BoJ holds off new easing measures as tax hike looms

TOKYO (AFP) - The Bank of Japan held off launching fresh monetary easing measures on Tuesday, saying the economy was picking up, despite slowing growth in the last quarter of 2013 and fears that a looming tax hike will dent the recovery.

Policymakers kept in place the central bank's existing asset-purchasing scheme - which aims to stoke growth by pumping huge amounts of money into the financial system - after a two-day policy meeting.

"Japan's economy has continued to recover moderately, and a front-loaded increase in demand prior to the consumption tax hike has been observed," the BoJ said in a statement.

"The pick-up in business fixed investment has become increasingly evident as corporate profits have improved... Housing investment has continued to increase and private consumption has remained resilient."

In forex markets, the dollar weakened slightly to 103.25 yen from 103.28 yen before the BoJ announcement.

Fresh BoJ easing measures would tend to weigh on the yen.

Analysts widely expected the bank to stand pat as its easing programme ripples through the economy, with the focus now on post-meeting comments from bank governor Haruhiko Kuroda.

"The Bank of Japan's decision to stay the course at today's meeting came as no surprise, but we remain convinced that further easing will be required in coming months," said Marcel Thieliant from London-based Capital Economics.

Markets are looking for signs that the bank will add to its vast stimulus programme to counter any slowdown caused by April's sales tax hike, which critics fear will derail Japan's nascent recovery.

Those concerns gathered pace Monday as revised GDP data showed the world's third-largest economy grew at a slower pace than initially thought in the last quarter of 2013, despite a boost in spending ahead of the tax hike.

The worry is that the rate rise - to 8.0 per cent from 5.0 per cent - will weigh on consumer spending and put the brakes on growth in the wider economy.

Monday's data showed Japan's economy expanded 0.2 per cent in the quarter to December and 1.5 per cent through 2013.

That compared with preliminary results showing gross domestic product grew 0.3 per cent for the October-December period and 1.6 per cent in 2013.

The figures underscore concerns about the pace of growth under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policy blitz, a mesh of big government spending and BoJ easing measures.

Kuroda unveiled the asset-buying scheme - which aims to boost the money supply - in April as part of Abe's broader plan to eradicate years of falling prices that have held back consumer spending and business investment.

Recent data showed consumer prices logged their first annual rise for five years in 2013.

Kuroda has maintained that he is confident the bank's two-percent inflation target will be reached sometime next year - despite growing scepticism among analysts and even some BoJ board members.

While it has not extended the monetary easing since April, the bank after its February meeting said it would tweak a loans scheme to commercial banks in a bid to stimulate borrowing.

Among other measures was an extension of the timeline for a programme aimed at promoting development in parts of the country hammered by the quake-tsunami disaster three years ago.

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