Spring wage hikes could set stage for BOJ to end easing
Firms are being pushed by government to help offset rising living costs
TETSUSHI KAJIMOTO AND KENTARO SUGIYAMA
The Japan Times
Japan’s big employers are set to follow this year’s bumper pay hikes with another round in 2024, which are expected to help lift household spending and give the Bank of Japan the conditions it needs to finally roll back massive monetary stimulus. Early indications from businesses, unions and economists suggest the labor and cost pressures that set the stage for this year’s pay hikes — the largest in more than three decades — will persist heading into next year’s key spring wage talks. The head of major beverage maker Suntory Holdings, for example, plans to offer employees average monthly pay hikes of 7% in 2024 for the second straight year, to retain talent in a tight labor market and offset rising inflation. Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance intends to raise annual pay by 7% on average for about 10,000 employees from next April, while electronics retailer Bic Camera is set to raise 4,600 full-timers’ pay by up to 16%. “What’s going on is a big paradigm shift away from deflation and towards inflation,” Suntory Holdings CEO Takeshi Niinami, who also sits on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s top economic advisory council, said. “Given the fast-changing landscape, I believe those who move fast (with wage hikes) should become competitive.” Those announcements come as Kishida heaps pressure on companies to hike pay to offset the pain on households from rising living costs. The back-to-back annual pay bumps would also provide Bank of Japan Gov. Kazuo Ueda with one of the preconditions he needs to dismantle the extreme monetary stimulus of the past decade: sustainable wage growth. “A combination of the chronic labor crunch and stubborn inflation will lead next year’s wage negotiations to result in the same or even higher pay from this year,” said Hisashi Yamada, labor expert and professor of Hosei University. OECD data shows average wages have barely risen in Japan for about past 30 years as chronic deflation and prospects of prolonged low growth discouraged firms from raising pay. The tide began to shift after supply constraints caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war led to sharp rises in raw material prices, forcing firms to pass on higher costs to consumers. With inflation having held above the BOJ’s 2% target for more than a year, companies have faced unprecedented pressure to compensate employees with pay hikes to retain and lure talent. A demand made this year by Rengo, Japan’s largest trade union confederation, for pay hikes of “around 5%” resulted in average wage hikes of 3.58% among major companies. Rengo has said it will demand a pay hike of “5% or higher” next year. Another major union, UA Zensen, which covers service-sector workers and part-timers, said it would demand a 6% pay rise next year, in line with this year’s demand. Six out of 10 economists in a Reuters poll expect major firms’ pay hikes in 2024 to exceed this year’s. “A combination of inflation, a tight labor market and corporate profits will blow a tailwind to keep up the momentum for wage hikes,” said Atsushi Takeda, chief economist at Itochu Economic Research Institute. “More and more companies are also able to pass on higher costs in supply chain.” While lifting wages has been an elusive goal for Japanese policymakers for decades, recent cost-of-living pressures have added urgency to the task. With his approval ratings plunging, Kishida has pledged to achieve another year of robust pay hikes and avoid the economic stagnation Japan saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The prime minister last week called on the business community to beat this year’s wage growth in 2024. Kishida has offered subsidies and tax incentives for firms that carry out bold pay hikes and plans to allow loss-making small and medium-size firms who don’t pay taxes to benefit from tax breaks later on. The prime minister also aims to give small and medium-size firms more bargaining power in negotiations with bigger clients. Another year of solid wage growth would also help the BOJ pursue an end to its controversial monetary stimulus. Markets are betting the central bank could end negative interest rates by around April, when it gets more clarity on wages. The BOJ’s quarterly tankan business survey in December and wage talks between Japan’s largest business lobby and Rengo in January may offer even earlier clues. The key, however, would be whether wage hikes broaden to smaller firms and those in regional areas. A report by the BOJ’s regional branch managers in October warned that wage hikes remained uneven among sectors with many firms undecided on next year’s pay increments. In Saitama Prefecture, Nitto-Seimitsu Kogyo, a small manufacturer of auto-part tools that has 113 employees, is raising wages by around 2% every year, but won’t be able to pay more. “I want to raise wages more for our employees to help our workers cope with high inflation, but 2% is our limit,” said factory boss Keita Kondo.