The Tokyo Whale will need to get its buying boots on again

Let us begin the week with some good news for the central bank from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. That is that the Nikkei 225 equity index rallied strongly this morning and its 2.44% surge saw it regain the 20,000 level and close at 20,038. The Bank of Japan will be pleased on two counts, of which the first is the wealth effects it will expect from a higher equity market. The second is that it will improve its own position as what we have labelled the Tokyo Whale.

The Bank of Japan’s purchases of exchange-traded funds since the start of 2018 exceeded 6 trillion yen ($53 billion) on Tuesday, reaching a record high on a yearly basis and signaling the central bank has been increasingly exposed to riskier assets. ( The Mainichi).

For newer readers the Bank of Japan has been buying Japanese equities for around 5 years and has been doing so on an increasing scale.

Under Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, the BOJ announced aggressive monetary stimulus in 2013 aimed at breaking Japan’s economy out of its deflationary malaise.

The measures included increasing the central bank’s holdings of ETFs by an annual 1 trillion yen, which it expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and again to 6 trillion yen in 2016.

The name “Tokyo Whale” came about because as you can see it found the need to keep increasing the size of the purchases as the expect results did not materialise. This meant that it cannot keep this going for much longer as it will run out of equity ETFs to buy. Why does it buy them? Well the bit below hints at it.

ETFs allow investors to buy and sell exposure to a basket of equities or an index without owning the underlying shares.

So the Bank of Japan can avoid claims it is explicitly investing in the companies concerned or if you like is a passive fund manager. Those of you who recall the media claims last autumn that the Bank of Japan was in the process of conducting a “tapering” of its purchases will find the bit below familiar.

The purchases have been criticized by some as artificially buoying stock prices, leading the BOJ in July this year to give itself more flexibility by saying it “may increase or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.”

The Tokyo Whale bought more and not less as the 24,000 or so of late summer was replaced by the current level.

Purchases of the investment funds swelled as the BOJ stepped in to underpin the stock market, which in October suffered huge losses amid concerns over heightened trade tensions between the United States and China.

If we step back and wonder what influence this has been then this from the Tokyo Whale itself hardly provides much support.

a challenge lies in the household sector in that the mechanism of the virtuous cycle from
income to consumption expenditure has been operating weakly.

Money Supply

We have been observing for some months now that many countries have had lower money supply growth which has then led to lower economic growth. So as you can imagine I was waiting for the monetary base data released today. What we see is that the monetary base in Japan grew by 17% in 2017 but by a much lower 7.3% in 2018 and the annual rate in the month of December was only 4.8%. Quite remarkably there were spells in December when the monetary base actually fell. That begs a question about this.

The Bank of Japan will conduct money market operations so that the monetary base will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

As ever in Japan picking one’s way through this is complex as we arrive at what I think is the largest number we have noted on here. You see the Japanese monetary base which is some 504.2 trillion Ten has been pumped up so much by the Bank of Japan the annual rate of growth could not be kept up. For a start there was the issue of how many bonds and the like have already been bought.

The BOJ’s balance sheet, after all, reached a dubious milestone in 2018, when it topped Japan’s $4.87 trillion of annual gross domestic product. ( Nikkei Asian Review)

Rather oddly the NAR then tells us this.

The BOJ could easily buy more government debt and ETFs.

Actually there are not many ETFs left to buy and the Bank of Japan itself is seeing dissent against the current level of purchases. That is not to say that the Bank of Japan could not use other methods as it has shown itself willing to buy pretty much anything.

If we move to the wider liquidity measure of the Bank of Japan we see that the rate of growth was 3.5% in November 2017 but only 1.8% this November. Thus both the bass line and the drumbeat from the monetary system are not only the same but they are a 2018 theme. Because of the different nature of the Japanese system it is hard to be precise about any likely effect because all the expansion seemed to have only a minor upwards effect but one would expect that to now disappear.

Oh and my largest number did not last long as Japanese liquidity is 1788.5 trillion Yen.

The Yen

It was only last week that we were mulling the “flash rally” in the Yen as yet another weak period for equity markets saw a yen for Yen. A combination of thin markets and a Japanese bank holiday saw the Yen strengthen into the high 104s versus the US Dollar. I am told that exited some of the hedges placed by Japanese exporters but there was no sign of the “bold action” often promised by the Bank of Japan. Things are now calmer and the Yen is at 108 but even that is higher over time and that has been against a relatively strong US Dollar.

As the NAR points out this will not be welcomed by the Japanese authorities.

The central problem is that Japan’s economic growth relies largely a weak yen and its capacity to boost exports. Though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked grandly about structural reform, the yen’s 30% drop beginning in late 2012 was the fuel behind the 12-quarter run of growth Japan experienced until its July-September stumble.

Comment

The Tokyo Whale faces quite a few problems right now. For example the third quarter of 2018 showed something it has claimed was temporary.

Quarter-on-quarter, GDP shrank a real 0.6 percent, downgraded from the earlier reading of a 0.3 percent contraction. ( The Japan Times)

According to the Markit business survey there was a bounce back. From earlier today.

“Positive survey data from the manufacturing sector
were not mirrored by Japan’s dominant service providing industry in December, where business
activity increased at the weakest pace since May if
the natural-disaster-hit September is discounted.
The survey also pointed to abating demand
pressures, as private sector sales increased only
mildly on the month.”

But then we will expect to see the impact of slowing money supply growth. So 2019 may see the Tokyo Whale do this as we wait to see how those who have presented Abenomics as a triumph deal with Elvis Costello being number one again.

She’s been a bad girl, she’s like a chemical
Though you try to stop it, she’s like a narcotic
You want to torture her, you want to talk to her
All the things you bought for her, putting up your temperature
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it

Meanwhile here is my podcast from last week with covers my thoughts on how Japan has survived the “lost decade(s)”.

 

 

 

 

 

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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

Inflation

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.

Trade

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.

Comment

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

However much the Tokyo Whale buys wages and consumption seem to struggle

On Wednesday evening the US Federal Reserve will announce its latest policy decision and it will be a surprise if it does not give US interest-rates another 0.25% nudge higher. Yet we see in an example of clear policy divergence other countries ploughing on with monetary easing. For example the European Central Bank continues with monthly QE of 30 billion Euros a month and still has a deposit rate of -0.4%. However the leader of this particular pack is the Bank of Japan especially if we look at other signals of what are known as side-effects. From Bloomberg last week.

That’s the backdrop to Tuesday’s session, when not a single benchmark 10-year note was traded on exchange, according to Japan Trading C0. data. Barclays Securities Japan rates strategist Naoya Oshikubo, summed it up, with perhaps an understatement: “the JGB market was generally thin.”

The latter part is simply part of the Japanese concept of face. One reason for this is the size of the holdings of the Bank of Japan.

The Bank of Japan has vacuumed up so much of the government bond market — in excess of 40 percent — that it’s left fewer securities for others to buy and sell. Some other buyers, such as pension funds and life insurers, also tend to follow buy-and-hold strategies.

The latter sentence there is weak as pension funds and life insurers enact such strategies all over the world and have done so for decades so it is hardly their fault. Indeed quite the reverse s many national bond markets have relied on such purchases.

Whilst we keep being told the Bank of Japan is cutting back the amount of buying remains enormous.

Governor Haruhiko Kuroda noted to lawmakers Wednesday that the central bank has bought 75 percent of the government bonds issued in the fiscal year ending this month.

The next bit contradicts itself as it seems to be claiming that if you buy everything you do not need to intervene. Oops!

The upside for the BOJ is that with such little going on in the market, it makes it easier to control the yield curve, with less need for intervention

The Bank of Japan is the yield curve it would seem which is we step back for a moment begs all sorts of questions. For example you might compare currencies as I have certainly done in the past by comparing bond yields yet in such a calculation there is the implicit assumption that you have a “market” rate. But no, we clearly do not in Japan and that is before we get to the moral hazard of it being set by a body trying to depreciate/devalue the Yen. Oh and if you are a Japanese bond trader you might want to send your CV to the Bank of Japan.

Some jobs might be threatened by automation. But when it comes to government bond trading in Japan, the biggest threat might be the country’s central bank.

The Tokyo Whale

This for newer readers refers to the way that the Bank of Japan has piled into the equity market as well. The numbers are opaque as they are in several accounts but Bloomberg has been doing some number-crunching.

The BOJ started buying ETFs in 2010, with Governor Haruhiko Kuroda later accelerating purchases as part of an unprecedented stimulus package aimed at revitalizing the economy. The central bank had spent $150 billion on Japanese ETFs as of Dec. 8. It owned 74 percent of the market at the end of October, up from 65 percent a year earlier, according to Investment Trusts Association figures, BOJ disclosures and data compiled by Bloomberg. ( ETFs are Exchange Traded Funds)

As the Nikkei-225 equity index fell by 195 points today we know that the Tokyo Whale would have been buying again.

The BOJ stepped up purchases in November after equities retreated, buying 598 billion yen of ETFs.

With there being a buy the dip strategy we can be sure that the Bank of Japan has been buying this year as there have been dips. If we were not sure then this morning’s release of “opinions” from the latest policy meeting reinforce the message.

If the current trends of the appreciation of the yen and the decline in stock prices become prolonged, business fixed investment and consumption will be restrained due to negative wealth effects and a deterioration of households’ and firms’ balance sheets,

Just for clarity the BOJ is breaking new ground here is it really believes that. Not by arguing for “wealth effects” as central bankers the world over are true believers in them. What I mean is the implication that they are larger than other factors at play whereas the evidence I have seen over time is that they are minor and thus often hard to find at all. Looking deeper we see that the BOJ seems to have little intention of changing course although a boundary is on the horizon as some holders must want to keep their ETFs meaning it cannot be long before it has to look for greener pastures.

Perhaps this are suggested last November, from Reuters.

The Bank of Japan should consider using derivatives, rather than buying Japanese stock funds directly as it does now, to affect risk premium on stocks, because that would be a better tool, said the chief investment officer of Japan Post Bank………By selling put options of Japanese stocks, the BOJ should be able to not only help bring down the stock market’s volatility but also to make it easier to wean the markets off its stimulus, said Katsunori Sago, a former Goldman Sachs (GS.N) executive.

Alumni of the Vampire Squid get everywhere don’t they? So the fact that the Bank of Japan’s policies have in effect been a put option for Japanese equities should be added to by writing actual put options. Who would be silly enough to buy these options from the Bank of Japan? It is hard to know where to begin with the moral hazard here.

If the BOJ sells out-of-the-money puts, for example, put option with strike price below the current market levels, it can reduce the market’s volatility, Sago said.

Er simply no. You can reduce perceived or implied volatility but should the market move there is actual volatility. Unless of course Sago san is suggesting that the Bank of Japan should intervene in equity markets on the same scale as it has in bond markets and I think there we have it. Whilst there would presumably be profits for equity holders as much of the Japanese markets are Japanese owned we are in many cases simply shifting from one balance sheet to another.

Yen

This is something that fits the famous Churchillian phrase.

 It is a riddlewrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;

Why? Well it is something which all the buying above should according to economics 101 be on its way down and yet there it is at 106 to the US Dollar. You can argue the US Dollar has been weak but I note that the UK Pound £ has been pushed back to 148 Yen as well. We get a clue from this from the Nikkei Asian Review.

Foreign assets held by Japanese institutional and individual investors appear to have topped 1,000 trillion yen ($8.79 trillion) for the first time, according to Nikkei estimates. The amount has increased roughly 50% during the past five years and now is more than twice as much as the country’s gross domestic product.

The market has been responding to fears of a repatriation much more than any new flows. Also as the BOJ has to some extent driven investors overseas it has undermined its own weak Yen policy. We are back to timing effects where something may be true but for a limited time period, Keynes understood it but modern central bankers lack such humility.

Comment

We have looked at the financial economy today but lets us via the “opinions” of the Bank of Japan switch to the real economy.

For instance, although the structural unemployment rate was formerly said to be around 3.5 percent, the actual
unemployment rate has continued to decline and registered 2.4 percent recently.

I imagine each Board Member sipping from their celebratory glass of sake as they type that. But there is a problem as we see below.

Although wage increases by firms have been at around 2 percent for the past few years, real wages registered negative growth in 2017 on a year-on-year basis.

That claim about wage rises is news to me and also the ministry of labor but let us pass that as we note the fall in real wages admitted as we reach the nexus of all of this.

The weak recovery in household consumption since last summer is of concern.

You see one way of looking at the Japanese economy is of deficient domestic demand. So when we are in an official world of wealth effects, plunging unemployment and surging wages ( 2% is a surge in Japanese terms or at least it would be) it should be on the up whereas with a little poetic licence it seems still to be rather Japanese.