“China poised to pass Japan as world’s No. 2 economy,” reports CNN.com. Q2 GDP figures from Japan and China show the latter exceeding the former, $1.34 trillion vs. $1.29 trillion. In 2009, it was Japan ahead for the full year, at $5.07 trillion compared to China at $4.91 trillion, according to the IMF. Given the two lost decades now in Japan, this was only a matter of time. Jesper Koll’s (veteran Japan economy expert now with JP Morgan in Tokyo) simple forecast (see quote below) represents a real and substantial opportunity for Japan. This is not a new idea or sudden realization by any means, but it is far more tangible now than ever before; it is becoming more palpable given recent developments such as the Japanese government actively courting Chinese tourists.
The DPJ’s rise (and the LDP’s fall) is no longer debate material, but a welcome reality. As expected, the yen exhibited strength, and looks poised to test ¥92. The Nikkei meanwhile was quite volatile, gapping up, hitting a new ytd high at 10,767, tumbling into the start of the afternoon session to a low of 10,423, to close down 0.4% at 10,492. The star of the day, if you will, was the Jasdaq, up 1% to 50.49, right around its ytd high. Of course, now that the DPJ is in power, the real challenge is to keep campaign promises and stick to them, even if there is near-term pain — rather than postponing the pain as has often been the case.
In terms of the markets and forex, the DPJ has almost certainly created a situation for further yen strength (and sustained relative yen strength after everyone piles into the trade and eventually moves on). Domestic-demand stocks, while not immune to certain negative externalities of a strong yen, are likely to be favored over exporters. The exporters, whether they like it or not, will have to get accustomed to a stronger yen. To summarize the first day of trading after Japan’s historic election, it is suffice to say that politics is front and center as it should be, but the market reaction was diluted by both a dose of reality and by the 6.7% selloff in Shanghai.
In 1996, in The Future of Capitalism, Lester Thurow observed the following:
When a run against the dollar starts, there are enormous amounts of money that can, and will, move into appreciating currencies. Sixty percent of official reserves and 50 percent of private reserves are currently held in dollars. Those funds will certainly move, but they will be a small fraction of the total funds avalanching down the slope. Financial speculators will pile on the downward trends in the dollar and the amounts moving will be many times the world’s dollar holdings …. Those whose debts are denominated in the appreciating currencies (most likely yen and marks) will find the real value of their debts explode — evaluated in their own currency or dollars. Many will be unable to repay their yen- or mark-denominated loans. Financial institutions in Japan and Germany will take big losses as foreigners default on their loans.
Mr. Thurow’s observation suggests that the yen would appreciate — something it has done and sustained since Sept. ’08. However, the implications of an even more significant surge in the yen (with a corresponding plunge in the dollar), suggests that it would be detrimental to Japanese financial institutions — and we have witnessed the kind of mayhem that problems at banks can bring to the broader economy, let alone the effects of currency appreciation on exporters.
It seems then, that a lot of the presumed yen appreciation would be short-lived, since damages to the financial sector would likely result in downward pressure on the yen. What is not readily clear today, is how much exposure the financial system, excluding the BoJ/MoF, has to the dollar. In fact, given the significant foreign reserve holdings of the BoJ, it could be the case that a run on the dollar, while certainly resulting in chaos initially, would compel the government to finally look beyond the current account and do much more to encourage domestic-demand.
US$/JPY 2-year chart (source: Yahoo! Finance)
At the time of publishing, the author had no position in JPY/USD.