Saturday, April 29, 2006

G7 Washington

Group of Seven finance chiefs endorsed the monetary tightening trend of the three major economies at a meeting this weekend, giving a free hand to the Bank of Japan as it seeks to lift interest rates from zero.

The G7 said in a statement after Friday's meeting that a strong global expansion continued, supported by improved policies and "benign financial market conditions."

"That was an extremely strong declaration by central banks," a top finance ministry official of Japan's G7 delegation told reporters after the meeting.

Analysts said the outcome of the G7 meeting would not likely affect the timing of a BOJ policy shift, seen as early as July.

"The G7 statement did not say anything outright about long-term interest rates. There will be no impact on BOJ moves," said Mamoru Yamazaki, senior economist at HSBC Securities. But others said there may be some adverse effect.

"The statement about inflation being contained seems to signal that the Fed's tightening cycle is ending, and that could be a deterrent for the BOJ," said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

As the United States nears the end of its tightening cycle and Europe and Japan move to tighten credit, critics say an end to extremely accommodative conditions of recent years could disturb markets by triggering spikes in long-term interest rates and reversing capital flows.

But central bankers at the G7 meeting said there were no signs of such disruptive behavior and they would conduct monetary policy to keep inflation in check.

"We all mentioned that the anchoring of inflationary expectations, thanks to the monetary policy we are pursuing, was pretty well observed in all major economies," European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet said.

"We also observed that some increases in long-term rates had also been observed in the recent period of time...but it was not because there had been a dis-anchoring of inflationary expectations."

It was also the first G7 meeting after the BOJ ended its five-year-old "quantitative easing" policy of flooding markets with excess funds on March 9.

BOJ Governor Toshihiko Fukui presented the central bank's views on the policy shift and its current policy including a new framework on medium-term price stability at the G7 meeting on Friday and at an IMF steering committee on Saturday.

Fukui said there was some volatility in Japan's bond market and central banks would look out for any possible shocks on financial markets stemming from policy shifts.

"Monetary policy can have a worldwide impact. Major central banks are taking that into account by casting an eye out to all over the world," he said.

The International Monetary Fund urged the BOJ to go slowly in removing monetary stimulus, while the United States seems more concerned that Japan, whose economy grew 2.7 percent last year, keeps up growth after more than a decade of economic doldrums.


Prior to the G7 meeting, verbal jawboning by the Japanese government on the BOJ had intensified as government bond yields surged to nearly seven-year highs.

As the biggest debtor in Japan, the finance ministry is extremely wary of rising interest rates as it would boost costs of funding the massive state debt, which at 150 percent of gross domestic product is the largest among industrial nations.

Speculation of an early rate rise was partly responsible for a rise in the yield on benchmark 10-year government bonds to 2.0 percent, a level not seen since August 1999, before it fell to 1.9 percent.

Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said the BOJ needed to explain its policy better and urged the central bank to maintain an accommodative stance.

In perhaps a conciliatory gesture to the government's concerns, Fukui reiterated on Friday that accommodative conditions could be maintained if inflation was subdued.

Analysts expect the BOJ to lift the key overnight lending rate from zero as early as July, after it finishes mopping up excess liquidity from the money market.

A Reuters poll of 31 economists last week showed most expect the key overnight lending rate to rise to 0.25 percent from zero by December, although several see a move as early as July-September.

It would be the BOJ's first rate increase in six years.

With the G7 meeting over, markets will focus on the BOJ's semi-annual outlook report to be released on Friday for hints on when the BOJ may move to end zero interest rates.

The BOJ is likely to show bullish growth and price forecasts for this year and next, which would confirm views that it will move to lift short-term interest rates by the end of the year.