The Dollar shortage of 2018 and maybe 19

Today we return to a topic which has been regularly in the headlines in 2018. We started the year with the US administration that looking like it was talking the US Dollar lower in line with its America First policy. Back on the 23rd of January we were mulling this.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

However as the year has gone by we have found ourselves mulling what the US Treasury Secretary said next.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

If we look at matters from the perspective of the Euro then the 1.20 of the opening of 2018 was fairly quickly replaced by 1.25. But since then the US Dollar has rallied and has moved to 1.15. Some of that has been in the past few days as it has moved from 1.18 to 1.15. That recent pattern has been repeated across most currencies and at 114 the US Dollar us now up on the year against the Yen as well. The UK Pound has suffered this year from a combination of the Brexit process and the machinations of the unreliable boyfriend but it too has been falling recently against the US Dollar to below US $1.30 whilst holding station with other currencies.

Year end problems

The currency moves above are being at least partly driven by this from Reuters.

As the Fed raises interest rates and reduces its balance sheet, and the dollar and U.S. bond yields move up, overseas investors are finding it increasingly difficult and costly to access dollars. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps more surprising – and potentially worrying – is just how expensive and scarce those dollars are becoming.

So with US Dollar scarce it seems that some have been dipping their toes into the spot currency markets as a hedge. This is because other avenues have become more expensive.

Until this week the cross-currency basis market, one of the most closely-watched measures of broad dollar demand, liquidity and funding, had showed no sign of stress. Demand for offshore dollars was being met easily and at comfortable prices.But the basis widened sharply on Thursday, the day after the Fed raised rates for the eighth time this cycle and signalled it fully intends to carry on hiking. In euros, it was the biggest one-day widening since the Great Financial Crisis.

So last week there was a type of double whammy of which the first part came from the US Federal Reserve.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 2 to 2-1/4 percent.

So US official interest-rates have risen but something else has been happening.

Three-month dollar funding costs are currently running around 2.50 pct. Not high by historical standards and, on the face of it, surely manageable for most borrowers. But it is heading higher, and the availability of dollars is shrinking.

So as you can see a premium is being paid on official interest-rates. So we have higher interest-rates and a more expensive currency. We know that in spite of the official rhetoric that various countries are moving away from dollar use the trend has been the other way. From Reuters again.

All this at a time when the world’s reliance on the dollar has never been greater. Its dominance as the international funding currency has grown rapidly since the 2008 crisis, especially for emerging market borrowers.

Dollar credit to the non-bank sector outside the United States stood at 14 percent of global GDP at the end of March this year, up from 9.5 pct at the end of 2007, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

Dollar lending to non-bank emerging markets has more than doubled to around $3.7 trillion since the crisis and a similar amount has been borrowed through currency swaps.

Regular readers will recall that back on the 25th of September I took a look at the potential for a US Dollar shortage as we face a new era.

The question to my mind going forwards is will we see a reversal in the QT or Quantitative Tightening era? The supply of US Dollars is now being reduced by it and we wait to see what the consequences are.

Indian problems

The largest country in the sub-continent has been feeling the squeeze in several ways recently. One has been the move away from emerging market economies and currencies. Another has been the impact of the fact that India is a large oil importer and the price of crude oil has been rising making the problem worse. This morning’s move through US $86 for a barrel of Brent Crude Oil may fade away but over the past year we have seen a rise of around 53%. For the Indian Rupee this has been something of what might be called a perfect storm as it has found itself under pressure from different avenues at the same time. Back on the 16th of August I looked at the Indian crude oil dependency and since then the metric have got worse. The price of oil has risen further and partly in response to that the Rupee has weakened from 70 to the US Dollar which was a record low at the time to 74 today.

Accordingly I noted this earlier from Business Standard.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Wednesday allowed oil-marketing companies (OMCs) to raise dollars directly from overseas markets without a need for hedging.

In a post-market notification, the RBI said the minimum maturity profile of the borrowings should be three years and five years, and the overall cap under the scheme would be $10 billion. The central bank relaxed criteria for this.

It gives us a guide to the scale of the Indian problem.

The oil-swap facility was much anticipated in the market, as that would have taken the pressure away from the market substantially. Annually, the dollar demand on oil count is $120 billion, or about $500 million, on a daily basis for every working day.

And the driving factor was a lack of US Dollar liquidity

The RBI announcements on liquidity are more focused towards providing relief to the NBFCs (non-banking financial companies) and banks, rather than cooling of the rupee in the FX markets,

Let us move on after noting that the Reserve Bank of India may have had a busy day.

Currency dealers say the RBI intervened lightly in the market.

Comment

Overnight we have seen news regarding a possible impact on the US treasury bond market which is for holders a source of US Dollars. From Janus Henderson US.

Euroland, Japanese previous buyers of 10yr Treasuries have been priced out of market due to changes in hedge costs.  For Insurance companies in Germany / Japan for instance, U.S. Treasuries yield only -.10% / -.01%. Lack of foreign buying at these levels likely leading to lower Treasury prices.

This has impacted the US treasury bond market overnight and prices have fallen and yields risen. The ten-year Treasury Note now yields 3.21% instead of 3.15%. That does not make Bill Gross right ( he was famously wrong about UK Gilts being on a bed of nitroglycerine ) as the line of least resistance for markets would be to mark them lower in price terms and see what happens. Try and panic some into selling.

As to the yield issue which may seem odd the problem is that the cost of currency hedging your position is such that you lose the yield. Thus relatively high yielding US Treasuries end up being similar to Japanese Government Bonds and German Bunds.

As ever when there are squeezes on it is not so much the overall position which is a danger but the flows. For example India’s pol problem is good news for oil exporters but if they are not recycling their dollars then there is an imbalance. I guess of the sort which is why this temporary feature became permanent.

In November 2011, the Federal Reserve announced that it had authorized temporary foreign-currency liquidity swap lines with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank, and the Swiss National Bank.

Me on Core Finance TV

 

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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.

SNB OFFERS TO BUY UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF TESLA AT 305 ( @RudyHavenstein )

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.

Comment

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.

 

The economic impact of the King Dollar in the summer of 2018

One of the problems of currency analysis is the way that when you are in the melee it is hard to tell the short-term fluctuation from the longer-term trend. It gets worse should you run into a crisis as Argentina found earlier this year as it raised interest-rates to 40% and still found itself calling for help from the International Monetary Fund. The reality was that it found itself caught out by a change in trend as the US Dollar stopped falling and began to rally. If we switch to the DXY index we see that the 88.6 of the middle of February has been replaced by 95.38 as I type this. At first it mostly trod water but since the middle of April it has been on the up.

Why?

If we ask the same question as Carly Simon did some years back then a partial answer comes from this from the testimony of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell yesterday.

Over the first half of 2018 the FOMC has continued to gradually reduce monetary policy accommodation. In other words, we have continued to dial back the extra boost that was needed to help the economy recover from the financial crisis and recession. Specifically, we raised the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/4 percentage point at both our March and June meetings, bringing the target to its current range of 1-3/4 to 2 percent.

So the heat is on and looks set to be turned up a notch or two further.

 the FOMC believes that–for now–the best way forward is to keep gradually raising the federal funds rate.

One nuance of this is the way that it has impacted at the shorter end of the US yield curve. For example the two-year Treasury Bond yield has more than doubled since early last September and is now 2.61%. This means two things. Firstly if we stay in the US it is approaching the ten-year Treasury Note yield which is 2.89%. If you read about a flat yield curve that is what is meant although not yet literally as the word relatively is invariably omitted. Also that there is now a very wide gap at this maturity with other nations with Japan at -0.13% and Germany at -0.64% for example.

At this point you may be wondering why two-year yields matter so much? I think that the financial media is still reflecting a consequence of the policies of the ECB which pushed things in that direction as the impact of the Securities Markets Programme for example and negative interest-rates.

QT

QT or quantitative tightening is also likely to be a factor in the renewed Dollar strength but it represents something unusual. What I mean by that is we lack any sort of benchmark here for a quantity rather than a price change. Also attempts in the past were invariably implicit rather than explicit as interest-rates were raised to get banks to lend less to reduce the supply of Dollars or more realistically reduce the rate of growth of the supply. Now we have an explicit reduction and it has shifted to narrow ( the central banks balance sheet) money from broad money.

 In addition, last October we started gradually reducing the Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities. That process has been running smoothly.  ( Jerome Powell).

You can’t always get what you want

It may also be true that you can’t get what you need either which brings us to my article from March the 22nd on the apparent shortage of US Dollars. This is an awkward one as of course market liquidity in the US Dollar is very high but it is not stretching things to say that it is not enough for this.

Non-US banks collectively hold $12.6 trillion of dollar-denominated assets – almost as much as US banks…….Dollar funding stress of non-US banks was at the center of the GFC. ( GFC= Global Financial Crisis). ( BIS)

The issue faded for a bit but seems to be on the rise again as the Libor-OIS spread dipped but more recently has risen to 0.52 according to Morgan Stanley. What measure you use is a moving target especially as the Federal Reserve shifts the way it operates in interest-rate markets but they kept these for a reason.

In October 2013, the Federal Reserve and these central banks announced that their liquidity swap arrangements would be converted to standing arrangements that will remain in place until further notice.

Impact on the US economy

The situation here was explained by Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer back in November 2015.

To gauge the quantitative effects on exports, the thick blue line in figure 2 shows the response of U.S. real exports to a 10 percent dollar appreciation that is derived from a large econometric model of U.S. trade maintained by the Federal Reserve Board staff. Real exports fall about 3 percent after a year and more than 7 percent after three years.

Imports are affected but by less.

The low exchange rate pass-through helps account for the more modest estimated response of U.S. real imports to a 10 percent exchange rate appreciation shown by the thin red line in figure 2, which indicates that real imports rise only about 3-3/4 percent after three years.

And via both routes GDP

The staff’s model indicates that the direct effects on GDP through net exports are large, with GDP falling over 1-1/2 percent below baseline after three years.

The impact is slow to arrive meaning we are likely to be seeing the impact of a currency fall when it is rising and vice versa raising the danger of tripping over our own feet in analysis terms.

What happens to everyone else?

As the US Dollar remains the reserve currency if it rises everyone else will fall and so they will experience inflation in the price of commodities and oil. This is likely to have a recessionary effect via for example the impact on real wages especially as nominal wage growth seems to be even more sticky than it used to be.

Comment

Responses to the situation above will vary for example the Bank of Japan will no doubt be saying the equivalent of “Party on” as it will welcome the weakening of the Yen to around 113 to the US Dollar. The ECB is probably neutral as a weakening for the Euro offsets some of its past rise as it celebrates actually hitting its 2% inflation target which will send it off for its summer break in good spirits. The unreliable boyfriend at the Bank of England is however rather typically likely to be unsure. Whilst all Governors seem to morph into lower Pound mode of course it also means that people do not believe his interest-rate hints and promises. Meanwhile many emerging economies have been hit hard such as Argentina and Turkey.

In terms of headlines the UK Pound £ is generating some as it gyrates around US $1.30 which it dipped below earlier. In some ways it is remarkably stable as we observe all the political shenanigans. I think a human emotion is at play and foreign exchange markets have got bored with it all.

Another factor here is that events can happen before the reasons for them. What I mean by that was that the main US Dollar rise was in late 2014 which anticipated I think a shift in US monetary policy that of course was yet to come. As adjustments to that view have developed we have seen all sorts of phases and we need to remember it was only on January 25th we were noting this.

The recent peak was at just over 103 as 2016 ended so we have seen a fall of a bit under 14%

Back then the status quo was

Down down deeper and down

Whereas the summer song so far is from Aloe Blacc

I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need
Well I need a dollar, dollar
Dollar that’s what I need

Me on Core Finance

 

 

 

What are the consequences of a weak US Dollar?

So far 2018 has seen an acceleration of a trend we saw last year which is a fall in the value of the US Dollar. The latest push was provided by the US Treasury Secretary only yesterday at Davos. From Bloomberg.

“Obviously a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities,” Mnuchin told reporters in Davos. The currency’s short term value is “not a concern of ours at all,” he said.

“Longer term, the strength of the dollar is a reflection of the strength of the U.S. economy and the fact that it is and will continue to be the primary currency in terms of the reserve currency,” he said.

The way it then fell it is probably for best its value is not a concern as the rhetoric was both plain and transparent.

A day before Trump’s scheduled arrival in the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin endorsed the dollar’s decline as a benefit to the American economy and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the U.S. would fight harder to protect its exporters.

The response to the words is a pretty eloquent explanation of why policy makers have a general rule that you do not comment on the level of the exchange rate. Not only might you get something you do not want there is also the issue of being careful what you wish for! Sadly the Rolling Stones were not on the case here.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime
You’ll find
You get what you need

However you spin it we are in a phase where the US government is encouraging a weaker dollar as part of the America First strategy. It has already produced an echo of the autumn of 2010 if this from the Managing Director of the IMF is any guide.

 “It’s not time to have any kind of currency war,” Lagarde said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Criticising someone for rhetoric by upping the rhetoric may not be too bright. Also there are more than a few examples of countries trying to win the race to the bottom around the world.

What does a lower US Dollar do?

Back in November 2015 Stanley Fischer gave us the thoughts of the US Federal Reserve.

To gauge the quantitative effects on exports, the thick blue line in figure 2 shows the response of U.S. real exports to a 10 percent dollar appreciation that is derived from a large econometric model of U.S. trade maintained by the Federal Reserve Board staff. Real exports fall about 3 percent after a year and more than 7 percent after three years.The gradual response of exports reflects that it takes some time for households and firms in foreign countries to substitute away from the now more expensive U.S.-made goods.

Also imports are affected.

The low exchange rate pass-through helps account for the more modest estimated response of U.S. real imports to a 10 percent exchange rate appreciation shown by the thin red line in figure 2, which indicates that real imports rise only about 3-3/4 percent after three years.

This means that the overall economy is affected as shown below.

The staff’s model indicates that the direct effects on GDP through net exports are large, with GDP falling over 1-1/2 percent below baseline after three years. Moreover, the effects materialize quite gradually, with over half of the adverse effects on GDP occurring at a horizon of more than a year.

Okay we need to flip all of that around of course because we are discussing a lower US Dollar this time around. Net exports will be boosted which will raise economic output or GDP over time.

How much?

If we look at the US Dollar Index we see at 89.1 it has already fallen by more than 3% this year. The recent peak was at just over 103 as 2016 ended so we have seen a fall of a bit under 14%. The official US Federal Reserve effective exchange rate has fallen from 128.9 in late December 2016 to 116.8 at the beginning of this week so 116 now say. Conveniently that gives us a fall of the order of 10%.

So if we look up to the preceding analysis we see that via higher exports and reduced imports US GDP will be 1.5% higher in three years time than otherwise.

What about inflation?

There is a lower impact on the US because of the role of the dollar as the reserve currency and in particular as the currency used for pricing the majority of commodities.

While the Board staff uses a range of models to gauge the effect of shocks, the model employed in figure 4–as well as other models used by staff–suggests that the dollar’s large appreciation will probably depress core PCE inflation between 1/4 and 1/2 percentage point this year through this import price channel.

You may note that Stanley Fischer continues the central banking obsession with core inflation measures when major effects will come from food and energy. It would be entertaining when they sit down to luncheon to say that we are having a core day so there isn’t any! Have you ever tried eating an i-pad?

So inflation may be around 0.5% higher.

What about everybody else?

The essential problem with reducing the value of your currency to boost your economy via exports is that overall it is a zero-sum game. As you win somebody else loses.  So the gains are taken from somebody else as no doubt minds in Beijing, Tokyo and Frankfurt are thinking right now. Of course pinning an actual accusation on the United States is not easy because of its persistent trade deficits.

Furthermore the exchange-rate appreciation seen elsewhere will not be welcomed by the ECB ( European Central Bank) and particularly the Bank of Japan. The latter is pursuing an explicit Yen depreciation policy to try to generate some inflation whereas what it has instead seen is a rise towards 109 versus the US Dollar. Of course workers and consumers will have reason to thank the lower dollar as lower inflation will boost their spending power.

Later today we will see how Mario Draghi handles this at the ECB policy meeting press conference. He finds himself pursuing negative interest-rates and still substantial if tapering QE and a stronger currency. It is hard for him to be too critical of the US though when even Christine Lagarde is saying this.

LAGARDE: GERMANY’S 8% CURRENT ACCOUNT SURPLUS IS EXCESSIVE ( @lemasabacthani)

Of course that takes us back to a past competitive depreciation which Germany arranged via its membership of the Euro.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here. As it stands it looks as though the US economy will benefit over the next 3 years (convenient for the political timetable) by around 1.5% of GDP at the cost of higher inflation of 0.5%. There are two main problems with this type of analysis of which the first is simply the gap between theory and reality. The smooth mathematical curves of econometrics are replaced in practice by businesses and consumers ignoring moves for as long as they can and then responding but by how much and when? So we see a succession of jump moves. The other issue is that exchange-rates are usually on the move and can change in an instant unlike economies leaving us wondering which exchange-rate they are responding too?

Next we have the awkward issue of a country raising interest-rates and seeing a currency depreciation. Theory predicts the reverse. I have a couple of thoughts on this and the first is about timing. In my opinion exchange-rates these days move on expectations of an event so they have already happened before it does. So the current phase of interest-rate rises was reflected in the US Dollar rise from the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2015. That works because if anything we have seen fewer rate rises than expected back then and the bond market has fallen less. As to the Federal Reserve well with the US Dollar here and inflation with a little upwards pressure it will therefore find a scenario which makes it easy for it to keep nudging interest-rates higher.

Meanwhile there are other factors which are hard to quantify but seem to happen. For example a lower dollar coming with higher commodity prices. Hard to explain and of course there are other factors in play, But it seems to have happened again.

Me on Core Finance TV

http://www.corelondon.tv/will-pound-go-next-vs-us-dollar/

 

 

What is going on at the Bank of Japan?

It is time to take another step on our journey that Graham Parker and the Rumour would have described as discovering Japan as quite a bit is currently going on. On Tuesday eyes turned to the Bank of Japan as it did this according to Marketwatch.

The central bank cut its purchases of Japanese government bonds, known as JGBs, expiring within 10-25 years and those maturing in 25-40 years by ¥10 billion ($88.8 million) each.

It created something of a stir and rippled around financial markets. There were two pretty clear impacts and the first as you might expect was a stronger Yen which has become one of the themes of this week. An opening level of above 113 to the US Dollar has been replaced by just above 111 and any dip in the 110s will give a sour taste to the Friday night glass of sake for Governor Kuroda.

If we look back to this time last year we see that the Yen is stronger on that measure as back then it was above 114 versus the US Dollar. This may seem pretty poor value in return for this.

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

Even in these inflated times for assets that is a lot of money and the Bank of Japan is not getting a lot of bang for its buck anymore as we have discussed. It would be particularly awkward if after not getting much progress for the extra (Q)QE any reduction or tapering took it back to where it began. The impact of Quantitative Easing on currencies is something we regularly look at as the impact has become patchy at best and this week has seen us start to wonder about what happens should central banks look to move away from centre stage. That would be a big deal in Japan as a weaker currency is one of the main arrows in the Abenomics quiver. As ever we cannot look at anything in isolation as the US Dollar is in a weaker phase as let me pick this from the Donald as a possible factor partly due to its proximity to me.

Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!

Mind you that is a lot better than what he called certain countries! If nothing else this was to my recollection also planned before the Obama administration.

Bond Markets

You will not be surprised to learn that the price of Japanese Government Bonds fell and yields rose, after all the biggest buyer had slightly emptier pockets. However in spite of some media reports the change here was not large as 0.06% for the ten-year went initially to 0.09% and has now settled at 0.07%. Up to the 7 year maturity remains at negative yields and even the 40 year does not quite yield 1%. If we look at that picture we see how much of a gift that the “independent” Bank of Japan has given the government of Shinzo Abe. It runs a loose fiscal policy where it is borrowing around 20 trillion year a year and has a debt of 1276 trillion Yen as of last September which is around 232% of GDP or Gross Domestic Product. So each year QQE saves the Japanese government a lot of money and allows it to keep its fiscal stimulus. We do not get much analysis of this in the media probably because the Japanese media is well Japanese as we mull the consequences of the owning the Financial Times.

A stronger effect was found in international bond markets which were spooked much more than the domestic one. US government bond prices fell and the 10-year yield went above 2.5% and got some questioning if we were now in a bond bear market? After around three decades of a bull market including of course these days trillions of negative yielding bonds around the globe care and an especially strong signal is needed for that. Maybe we will learn a little more if the US 2-year yield goes above 2% as it is currently threatening to do. But in a world where Italian 10-year bonds yield only 2% there is quite a way to go for a proper bond bear market.

The real economy

If we look at the lost decade(s) era then Japan is experiencing a relatively good phase right now. From The Japan Times.

The economy grew an annualized real 2.5 percent in the July-September period, revised up from preliminary data and marking seven straight quarters of growth — the longest stretch on record —.

Someone got a bit excited with history there I think as there was a time before what we now call the lost decade. However for those who call this success for Abenomics there are some things to consider such as these.

Exports grew 1.5 percent from the previous quarter amid solid overseas demand as the global economy gains traction.

Japan is benefiting from a better world economic situation but like so often in the era of the lost decades it is not generating much from within.

But private consumption, a key factor accounting for nearly 60 percent of GDP, continued to be sluggish with a 0.5 percent decline from the previous quarter as spending on automobiles and mobile phones fell.

Let us mark the fact that we are seeing another country where car demand is falling and move to what is the key economic metric for Japan.

Workers will see a 1 percent increase in their total earnings next year, the most since 1997, as rising profits and the tightest labor market in decades add upward pressure on pay, a Bloomberg survey shows.

Actually what we are not told is that compared to so many Bloomberg reports this is a downgrade as in its world wages have been on the edge of a surge for 3-4 years now. But reality according to the Japan Times is very different as we note the size of the increase it is apparently lauding.

In a sign that worker could receive better pay, a separate survey on the average winter bonus at major companies this year showed a slight increase — 0.01 percent — from a year earlier to ¥880,793, up for the fifth consecutive year.

Comment

There are quite a few things to laud Japan for as we note its ultra low unemployment rate at 2.7% and the way it takes care of its elderly in particular. At the moment the economic wheels are being oiled by a positive world economic situation which of course helps an exporting nation. That poses a question for those crediting Abenomics for the improvement as we note the more recent surveys are not as positive and the rises in commodity and oil prices and the likely effect on a nation with limited natural resources.

But more deeply this weeks market moves are tactically perhaps just a response to the way that “Yield Curve Control” works in practice which currently requires fewer bond purchases. But strategically the Bank of Japan is left with this.

 

That tweet misses out the QQE for Japan and QE for the latter two but we return yet again to monetary policy being pro cyclical and in the case of Japan fiscal policy as well. What could go wrong in a country where demographics are a ticking economic time bomb?

 

What makes a currency a safe haven these days?

The subject of safe havens is something that comes to mind as one considers the situation concerning North Korea. An unhinged leader combined with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology does not make for a stable mix and of course there is Kim Jong-Un to consider as well. Mind you Twitter took the news of a possible Korean H-Bomb very calmly yesterday as it was soon replaced in the headlines by Wayne Rooney’s difficulties and today events are led by a headline which could refer to North Korea but fortunately McStrike is in fact the first strike at MacDonald’s in the UK.

So let us consider an environment where risk is higher and maybe a lot higher. This poses an early issue as my time in derivative and particularly options markets taught me that we as humans are very bad at quantifying things to which we give a low probability. We are even worse when it is something we do not want to happen. Establishments magnify this issue as I recall the excellent work of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman on the NASA Challenger space shuttle disaster. He was part of the enquiry and was officially told that the odds were millions to one whereas when he interviewed individual engineers they told him that individual parts had a one in five hundred chance of failure. It turned out that the disaster was not a surprise as the surprise was that it had not happened before.

What does risk-off do now?

The Japanese Yen

Each time the rhetoric or a North Korean missile rises the Japanese Yen follows it. This felt especially odd when one of the missiles overflew Japan and tripped civil defence alarms as well as no doubt having the self-defence force scrambling. Also the rally to 109.60 this morning against the US Dollar will have steam coming out of the ears of the Bank of Japan on two counts. Firstly because a lower value for the Yen is part of Abenomics and secondly it will send equity markets lower ( 190 points on the Nikkei 225 index).Still the Bank of Japan will be able to occupy itself by buying yet more equities.

If we look deeper into Yen strength in risky times I note this from the IMF in November 2013.

since the mid-1990s, there have been 12 episodes where the yen has appreciated in nominal effective terms by 6 percent or more within one quarter and these coincided often with events outside Japan

Why might this be?

Safe haven currencies tend to have low interest rates, a strong net foreign asset position, and deep and liquid financial markets. Japan meets all these criteria

The first point if we modify low to lower to bring it up to date gives us food for thought on what determines interest-rates. We are usually told domestic considerations but there is a correlation between strong trade positions and negative interest-rates for example. As to the foreign asset position then unlike its public-sector which has lots of debt Japan is in fact the largest creditor. From Reuters.

Japan’s net external assets rose to their second-highest amount on record at the end of fiscal 2016, driven by rising mergers and acquisitions overseas by firms and portfolio investment, the Finance Ministry said Friday.
The net value of assets held by the government, businesses and individuals stood at ¥349 trillion ($3.12 trillion) — just behind 2014’s record ¥363 trillion. It meant Japan remained the biggest creditor nation for the 26th straight year, the ministry said.

There is a twist though as you might think the Yen rallies because of the money beginning to be brought home but in fact according to the IMF not so.

In contrast, we find evidence that changes in market participants’ risk perceptions trigger derivatives trading, which in turn lead to changes in the spot exchange rate without capital flows.

In essence it is expectations of a change rather than actual capital flows. I would imagine that the carry trade ( where foreign investors borrow in Yen) are a factor in this.

Swiss Franc

Many of the same factors are at play here which is why in the early days of this website I labelled the Yen and Swiss Franc as the “Currency Twins”. We can reel off negative interest-rates, trade, carry trade and so on including with a wry smile that official policy is in the opposite direction! There are two main differences the first is that there tend to be actual inflows into Swiss Francs. The second is the way that net private assets have been replaced by the Swiss National Bank. From a Working Paper from the Graduate Institute of Geneva

At the end of 2016, the Swiss net international investment position (NIIP, the value of foreign assets held by Swiss residents, net of liabilities of Swiss residents to foreign investors) reached 131 percent of GDP ……. The net international investment position of the private sector was thus close to balance in 2015, and only amounted to 24 percent of GDP at the end of 2016.

So we have seen something of a socialisation of Switzerland’s net investment position. Does that matter? I suspect so but markets seem less worried as the Swissy has rallied against the US Dollar by 0.75% to 0.9574 today.

Euro

It is hard not to raise a wry smile at the articles saying the Euro is no longer a safe haven currency as we note its rise today! Here is Kathy Lien of Nasdaq from last week with an explainer of sorts.

However the central bank’s positive economic outlook, their hawkish monetary policy bias

In future my financial lexicon for these times will have negative interest-rates and large QE as part of my “hawkish” definition. Anyway as we note that it is the countries with ongoing types of QE who are the new apparent safe havens we are left mulling the chicken and egg conundrum. Being a funding currency in the global carry trade is another consistent factor.

US Dollar

So far the era of the military dollar seems to have ended. Maybe it awaits a proper test as in an actual war but considering the stakes I would rather not find out.

Comment

So we see that a potential factor in being a safe haven currency is for official policy to be for the currency to fall? Not quite true for the Euro at least explicitly although of course it used to be expected ( outside the Ivory Towers who still do) that negative interest-rates and QE  weaken a currency. A side effect of the official effort is clearly that the QE and supply of money aids and abets those who wish to borrow in that currency and at times like this even if they do not actually reverse course markets price in that they might. The currency then sings along to “Jump” by Van Halen. You can turn the volume up to 11 Spinal Tap style if actual carry trade reversals happen.

Also there is the issue of what is a safe haven? In terms of Japan it is clearly not literal as it is in the likely firing line. We see that front-running expected trends remains the main player here as opposed to clear logical thinking. Also we see that another safe haven only flickers a bit these days as bond markets rally a bit but nothing like they used to That is another function of the QE era as how much more could they rise? Also I note that equity markets do not seem to fall that much as the FTSE 100 is off 10 points as I type this.

So a safe haven may simply be front-running? If so it means we need to dive even deeper in future as does this below for Switzerland show strength or potential weakness?

Specifically, assets held by Swiss residents abroad represent 671 percent of GDP, while claims by foreign investors on Switzerland amount to 541 percent of GDP. With this leverage, a movement in asset prices and exchange rates that affects more assets than liabilities has a sizable impact on the NIIP.

 

Could the Japanese Government cope with an end to QE in Japan?

It is time for us to look east again to the land of the rising sun or Nihon. It remains in the grip of an extraordinary economic experiment as its central bank continues to offer freshly printed Yen ( albeit electronic rather than paper ones) on a grand scale in return for bonds, commercial paper , corporate bonds, equities and property so just about everything!

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases at more or less the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings of about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of the long-term interest rate specified by the guideline. …… 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.

Perhaps it was the scale of all of this that led much of the media to start writing articles that the Bank of Japan would reduce its operations or as it is now called “taper” them. Only on Friday I quoted this from the Wall Street Journal.

Japan shows Europe how to dial back stimulus without spooking investors

The Bank of Japan responds

Sadly for the media the word taper required the word reverse in front of it. From the Nikkei Asian Review only a few short hours later.

At 10:10 a.m. Japan time, the BOJ unleashed what a market manager for a leading brokerage called a “devastating” combination, announcing both a fixed-rate operation, in which the central bank agrees to buy unlimited bonds at a fixed yield, and an increase in the size of regular bond-buying operations. It was the first time the bank had executed such policies simultaneously.

So more is apparently less as we note that this bit could only have come from Japan.

When yields on 10-year Japanese government bonds hit 0.1% on Thursday evening, the central bank was forced to ring up Japan’s leading securities firms for advice.

What would they have done in places like Greece Italy or Portugal in the Euro area crisis or in the early days of my career when longer UK Gilt yields passed 15%?!

By Friday morning, 10-year JGB yields had reached 0.105% — the last straw

We will have to see what happens next but should the Bank of Japan feel the need to keep intervening this could be the state of play.

If the central bank keeps buying up 10-year JGBs as quickly as it did Friday, annual purchases could exceed new issuance, according to Takenobu Nakashima of Nomura Securities, burning through fuel for measures to combat a future yield surge.

Actually if it bought them all that would of itself tend to stop any yield surge. Although of course that is just the flow so there would still be an existing stock albeit one which the Bank of Japan owes a fair bit of.

Massive bond purchases have swollen the BOJ’s balance sheet to roughly the size of Japan’s gross domestic product

Around 90% I think. There are various issues here one of which has been conveniently pointed out by the European Central Bank this morning.

Worsened liquidity in domestic government bond market

They mean in the Euro area but imagine how much worse the state of play will be in Japan. We do know that trading volumes have dropped a lot so should the day come that the Bank of Japan decides to withdraw a lot of Japanese fingers will be crossed that past traders and buyers will return. The truth is we simply do not know.

Oh and I see some looking at the equity capital of the Bank of Japan implying it could go broke. But that misses the fact that not only is it backed by the Japanese Treasury but it is pursuing Abenomics a government policy.

Number Crunching

Currently Japan owes this according to Japan Macro Advisers.

At the end of March 2017, the Japanese general government owed a total of 1270.5 trillion yen in liability, equivalent to 236.4% of GDP. The liability includes 863 trillion yen of JGBs, 115.2 trillion yen of T-bills and 157.5 trillion yen of loans.

The Bank of Japan owns over 400 Trillion Yen of these so in round numbers if it wrote these off it would reduce the debt burden to ~160% of GDP. I am by no means suggesting this but if such a situation led to a lower value for the Japanese Yen well that is government policy isn’t it? Of course the danger of debt monetisation of that form is that the currency falls heavily or plummets in a destabilising fashion like Ghana saw for those who recall when I looked at its woes.

The Yen

This has been drifting lower recently and Friday’s news added to that with it now taking more than 114 Yen to buy one US Dollar. This continues a trend which began in the middle of last month.  A sign of the Yen weakness is that the poor battered UK Pound £ is near its post EU Leave vote highs at 147 Yen.

But none of this is anything like enough to spark off the amount of inflation required by Abenomics.

The Inflation Target

More than 3 years down the road after the Bank of Japan kicked off its QQE ( Qualitative and Quantitative Easing) effort we find ourselves noting this. From Japan’s Statistics Bureau.

The consumer price index for Japan in May 2017 was 100.4 (2015=100), up 0.4% over the year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis……  The consumer price index for Ku-area of Tokyo in June 2017 (preliminary) was 99.8 (2015=100), the same level as the previous year before seasonal adjustment, and the same level as the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

This represents not far off complete failure in spite of the rhetoric about defeating deflation as if Tokyo is any guide 0% is the new 2%. Although of course we have seen asset price inflation leaving us mulling how much of the rise in the Nikkei 225 equity index from around 8000 to the current 20000 is growth and how much inflation?

Often policies to raise inflation really mean wages growth so let us look at that. From The Japan Times.

Japan’s real wages in May gained 0.1 percent from a year earlier for the first rise in five months, the government said Friday.
Total cash earnings per worker, including base and overtime pay, increased 0.7 percent to an average ¥270,241 (around $2,300), the second consecutive monthly rise, the Health and Welfare Ministry also said in a preliminary report.

You can look at this in two ways. The first is that it is not much and the second is that it is about as good as it has got over the past decade or so. One area that is different to the West where we are worrying about workers in the gig economy is that wage growth in Japan is centred on part-time work. It appears to be the one area where conventional economics can breathe a sigh of relief.

Comment

The situation continues to see some gains but also some retreats as these two quotes from The Japan Times today indicates.

Japan ‘economy watchers’ sentiment rises in June for third straight month……..Core private-sector machinery orders defied expectations and fell in May, the second consecutive month of decline, due to weakness in the service sector, the government said Monday.

Of course the UK data on Friday reminded us of the problems that sentiment indicators can have as optimism emerged as a fall!

I would like to return to my central theme that Japan has done okay in many ways with 0% inflation especially as we note its demographic problem. So why all the bond buying? Well a debt burden does of course often require some inflation to ease the burden for debtors of which the largest debtor is the government. The biggest beneficiary has been the Japanese government which has been able to do a lot of its borrowing for pretty much nothing for a while. Could it afford a return to normality? At what bond yield would it find things difficult and would it have to apply austerity? A sort of road to nowhere……