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Japan's Bold Forex Intervention: A Move to Halt Yen's Plummet and Secure Market Certainty

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Michael Chen

April 2, 2024 - 00:19 am

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Japan Weighs Market Intervention amid Yen's Decline to Combat Financial Instability

In recent times, Japan has been faced with a precipitous decline in the value of its currency, reaching levels of weakness not seen in approximately 34 years when compared to the US dollar. Top strategists from major Japanese brokerage firms suggest that if the authorities opt for intervention in the foreign exchange markets, their likely target would be to counteract a five-yen rally against the dollar.

The Japanese Ministry of Finance and other officials have escalated their rhetoric against speculative tendencies driving the yen down, signalling an increasing unease with its rapid devaluation. Last week, the yen slipped to a point that surpassed the thresholds which previously prompted Japan to undertake market interventions in 2022 - actions not seen since the financial turbulence of 1998.

"An operation involving several trillion yen, similar to last year's effort, could potentially enhance the yen by approximately four to five yen against the dollar," stated Yujiro Goto, the lead strategist for Japanese currency at Nomura Securities Co.

Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki has flagged the government's readiness to implement "bold measures" to counter excess volatility in the currency market. However, there lingers a degree of skepticism regarding the efficacy and duration of any such intervention, largely because of the persistent and significant yield gap between US and Japanese bonds, which has been a force exerting downward pressure on the yen's valuation.

The Bank of Japan's initial interest rate increase since 2007, which occurred last month, has done little to bridge the gap, as current variations in yield demonstrate US Treasury yields outstripping Japanese bonds by roughly 3.5 percentage points. Without heightened anticipation of rate reductions by the Federal Reserve, the yen’s frailty is anticipated to persist, potentially necessitating additional measures by Japan’s Finance Ministry to attempt to shore up its currency.

A Trader's Guide to Japanese Policymakers' Language on the Yen

With foreign-exchange reserves totaling $1.15 trillion at February's end, Japan has significant strength in its financial arsenal. An estimated $175 billion of these reserves are accounted for by dollar funds ready to be deployed in intervention efforts without the need to sell long-term securities, based on the analyses by Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Historical interventions shed light on the potential impact of such moves. For instance, during three crucial interventions in September and October 2022, more than ¥9 trillion (equivalent to about $59 billion) was expended by the Ministry of Finance. The outcome was a notable surge in the value of the yen—climbing over five yen to a peak of 140.36 per dollar during the initial intervention.

Kenta Tadaide, chief currency strategist at Daiwa Securities Co., posits that "An intervention of roughly ¥1 trillion might elevate the yen by just under one yen per dollar, taking into account the prevailing supply and demand dynamics in the currency markets."

The Influence of Market Speculation and Volatility

Strategists from Bank of America Corp., including Shusuke Yamada and Meghan Swiber, outlined in a recent note that the probability of Japan stepping into the currency market to exert control would escalate if the dollar ascends to the 152-155 yen range, or if one-month implied volatility climbs beyond the 10% mark, up from the current level of around 8%.

Yet, it is a common belief that such intervention, despite its potential for short-term impact, cannot alter the long-standing underlying trend of the yen. After the government's market entry in 2022, the yen experienced a near 20% recovery from the low of 151.95 per dollar reached on October 21, within three months. However, this rebound proved temporary, as the yen subsequently depreciated again, diving to a new low of 151.97 last week.

"Interventions tend to provoke some level of positional adjustment, but they merely yield short-term influence," explained Tsutomu Soma, a seasoned bond and currency trader at Monex Inc. "The currency's value is likely to revert to its former levels over a span of a week or so."

Underlying Currents: Fund Outflows and Global Investment Trends

Adding another layer to the yen's depreciation are the fund outflows facilitated by the investment choices of retail investors. The first two months of this year saw Japanese investments in overseas equities through investment trusts surpass the ¥1 trillion mark. This uptick in international investing is partly attributable to the debut of Japan's new tax-exempt retirement savings scheme, known as NISA.

A broader perspective reveals a trend of Japan’s investors and corporations redirecting their capital towards more lucrative investment opportunities abroad. The basic balance—a comprehensive metric gauging capital flows—reflects a rolling six-month deficit of ¥2.2 trillion, as per Bloomberg's analysis of Japan's balance-of-payments data. This stands in stark contrast to 2022 when the basic balance was seen in a surplus of as much as ¥1.2 trillion, suggesting the yen's purchasing flows were robustly supporting the interventions. Present conditions do not mirror this scenario.

The Deep-Seated Economic Roots of the Yen's Devaluation

"The underlying issues contributing to the yen's sustained weakness against the dollar include Japan's limited potential for economic expansion, its ongoing fiscal deficit, and deep-seated structural challenges affecting its trade balance," stated Mari Iwashita, chief market economist at Daiwa Securities Co.

The landscape of the global economy undoubtedly influences national currencies, but as Japan faces its own set of unique economic and fiscal challenges, the path forward calls for strategically balancing interventions with reforms addressing these fundamental issues.

The Road Ahead for Japan's Economic Strategies

As Japan deliberates its approach to managing its currency, it is clear that any potential forex market intervention would be a tactical move aimed at curbing extreme fluctuations rather than a cure-all for the yen's vulnerabilities. With the Ministry of Finance on alert and strategists closely monitoring speculative volatility, the landscape for economic policy and currency stabilization is a complex one, necessitating vigilant oversight and decisive action. This proactive stance by Japan's financial stewards underscores their resolve to maintain fiscal stability and bolster confidence in one of the world's most widely traded currencies.

With thanks given to valuable insights provided by Masaki Kondo, Kana Nishizawa, and Paul Jackson, Japan's currency scenario remains at the forefront of international financial discourse.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.