In his Wednesday column (“Japan’s bumpy road to recovery“) in the Financial Times, the estimable Martin Wolf provided a sober assessment of the recent gyrations of the Japanese bond and stock markets and the yen. I was especially struck by this passage.
[C]riticism over the decline in the yen is coming from abroad. Many, particularly in east Asia, agree with the warning from David Li of Tsinghua University that, far from a rise in Japanese inflation, “the world has merely seen a sharp devaluation of the yen. This devaluation is both unfair on other countries and unsustainable.” In a letter to the FT, Takashi Ito from Tokyo responded: “I just find it unbearable that countries that have debased or manipulated their currency can accuse Japan of depreciating the yen”. This does begin to look like a currency war.
In a couple of posts last November about whether China was engaging in currency manipulation, I first gave China a qualified pass and then reversed my position after looking a bit more closely into the way in which the Chinese central bank (PBoC) was imposing high reserve requirements on commercial banks when creating deposits, thereby effectively sterilizing inflows of foreign exchange, or more accurately forcing the inflow of foreign exchange as a condition for expanding the domestic Chinese money supply to meet the burgeoning domestic Chinese demand to hold cash.
So to answer the question whether Japan has been manipulating its currency to drive down the value of the yen, the place to start is to look at what has happened to Japanese foreign-exchange holdings. If Japan has been manipulating its currency, then the reduction in the external value of the yen would be accompanied by an inflow of foreign exchange. The chart below suggests that Japanese holdings of foreign exchange have decreased somewhat over the past six months.
However, this item from Bloomberg suggests that the reduction in foreign exchange reserves may have been achieved simply by swapping foreign exchange reserves for different foreign assets which, for purposes of determining whether Japan is manipulating its currency, would be a wash.
Japan plans to use its foreign- exchange reserves to buy bonds issued by the European Stabilitylity Mechanism and euro-area sovereigns, as the nation seeks to weaken its currency, Finance Minister Taro Aso said.
“The financial stability of Europe will help the stability of foreign-exchange rates, including the yen,” Aso told reporters today at a briefing in Tokyo. “From this perspective, Japan plans to buy ESM bonds,” he said. The purchase amount is undecided, Aso said.
The move may help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe temper criticism of Japan’s currency policies from trading partners such as the U.S. The yen has fallen around 8 percent against the dollar since mid-November on Abe’s pledge to reverse more than a decade of deflation as his Liberal Democratic Party won an election victory last month.
“The Europeans would be happy to see Japan buy ESM bonds, so Japan can avoid criticism from abroad and at the same time achieve its objective,” said Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan Co. and a former central bank official.
So I regret to say that my initial quick look at the currency manipulation issue does not allow me to absolve Japan of the charge of being a currency manipulator.
It was, in fact, something of a puzzle that, despite the increase in Japanese real GDP of 3.5% in the first quarter, the implicit Japanese price deflator declined in the first quarter. If Japan is not using currency depreciation as a tool to create inflation, then its policy is in fact perverse and will lead to disaster. It would also explain why doubts are increasing that Japan will be able to reach its 2% inflation target.
I hope that I’m wrong, but, after the high hopes engendered by the advent of Abenomics, I am starting to get an uneasy feeling about what is happening there. I invite others more skillful in understanding the intricacies of foreign exchange reserves and central bank balance sheets to weigh in and enlighten us about the policy of the BoJ.