Japan has sold 80 tons of gold used for minting coins to another arm of the government to fund part of its huge stimulus package to combat the coronavirus crisis, government officials told Reuters.
Saddled with public debt twice the size of its economy and tax revenues hit by the pandemic-induced recession, the finance ministry is under pressure to find non-tax revenues to cover the rising cost of spending to deal with the health crisis.
The ministry usually taps reserves set aside as special accounts and profits the Bank of Japan and other agencies return to state coffers after they close their annual books.
This time, the ministry resorted to a rare arrangement involving the central bank.
Under the move, the ministry's division in charge of international affairs sold a portion of dollar reserves to the BOJ. With the yen it received, the division bought gold from another division of the ministry in charge of debt management.
From the gold sale, the division in charge of debt management gained proceeds worth 500 billion yen ($4.84 billion) that would be used to finance a new fund aimed at boosting research and development at universities, two officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly.
The BOJ announced on Wednesday it would buy dollars from the ministry as a precaution against any market disruptions caused by the pandemic.
But some analysts say the arrangement may have been initiated by the finance ministry, which wanted to avoid issuing too much debt or using taxpayers' money for the fund.
"From the standpoint of fiscal consolidation, this deal may be described as effective use of state property," said Yoshimasa Maruyama, chief market economist at SMBC Nikko Securities.
"It sounds reasonable for the BOJ to top up dollar funds. But it was probably the government, not the BOJ, that pulled the trigger in hope of securing money for the university fund."
One of the government officials said the budget allocation for the university fund was a consequence, not the key purpose, of the arrangement.
Another official said the ministry's response to the BOJ's dollar funding was exceptional, declining to comment further.
The deal highlights the difficulty of managing the industrial world's heaviest public debt burden, which snowballed after heavy stimulus spending in the past two decades.
($1 = 103.3500 yen)