World Economy

Currency War Coming

Kuroda’s domestic toolbox is starting to look empty. With a record 40% of government bonds already in its hands, the central bank is running out of assets to buy
BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said the bank may consider exiting monetary stimulus in the 2019 fiscal year.BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said the bank may consider exiting monetary stimulus in the 2019 fiscal year.

As if a brewing trade war wasn’t enough to worry about, investors also need to be alert to the threat of a major currency conflict.

Norihiro Takahashi, president of Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund, dismissed Donald Trump’s tariffs plan as a “performance” for his supporters, and said US assets are no longer expensive, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week. That marks a change in stance since the December quarter, when the world’s largest pension fund scaled back its exposure to foreign assets, columnist Shuli Ren wrote for Bloomberg.

Takahashi’s comments could well be a veiled expression of Japan’s displeasure at a stronger yen. The Japanese currency has soared 6.6% against the greenback this year—and it's only three months now into 2018. For a yen-based investor, Treasuries, in particular, do indeed look more reasonably priced than in December.

In theory, currency policy falls under the jurisdiction of Japan’s finance ministry. In practice, government agencies from the Bank of Japan to the GPIF coordinate their actions. Don’t forget that on Oct. 31, 2014, the central bank expanded its monetary policy on the same day the GPIF adopted a “new policy asset mix” that increased the fund’s exposure to foreign bonds.

BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda can deny it, but the central bank has every interest in seeking a weak yen. Japanese corporate earnings are highly cyclical: On a market-weighted basis, companies on the Topix index derive more than 37% of their revenue from abroad, data compiled by Gadfly show. A strengthening yen can cause stocks to plunge, depressing consumption and tipping the economy back into deflation.

With the Topix down more than 10% from its January high, that’s no idle threat. CPI ex-food, the BoJ’s inflation metric, was 0.9% in January, still nowhere near the 2% target that was last breached in 2015. Kuroda’s domestic toolbox, meanwhile, is starting to look empty. With a record 40% of government bonds already in its hands, the central bank is running out of assets to buy.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. From Japan’s point of view, the greenback is frustratingly weak, even as new Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell prepares to raise interest rates at least three times this year. US bond yields have become divorced from the currency. In theory, a higher interest-rate differential—Japan has pledged to keep its 10-year yield at 0%—should lead to a stronger dollar. In practice, it has gone the other way.

Trump’s Fiscal Imprudence

The problem is Trump’s fiscal imprudence. After his tax cuts, the US budget deficit is forecast to widen further. And given the president’s saber-rattling on trade, it isn’t hard to conclude that he wants the dollar to depreciate.

The GPIF president’s remarks add intrigue to an idea floated in late February. The central bank can keep the yen weak by buying US government bonds as "a means for delivering proper monetary policy for Japan", Koichi Hamada, an economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told Reuters.

Currently, markets are latching onto Kuroda’s March 2 remark that the BoJ will start thinking about how to exit its monetary easing program around the fiscal year starting in April. If an exit was ever contemplated, Trump’s trade talk may have changed the calculation.

Kuroda is an innovative man and has surprised markets in the past. With the central bank meeting again on Thursday and Friday, don’t rule out another shock.

No Exit in 2019

Kuroda made clear on Tuesday that while the BoJ may find itself thinking about exiting monetary stimulus in the 2019 fiscal year, this doesn’t mean it will actually be doing it then.

His comments, during a second confirmation hearing in Japan’s parliament, follow remarks on March 2 that sent the yen surging and pushed yields on Japanese sovereign debt higher across the curve.

“Right now it’s too early to debate what tools we should use, and what kind of pace we should take,” he said on Tuesday.

Kuroda emphasized that he hadn’t meant to imply that the BoJ would immediately make a change in the fiscal year starting in April 2019, when it forecasts meeting its 2% inflation target. "I said that we would be discussing how to move forward with exit. I never said we would be exiting immediately in fiscal 2019," he told lawmakers.

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