The Zen of The Yen

Sometimes no news is more telling than one might initially think.

Although it was hardly earth-shattering for the market that the BOJ chose yesterday to keep its main benchmark rate sitting at 0.1%, it does highlight the extraordinary difficulties Japan currently faces in terms of jolting its economy back into some kind of forward momentum.

According to Bloomberg: The Bank of Japan held interest rates near zero and said it remains committed to fighting deflation as gains in the yen risk stunting the recovery from the country’s worst postwar recession. “I hope that price declines will be overcome as soon as possible,” Governor Masaaki Shirakawa told reporters in Tokyo after his board kept the overnight lending rate at 0.1 percent. “It will take time before we can see prices rising to favorable levels,” he said, adding that the central bank will maintain an “extremely accommodative financial environment.”

The statement by the governor Shirakawa really tells it all and one can only second his hope that price declines will soon hit the shores of Japan. Yet, this seems more and more unlikely which is also why the BOJ seems to be moving straight back into full-out quantitative easing at the same time as its peers are set to try, albeit with great difficulty, to restore some kind of normal monetary conditions over the course of 2010.

The BOJ consequently seems to be silently conceding that it will have to cooperate tightly with the MOF in trying to bring some kind of momentum back to Japanese soil. In this concrete case it will mean keeping open the taps to create a bid for the steady flow of Japanese government bonds.

The core-of-core index has now fallen since January 2008 with the total accumulated decline in the core nominal price level of 6.8%. Now, I don't need, I think, to spell out what this implies for debt and growth dynamics in Japan which just seem to perennially stuck at the moment.

The problem for Japan is really that it is fighting a losing battle on two fronts. Firstly, and as most observers would expect, Japan is having great difficulty in terms of building up domestic demand. Secondly, however, and much worse, conventional wisdom would have that as the risky assets began to fly back in March 2009, and as the global economy showed the first tepid signs of emerging from the death bed, so should the JPY weaken and Japan ride, through the carry trade effect, the global upturn on exports.

Yet, this has not been the story so far and while Japan indeed is exporting a lot to service the railway train in China, the new-found reluctance of the JPY to react to global risk sentiment is prevalent.

Measured against the Euro and using the period 2004 to 2009 (more or less) as the base average value the JPY is now 10% and 17% stronger against the Euro and the Buck respectively.

Finally, to add injury to insult S&P moved in Monday with a nudge as it threatened to downgrade Japan's sovereign debt rating less it gets its fiscal book on the mend. As a mitigating factor S&P mentions Japan's strong net external position which acts as an important dam towards the rising flood of public sector debt.

Yet, unless Japan succeeds in pushing the JPY down on a sustainable basis against its main competitors this dam will break sooner rather than later. Needless to say that if the BOJ decides to abide completely by the implied domestic pressure to continue funding deficit spending, S&P’s hands will be effectively forced.

One thing for sure, as Societe Generale's chief Japan economist Takuji Okubo, told Bloomberg:
"The market should be braced for the BOJ keeping its current rate unchanged for a very, very long time".

Indeed, and thus as the big talking point in the rest of the world remains fixed on exit strategies and the need (and peril) of fiscal consolidation, Japan continues to be stuck in the mire. My own personal feeling is that it might very well be the BOJ leading the pack of global central banks rather than the other way around, but for now the fact that there is no news from Japan is exactly what makes it news.

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