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New Bank of Japan chief says current low rates appropriate

REUTERS/Issei Kato
The Japanese government's nominee for the Bank of Japan governor Kazuo Ueda attends a hearing session at the lower house of the parliament in Tokyo on February 24, 2023
  • Kazuo Ueda says recent inflation driven by import costs, not demand
  • New BOJ leadership tasked with smooth exit from ultra-low rates

Incoming Bank of Japan (BOJ) governor Kazuo Ueda said on Friday the central bank must maintain ultra-low interest rates to support the fragile economy, warning of the dangers of responding to cost-driven inflation with monetary tightening.

While signalling the chance of tweaking the BOJ’s bond yield curve control (YCC) in the future, Ueda said the bank needed to work out the right timing and means to do so, a sign the new chief will be in no rush to overhaul the controversial policy.

Speaking to lawmakers, Ueda said the recent rise in inflation is driven largely by rising raw material import costs, rather than strong demand, adding the outlook for Japan’s economy was highly uncertain.

Global bond yields fell and Japanese stocks rallied as Ueda’s emphasis on patience and continuity in policy tempered some market expectation that he might seek to make a hasty exit from the extreme monetary stimulus of his dovish predecessor, Haruhiko Kuroda.

“It’s standard practice to act preemptively to demand-driven inflation, but not respond immediately to supply-driven inflation,” Ueda told the lower house confirmation hearing.

“Japan’s trend inflation is likely to rise gradually. But it will take some time for inflation to sustainably and stably achieve the BOJ’s two percent target,” he said.

“It’s true there are various side-effects emerging from the stimulus. But the BOJ’s current policy is a necessary, appropriate means to achieve two percent inflation.”

The yen was volatile, swinging between gains and losses against the dollar as investors parsed through Ueda’s comments. It was last off 0.03 percent at 134.76 per dollar.

Earlier this month, the government named the 71-year-old academic as its pick to become next central bank governor in a surprise choice that markets initially saw as heightening the chance of an end to the unpopular YCC policy.

With inflation exceeding the BOJ’s target, Ueda faces the delicate task of phasing out YCC, which has drawn public criticism for distorting market functions and crushing banks’ margins.

“There are various possibilities on what YCC could look like in the future,” he said, adding that there were side-effects emerging from the policy such as deteriorating market function.

But he said for now the BOJ needed to monitor whether the measures it took in December, such as widening the band around its yield target, will help ease the side-effects.

Exit possibilities

Targeting shorter-maturity bond yields, rather than the current 10-year yield, may be among the options, though there are various other ideas if the BOJ were to tweak YCC in the future, Ueda said.

“If trend inflation heightens significantly and sustained achievement of the BOJ’s two percent target comes into sight, the central bank must consider normalising monetary policy,” Ueda said.

In phasing out stimulus, the BOJ would do so by raising interest rates on financial institutions’ reserves parked with the central bank rather than selling bonds, Ueda said.

Upon approval by parliament, Ueda succeeds incumbent Kuroda, whose second, five-year term ends on April 8.

“Overall Ueda is working hard to present himself as delivering continuity – at least to start with,” said Sean Callow, senior currency strategist at Westpac. “Now is not the time to put his own stamp on policy; that’s not why the government selected him.”

The government’s deputy governor nominees – former banking watchdog head Ryozo Himino and BOJ executive Shinichi Uchida – will testify in the afternoon after Ueda.

The upper house of parliament will hold the confirmation hearing for Ueda on Monday, and that for the two deputies on Tuesday.

The nominations need the approval of both chambers of the Diet, which are effectively done deals as the ruling coalition holds solid majorities in both.

Under YCC, the BOJ guides short-term interest rates at -0.1 percent and the 10-year bond yield around 0 percent as part of efforts to sustainably achieve its two percent inflation target.

Facing pressure from rising global interest rates, the BOJ was forced to raise in December the implicit cap for its 10-year yield target to 0.5 percent from 0.25 percent – a move that fuelled market expectations of a near-term tweak to YCC.