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The Bank of Japan (BOJ) kept its massive monetary stimulus program in place on Wednesday as widely expected, but analysts are still penciling in further action in the coming months amid a backdrop of slowing inflation and subpar economic growth.
"The BOJ does not seem to be fully convinced over the strength of the economic recovery, " said Marcel Thieliant, Japan economist with Capital Economics, who expects more "preemptive" stimulus coming in late-April.
In an 8-1 vote, the BOJ decided to maintain its pledge to increase base money, or cash and deposits at the central bank, at an annual pace of 80 trillion yen ($671 billion) through purchases of government bonds and risky assets.
"Board members upgraded their assessment of industrial production and exports, which they now see picking up. But they also acknowledged the disappointing fourth quarter GDP (gross domestic product) data released on Monday by noting that the recovery in private consumption has been sluggish in some areas," Thieliant added.
Data on Monday showed the economy emerging from recession, with fourth quarter growth rising an annualized 2.2 percent, after contracting 7.1 percent in the third quarter, and shrinking 1.9 percent in the second quarter. But the growth came in much weaker than the 3.7 percent expected print, adding to the case for further stimulus.
The BOJ last moved in October, when it surprised markets by expanding its quantitative easing (QE) program for the first time since it was launched in April 2013.
Especially in the wake of a sharp fall in oil prices, some analysts say it will become necessary for the BOJ to move to defend its inflation targets. Japan's consumer inflation, stripped of the sales tax hike, stood at 0.5 percent in October, still far short of the central bank's target of 2 percent by March 2016.
"The bank seems to continue to take the on-going decline in the CPI inflation rate as a temporary phenomenon," Hiromichi Shirakawa at Credit Suisse, said in a note. "We continue to think it inevitable for the bank to take additional easing actions by autumn as actual inflation rates are underperforming the bank's projection after the middle of the year."
Focus will be on Governor Haruhiko Kuroda's media briefing later Wednesday, but market watchers don't expect him to veer far from his usual rhetoric that the BOJ's inflation targets remain intact.
"The BOJ needs to announce some additional measures, either buying more JGBs (Japanese government bonds), ETFs (exchange-traded funds), J-Reits (Japanese real estate investment trusts) or asset-backed securities," said Daisuke Nomoto, senior portfolio manager at Columbia Management Investment Advisers, but added that the timing of the move is unclear.
"Falling oil prices can take CPI (consumer price index) to zero by July, which we will see in August. And there's a LDP presidential election in September so the timing is uncertain," he said.
There was little reaction in the markets on the news. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index held steady, with a 0.96 percent rise, an 8-year high, while the yen weakened half a cent to 119.07 per dollar.
To be sure, not everyone thinks further easing is a done deal.
"I think BOJ can sit comfortably and wait for Japan to grow," said Takuji Okubo, chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors. " Yen is weaker by more than 10 percent so that will give a lot of boost to the exporters. Oil is down and that alone should raise corporate profits by around 10 percent. Another more big change that is happening to japan: I do think that the wage will finally begin to start this year."
"So with all this positive elements, I don't think there's anything for the bank of japan to do anything," he added.