last year’s quake-tsunami disaster stutters.

The move was the bank’s second since its counterparts in the United States and debt-hit Europe announced huge policy easing measures in September to stoke growth.

Pressure for further action spiked last week after Shinzo Abe, leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, called on the bank to usher in “unlimited” easing and vowed to strike an agreement with it on new measures if he wins December 16 polls, as expected.

The BoJ has also faced calls for more action from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as tumbling exports to Europe and China, as well as the strong yen, bruise the economy.

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Abe has said he would try force the central bank to buy government bonds — effectively printing money — to generate inflation, in a bid to drag Japan out of the deflationary spiral that has haunted its economy for years.

But his calls were met with criticism by the DPJ and some economists who said they endangered the independence of the Bank of Japan and risked weakening fiscal discipline, possibly with disastrous effects.

“The purchase of government bonds is drastic medicine, a powerful drug that might work, but carries the risk of devastating the whole economy,” said Yoshikiyo Shimamine, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

The measure “would bring about an expectation for inflation… but with unease in the bond market and doubt about the sustainability of Japan’s finances, it could only generate stagflation,” he said, referring to a situation in which prices rise but the economy stands still.

The opposition leader made no mention of long-called-for structural reforms to the economy, added Tsuyoshi Ueno, senior economist at NLI Research Institute.

“(Abe’s policies) would also strip the Bank of Japan of its independence and make Japan look like a country that would print as much money as the government wants,” Ueno said.

Japan has for years been mired in deflation, which discourages consumers from spending in the hope that products will be cheaper in the future, sapping demand and dissuading firms from investing.

Adding to the economy’s more recent woes is a diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing over an East China Sea island chain that sparked a consumer boycott of Japanese products, including key exports such as cars and electronics.

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