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Speculation Grows Japan Will Tighten Next

First it was the Fed, then the ECB (which last week tapered when it reduced the monthly amount of bond purchases under its QE program). Now attention shifts to the Bank of Japan, because as the WSJ writes, one of central banking’s most aggressive easers – Kuroda’s Bank of Japan – may soon have to think about tightening for the first time since 2007.

While it has yet to permeate the markets (confirmation would send the Yen soaring), the latest buzz in Japanese monetary-policy circles is that the BOJ may have to lift the 10-year government-bond target from a recently set zero, in the process tightening financial conditions even more. Indeed, as the WSJ notes, such a changed view on BOJ policy is quite a turnaround.

Just a few months back investors and economists world-wide were discussing what would be the next easing steps in the bank’s 15-year fight to boost the economy and produce inflation. More certainly seems needed: Japan’s economy grew more slowly than expected in the latest quarter and prices are falling.

So why switch gears now? Blame Donald Trump, stupid, whose miraculously adverse impact on the Yen has been more profound than either of Japan’s recent QEs…. and that is before Trump is even inaugurated, or reveals any of the details behind his fiscal stimulus plans.

The U.S. dollar and Treasury yields have been climbing since soon after Trump was elected president on Nov. 8, triggered by expectations that his policies would boost U.S. growth, inflation and interest rates. So far, that has been good for Japan, where the weaker yen is brightening exporters’ prospects, helping send Tokyo stocks to 11-month highs. A weaker yen bolsters their bottom lines by making their products cheaper overseas and inflating the value of repatriated income. As of Friday, one dollar buys ¥114.50, 9.6% more than the day before the U.S. election.

While that may be fine as far as it goes, according to various central-bank watchers who spoke to the WSJ, the BOJ’s latest easing policy raises the risk of far greater, and potentially damaging, depreciation. That is because as a result of the curve “anchoring”, the wider the yield spread between JGBs and foreign bonds, the greater the outflows, the more aggressive the selling of the Yen. For example, since U.S. Election Day, U.S. 10-year Treasury yields have risen to 2.426% from 1.862%, far outstripping the Japanese benchmark bond’s rise to 0.056% from minus 0.064%.

As yields rise around the world—led by the U.S., whose Federal Reserve is expected to raise rates on Dec. 14—the gap between Japan and other markets widens. That draws money out of Japan as investors search for better returns, which puts further pressure on the yen.

So what happens if US TSY yields spike even higher (the 10Y was at 2.493% moments ago, the highest since June 2015)? Should 10Y yields climb to 3% or higher next year, as some economists think it could, “the BOJ may be forced to raise its yield target in response, even if it hasn’t achieved its policy goal of 2% inflation.

The pressure to raise the target could be especially intense if the yen weakens to levels like ¥130 to the dollar.

While for those who believe an imploding yen is what the doctor ordered, referencing Abe’s plan to goose the economy with easy money, there are notable downsides. 

Sure, a weaker yen could boost optimism and inflation expectations among Japanese companies, argues Abe adviser Etsuro Honda, making them more willing to invest and raise wages. If the result was increased upward pressure on bond yields, the “natural course of action” would be for the BOJ to raise the 10-year yield target a touch from zero, he said. Two months ago Mr. Honda was calling on the BOJ to lower its targets as an added jolt of easing.

However for Abenomics skeptics, the yen’s deteriorating prospects ring alarm bells. BNP Paribas chief Japan economist Ryutaro Kono said in a recent note for clients that a fall to ¥115 to the dollar could upset consumers by raising the cost of living.

The Yen is already below that level.

When BOJ easing weakened the yen to ¥125 to the dollar from ¥110 between autumn 2014 and summer of 2015, it cast a chill over the economy as rising costs for imported food and necessities battered consumers while companies held back from raising wages.

Then there is the yield curve argument: Japanese economists say the BOJ may have to raise its bond-yield target just to give more breathing room to the country’s banks, whose profits are dwindling as their longer-term lending rates fall dangerously close to what they’re paying on deposits.

“It’s like they’re submerged under water and holding their breath,” said Kazuo Momma, a former BOJ executive director who is now executive economist at Mizuho Research Institute. “If this situation becomes protracted, they could drown.”

Naturally, the BOJ – just like the ECB – which are both agreeable to steepening the yield curve even more (seemingly unaware that will also crash the housing market), is allergic to any discussions of tightening. After all, if there is one thing that could crash this market, it is further hints of tightening and the yanking of billions in reserves. Then again, just like in the case of the ECB, perhaps all Kuroda needs to do is come up with a fancy-sounding economic name for its imminent tightening, one which doesn’t wake up the algos. Perhaps “inverse massive QE” should do the trick…

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