The Tokyo Whale is hungry again!

A new week has started with something which we will find awfully familiar although not everyone will as I will explain. But first let me give you something of a counterpoint and indeed irony to the news.

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Oil prices fell on Monday on signs that worldwide oil storage is filling rapidly, raising concerns that production cuts will not come fast enough to fully offset the collapse in demand from the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. oil futures led losses, falling by more than $2 a barrel on fears that storage at Cushing, Oklahoma, could reach full capacity soon. U.S. crude inventories rose to 518.6 million barrels in the week to April 17, near an all-time record of 535 million barrels set in 2017. [EIA/S]

In ordinary times this would be a case of let’s get this party started in Japan. This is because it is a large energy importer and thus it would be getting both and balance of payments and manufacturing boost. In itself it would have been extremely welcome because you may recall that its economy had seen a reverse before the present pandemic.

The contraction of Japan’s 4Q 2019 GDP was worse than expected, coming in at -1.8% q/q (- 7.1% annualized rate) versus the first estimate of -1.6% q/q (-6.3% annualized rate) as the contraction in business spending was deeper than what was first reported in February, ( FXStreet )

So the land of the rising sun or Nihon was already in what Taylor Swift would call “trouble, trouble,trouble”, The raising of the Consumption Tax ( what we call VAT) had in an unfortunate coincidence combined with the 2019 trade war. The former was rather like 2014 as we mull all the promises it would not be. Also let me give you a real undercut, Japan acted to improve its fiscal position just in time for it to be considered much less important.

The Tokyo Whale

Let me open with something which for newer readers may come as a shock.

The Bank will actively purchase ETFs and J-REITs for the time being so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual paces with the upper limit of about 12 trillion
yen and about 180 billion yen, respectively.

Yes the Bank of Japan is buying equities and has just suggested it will double its annual purchases of them. Those who follow me will be aware it has been buying more as for example it is now buying around 120 billion Yen on the days it buys ( nine so far in April) as opposed to the previous 70 billion or so having bought over 200 billion when equity markets were hit hard. The detail is that it buys via Exchange Traded Funds ( ETFs) to avoid the embarrassment of having to vote at AGMs and the like.

Oh and in another familiar theme upper limits are not always upper limits.

With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

Also the ,you may note that the limit for commercial property purchases has been doubled too. I do sometimes wonder why they bother with the commercial property buys although now we have an extra factor which is that in so many places around the world commercial property looks under a lot of pressure. For example if there is more working from home as seems likely.

The Precious! The Precious!

Japan has an official interest-rate of -0.1% but not for quite everybody.

(3) apply a positive interest rate of 0.1 percent to the outstanding balances of current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank that correspond to the amounts outstanding of loans provided through this

For whom?

Twice as much as the amounts outstanding of the loans will continue to be included in the Macro Add-on Balances in current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank.

Yes the banks and as you can see they will be a “double-bubble” gain from lending under the new Bank of Japan scheme. I wonder if the Japanese taxpayer has noted that extension of operations to the private debt sphere as well?

expand the range of eligible collateral to private debt in general, including household debt (from about 8
trillion yen to about 23 trillion yen as of end-March 2020),

Corporate Bonds and Commercial Paper

I have highlighted another risk being taken on behalf of the Japanese taxpayer.

The Bank decided, by a unanimous vote, to significantly increase the maximum amount
of additional purchases of CP and corporate bonds and conduct purchases with the upper
limit of the amount outstanding of about 20 trillion yen in total. In addition, the maximum amounts outstanding of a single issuer’s CP and corporate bonds to be purchased will be raised substantially.

Should there be a default there might be trouble.

The Bank will increase the maximum share of the Bank’s holdings of CP and corporate
bonds within the total amount outstanding of issuance by a single issuer from the current
25 percent to 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

Surely at any sign of trouble everyone will simply sell to the Bank of Japan which will then be a buyer of more like first than last resort.

Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here ( The Eagles )

Japanese Government Bonds

This is something we have been expecting and just as a reminder the previous target was between 70 and 80 trillion Yen a year.

The Bank will purchase a necessary amount of JGBs without setting an upper limit so that 10-year JGB yields will remain at around zero percent.

It is hard to get too worked up about that as we have been expecting it to be along. In theory the plan remains the same, although there is a slight shuffle as in the past they have indicated a range between 0% and -0.1%.


The first issue is that the Japanese economy is doing extremely badly. It already had problems and the PMI business survey suggested a GDP decline of the order of 10%. With its “face” culture that is likely to be an underestimate. In response there has been this.

The Japanese government has outlined details of its plan to hand out 100,000 yen, or more than 900 dollars, in cash to all residents as part of its economic response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The cash handouts will go to every person listed on Japan’s Basic Resident Register, regardless of nationality. ( NHK)

They tried something like this back in the 90s and I remember calculating it as £142 as compared to £752 this time. As to adjusting for inflation well in the Lost Decade era Japan has seen so little of that.

So we see that the Bank of Japan is underwriting the spending plans of the Japanese government which of course is the same Japanese government which underwrites the bond buying of the Bank of Japan! It seems set to make sure that the Japanese government can borrow for free in terms of yield as I note this.

In case of a rapid increase in the yields, the Bank will purchase JGBs promptly and appropriately.

In fact just like a parent speaking to a child you can indulge in the JGB market but only if you play nicely.

While doing so, the yields may move upward and downward to some extent mainly depending on developments in economic activity and prices.

You will find many cheering “Yield Curve Control” although more than a few of those will be hoping that there claims that the Bank of Japan will need to intervene less have been forgotten. Actually there have been phases where it has kept yields up rather than down.

In the future will the Bank of Japan own everything?

The Express

I have done some interviews for it recently and here is one on the benefits of lower oil prices

Podcast on central bank equity purchases


How much difference has the central planning of the Bank of Japan really made?

Sometimes it is hard not to have a wry smile at market developments and how they play out. For example the way that equity markets have returned to falling again has been blamed on the Italian bond market which has rallied since Friday. But this morning has brought a reminder that even central banks have bad days as we note that the Nikkei 225 equity index in Japan has fallen 2.7% or 609 points today. This means that the Bank of Japan will have been busy as it concentrates its buying of equity Exchange Traded Funds or ETFs on down days and if you don’t buy on a day like this when will you? This means it is all very different from the end of September when the Wall Street Journal reported this.

The Nikkei 225 hit 24286.10, the highest intraday level since November 1991—as Japan’s epic 1980s boom was unraveling and giving way to decades of economic stagnation and flat or falling prices. It closed up 1.4% at 24120.04, a fresh eight-month high. The index has more than doubled since Shinzo Abe became prime minister in late 2012, pushing a program of corporate overhaul, economic revitalization, and super-easy monetary policy.

If you are questioning the “corporate overhaul” and “economic revitalization” well so am I. However missing from the WSJ was the role of the Bank of Japan in this as it has reminded us this morning as its balance sheet shows some 21,795,753,836,000 Yen worth of equity ETF holdings. Actually that is not its full holding as there are others tucked away elsewhere. But even the Japanese owned Financial Times thinks this is a problem for corporate overhaul rather than pursuing it.

According to one brokerage calculation, the BoJ has become a top-10 shareholder in about 70 per cent of shares in the Tokyo Stock Exchange first section. Because it does not vote on those shares, nor insists that ETF fund managers do so on its behalf, proponents of better corporate governance see the scheme as diluting shareholder pressure on companies.

Intriguingly the Financial Times article was about the Bank of Japan doing a stealth taper of these purchases but rather oddly pointed out it had in fact over purchased them.Oh Well!

In early July, for example, analysts noted that over the first 124 trading days of the 245-day trading year, the BoJ had bought ETFs that annualised at a pace of ¥7tn — or ¥1tn ahead of target.

That seems to explain a reduction in purchases quite easily. Anyway, moving back to the Bank of Japan’s obsession with manipulating markets goes on as you can see from this earlier.

BoJ Gov Kuroda: Told Japan Gvt Panel He Will Continue TO Monitor Market Moves – RTRS Citing Gvt Official   ( @LiveSquawk )

It was especially revealing that he was discussing the currency which is not far off where it was a year ago. Mind you I guess that is the problem! It is also true that the Yen tends to strengthen in what are called “risk-off” phases as markets adjust in case Japan repatriates any of its large amount of investments placed abroad.

Putting it another way to could say that the Japanese state has built up a large national debt which could be financed by the large foreign currency investments of its private-sector.

Monetary Base

This has been what the Bank of Japan has been expanding in the Abenomics era and it is best expressed I think with the latest number.

504.580.000.000.000 Yen


All the buying above was supposed to create consumer inflation which was supposed to reflate the economy and bring the Abenomics miracle. Except it got rather stuck at the create consumer inflation bit. Just for clarity I do not mean asset price inflation of which both Japanese bonds and equities have seen plenty of and has boosted the same corporate Japan that we keep being told this is not for. But in a broad sweep Japan has in fact seen no consumer inflation. If we look at the annual changes beginning in 2011 we see -0.3%,0%,0.4%,2.7%,0.8%,-0.1% and 0.5% in 2017. For those of you thinking I have got you Shaun about 2014 that was the raising of the Consumption Tax which is an issue for consumers in Japan but was not driven by the monetary policy.

In terms of the international comparisons presented by Japan Statistics it is noticeable how much lower inflation has been over this period than in Korea and China or its peers. In fact the country it looks nearest too is Italy which reminds us that there are more similarities between the two countries economies than you might think with the big difference being Italy’s population growth meaning that the performance per capita or per head is therefore very different to Japan.

Bringing it up to date whilst we observe most countries for better or worse ( mostly worse in my opinion) achieving their inflation target Japan is at 1.2% so still below. Considering how much energy it imports and adding the rise in the oil price we have seen that is quite remarkable, but also an Abenomics failure.

The Bank of Japan loves to torture the data and today has published its latest research on inflation without food, without food and energy, Trimmed mean, weighted median, mode and a diffusion index. These essentially tell us that food prices ebb and flow and that the inflation rate of ~0% is er ~0% however you try to spin it.


Here Japan looks as though it is doing well. According to research released earlier Japan saw real exports rise by 2.5% in 2016 and by 6.4% in 2017 although more recently there has been a dip. A big driver has been exports to China which rose by 14.1% last year and intriguingly there was a warning about the emerging economies as exports to there had struggled overall and have now turned lower quite sharply.


As you can see from the numbers above the Bank of Japan has taken central planning to new heights. Even it has to admit that such a policy has side-effects.

Risk-taking in Japan’s financial sector hit a near three-decade high in the April-September, a central bank gauge showed, in a sign years of ultra-easy monetary policy may be overheating some parts of the industry…………The index measuring excess risk-taking showed such financial activity was at its highest level since 1990, when Japan experienced the burst of an asset-inflated bubble.

One of the extraordinary consequences of all this is that in many ways Japanese economic life has continued pretty much as before. The population ages and shrinks and the per head performance is better than the aggregate one. If things go wrong the Japanese via their concept of face simply ignore the issue and carry on as the World Economic Forum has inadvertently shown us today.

What a flooded Japanese airport tells us about rising sea levels

You see Kansai airport in Osaka was supposed to be a triumph of Japan’s ability to build an airport in the sea. To some extent this defied the reality that it is both a typhoon and an earthquake zone. But even worse due to a problem with the surveys the airport began to sink of its own accord, and by much more than expected/hoped. I recall worries that it might be insoluble as giving it a bigger base would add to the weight meaning it would then sink faster! Also some were calculating how much each Jumbo Jet landing would make it sink further. So in some respects it is good news that they have fudged their way such that it still exists at all.

Here is another feature of Japanese life from a foreign or gaijin journalist writing in The Japan Times.

If you’re a conspicuous non-Japanese living here who rides the trains or buses, or goes to cafes or anywhere in public where Japanese people have the choice of sitting beside you or sitting elsewhere, then you’ve likely experienced the empty-seat phenomenon with varying frequency and intensity.

Just as a reminder Japanese public travel is very crowded and commutes of more than 2 hours are more frequent than you might think. How often has someone sat next to him?

It’s such a rare occurrence (as in this is the second, maybe third time in 15 years) that my mind started trying to solve the puzzle.







How many more central banks will end up buying equities?

One of the features of modern economic life is the way that central banks have expanded their operations. In a way that development is a confession of failure ( as why are new policies requited if they existing ones are working? ) Although of course that would be met with as many official denials as you can shake a stick at. We moved from sharply lower interest-rates to QE (Quantitative Easing) bond purchases to credit easing and in some places to negative interest-rates. The latter brings me to the countries I classified as the “Currency Twins” Japan and Switzerland who both have negative interest-rates and some negative bond yields. In fact this morning the Bank of Japan gave Forward Guidance on this subject.

The Bank intends to maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding
economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.

So the first feature seems to be negative interest-rates and perhaps ones which persist as both Japan and Switzerland are on that road. Thus you start by funding yourself with money at a negative cost something which ordinary investors can only dream of. But we also have countries with negative interest-rates which have not ( so far) bought equities such as Sweden and the Euro area although the latter does have a sort of hybrid in its ongoing corporate bond programme.

However we find more of a distinguishing factor if we note that both Japan and Switzerland ended up with soaring exchange-rates due to the impact of the large carry-trades that took place before the credit crunch. This was what led me to label them the “Currency Twins”  and the period since then has seen them respond to this which has seen them via different routes end up as equity investors on a larger and larger scale albeit by a different route. An irony comes if we look at an alternative universe where Germany had its own currency too as in that timeline it too would have seen a soaring currency and presumably it too would be an equity investor.

Bank of Japan

Here is this morning’s announcement.

The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively. With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase
or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

As you can see the Tokyo Whale will continue to gobble up the plankton from the Japanese equity world and at quite a pace. The latter sentence refers to the way it buys more when the market drops which of course looks rather like a type of put option for other equity investors. That is what it means by “lower risk premia” although more than a few would question if this is “appropriate”

Also there are ch-ch-changes ahead. From the Financial Times.

the BoJ also said it would alter the balance of its ¥6tn ($54bn) per year ETF buying programme so that a much greater proportion was focused on ETFs that track the broader, market cap-weighted Topix index. The scale of its Topix-linked ETF purchases would rise from ¥2.7tn to ¥4.2tn per year, the bank said in its statement.

The Japanese owned FT fails however to note the main two significant points of this. The first is that the Tokyo Whale was simply running out of Nikkei index based ETFs to buy as it was up to around 80% of them and of course rising. The next comes from a comparison of the two indices where the Nikkei is described as very underweight this sector and it is much larger in the Topix ( ~9%). Regular readers will no doubt have figured that this is the “precious” or banking sector.

As of this month it has made major purchases on 3 days buying 70.5 billion Yen on each occasion.

Let us move on by noting that Japan has bought equities but so far they have been Japanese ones boosting its own market and keeping the impact on the exchange-rate to an implied one.

Swiss National Bank

The SNB has been a buyer of equities as well but came to it via a different route which is that once it implemented its “unlimited” policy on foreign exchange intervention it then found it had “loadsamoney” and had to find something to do with all the foreign currency it had bought. The conventional route would be to buy short-dated foreign government bonds which it did but because of the scale of the operation it began to impact here and may have been a factor in some Euro area bond yields going negative. The Geneva Whale would have found itself competing with the ECB QE operation if it had carried on so switched to around 20% of its foreign exchange reserves going into equities.

That is a tidy sum when we note it had some 748.8 billion Swiss Francs of foreign exchange reserves at the end of June. How is that going?

. The profit on foreign currency positions amounted to CHF 5.2 billion.

So at that point rather well but of course it is rather strapped in for the ride with its holdings which will have led to some fun and games more recently as it notes its holding in Facebook as the tweet below illustrates.


If you ride the tiger on the way up you can end up getting bitten by it in the way down. Also a passive investment strategy means you raise your stake as prices rise whereas an active one means you are an explicit as opposed to an implicit hedge fund. Some like to express this in terms of humour.


We do not know if the recent weakness in the so-called FANG tech stocks is just ebb and flow or a sea change, but the latter would have the SNB entering choppy water.


We see that this particular development can be traced back to the carry trade and a rising currency. Both of the countries hit by this ended up with central banks buying equities although only the Swiss have bought foreign equities. Perhaps the Japanese think that as a nation they own plenty of foreign assets already or there is an inhibition against supporting a gaijin market. That would be both emotional and perhaps logical if we note how many lemons have been passed onto them.

Looking ahead newer entrants may not follow the same path as we note that once a central bank crosses a monetary policy Rubicon it has the effect of emboldening others. The temptation of what so far have been profits will be an incentive although of course any suggestion that such moves are for profit would be meant with the strictest official denial. Should there be losses however we know that they will be nobody’s fault unless they become large in which case it will be entirely the fault of financial terrorists.

Putting this into perspective is the price I am about to describe. Around 1000 until the middle of 2016 but rose to 8380 earlier this year and as of the last trade 6080. One of those volatile coins the central bankers dislike so much? Nope, it is the SNB share price in Swiss Francs.