BOJ’s July debate highlights rift in view on rate hike timing

By Leika Kihara

TOKYO (Reuters) -Bank of Japan policymakers agreed on the need to maintain ultra-loose monetary settings but were divided on how soon the central bank could end negative interest rates, minutes of its July meeting showed on Wednesday.

The nine board members also diverged in their views on whether companies would keep hiking wages next year, the minutes showed, highlighting uncertainty on how quickly the BOJ could begin phasing out its massive stimulus programme.

One member said there was “still a significantly long way to go” before the BOJ can revise its negative interest rate policy, the minutes showed.

Another member, however, said achievement of the BOJ’s 2% inflation target had “clearly come in sight,” adding that it might be possible to assess whether the target has been met “around January through March 2024,” the minutes showed.

Many members agreed the central bank must keep interest rates ultra-low for now as stable, sustainable achievement of its 2% target was not yet in sight, the minutes showed.

At the July meeting, the BOJ maintained its easy policy settings but took steps to allow long-term borrowing costs to rise more freely in line with increasing inflation and economic growth.

While Governor Kazuo Ueda dismissed the view the July action was a prelude to a future exit from its current policy, many market players now expect the BOJ to begin phasing out its massive stimulus programme later this year or in 2024.

Ueda has said the BOJ has no pre-set idea on what order it will dismantle yield curve control (YCC), a policy that guides short-term interest rates at -0.1% and caps the 10-year bond yield around 0%.

The board members agreed in July that it was important to check whether wages will continue to rise next year and beyond, to project the outlook for inflation, the minutes showed.

One member said inflation could overshoot expectations as a tight job market prod firms to hike pay. Another said wage and price growth could keep accelerating “at a pace unseen in the past,” warning that Japan could face the kind of sharp inflation seen in the United States and Europe, the minutes showed.

A few members said the pace of growth in service prices, seen as key to whether inflationary pressure will spread to broader sectors of the economy, was accelerating.

Others, however, were more cautious about the price outlook.

“Many small and medium-sized firms complain that they are struggling to pass on higher costs. Wage growth could lose momentum ahead,” one member was quoted as saying.

“Goods prices are rising sharply. But rises in labour unit costs and unit profits have been limited, suggesting that recent inflation was driven mostly by higher import costs,” another member was quoted as saying.

Japan’s core inflation hit 3.1% in August, staying above the BOJ’s 2% target for a 17th straight month, as more firms hike prices to pass on rising raw material costs to households.

Companies also offered wage hikes unseen in three decades this year. But the BOJ has maintained its dovish guidance on the view a premature exit from ultra-loose policy could hurt a fragile recovery, and push Japan back into economic stagnation.

(Reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Shri Navaratnam)