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Japan Quake's Financial Impact: Five Things to Watch

While commodity and currency markets took the biggest immediate hit from Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the damage will be felt throughout the world's economy and the US.

A factory building has collapsed in Sukagawa city, Fukushima prefecture, in northern Japan. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns.
Fukishima Minpo | AFP | Getty Images
A factory building has collapsed in Sukagawa city, Fukushima prefecture, in northern Japan. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns.

In addition to the massive human toll, the quake and ensuing tsunamiwill exact an economic toll on Japan, which is still struggling to shake the detritus of its "lost decade" brought on by economic stagnation.

The price on both fronts is impossible to calculate at this point, but it no doubt will be profound.

"It's going to be of the most expensive disasters in history before it's done," Dennis Gartman, hedge fund manager and author of The Gartman Letter investor bulletin, told CNBC. "This is not just a Japanese circumstance, this is on both sides of the Pacific and the dollars are going to add up very quickly."

Here, then, is a look at five of the main financial effects of the crisis:

1. Ultimately, a Recovery

After Japan copes with its massive human and financial loss, the country will have to focus on rebuilding. That will take billions in private and public funds, a stimulative effort that, grimly ironic though it may be, will generate some level of stimulus and recovery.

"Obviously the human toll is the most important thing," said Nicholas Colas, chief investment strategist at ConvergEx in New York. "Generally afterward you get a big rebound in economic growth. Rebuilding creates a lot of jobs for a lot of people and a lot of new wealth creation."

Those jobs likely will come across a variety of fields, particularly in construction and energy, which sustained heavy damage from the quake.

"There's certainly going to be a lot of resources directed toward rebuilding that part of Japan," said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities in New York. "It's not all going to come from the government—it's going to come from insurance companies, private companies and private savings to divert resources toward rebuilding a devastated part of the island."

The Bank of Japan meets Monday to discuss monetary policy; Capital Economics in London said a loosening is likely.

2. A Stronger Yen

The widely circulated Japanese currency is going to have to come home to help rebuild the country, meaning that the historically weak yen is going to start rising against its counterparts.

That trend quickly took hold during Friday trading, when the yen gained nearly 1.5 percent against the US dollar and nearly 1 percent against the Swiss franc. It's a trend likely to continue, with some volatility, as the country and its companies bring yen back to the mainland.

"Money is going to be repatriated back to Japan to pay for the damages," Gartman said. "That's going to be required to take care of the impact—the dollar impact, the yen impact—of the (damage) there."

3. Oil Prices Could Drop, But Only Briefly

Energy prices fell sharply Friday, partly in response to a likely drop in demand from Japan and partly from the supposed Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia amounting to less turmoil than anticipated.

How long the trend lower lasts, though, is a matter of debate, as the lull in the Middle East is probably only temporary, speculators continue to scoop up oil contracts at a record pace, and emerging market growth acts to put a floor under any major slides.

A tsunami, tidal wave smashes vehicles and houses at Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns.
Yomiuri Shimbun | AFP | Getty Images
A tsunami, tidal wave smashes vehicles and houses at Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns.

"Japan is still a very large economy. They import all their oil, they don't have any natural oil reserves," Colas said. "There is less requirement for energy."

4. Less Demand for US Treasurys?

On a normal day, a disaster on the scale of the Japan tragedy might send global investors into the safety of US Treasurys.

Yet yields rose Friday, and while there were multiple explanations—profit taking after a strong week of auctions and some decent economic data—some feared that the third-largest buyer of US debt after the Federal Reserve and China might not have as much money to buy Treasurys.

"It begs the question of whether the Japanese will be able to step in and continue to be big buyers of Treasurys," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J. "You have to believe that they're going to have to use quite a bit of their money towards rebuilding infrastructure."

Japan held $882 billion of Treasurys at the end of 2010, a number that had been steadily increasing since June. China remains the top foreign buyer of US debt, with $1.16 trillion on its books.

5. A Modest Hit to Stocks

Global equity markets languished Friday, with Asian stocks losing as much as 5 percent soon after the earthquake news hit.

But by the time US investors had to digest the situation, focus seemed to drift elsewhere as the market mainly looked at the balance between a consumer trying to rebound, a higher trade deficit and surging gasoline prices.

As a result, stock prices actually were edging higher heading into afternoon trading.

"There have been a lot of catalysts recently that could have taken this market a lot lower. Look at all that's come down recently," said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. "I'm not sure this one is doing to do it any more than the rest of them."

Industries within the market—insurers in particular—may take a hit. But more broadly speaking the effects from Japan most likely will take firmer root elsewhere, despite anticipation for just such an exogenous effect that might trigger a pullback from the two-year rally.

"I don't think this is the event that would create fear and uncertainty in the market," said Todd Horwitz, chief strategist for the Adam Mesh Trading Group in New York. "It's a natural event, an earthquake. They'll recover."