TOKYO - The Bank of Japan is quietly walking back its unpopular negative interest rates policy with a controversial scheme designed to drive mergers among weaker, smaller lenders, a move some insiders see as a risky deviation into industrial reform. As COVID-19 adds pain for regional banks suffering from years of ultra-low interest rates, the BOJ this month unveiled a plan to pay 0.1% interest on deposits held by lenders that cut costs, boost profits or consolidate. The programme means the BOJ will for the first time offer payouts to a specific industry with the aim of driving reform in that sector. Critics warn such policy should be directed by elected officials, not central bankers. "The BOJ is incentivising unviable banks to merge before they end up going under," said Tomoyuki Shimoda, a former BOJ official who is now professor at Hitotsubashi University. "It's a pretty bold decision. There's no turning back." Some BOJ executives were against the scheme, which defied the central bank's tradition of being "a lender not a spender," according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter. But after more than a year of groundwork by BOJ bureaucrats and bank regulators, the plan went through, the sources said, a sign that regional banks were in worse shape than BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda was willing to admit. "It's a message to regional banks that time is running short," one of the sources said. "Were it not for the seriousness of the problem, the BOJ wouldn't have gone this far," another source said, a view echoed by a third source. The BOJ declined to comment for the story. UNCHARTED TERRITORY The decision highlights how Kuroda's defense of his stimulus policies - and his view the cost of prolonged easing is manageable,
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