March 15, 2016 / 9:16 PM / a year ago

Japan's big firms offer small 2016 pay hikes, dealing blow to Abenomics

Members of the workers' union of Toyota Motor Corp. raise their fists as they shout slogans during a rally for the annual "shunto" wage negotiations at the company headquarters in Toyota, central Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo March 8, 2016. Mandatory creditKyodo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese blue-chip firms on Wednesday announced wage hikes far below last year's increases, a blow to "Abenomics" stimulus policy at a time fears of a deepening global slowdown and jittery markets are denting business sentiment.

Bellwether Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) and some other leading manufacturers agreed to raise base pay for a third year in a row, under public pressure from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But analysts found the increments disappointing.

"This won't boost the economy," said Hisashi Yamada, chief economist at Japan Research Institute.

Given big firms' results, the extent of wage hikes will be limited at small firms that employ seven out of 10 workers, he added, underlining the challenge to Abenomics' trickle-down.

Economy Minister Nobuteru Ishihara sought to put a positive spin on Wednesday's numbers.

"The trend for wage hikes from the past two years is continuing on the whole," he said.

"This is still the third round (year of wage hikes). We must see fourth and fifth rounds to eradicate deflationary mindset."

Unions had tempered their demands, reflecting the tougher environment. Still, companies' response at the key annual "shunto" wage negotiations was well short of the demands.

Toyota agreed to a monthly base wage rise of 1,500 yen ($13.23), half of the union's demand and below the 4,000 yen gain given last year. Other automakers also offered smaller hikes.

A Toyota official quoted Akio Toyoda, company president, as saying about the smaller increases that "the tide has changed over the business environment".

Major electric machinery makers such as Hitachi (6501.T), Mitsubishi Electric (6503.T) and Panasonic Corp (6752.T) halved this year's base pay rise to 1,500 yen.

With the economy close to another recession due to weak consumer spending, Abe has been counting on wage hikes to drive a virtuous growth cycle led by higher incomes and increased consumer spending and business investment.

A Hard Struggle

The monetary "arrow" of Abenomics was meant to raise inflation expectations to 2 percent and provide a mechanism to coordinate wage and price inflation, two International Monetary Fund officials wrote on Sunday.

"This has proven to be a hard struggle because companies and workers alike seem to look backward rather than forward in setting their expectations," said an article co-authored by IMF Japan mission chief Luc Everaert.

The article came against the backdrop of growing frustration in government against Japan Inc's resistance to significantly boost wages.

"It's about time for overseas people to pile pressure on those Japanese companies that won't raise wages rightly," one senior official told Reuters.

In 2014, leading companies consented to an average wage hike of 2.19 percent and last year brought a 2.38 percent raise - a 17-year high. Analysts expect pay rises to slow to just above 2 percent this year.

($1 = 113.3700 yen)

Additional reporting by Maki Shiraki and Izumi Nakagawa; Editing by Richard Borsuk

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