Japanese individual investors saying no thank you to JGBs

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The Mainichi Shimbun (original in Japanese) reported early Thursday that Japanese Government Bonds’ (JGBs) popularity is rapidly falling among individual investors. Beginning in 2003, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) has sold two types of JGBs (a fixed-rate 5-year and a variable-rate 10-year) four times a year to individual investors. However, as interest rates have been held at zero (remember ZIRP) to near-zero levels for years, Japanese individual investors may finally be voting with their purses. The October 5-year issue had a coupon of 0.6%, the lowest since the program began in ’03, and less than half the peak coupon rate of 1.5% in July ’07.

The MoF now only expects to raise Y1.3 trillion (US$14.3B) this year from individual investors, down from a prior estimate of Y2.4 trillion, and considerably lower than the record Y7.2 trillion raised in ’05. Through the end of this September, individual investors held Y27.7 trillion or 4.6% of JGBs outstanding. The MoF argues that recent individual investor reluctance for JGBs is not an issue because their weighting is so low. However, it goes without saying, as the article accurately points out, that it is an issue, as the government is poised to take on even more debt in the face of declining tax revenues.

In fact, the MoF is reportedly planning to introduce a fixed three-year JGB for individual investors next July. At this time, it’s hard to imagine a warm welcome, let alone a return to previous years’ embracing of JGBs. The MoF may be right in not being very worried, since it can just pressure domestic institutional investors to pick up the slack. So whether individual investors like it or not, it’s probably the case that they will remain proxy buyers of JGBs.

Japan watchers and investors will readily recognize and perhaps even sympathize with the plight of domestic savers. The golden days of the yen carry trade seem so distant with US$1/Y90-level support so sticky. It’s a real shame that Japanese companies don’t pay quarterly dividends as is common practice in the U.S., for instance, since household, quality Japanese companies are in some cases paying dividends at multiples of what JGBs offer. The desperate search for yield could be called off. Instead of chasing the latest overseas investment fad or making risky leveraged forex trades, maybe something more productive could be achieved.

Disclosure: The author has no direct exposure to JGBs, and does not believe a crisis is looming for Japan despite David Einhorn’s position, and in spite of the serious problems the country faces but continues to bundle into a bumbling status-quo.