BOJ policymaker signals chance of ending pandemic-relief programmes

* Ending BOJ funding schemes in March among options - Suzuki

* Adds corporate funding conditions have improved significantly

* Corporate bond, commercial paper spread narrowing - Suzuki

* BOJ to debate fate of pandemic-relief programmes at Dec meeting (Recasts with Suzuki's briefing comments)

By Leika Kihara

TOKYO, Dec 2 (Reuters) - The Bank of Japan may end its pandemic-relief funding programmes in March as corporate funding conditions have improved significantly from the cash crunch last year caused by the COVID-19 crisis, board member Hitoshi Suzuki said on Thursday.

The fate of the programmes will depend much on how the spread of the Omicron variant affects the economy, he added.

The central bank is expected to debate at this month's policy meeting whether to extend the March 2022 deadline for a package of steps introduced last year to address immediate corporate funding strains caused by the pandemic.

While Suzuki said he was undecided on the fate of the programmes, he stressed that many companies have seen funding conditions improve thanks in part to massive government and central bank support to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic.

Funding conditions have improved particularly for big companies, leading to a narrowing of spread for Japan's corporate bond and commercial paper, he added.

"The programmes must be terminated at some point in the future," as they were introduced as a temporary measure to deal with the pandemic's initial hit, Suzuki told a news conference.

"Banks have abundant cash and can help borrowers through regular operations. As such, terminating the BOJ's programmes would be an option," said Suzuki, a former commercial banker.

Under the programmes, the BOJ has ramped up purchases of corporate bonds and commercial paper to help big firms procure funds. It also has a separate programme aimed at channeling funds to small firms through financial institutions.

With the pandemic still hurting the economy, many analysts expect the BOJ to maintain the programmes beyond March. But some analysts say the BOJ could dial them back, possibly by reducing corporate bond and commercial paper purchases.

BOJ policymakers have held internal discussions on phasing out the programmes, which were intended to be temporary measures, on condition that infections continue to fall, sources have told Reuters.

Reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Shri Navaratnam & Simon Cameron-Moore

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