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By Max Sato
     TOKYO (MNI) - Weak consumption data for May released Friday indicates
challenges posed by structural factors are overwhelming the recent improvement
in employment and income conditions.
     Real average household spending slumped 3.9% on year in May after
adjustment for the gap caused by using two different survey methods, the fourth
straight drop after a 1.3% fall in April. It came in much weaker than the MNI
median economist forecast for a 1.8% drop.
     The decrease was caused by lower spending on ceremonies and gift money. It
was also due to lower expenditures on eating out as May 5 fell on a Saturday,
making the Golden Week holidays slightly shorter than a year earlier. Purchases
of fish also declined in light of supply shortages.
     Spending was also down on month amid a continued drop in real income,
indicating that sluggish private consumption will lead to only a modest rebound
in the April-June GDP after the economy posted the first contraction in about
two years in the January-March quarter.
     The Bank of Japan's supply-side Consumption Activity Index also posted the
first month-on-month drop in two months in May, down a real 1.4% on a seasonally
adjusted basis following a 2.1% gain in April, although the April-May index
average was still 0.7% above the January-March level, when it fell 0.4% on
     "The rising costs of gasoline and other daily necessities are making
households cautious about spending while real wages are slow to recover," said
Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management.
"Supermarkets are cutting prices for survival while durable goods prices are
picking up."
     Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting economist Shinichiro Kobayashi
points out that bad weather is becoming a permanent, rather than temporary
factor to dampen consumption.
     In August 2016, a series of typhoons hit Japan, not only having an
immediate impact of pushing down air conditioner sales but also causing poor
crops and a resulting surge in fresh vegetable prices that had a lasting effect
on households.
     Again in the summer of 2017, cooler-than-expected weather dampened sales of
seasonal goods and triggered a spike in fresh food prices that hit many
households months later, dampening consumption in the first quarter of 2018.
     "Until last week, I thought the hot summer weather would boost spending
this year because the rainy season ended exceptionally early in Tokyo and some
other cities," Mitsubishi UFJ's Kobayashi said. "But rain storms are wreaking
havoc this week and the rainy season still continues in other regions, giving me
a sense of deja vu."
     The government blames the recent rise in the share of senior households for
the sluggish consumption levels, but Shunsuke Kobayashi, economist at the Daiwa
Institute of Research, disagrees, saying retirees, armed with savings and
pension incomes, have a high propensity to spend.
     "I personally think it's because companies are trying to raise the salaries
for young employees in the their 20s as well as students working part-time amid
labor shortages," he said.
     "In order to do this, they are trimming the wages and benefits for those
aged 35 to 55 who need money for raising children. If the prices for eating out
and cars rise, they will have to cut back on spending."
--MNI Tokyo Bureau; tel: +81 90-4670-5309; email: