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Japan struggles to resolve BOJ governor deadlock

17/03/2008 - 8:32

By Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government stepped up efforts to resolve a deadlock over a new central bank chief on Monday, just two days before the current governor retires, but chances of a breakthrough were unclear even as market turmoil took the dollar to fresh lows and battered Tokyo stocks.

Opposition parties, which can veto nominees to succeed BOJ Governor Toshihiko Fukui, rejected last week the government's pick to replace him, Deputy Governor Toshiro Muto, raising the possibility of a Japanese monetary policy vacuum.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda stressed on Monday the need for haste.

"We are proceeding with negotiations patiently," Jiji news agency quoted Fukuda as telling government officials and ruling party lawmakers. "We must decide quickly under a situation where foreign exchanges and share prices are moving."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said there was no change to the government's plan to present a new nominee on Monday, and that all options were on the table. But a ruling partly lawmaker said there was no chance Muto's name would be put forward again.

Japanese media said the opposition had rejected on Monday a suggestion to extend Fukui's tenure beyond Wednesday, but Machimura said the reports were wrong, without specifying how.

The showdown reflects a broader political deadlock that is undermining confidence in Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's administration, already suffering from sagging support rates.

The stalemate also coincides with a global credit crunch and fears that the U.S. economy is already in recession, concerns that took the dollar below 96 yen to a 13-year low on Monday, as well as to record lows against the euro

COMPLICATING COORDINATION

Japanese shares <.N225> earlier fell more than 4 percent while the dollar bottomed at 95.77 yen, down 3 percent, and heading for potentially its biggest one-day fall in a decade.

Although the Federal Reserve lowered its discount rate to 3.25 percent from 3.5 percent late on Sunday, fears were growing that more financial institutions could become casualties in the widening crisis, after problems at investment bank Bear Stearns led to its sale to JPMorgan Chase.

Analysts said the deadlock over Fukui's successor would not have a big impact on monetary policy, since Japan's interest rates are already near rock bottom, but the confusion would complicate efforts to coordinate global monetary policy.

"We're in a situation where some kind of joint action by central banks may be needed -- such as a joint intervention in the currency market, perhaps -- but the policy people are busy with this mess," said Takahiko Murai, general manager of equities at Nozomi Securities.

Opposition to Muto as the next BOJ chief centered on the fact that he is a former senior bureaucrat at the finance ministry, a background that lawmakers in the main opposition Democratic Party insisted would put monetary policy independence at risk.

But opposition Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama said on Sunday that his group would not automatically rule out all career finance ministry officials.

Haruhiko Kuroda and Hiroshi Watanabe, both former vice finance ministers for international affairs, could be good candidates, Hatoyama told a TV program.

POLITICAL FALLOUT

Kuroda, who has headed the Asian Development Bank since 2005, was Japan's top financial diplomat from 1999 to 2003. He has been an advocate of Asian regional cooperation, calling for the creation of a common Asian currency in the long run.

Watanabe retired from the finance ministry last year and is now an adviser at a government-linked think tank.

Japanese media also said some LDP members wanted to nominate former Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> Chairman Hiroshi Okuda as BOJ governor.

Another option could be for former BOJ official Masaaki Shirakawa to run the central bank, at least temporarily.

Picked by the government to be a deputy governor, he was the only BOJ nominee to win parliamentary approval last week.

The Democratic Party and smaller allies control parliament's upper house, which gives them the power to veto government nominees for the BOJ as well as delay laws.

The resulting paralysis adds to pressure on Fukuda, whose support is already slipping on doubts about his leadership.

Support for his cabinet dipped 2.2 points to 33.4 percent in a Kyodo news agency survey, the lowest level in this series of polls since the 71-year-old prime minister took office last September.

A support rate of around 30 percent is widely seen as needed to ensure a government's survival in Japan, and some analysts said Fukuda's slumping popularity could encourage members of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to try to replace him.

(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa, Leika Kihara, Elaine Lies, Hideyuki Sano and Teruaki Ueno; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Rodney Joyce, Gary Crosse)


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