The Japanese yen has gone on a free fall against the dollar. As I write this one dollar is worth around 98.5 yen. Five days back on April 5, 2013, one dollar was worth around 93 yen. In between the Japanese central bank announced that it is going to double money supply by simply printing more yen.
The hope is that more yen in the financial system will chase the same amount of goods and services, and thus manage to create some inflation. Japan has been facing a scenario of falling prices for a while now. During 2013, the average inflation has stood at -0.45%.
And this is not a recent phenomenon. In 2012, the average inflation for the year was 0%. In fact, in each of the three years for the period between 2009 and 2011, prices fell on the whole.
When prices fall, people tend to postpone consumption, in the hope that they will get a better deal in the days to come. This impacts businesses and thus slows down the overall economy. Business tackle this scenario by further cutting down prices of goods and services they are trying to sell, so that people are encouraged to buy. But the trouble is that people see prices cuts as an evidence of further price cuts in the offing. This impacts sales.
Businesses also cut salaries or keep them stagnant in order to maintain profits. As The Economist reports “A survey by Reuters in February found that 85% of companies planned to keep wages static or cut them this year. Bonuses, a crucial part of take-home pay, are at the lowest since records began in 1990.”
In this scenario where salaries are being cut and bonuses are at an all time low, people will stay away from spending. And this slows down the overall economy.
For the period of three months ending December 2012, the Japanese economy grew by a minuscule 0.5%. In three out of the four years for the period between 2008 and 2011, the Japanese economy has contracted.
The hope is to break this economic contraction by printing money and creating inflation. When people see prices going up or expect prices to go up, they generally tend to start purchasing things to avoid paying more for them in the days to come. This spending helps businesses and in turn the overall economy. So the idea is to create inflationary expectations to get people to start spending money and help Japan come out of a more than two decade old recession.
The other impact of the prospective increase in the total number of yen is that the currency has been rapidly falling in value against other international currencies. It has fallen by 5.9% against the dollar since April 4, 2013. And by around 26.5% since the beginning of October, 2012. The yen has fallen faster against the euro. As I write this one euro is worth 128.5 yen. The yen has fallen 7.5% against the euro since April 4, 2013, and nearly 28% since the beginning of October, 2012.
As the yen gets ready to touch 100 to a dollar and 130 to a euro, this makes the situation a mouthwatering investment prospect for a certain Mrs Watanabe. Allow me to explain.
In the late 1980s, Japan had a huge bubble in real estate as well a stock market bubble. The Bank of Japan managed to burst the stock market bubble by rapidly raising interest rates. The real estate bubble also popped gradually over a period of time.
After the bubbles burst, the Bank of Japan, started cutting interest rates. And soon they were close to 0%. This meant that Japanese investors had to start looking for returns outside Japan. This led to a certain section of Tokyo housewives staying awake at night to invest in the American and the European markets. They used to borrow money in yen at close to zero percent interest rates and invest it abroad with the hope of making a higher return than what was available in Japan.
Over a period of time these housewives came to be known as Mrs Watanabes (Watanabe is the fifth most common Japanese surname) and at their peak accounted for around 30 percent of the foreign exchange market in Tokyo. The trading strategy of Mrs Watanabes came to be known as the yen-carry trade and was soon being adopted by some of the biggest financial institutions in the world.
Other than low interest rates at which Mrs Watanabes could borrow the other important part of the equation was the depreciating yen. Japan has had low interest rates for a while now, but the yen has been broadly been appreciating against the dollar over the period of last five years. This is primarily because the Federal Reserve of United States has been printing money big time, something that Japan has also done, but not on a similar scale.
Now the situation has been reversed and the yen has been rapidly losing value against the dollar since October 2012. And this makes the yen carry trade a viable proposition for Mrs Watanabes. In early October a dollar was worth around 78 yen. Lets say at this price a certain Mrs Watanabe decided to invest 780,000 yen in a debt security internationally which guaranteed a return of 3% in dollar terms over a period of six months.
The first thing she would have had to do is to convert her yen to dollars. She would get $10,000 (780,000 yen/78) in return. A 3% return on it would mean that the investment would grow to $10,300 at the end of six months.
This money now when converted back to yen now when one dollar is worth 98.5 yen, would amount to around 10,14,550 yen ($10,300 x 98.5). This means an absolute gain of 234,550 yen (10,14,550 yen minus 780,000 yen) or 30% (234,550 expressed as a percentage of 780,000 yen). So a gain of 3% in dollar terms would be converted into a gain of 30% in yen terms, as the yen has depreciated against the dollar.
This depreciation is now expected to continue and hence expected to revive the prospects of the yen carry trade. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in The Daily Telegraph “The blast of money is expected to reignite the yen “carry trade” and flood global markets with up to $2 trillion (£1.3 trillion) of pent-up savings, giving the entire world a shot in the arm.”
This money is expected to go into all kinds of investment avenues including stock markets. As Garsh Dorsh, an investment letter writer, writes in his latest column “Most recently, the key driver that’s lifting stock markets higher around the world is the massive flow of liquidity via the infamous Japanese “Yen Carry” trade.”
Over a period of time the yen carry trade feeds on itself further driving down the value of yen against the dollar. As one set of investors make money from the carry trade it influences more people to get into it. These people sell yen to buy dollars leading to a situation where there is a surfeit of yen in the market in comparison to dollars. This further drives down the price of yen against the dollar. The more the yen falls against the dollar, the higher the return that a carry trade investor makes. This in turn would mean even more money entering the yen carry trade. And so the cycle, which tends to get vicious, works.
As George Soros, the hedge fund manager, told CNBC: “If what they’re doing gets something started, they may not be able to stop it. If the yen starts to fall, which it has done, and people in Japan realise that it’s liable to continue and want to put their money abroad, then the fall may become like an avalanche.” And this can only mean more and more yen chasing various investment avenues around the world and leading to more bubbles.
But that’s just one part of the story. The Japanese yen has been depreciating against the euro as well. This has made Japanese exports more competitive. A Japanese exporter selling a product for $10,000 per unit would have made 780,000 yen ($10,000 x 78 yen) in early October. Now he would make 10,14,550 yen ($10,300 x 98.5) for the same product. In October one dollar was worth 78 yen. Now it is worth 98.5 yen.
A depreciating yen means higher profits for Japanese exporters. It also means that the exporter can cut price in dollar terms and make his product more competitive. A 20% cut would mean the Japanese 788,000 yen ($8000 x 98.5 yen), which is as good as the 780,000 yen he was making in October 2012.
This increased price competitiveness has already started to reflect in numbers. Japan reported a current account surplus of 637.4 billion yen ($6.5 billion), for the month of February 2013. This was the first surplus in four months and was primarily driven by increased export earnings.
The trouble of course as Japanese exports get more competitive on the price front it hurts other export oriented countries. The yen has lost nearly 28% against the euro since October. This has had a negative impact on countries in the euro zone countries which use euro as their currency. For January 2013, seventeen countries which use the euro as their currency, in total logged a trade deficit (the difference between exports and imports) of 3.9 billion euros.
Japan also competes with South Korea primarily in the area automobile and electronics exports. Hyun Oh Seok, the finance minister of South Korea, said last month that the yen was “flashing a red light” for his nation’s exports.
Of course if Japan can resort to money printing, so can other nations in-order to devalue their currency and ensure that their exports do not fall. It could lead to a race to the bottom. As James Rickards author of Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisisputs it “we are well into the third currency war of the past 100 years….I am certain that we are closer to the critical state than we ever have been before ”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 8,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Life is a great leveller. The Russians thought they had found an easy way to launder money by simply moving it to banks in Cyprus.
The Cyprian banks thought they had found an easy way to make more money on that money by investing it in Greece.
Trouble started once the Greeks decided that the borrowed money was as good as their own, and did not have to be returned. This left the Cyprian banks reeling with big holes in their balance sheets.
The Cyprian banks were too big to be rescued by the Cyprian government. Hence, they needed to be bailed out by an institution which was bigger than the Cyprian government. The International Monetary Fund(IMF) and the European Union(EU) moved in together and agreed to handover € 10 billion (or around $13billion) to the Cyprian government.
But there was the risk of the Cyprian government also deciding to behave like the Greeks had before them, and treat the € 10 billion bailout as their own money. So, the IMF and the EU demanded some sacrifices to be made by Cyprus as well.
A plan was made to forfeit a part of the deposits lying in Cyprian banks. A levy of 6.75% was proposed on deposits of less than €100,000 and 9.9% on deposits above that. Of course this did not go down well with the people of the country and they protested. So did its Parliament.
The plan was modified. And it was decided that the government will seize deposits greater than €100,000 lying in the Popular Bank of Cyprus (better known as Laiki Bank), the second largest bank in the country.
This move was accepted by Cyprus because deposits greater than €100,000 were largely held by the Russians. As The Huffington Post wrote “The country of about 800,000 people has a banking sector eight times larger than its gross domestic product, with nearly a third of the roughly 68 billion euros in the country’s banks believed to be held by Russians.” Hence, the move of seizing deposits greater than €100,000 did not impact citizens of Cyprus in a direct way. It ended up screwing the Russians. As I said at the beginning life is a great leveller.
But that does not mean that Cyprus would not have to bear any cost of such a move. Cyprus had positioned itself as a tax haven, to attract money from all over the world. And with the government moving to seize deposits greater than €100,000, it has lost its core industry of banking. Russians and other investors across the world who used Cyprian banks to launder money, will think twice before moving any money into the country. They will also move out the money they have in the country, once the capital controls are relaxed. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in The Telegraph “The country has just lost its core industry, a banking system with assets equal to eight times GDP, and has little to replace it with.”
What this means is that with its core industry gone, its economy is bound to slowdown in the days to come. The financial sector makes up for around 18% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 20% all in real GDP,” Noble Prize winning economist Paul Krugman told Pritchard.
There are other estimates of the Cyprian economy slowdown which are equally scary. As Matthew O’ Brien writes in The Atlantic “the International Institute of Finance thinks Cypriot real GDP could fall as much as 20 % over the next few years…And remember, unemployment is already 14.7% n Cyprus. It could easily climb to 25%.”
To cut a long story short, Cyprus is going to be in a much bad shape than it was in the past. So what is the way out for the country? It needs something to replace its banking and financial sector. The manufacturing sector forms just 7% of its GDP.
Tourism is the other big employer in Cyprus. But since Cyprus moved onto the euro as its currency, on January 1, 2008, tourism has become very expensive. “Cyprus cannot hope to claw its way back to viability with a tourist boom because EMU(Economic and monetary union of the European union) membership has made it shockingly expensive. Turkey, Croatia or Egypt are all much cheaper….The IMF says the labour cost index has risen even faster than in Greece, Spain or Italy since the late 1990s,” writes Pritchard.
In the past countries which end up in such a mess have devalued their currency and exported their way out of trouble. When a country devalues its currency its exports become more competitive. Let me explain this in an Indian context. Let us say an Indian exporter exports a certain good at a price of $100 per unit. When one dollar is worth Rs 50, he gets Rs 5000 per unit. Lets say the value of the rupee against the dollar falls to Rs 60 per dollar. In this case the exporter gets Rs 6000 per unit. So with the value of the rupee falling against the dollar an exporter makes more money.
What the exporter can also do is cut his price in dollar terms. If he cuts his price to $90, he will end up with Rs 5400 ($90 x 60), which is greater than the Rs 5000 he was making in the past. At a lower price, his goods will become more competitive in the international market and thus he will be able to sell more.
Iceland is a very good example of the same. A country of 300,000 people which went financially bust a few years back has been able to get its exports going at some level because its currency the Icelandic Krona, fell in value against the other currencies. “What saved Iceland from mass unemployment after its banks blew up – was a currency devaluation that brought industries back from the dead. Iceland’s krona has fallen low enough to make it worthwhile growing tomatoes for sale in greenhouses near the Arctic Circle,” writes Pritchard.
As The Washington Post reports “Iceland experienced a banking collapse in 2008 during which its currency fell in half, from 60 krona to the dollar to 120. It was a horrible series of events for Iceland, but the collapse in the krona also led to surge in exports and tourism that kept unemployment contained.”
But Cyprus cannot do that given that it does not have a currency of its own. It is a part of a monetary union and euro is used as a currency by sixteen other nations . Cyprus can only devalue its way out of trouble if it chooses to move out of the euro and go back to the Cyprian pound which was its currency before it decided to move to the euro.
As O’Brien puts it “The euro isn’t terribly popular in Cyprus right now. Only 48 % of Cypriots were in favour of the common currency last November…compared to 67 % of Irish, 65 % of Greeks, 63 % of Spaniards, and 57 % of Italians. The euro is actually less popular in Cyprus than anywhere else in the euro zone — and it’s only going to get less so as their economy disintegrates.”
It makes great sense for Cyprus to leave the euro in the hope of getting its export going. Moving back to the Cyprian pound will also get its tourism sector up and running again. Let me explain this by extending the example used above. A tourist looking to visit India is more likely to come when one dollar is worth Rs 60, than when its worth Rs 50. At Rs 60 to a dollar, the tourist can consume goods and services worth Rs 6000 in India, whereas at Rs 50 to a dollar his consumption will be limited to Rs 5000. The same logic works for Cyprus as well if the country decides to leave the euro and move back to the Cyprian pound and devalue the pound against the international currencies.
One fear that has constantly been raised about leaving the euro is the fact that once people find out that there is a threat of a country is leaving the euro and moving on to its own currency, they will rapidly pull out money from the country. This argument works to some extent. In case of Cyprus though, international investors who have put their money in the country will pull out (and have already pulled out) their money irrespective of the fact whether the country remains on the euro or not. As O’ Brien puts it “Countries can’t leave the euro because its banks would collapse and there would be massive capital flight, and … wait. These things have already happened in Cyprus. Its banks just got restructured, and it just instituted capital controls. There’s not much left to lose from euro-exit. And plenty to gain.”
The danger of Cyprian citizens moving out their savings is not very strong. As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale writes in his recent report titled The eurozone is working just fine …as far as Germany is concerned “I know from first-hand experience the extreme difficulty for a European citizen to open an account in another European country it is nigh on impossible for the man in the street.” Given this its highly unlikely that people of Cyprus will be able to move their money out of the country. But that is no guarantee that money will continue to remain in Cyprian banks. As Edwards put it, people have the “choice of stuffing” their “money under the mattress or buying safe financial assets (maybe overseas mutual funds or gold?), or indeed spending the money on goods and services.” (For a more detailed argument on how a country should move out of the euro in a somewhat orderly manner click here).
The country has no plans of leaving the euro currently. Nicos Anastasiades , the President of Cyprus said on March 29, 2013 that “We have no intention of leaving the euro…In no way will we experiment with the future of our country.”
If Cyprus does decide to leave the euro that might encourage other countries to do so as well. There are several countries which could face a Cyprus type of bailout in the days to come. As Guy Verhoftstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium writes in The New York Times “Perhaps Malta, which has an even bigger banking sector than Cyprus relative to G.D.P., much of it highly reliant on offshore depositors. Or maybe Latvia, fast becoming the destination of choice for Russian funds flowing out of Cyprus and now on course to join the euro zone. Even Spain or Italy could be vulnerable to a similar bailout, now that the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is president of the Euro Group of finance ministers, has hinted that Cyprus could provide a model for the resolution of future banking crises.”
Given this, the future of the euro looks very dicey. As Martin Wolf, one of the foremost economic commentators of the world, wrote in a recent column in the Financial Times “Old fears that the euro would undermine European unity rather than strengthen it seem more plausible.” Nobody could have put it better.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)