By Tetsushi Kajimoto
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese business investment rose in January-March, continuing the run of growth seen over the past two years although signs of slowing momentum have raised concerns about the strength of business activity amid mounting global economic risks.
Ministry of Finance (MOF) data out on Monday showed capital expenditure grew 6.1% in January-March from the same period last year, led by chemicals, production machinery and leasing of goods. It followed a 5.7% gain in the previous quarter.
Excluding software, capital expenditure rose 1.1% in January-March from the previous quarter on a seasonally-adjusted basis, up for a second straight quarter. But it slowed from the previous quarter’s 3.9% gain.
Some economists said the data, which will be used to calculate revised gross domestic product figures due on June 10, suggested a downward revision to the first-quarter GDP growth.
A preliminary estimate out last month showed Japan’s economy grew at an annualised 2.1% in the first quarter as imports fell faster than exports, while business and household spending slipped in a sign of weak domestic demand.
“Inventory and public works will likely be revised down while capex will be largely unchanged,” said Toru Suehiro, senior market economist at Mizuho Securities.
“Revised GDP will confirm declines in private consumption and capex — the key gauges of domestic demand — flagging the risk of Japan falling into a recession.”
Downward revision to GDP figures could fuel speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may postpone an already twice-delayed sales tax hike scheduled for October, although the premier has repeatedly vowed to go ahead, barring a big economic shock.
Capital expenditure has been a bright spot in the world’s third-largest economy, as companies refurbish old equipment and boost investment in automation and labour-saving technology to cope with labour shortages in an ageing society.
However, business investment has recently shown some signs of slowdown as the intensifying Sino-U.S. trade war and slowing external demand hit global trade and supply chains, hurting Japan’s export-reliant economy.
Economists expect Japan’s growth to slow in the current quarter reflecting weak demand both at home and abroad.
Monday’s MOF data showed corporate recurring profits rose 10.3% in January-March from a year earlier, reversing from the previous quarter’s 7.0% decline.
Corporate sales rose 3.0% year-on-year in January-March, up for a 10th straight quarter.
A revised survey showed on Monday Japanese manufacturing activity swung back into contraction in May as export orders fell the most in four months, underlining the growing economic impact of a bruising Sino-U.S. trade war.
The final Markit/Nikkei Japan Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) was 49.8, compared with a flash reading of 49.6 and a final 50.2 in the previous month — below the 50-mark separates contraction from expansion.
(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Sam Holmes)