June 28, 2018 / 2:44 AM / 10 months ago

Japan's retail sales miss expectations as cautious consumers hold back

TOKYO (Reuters) - Annual growth in Japanese retail sales slowed in May to its lowest in seven months, adding to worries about weak consumer spending that caused a first-quarter economic contraction.

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds shopping bags as she stands in front of a railway station in Tokyo, Japan December 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

The 0.6 percent annual increase in retail sales in May was weaker than the median estimate for a 0.9 percent gain, following a revised 1.5 percent increase in April.May’s result marked the slowest growth since a 0.2 percent decline last October.

“Consumption is picking up gradually from the temporary decline at the start of the year but its rebound is weak due to sluggish wages,” said Azusa Kato, senior economist at BNP Paribas Securities.

“Employees’ incomes are on the rise as a whole with many elderly and women joining the labor force as part-timers. But they don’t have enough purchasing power to drive consumption.”

On a seasonally-adjusted basis, retail sales declined 1.7 percent in May, data from the trade ministry showed on Thursday.

Japan’s economy is expected to bounce back in April-June from the first-quarter contraction that ended the longest growth run since the 1980s bubble economy. Analysts said the slump was caused by one-off factors such as bad weather and saw it as temporary.

The trade ministry data showed on Thursday that growth in fuel sales led May’s retail sales, reflecting higher gasoline prices, while spending on items such as clothes and cars declined in May from a year earlier.

While risks to the export-reliant economy abound, not least from a heated China-U.S. trade dispute that has roiled financial markets, weak domestic demand is a worry for policymakers struggling to stoke sustainable inflation.

A rise in private consumption that constitutes about 60 percent of the economy could lift consumer prices, which may help the Bank of Japan accelerate inflation to its elusive 2 percent target.

A tight labor market has not yet fueled growth in wages, keeping Japan’s thrifty consumers from splashing out, which in turn causes inflation to stay low.

Japan’s annual core consumer inflation, which includes oil products but excludes volatile fresh food prices, held steady at 0.7 percent in May, well below the BOJ’s 2 percent price goal, data out last week showed.

With inflation remaining stubbornly subdued despite more than five years of massive monetary easing, the BOJ is lagging well behind other central banks in unwinding crisis-mode stimulus.

The central bank will scrutinize upcoming data at its rate review in July, at which the nine-member board will conduct a quarterly review of its long-term growth and price outlook and analyze factors behind stubbornly slow inflation.

Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Eric Meijer

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