March 17, 2017 / 8:43 AM / 7 months ago

Japan's tight-fisted bosses face pay reckoning

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Japan’s tight-fisted bosses could be in for a reckoning over pay. The first results from the annual “shunto” wage talks between unions and major employers such as Toyota suggest staff are set for another year of miserly pay rises. But the balance of power could soon shift in employees’ favour.

Office workers are reflected in a glass railing as they cross a street during lunch hour in Tokyo June 1, 2015. Japanese manufacturing activity expanded in May for the first time in two months as domestic orders and output rose, suggesting the economy may be grinding higher again after faltering in April. REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Base pay for salarymen at Japan’s big companies is likely to inch up just 0.3 percent in the coming financial year. That’s a blow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he struggles to revitalise the economy. Unless prices reliably rise 2 percent or so per year, it will be hard to shake off the crippling “deflationary mindset” that prompts consumers to hoard savings rather than spend.

There are explanations for the stinginess in wages: Japanese executives are a cautious bunch. Big swings in the yen, and protectionist noises from America, hardly encourage risk-taking, even for a mundane thing like paying people more. And unions are not confrontational.

The results are nonetheless surprising, given the apparent strength of the labour market. Headline unemployment is just 3 percent, the lowest in more than two decades, and every applicant on average now fields 1.4 job offers.

That is not the whole story, though. A surge in part-time and non-regular work, particularly via women rejoining the workforce as a result of government initiatives, means employers have enjoyed more bargaining power than the headlines would suggest.

And that is what could be about to change. Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Izumi Devalier argues that as overall economic growth picks up, baby boomers retire, and demand for new full-time employees outstrips supply, the hidden slack in the system will shrink, and pressure on wages could pick up. She reckons nominal wages per worker could rise 1.4 percent in the financial year that starts in April, and 2 percent the following year, helping push up core inflation to 1.5 percent.

In that case, Abe and Co will have done a good job.

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