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The Yen's Looming Day of Reckoning: Andy Xie

The following is an opinion piece from Caixin, a Beijing-based media group specializing in Asia business news and financial information.

Japan is on an unsustainable path of a strong yen and deflation. The unprofitability of Japan's major exporters and emerging trade deficits suggest that the end of this path is in sight. The transition from a strong to weak yen will likely be abrupt, involving a sudden and big devaluation of 30 to 40 percent. It will be a big shock to Japan's neighbors and its distant competitors like Germany. The yen's devaluation in 1996 was a main factor in triggering the Asian Financial Crisis. Japan's neighbors must have a strong banking system to withstand a bigger devaluation of the yen.

Self-inflicted Deflation

Japan's nominal GDPcontracted 8 percent in the four years to the third quarter of 2011, and six percentage points of that was due to deflation . Without increased government expenditure, the contraction will be one percentage point more. Japan has not seen this kind of sustained deflation since the 1930s.

Yen coins and banknotes
Image Source | Getty Images
Yen coins and banknotes

Without government deficits, Japan's economy will decline much more. Central government bonds and borrowings plus its guaranteed debts rose by 116.3 trillion yen during the period, equivalent to one-fourth of the level of the nominal GDP in the third quarter of 2011. If Japan had adopted balanced budgets, its economy would have contracted two to three times more. This will lead to a debt crisis in its private sector.

A strong yen , deflation and rising government debt form a short-term equilibrium that lasts as long as the market believes it is sustainable. The yen has seen a relentless upward trend since it depegged from the dollar in 1971, up to 83.4 from 360 again to the dollar. When wages and asset prices rise, a strong currency can be justified. When wages and asset prices fall, a strong currency is suicide. Japan's nominal GDP peaked in 1997 and its nominal wages did too. Its property prices have declined every year since. The Nikkei rose in only four out of the last fifteen years and is still close to a three-decade low.

Japanese policymakers, businesses, academics, currency traders and the average Mrs. Watanabe all believe in a strong yen. This belief is wrong but self-fulfilling. It has lasted so long because the Japanese government adopts policies to offset the destabilizing effects of deflation due to a strong yen. Hence, Japan's national debt has marched upwards along with the value of yen. It is expected to top yen 1,000 trillion in 2012, 215 percent of GDP, 7.8 million yen (or roughly US$ 94,000) per person, and about half of net household wealth per capita.

The sustainability of Japan's deflationary path depends on the market's confidence in Japan's debt market. As Japanese institutions and households hold almost all of the government's debts, their faith in the government's creditworthiness is the mojo for Japan's seemingly harmless deflationary spiral.

A Vast Bubble

In a normal market, greater supply leads to lower prices. The opposite occurs in a bubble; faith in price stability or appreciation exaggerates demand. Japan has the highest level of government debt and the lowest bond yield. The later is necessary for the former. Even though the yield on 10-year Japanese Government Bonds (JGB) is only 1 percent, the interest expense is expected to top 22.3 trillion yen in the fiscal year that begins next month. This is one-quarter of the general account budget. If the bond yield rises to 2 percent, the interest expense would surpass the total expected tax revenue of 42.3 trillion yen.

In addition to its fiscal vulnerability to a rising interest rate , Japan's budget deficit is still too high. The government budgeted 44 trillion yen in net additional borrowing in the next fiscal year, nearly half of its expenditures. It needs to double its tax revenue to balance the budget. But, as the economy is deflating with declining private consumption, a major tax increase would cause the economy to go down more, shrinking the tax base and requiring even bigger tax increases to balance the budget. Even though the government plans to achieve a primary fiscal surplus, i.e., revenue above non-interest expense, by fiscal 2020 to 2021, it is difficult to see how.

The justification for the low JGB yield is deflation. The real interest rate (the nominal rate plus deflation) is comparable to that in other countries. This rationale requires deflation to persist. But, deflation shrinks the nominal GDP or tax base. How could the government pay back its escalating debt by taxing a shrinking economy? It can only sustain its debt by borrowing more. This fits the definition of a particular type of Ponzi scheme.

The JGB bubble explains the seeming lack of pain in Japanese society. A strong yen and deflation haven't led to an employment crisis because the government deficit is pumping up aggregate demand. As long as wages decline in line with prices, one doesn't feel the pain. Japan's household debt is only half of GDP, about half of the level in the United States. Deflation doesn't cause much balance sheet trouble.

The Strong Yen Bubble

Yen bulls usually point at Japan's trade and current account surplus as supporting factors. A trade surplus can reflect a country's competitiveness or lack of it. Current account surplus is savings minus investment. When investment declines, the trade surplus is boosted. When a country cuts investment, it signals declining competitiveness. Hence, the current account surplus shouldn't be viewed as a supporting factor for strong currency.

The combination of a weak economy and strong currency are always suspect. But it has lasted for so long that even foreigners take it for granted. I think this is some sort of mass hysteria. Most people only remember a strong yen. On the other hand, most people haven't seen rising property or stock markets either.

Japanese culture is group-oriented. Individuals usually embrace group activities. This psyche was the reason that Japan's property bubble became so big in the 1980s. In terms of value above the normal level, Japan's bubble was five to six times the size of the bubble in the United States. After the property bubble, the group psyche shifted its power to a strong yen, pushing Japan's economy onto the path of a rising yen, deflation and rising government debt.

Japan's paralyzed political system is the reason the government has accommodated the deflation path by running up national debt. The Japanese people, on the other hand, buy the debt because deflation makes property or stocks bad investments and a strong yen discourages them from buying foreign assets and deflation.

Despite the fact Japan has had a bad economy for so long, the yen has remained strong. It reinforces the Japanese psyche on the issue. The strong yen has become a cult.

The international financial market believes in a weak yen from time to time. In 1998, the short-selling by foreigners briefly caused the yen to touch 140 against the U.S. dollar. But, as the Japanese hold all of the yen, if they believe in the yen, foreign short-sellers get punished eventually. Over time, yen bears are all weeded out of the market. The remaining yen traders are all believers in a strong yen.

The End is in Sight

No bubble is sustainable. While the Japanese can always take care of business within, they cannot control the outside world. The country's Achilles heel is losing trade competitiveness due to the destructive impact of deflation on business confidence and the strong currency itself. When a trade deficit emerges, it signals the beginning of the end.

Japan has lost competitiveness in a swath of industries that it used to dominate. Its automobile industry is losing out to Germany, South Korea and the United States. Japan's automobile industry used to be competitive in cost and far superior in quality to its global competitors. But the world has changed. The yen has dropped below 110 from as high as 160 against the euro. The South Korean won was about ten against the yen and is now 13. Cost-cutting cannot offset such a big change in exchange rates. The U.S. auto industry cut its labor costs and debt burden through the government bailout. It is now more competitive than Japan's.

The automobile industry is the pillar of Japan's economy. Its decline leaves Japan's economy nowhere to turn. Indeed, if the auto industry leaves Japan, it will become a poor country.

Japan's electronics industry, still significant to its economy, is losing out big time to its Asian competitors. Nothing hot in electronics is made in Japan now. U.S. companies like Apple leverage China's manufacturing sector to turn out hot products. South Korea is embracing the vertically integrated model and churning out competitive products like Japan used to.

Nothing symbolizes Japan's decline like its electronics industry. It was the envy of the world and had all the ingredients to take the industry into the mobile internet era. Instead, it embraced insulation and made products just for the Japanese market. Now it is almost irrelevant to the outside world.

Japan isn't just facing macro troubles. Its micro competitiveness is rotting away. It is just bizarre to see that the whole world believes in a strong yen when Japan is failing on such a grand scale.

Japan's trade balance may swing into surplus from time to time, but the negative trend is irreversible. Japan will face rising trade deficits. That makes foreigners' views important because Japan would need foreign money to fund its deficit. When foreigners change their views, which they surely will, the yen will crash.

The Only Way Out

Japan has only one way out – a massive devaluation. If the stable national debt is 120 percent of GDP, the yen needs to be devalued by 40 percent because devaluation is ultimately equal to the nominal GDP increase. The devaluation is likely to sustain 2 percent to 3 percent of nominal GDP growth for Japan beyond the repricing induced increase, which is necessary to restore Japan's tax revenue. Deflation has caused Japan's tax revenue to decline as a share of GDP. It can be only reversed through restoring nominal GDP. A devaluation of 40 percent can restore Japan's competitiveness against Germany and South Korea, which will lay the foundation for Japan's industrial recovery.

The Bank of Japan is trying to weaken the yen through expanding its balance sheet. It has an asset purchase program of 65 trillion yen and a lending program of 5.5 trillion yen. The two are equivalent to 15 percent of GDP, comparable to what the Fed or European Central Bank have done. The effectiveness is limited so far. Because Japanese businesses, households and investors believe in a strong yen, the printed yen largely stays in the country and just slows down money velocity. The U.S. dollar has risen 10 percent against the yen from last year's bottom. This is probably due to the financial market upgrading its view of the U.S. economy rather than the BoJ's action.

Yen devaluation is likely to unfold quickly. A financial bubble doesn't burst slowly. When it occurs, it just pops. The odds are that yen devaluation will occur over days. Only a large and sudden devaluation can keep the JGB yield low. Otherwise, the devaluation expectation will trigger a sharp rise in the JGB yield. The resulting worries over the government's solvency could lead to a collapse of the JGB market. Of course, the government will collapse with the JGB market.

The day of reckoning for the yen is not distant. Japanese companies are struggling with profitability. It only gets worse from here. When a major company goes bankrupt, this may change the prevailing psychology. A weak yen consensus will emerge then.

China and South Korea

A yen collapse will impact China and South Korea most, just like in 1998. It will trigger substantial weakness in their industries. If a banking system succumbs, the shock can bring down an entire economy, as South Korea's experience in 1998 demonstrates.

Both China and South Korea have weak banking systems. South Korea's banking system is one of the most leveraged in the world due to high level of household loans. In 1998, a similar shock sank its banking system that was overleveraged with industrial loans. Now it is overleveraged with household loans. A shock could sink it again.

Overinvestment and a property bubble make China's banking system very vulnerable to such a shock. Unless China substantially increases the capital in its banking system, a big yen devaluation could cause China's banking system to sink. China suffers from overinvestment and a property bubble, as Southeast Asia and South Korea did in 1997. In terms of the magnitude of leverage, China's situation is much worse. Hence, a yen devaluation could wreak havoc to China's economy.

- Andy Xie is a board member of Rosetta Stone Advisors Limited.

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