Big Japanese manufacturers have grown increasingly bleak about business conditions in the last three months, suggesting a key central bank survey due next week could show the corporate mood is at its worst in about 34 years.

A government business sentiment survey produced the weakest figures in its five-year history, and was followed by data showing Japanese land prices fell in 2008 for the first time in three years as the economy wallows deep in recession. [ID:nTKC003290]

The data confirmed a worsening mood among companies as their bottom line deteriorates, and the outlook for demand remains uncertain, said Junko Nishioka, chief economist Japan, at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Economists are now betting that the Bank of Japan's closely watched tankan quarterly corporate survey, due on April 1, will show some of the weakest figures since 1975. [ID:nT81264]

The BOJ tankan is likely to show a record pace of decline in sentiment, Nishioka said.

The government's business survey index (BSI) of sentiment at large manufacturers in the January-March quarter stood at minus 66.0, compared with minus 44.5 in October-December. [JPBUSC=ECI]

A Reuters poll of 23 economists conducted after the government figures were out suggested that the large manufacturers' business sentiment index in next week's BOJ tankan may tumble 31 points for the first quarter to minus 55.

That would be the sharpest deterioration on record.

The economic gloom wasn't enough to stop the Nikkei share average .N225 closing at its highest since late January, however, as technology and bank shares climbed, partly thanks to the announcement of U.S. plans to rid banks of toxic assets. [.T] [ID:nLN202246]


Japanese exporters have been hit especially hard as the global financial crisis cuts orders and a stronger yen eats into their returns. Car and electronics makers, and a multitude of smaller firms that make parts for them, have also suffered.

The economic gloom is heightening expectations for new stimulus plans that the government aims to announce before a summit of the Group of 20 rich nations and major emerging economies on April 2 in London.

In the latest move to protect jobs, the government, business groups and labour unions agreed on Monday to implement steps to promote job market stability and job creation, including boosting training, ensuring safety nets and work-sharing programmes.

Business mood indexes for both big and small companies hit the lowest in the government survey's five-year history. Manufacturers cited falling demand both at home and abroad as a major reason for their increasingly bleak views.

Companies expect business conditions to improve somewhat in April-June, but they are usually upbeat in their outlooks. Big manufacturers had expected an improvement in the index for this quarter when they gave their outlook at the end of last year.

They expect capital investment to drop 10.3 percent in the current financial year to March 31 and plan to slash capital spending by 29.4 percent next year.

Capital expenditure numbers for fiscal 2009 are weaker than I expected. Sentiment is pessimistic and this pessimism is warranted given weak external demand, said Akira Maekawa, senior economist at UBS Securities.

A Reuters survey that shadows the BOJ tankan showed last week manufacturer sentiment at a record low. [ID:nT366349]

The Reuters monthly tankan showed last week that manufacturer sentiment hit a record low of minus 78, down 4 points from the previous survey and worse than the previous record low of minus 76 in January.

For a graphic matching the Reuters Tankan against the BOJ tankan, click:


Japan's economy shrank 3.2 percent in October-December, its biggest contraction since the first oil shock in 1974, and many economists expect a similar contraction in the current quarter. [ID:nSP408321]

The BSI measures the percentage of firms that expect the business environment to improve from the previous quarter minus the percentage that expect it to worsen. (Editing by Hugh Lawson and Rodney Joyce)