CNBC Global CFO Council

Japan needs structural reform, not more BOJ stimulus, JAL CFO says

JAL CFO: Japan's economic weak spot is personal consumption

Japan Airlines (JAL) chief financial officer Norikazu Saito had some blunt advice on what is needed to kickstart his country's moribund economy: Radical structural reform, not tinkering by the Bank of Japan.

"There has been enough [that has been done] on the monetary policy [side] already. It's time to trigger financial stimulus but … this country needs deregulation in every area, especially labor restrictions," Saito told CNBC.

"Labor reform is something very necessary for this country," Saito added.

He said that Japanese companies were open to the idea of a more diverse labor force, pointing to JAL's move to utilize a larger female employee base.

Structural reforms, such as increased female labor-force participation and changes to immigration rules, make up the "third arrow" of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's suite of economic policies aimed at rejuvenating Japan's flagging economic growth. Yet, despite chronic economic stagnation and a rapidly aging population, policy change has been slow thus far.

Saito said that the country's sluggish 0.5 percent real GDP growth rate – clocked in 2015 – was a result of weak personal consumption.

Kazuhiro Nogi | AFP | Getty Images

"I think people are really having anxiety about the future," Saito said, suggesting that a sales tax hike due in 2019 could be a reason for this. "They're worried and not willing to spend so much."

Weak consumer confidence has resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle, where poor household consumption due to two decades of deflation has caused even more risk aversion.

And while corporate expenditure in Japan has been solid, Saito admitted that the strong yen may hurt bottom lines in the world's fourth-largest export economy.

"Companies are rather risk averse as well," he said, "Companies [are] making profits but [are] maybe not paying enough wages as they are worried about the future as well," he said.

However, Japan Airlines had made strides to break the cycle, he noted.

"This year, we've increased base salaries for all job categories, especially pilots," Saito said, "We thought it was necessary to improve the motivation of employees."

Huge structural impediments in Japan: Expert

The company has also adopted measures that accommodate Japan's rapidly aging labor workforce, and improving labor efficiency through the use of technology has helped cut the unforgiving working hours for which Japan is famed.

"We let employees carry tablets [and] smartphones so that they can work outside the office or at home if they wish to," Saito explained.

Changes have occurred in the upper echelons of JAL too, following Abe's call for greater transparency and shareholder profitability in a bid to shake up corporate governance at Japan Inc.

"We've been raising the dividend payout ratio from the original 15 percent to 25 percent," Saito said.

As for the future of the company, which has undergone a series of restructures in recent years, Saito said profitability and efficiency were renewed points of focus.

"The monthly numbers, the daily numbers, the financials, every little division has its own profit loss statement [and] everybody is asked to maximize the profit on a cost accounting basis," Saito told CNBC. "We are now very keen on profit loss."

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