Japan crawls out of recession, but GDP misses

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Japan's economy crawled out of recession in the fourth quarter of 2014, data on Monday showed, although the growth figures came in much weaker than expected.

Gross domestic product grew an annualized 2.2 percent, helped by a rebound in exports, but the figure missed a Reuters poll expecting a 3.7 percent gain. Quarter on quarter growth was 0.6 percent, lower than the 0.9 percent consensus.

Japan's economy slipped into technical recession in the third quarter after shrinking 1.9 percent and following a revised 7.1 percent contraction in the second quarter.

The economy got clobbered when consumers stopped spending following a rise in the nation-wide consumption tax to 8 percent that took effect last April, forcing the government to postpone a second sales tax initially due this October.

Investors seemed to be taking the news in stride. The benchmark Nikkei rose to an 8-year high in early trading on Monday, preferring to focus on the strong finish on Wall Street on Friday. Dollar-yen, meanwhile, was trading at 118.65, little changed from Friday.

"The fact that we came in softer than expected isn't a huge surprise but we're out of a technical recession," said Paul Gruenwald, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Standard and Poor's Ratings Services. "Numbers are soft but headed in the right direction."

Exports grew 0.2 percent in the quarter, a sign the weak yen was finally driving up external demand.

Private consumption, which makes up about 60 percent of the economy, rose 0.3 percent in the final quarter, less than a median market forecast for a 0.7 percent increase.

Business spending grew just 0.1 percent after two quarters of declines, also falling short of expectations for a 1 percent increase.

"The recovery is still weak, particularly the domestic components. There was almost no growth in capital expenditure and private consumption also remains weak," IHS Global Insight principal economist Harumi Taguchi. "However, the numbers are within are expectation - we still expect the economy to grow by 1-2 percent this year."

Taguchi adds that the economy faces several risks going forward, especially come April 2017, when the sales tax is due to go up another 2 percentage points to 10 percent. "The biggest risk is the next consumption tax hike - there is a possibility it could trigger another contraction," she said.

The focus now shifts to the Bank of Japan (BOJ), which is due to release its latest monetary policy decision on Wednesday, after a two-day meeting. The central bank surprised markets in October by expanding its massive quantitative easing program, swelling Japan's monetary base by around 80 trillion yen ($682 billion) each year, up from 60-70 trillion yen previously.

"They (The BOJ) got to stick to 80 trillion," said Gruenwald. "One thing that the Fed has taught us is to be consistent. Now that BOJ has an open-ended commitment to QE, they got to stay the course."

"Going into 2015, we want to see consumption growth pick up. We want to see firms start to invest and nominal GDP growth pick up as well," he added.

- Reuters contributed to this report.

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