TOKYO, May 9 (Reuters) - Japan's diffusion indexes of leading and coincident economic indicators stayed below the key 50 mark for the third straight month or more in March, government data showed on Wednesday, raising concerns the economy may be hitting a soft patch.
The coincident index, which indicates current economic conditions, stood at a preliminary 22.2 in March, down from 30.0 in February and below 50 for the third straight month.
A reading above 50 suggests the economy is expanding, while a reading below 50 suggests a contraction.
"Generally speaking, we can say that the economy may have reached a turning point, with the coincident index below 50.0 for the third straight month," said Itsushi Tachi, director of business statistics at the Cabinet Office.
The leading index, compiled using data such as the number of new job offers, consumer sentiment and Tokyo share prices, rose to a preliminary 40.0 in March from 27.3 in February.
But it remained below the midway 50 mark for the fifth straight month.
The lagging index, comprising indicators seen as moving behind the economic cycle, stood at 75.0 in March, compared with 20.0 in February.
The official said the figures may warrant caution about the possibility of the economy hitting a soft patch, though he added that it was still too early to tell, as many components of the coincident index have not shown signs of peaking over the past six months.
"We need to wait to see trends in coming months, as we expect output data to show improvements in April and May," he said, adding that the economy's expansion is continuing.
The top government spokesman reiterated that the nation's economy is performing solidly. "We're not at a stage where we need to examine whether the economy is entering a lull," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference later in the day.
The government stuck to its assessment on current economic conditions after the data, saying the trend is weakening.
The wording was revised down last month from January's assessment, which was that current conditions were improving.
Japan is experiencing its longest period of growth in the postwar era, albeit at a slower pace than in previous booms, thanks to firm exports and corporate capital investment.
The Cabinet Office revises the indexes several times before issuing final figures. Details were as follows: _________________________________________________
MAR FEB JAN -------------------------------------------------
Leading Index 40.0 27.3 40.9
Coincident Index 22.2 30.0 30.0
Lagging Index 75.0 20.0 70.0 _________________________________________________
To view the full tables, go to the official home page of the Cabinet Officehere.
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