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Entries in Japan (118)


Negative current account in Japan makes a short JGB trade worth considering 

Investors are slowly but surely adjusting to a world where markets and becoming more uncorrelated and (macro)risks are now local instead of global. We are now living in a bottom-up world and global macroeconomists with a Cassandra bent are set to become an endangered species. Or so at least is the refrain from the Street researchers that I am following.

Apart for some important qualifiers (see below) I tend to agree with this. I certainly never bought the recent misplaced worries about current account deficits in Brazil, India and Indonesia as the potential source of a new Eurozone type crisis. Current account deficits are perfectly normal for these EM economies and indeed welcome in a world where everyone wants to export their way to growth. As I argue below, investors have been focusing on the wrong deficits.

The notion of a less correlated world is an interesting narrative in itself because it is starting to emerge as a serious alternative to the Zero Hedge view of the world. In fact, it is worth pondering whether the recent 12 months’ impressive melt-up in developed market equity market isn’t, in part, a contrarian response to the growing fraction of Armageddon Preppers  that has infiltrated financial market commentary.

For investors the transition to a world dominated more by bottom-up and local themes would constitute a more benign investment environment relative to a world where the future of financial markets rest on the whims of Greek bureaucrats’ dealings with the IMF. This is the good news, the bad news is that I don’t think investors can completely disregard global macro risks. Specifically, I see two “local” macro risks with the potential to global; a capital outflows crisis in China and the growing CA deficit in Japan (and its consequences for the JPY and JGB).

In this post I deal with the latter. 


Japanese current acount makes no economic sense

There are two reasons why the current account deficit in Japan should command investors’ attention. In the first instance, it is important because it points to further and strong JPY depreciation. Secondly, because it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the JGB market to blow up (yields to rise sharply in Japan).

Edward has already dealt with the challenges that Abenomics face over at AFOE. I agree with the main sentiment; especially this.

(…) it seems to me Japan’s problem set is overdetermined in that we always seem to be facing at least one more problem than we have remedies at hand.

Turning to my own narrative, the first point above may seem less controversial. Every serious and non-serious macro trader has been short the JPY in the past 12-18 months. I would suggest that trade will continue to perform nicely, but a negative current account suggests that the JPY could now be on the cusp of weakening with a speed and to a level that will garner serious attention from the other G7 economies and market participants. This is to say that so far the short-JPY trade has been lucrative idiosyncratic trade driven by a local macroeconomic experiment in Japan. A negative current account could be what makes a weakening JPY a systemic risk for the global economy through its impact on Japan’s economy. To put this in a language market participants can understand, so far the short JPY has been a risk-on trade with the USDJPY being very correlated to the US 10y yield and Nikkei 225. With a current account deficit my contention is the JPY would weaken sharply even in an environment where stocks sold off and US 10y notes rallied.

Remember that the rest of the world has so far accepted the experiment that is Abenomics not only because Japan has been running a current account deficit (thus making it more reasonable for Japan to weaken its currency), but also because the depreciation has so far been orderly. With a growing negative current account, the wheels are now set in motion for a decidedly disorderly depreciation of the JPY and one that could ultimately be life threatening for the Japanese economy.

In simple terms, Japan’s current account deficit is "perfectly" in line with a rapidly ageing economy that is supposed to dissave. However, it is also the first example of its kind. We simply do not know how an economy with no discernible future investment yield and opportunities react to the need to import foreign capital to pay for consumption and investment through, as is currently the case, a big and growing budget deficit. My guess is that all known theories of life cycle economics are about to run out of line as it becomes clear that negative current account dynamics do not make sense for a rapidly ageing economy. Either the currency weakens up to the point at which the current account is closed (that is rapidly and violently!) or bond yields start to rise (in similar violent and rapid fashion). Neither scenario is going to be pretty.

The biggest push-back I continue to get here is that the BOJ will simply continue to buy all the JGBs and thus that bond yields will not be affected. This certainly looks like where we are going. A case in point has been the amazing statements from the Government’s Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) signalling their intent to sell bonds and buy more equity.

This puts an incredible onus on the BOJ. Not only is the Japanese pension industry now dissaving (i.e. structural net sellers of bonds to fund retirement redemptions), but if they also start to liquidate their stock of JGBs to rotate into stocks who will pick up that flow. Remember here that Japan is currently running, by far, the biggest budget deficit in the world. There are only two constituents that can pick up this flow really; foreigners and the BOJ. This has customarily been the main reason for expecting ever more aggressive monetary easing and essentially that the BOJ would become the JGB market. This is certainly where we are going but a negative current account changes dynamics significantly

In essence, the notion of the BOJ buying up all JGBs does not necessarily apply in the case of a current account deficit. More specifically, no matter the speed of the printing press in Japan foreigners need to finance the current account per definition and if the deficit is structural it is difficult to imagine this would not include buying JGBs (thus, presumably demanding a higher yield for their effort). The BOJ could, in theory, buy every single JGB but this would then de-facto be done in order to shield the JGB market from foreign influence and higher yields.

The presence of a negative current account thus creates a veil between the BOJ and its objectives. It can still achieve its objectives, but it would require a drastic radicalisation of its bond buying programme and thus a likely very aggressive nominal target for JPY weakness. This would, in the first instance, call for accelerated JPY weakness but investors should not automatically assume that the BOJ can control this process.

This brings us to the second point stated above. A negative current account deficit is thus the first step towards a rout in the JGB market. While it is true that Japan has its own currency and will likely use it aggressively as an adjustment mechanism the key question is the speed with which such an adjustment will work. Investors should not take this lightly. If inverted yield curves in the Eurozone periphery proved to be a significant global source of tail risk, a similar development in Japan would be equivalent to a global financial nuclear disaster.

Many commentators have noted here that as soon as Japan turns back nuclear power the current account will stabilise, but this is far from certain. And even if this was the case, the speed with which such a change materialises in the current account balance could easily be enough to upset the cart.

The investment implications are clear in my view. Being short the JPY makes imminent sense and investors should add to position. The traditional risk-on/risk-off dynamics would suggest that a market sell-off should be correlated with JPY appreciation. My view is that the negative current account changes that dynamic. I would also suggest buying OTM put options on the short end of the JGB curve. Being short JGBs has so far been a widow maker, but a negative current account deficit changes the risk/reward ratio drastically for such a trade. Investors should take note. 


Random Shots - Above Expectations

The market action of last week repeated a lesson that many a punter appeared to have forgotten. Never run a bearish book into a European summit and especially not one where expectations for a result are as lows as they were going into Friday's meeting. Risk assets went up like a rocket with especially oil releasing heavily oversold momentum and you really could not do much wrong if you were running even moderately net long. 


Above Expectations in Europe

Obviously, the market is buying the rumour and not the fact. In traditional summit fashion we got a lot of road maps and promises but very little concrete effort. Details were exceedingly sketchy and to talk about game changers is premature. We usually do not get game changers from the EU, but merely fudge cakes. Alpha.Sources would however like to remind investors that such fudge cakes may be enough to quell the market's sugar addiction for several weeks.  

Three points are worth making. 

Firstly, the ESM appears to get the ability recapitalise banks directly and the door has also been opened up for the ESM/EFSF to buy peripheral debt without implied seniority. This is a big step in breaking the link between banks and the sovereign. Ireland and Spain in particular will be the beneficiaries of this. Alpha.Sources remain skeptical that the broadcasted notion of no conditionality will hold, but at least in principle there is a now a negotiated result which seems to allow countries to get help for their banks with little or no conditionality on the sovereign and no addition to sovereign debt to GDP. This is a significant step towards risk mutualisation through a banking union and ultimately a fiscal union. Alpha.Sources would note however that without applying haircuts to bondholders of both sovereign and private debt, One link is broken but another one is created between core Europe and the entire European banking system. While such a link may be stronger through the effective backing of the whole eurozone balance the key question is how far Germany and the EU will go. This question is particularly relevant (and binding) as it will inevitably become clear that whatever initial amount of euros ceded to the ESM/EFSF to sprinkle over Europe's barren financial markets, it will almost surely be too low. 

Secondly, the electorate and political establishment in Greece have every right to be perplexed. Greece has thus spent the past 3 months under an effective threat of being kicked out of the eurozone only to watch Spain and Italy get away with what is essentially preferential treatment.  The fact that systemically important entities, sovereign as well as private, are given special treatment in this crisis is nothing new, but it remains a democratic problem in the EU. Like Portugal who remains the only country ever to get fined under the Stability and Growth Pact even as virtually every country violated the rules, Greece may rightfully feel a sense of injustice. 

Alpha.Sources would then venture the claim that a Greek exit is now out of the question in the short run (i.e. in 2012). Even as Germany may still move to extract its pound of flesh from Italy and Spain, there is now little chance that Germany and the EU can play hard ball against Greece in the coming negotiations with the Troika. Greece could obviously still become the whipping boy, but the continuing argument that Greece is special is now so worn that even European politicians must be able to see that they can't use it anymore. On this background, Alpha.Sources can't see the ECB shutting off Greece from the ELA while the ESM/EFSF is loading up on Spanish bank equity as well as non-senior Italian and Spanish sovereign debt.

Thirdly, the modest but clear movement towards official creditors not being considered senior could potentially go a long way to break the doomsday loop by which once a country enters bailout proceedings it will never access the market again. Alpha.Sources emphasizes potentially here however and for now, Alpha.Sources will stick to the main rule that whatever we might constitute normal market access the eurozone periphery is far from it, but there is another silver lining to this. Consequently, in Greece it will alleviate the pressure on the ECB, EU and the IMF as it is clear that the country will need a second write down of its debt which will inevitably involve its official sector creditors. 

As a general conclusion, the summit results implies a very large degree of risk mutualisation which it is unclear that Germany will ultimately go for, but multiple conclusions are not possible at the same time and so far the market and punditry seem to view this, rightly or wrongly, as victory for Hollande, Monti and Rajoy. This also means that the decoupling of Bunds from US treasuries and Gilts as well as the recent steady increase in German CDS is set to continue. This is also why Alpha.Sources believes that unlike the German national team who might have to wait two years and the World Cup to redeem itself, Merkel will get her shot much sooner.

One thing Germany will push for is the fiscal compact rules to be put in motion at a fast track pace and also, if the ESM is to take direct and equal ownership of European banks Alpha.Sources feels certain that this will come with extended EU supervision of the involved banks.


Unimpressed in Japan

Another seemingly important political result this week was the approval of the increase in Japan's consumption tax, an increase which has been debated consistently for 5 years in Japan. If the final tax bill is passed, the tax rate will increase from the current 5% to 10% in two steps from to 8% in 2014 and 10% in 2015. 

While the consumption tax has long been touted as the first step to put an end to the fiscal train wreck of Japan's public finances Alpha.Sources believes that the measure will ultimately be counter productive. Japan's fiscal problems consequently do not stem from a lack of revenue, but rather from too much spending. Trying to extract more revenues from a domestic economy where aggregate demand is already chronically weak due to an ageing population will only steal consumption from a future which is, in an almost literal sense, not there. 

In this piece written on a similar VAT hike in Germany, yours truly presented a relatively simple economic framework for what it means to increase indirect taxes in the context of a rapidly ageing economy. In a nutshell, the argument is that while there will be a pure statistical effect on inflation readings as a result of the tax hike as well as positive effect on consumption as the purchase of durables is pushed forward, the end result is likely going to be deflationary. 

The following quote, while requiring a little bit of basic microeconomic intuition, presents the argument, 

(...) students of applied microeconomics learn to distinguish between the point of impact and point of incidence of a tax. The former constitues the party who actually levies the tax towards the government whereas the latter denotes the party who actually supports the tax. In the case of a value-added tax (an indirect tax) the point of impact would then be the consumer who (through an intermediary; e.g. a retailer) levies the tax towards the government. However, it is much more interesting in this case to discuss the point of incidence of the tax that is who actually supports the tax. In order for us to do so we need to introduce yet another economic concept, namely supply and demand elasticities of the tax hike. Consequently, the party with the highest relative elasticity (i.e. flexibility) towards the tax will also avoid supporting the lion’s share of the tax increase. What this means in the concrete case of the German tax is of course very difficult to asses. Yet, since for example consumers’ demand elasticity in this case can be operationalized as the relative fraction of disposable income which is consumed and saved (i.e. the MPC and MPS) we might actually be able to sketch a framework which suggests why the VAT hike in fact should not have been expected to rapidly push up inflation in the first place. The point would then be that the consumers’ demand elasticity towards consumption and thus flexibility towards avoiding the tax relative to businesses would be positively correlated with the marginal propensity to save.

In a rapidly ageing society, the attempt to extract tax revenue through consumption taxes fundamentally misunderstands the consumption and saving dynamics in the context of population ageing. 

Still, we should expect higher consumption in Japan and also, ironically, that inflation may nudge its way up close to the 1% mark set as the target for the BOJ. It would be tragic if this prompted the central bank to lay down its guard because the end result would almost surely be more deflation and contraction. 

With that dear reader it seems that just as Italy spearheaded by the enigma that is Balotelli managed to exceed expectations against Germany (only to come crashing down in the final!), so did we also get a number of political results which, at a first glance at least, were above expectations. In Europe, Alpha.Sources harbours a scant hope that the seeds layn may provide a little calm in the coming months however fleeting this might be while in Japan, the sentiment here at this blog is decidedly unimpressed. 


Random Shots - Smoke Screens

First off obviously; Spain and the country's bailout which was announced yesterday. Alpha.Sources is amazed that it has not happened before really. As we have seen so often before when Europe is on the brink of disaster this time with a Greek exit looming and Spanish banks in tatters, a response has been cooked up in the fudge factory. 

Spain asked euro region governments for a bailout worth as much as 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to rescue its banking system as the country became the biggest euro economy so far to seek international aid.“The Spanish government declares its intention of seeking European financing for the recapitalization of the Spanish banks that need it,” Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told reporters in Madrid today. A statement by euro region finance ministers said the loan amount will “cover estimated capital requirements with an additional safety margin.”

With Greece the immediate danger only a couple of weeks ago, the failure by Bankia seems to suddenly have alerted the eurostriches to the vortex of capital destruction in the Spanish banking system and the inevitable bailout got the fast track rubber stamp. 

Two points are interesting to focus on initially here. 

Firstly, the headline number of €125 billion is big, really big. Only a couple of weeks ago we were hearing numbers of a €20 to €30 billion euros for Spanish banks and this underscores just how expensive this may turn out to be. Consequently, we don't really believe that this is going to be the final number now do we?

Looking at mortgages alone, the accumulation of negative equity by households may rack up a total tally of more than €250 billion euros and this does not include property developer loans. Spain decided early on to attempt to let time be a healer and assumed that losses could be taken over time without the market catching on. This weekend's events show us that this is not possible and I think that the final number will have German and IMF accountants working over time to figure out just exactly where the money is going to come from. A corollary to this point is the also that the EU badly needs to sort out the firepower for the EFSF and the ESM since the original structure simply won't have to capital to sort out Spain and cannot, in its current form, simply access the market for more.

Secondly, the battle of numbers mentioned above seem initially to have taken the backseat to the discussion of whether in fact Spain has gotten a bailout or simply a very cheap loan by a willing lender.  Finance minister Luis de Guindos plays the part well. 

“The financial support will be directed to the FROB [Spain's Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring] which will inject it in the financial entities that need it,” said finance minister Luís de Guindos in a press conference this afternoon. “It is a loan with very favorable terms, much more favorable than the market’s. In no way is this a bailout.

Obviously, this is nonsense but we must understand that this is a critical discourse to push for Spain. Every single country that has so far received an EU/IMF bailout is dead in the water either now effectively under permanent stewardship of a troika or simply in some form of default. In this light, Spain has a distinct interest in pushing the story that this is not a bailout, but my feeling is that this weekend may have marked the last time for a long while that the Spanish sovereign has accessed the market on normal market conditions. 

In this sense, yours truly certainly agrees with Edward. If it walks like one and quacks like one and all that. 

“Of course it’s a bailout. What else would you call it? If you can’t finance your debt, and you have to ask someone else to finance it, it’s a bailout. But everybody who’s taken a bailout is dead, and Rajoy doesn’t want to be dead."

Still, while Edward may have the right point here there is a finer point to be made. The higher the EU/IMF bailout efforts reaches up through the pecking order in the peripheral economies the weaker Germany's and the EU's hand becomes. You can just imagine the discussion about conditionality with Spain withRajoy et al simply pointing out the obvious in terms of a complete meltdown of the euro zone economy in the even of an un-managed unravelling of the Spanish banking system. 

The smoke screens will be blown thick and fast from Madrid, but the initial spin is very easy to predict. Spain's problems, we will be told, reside in its banks and therefore the government needs less supervision relative to Greece where the government is the culprit. As Lisa Abend puts it (article linked above), 
Any European and IMF oversight–the latter will not be contributing funds but will be involved in monitoring their use–will be restricted to the financial sector, not the Spanish macroeconomic system as a whole.

This is absolute tripe of course.  One of the main lessons of this crisis is that in the case of a highly risky stock of private debt in the private (banking) sector it is only a matter of time before this liability must be assumed by the sovereign (Ireland is an example here, but Australia and Denmark exhibit similar characteristics).  One would expect Spain to continue playing this implicit card of systemic importance in order to starve off the stigma of bailout. Naturally, this is grossly unfair for Greece which is being submitted to chemotherapy even as there is a 50/50 chance that the treatment itself will kill the patient. This is is especially the case if the ECB/EU end up chucking the country out through a stop of the ECB liquidity life line. 


Reality Creeping up on Japan

Of the deluge of news the past couple of weeks, what caught Alpha.Sources' attention was how the Bank of Japan pushed back against increasing government cries for more monetisation. 

BOJ Deputy Governor Hirohide Yamaguchi said the central bank will not rule out further easing if risks in Europe materialize and exert strong downward pressure on Japan's economy. But he signaled that Japan will likely achieve the BOJ's 1 percent inflation target without further monetary easing steps, saying the bank's stimulus measures in February and April have heightened the chance the economy will resume a recovery.

A sign of the times perhaps that central banks are starting to feel the pressure from the very guardians of their assumed independence to do more, and to do it more aggressively. As always it will be difficult for central banks to do much since ultimately that would involve biting the very hand that feeds them.

Still, it was refreshing to hear the governor Shirakawa rise above the relationship with the ministry of finance to link Japan's chronic deflation problem to the country's ageing population. If only leaders and economists in Europe would listen to this rather than the consensus that has now emerged that a euro breakup and exit is now the inevitable outcome.

Another interesting structural force which seems to be at play in Japan is the fact that the trade balance may never swing back into surplus due to the dependence on energy imports. Primarily LNG imports tied to the oil price on long term contracts. Alliance Bernstein estimates in a recent note that of the Y1 trillion increase in imports since April 2010, about Y700 billion has come from LNG imports which has replaced the country's idle nuclear capacity. As such idleness is likely to be structural so will the persistent trade deficit likely become structural. 

We should remember however that Japan still runs a substantial current account surplus as a result of a positive income balance derived from the world's largest positive net foreign asset position. Still, the current account surplus is shrinking fast coming in at only 2% of GDP in 2011 which is the lowest in 12 years. As suhc, despite Mr Shirakawa believing that the BOJ has done enough, the onus on the central bank rises to start monitising government debt less Japan wants to peddle bonds to foreigners in which case reality would instantly catch up the Japan's government finances. 


Deflation Risks Re-Emerge with a Venegance, but Central Banks Prefer Stagflation

Moving on to the market, my dear reader we are at it again. Europe is once again on the brink of disaster with a Greek exit looming and Spain all but certain to seek the inevitable bailout. As so often before, starting up the fudge factory seems to be the most likely outcome , but could this time be different? 

A number of heavy weight columnists have recently (yet again) proclaimed that the end of the world is nigh. Most devastatingly was of course Raoul Pal's End Game presentation which gives investors a mere 6 month to protect themselves before heading for the bunker. 

In addition, Soc Gen's Albert Edwards also recently touched on the growing and most disconcerting disconnect between global stock markets and all time low (and even zero or negative) bond yields in the developed world. 

As 30y German Bund yields slide below 2% and rapidly converge towards Japanese rates, we have a taster of what is to come in the US and UK in the months ahead. We still see US 10y yields even now making new all-time lows falling below 1% as hard landings occur in China and the US. The secular equity valuation bear market began in 2000 and renewed global recession will be the trigger to catalyse the third and hopefully final, gut-wrenching phase of valuation de-rating. Expect the S&P500 to decline decisively below its March 2009, 666 intra-day low. All hope will be crushed.

And in his latest flash comment, Greed and Fear (Chris Wood) also alerts investors to the threat of deflation. 

The consensus monkeys have been proved wrong yet again. A mere three months after talkingheads on the sell side were doing their usual annual first quarter ritual of proclaiming the endof the “secular” bull market in US treasury bonds, the ten-year bond yield made a new all-timelow of 1.45% on Friday. 


It continues to amaze GREED & fear how most analysts in the West continue to underestimate the deflationary structural forces at play and are always trying to pick the peak of the bond bull market (in price terms) and the commencement of inflation. Still the main reason GREED & fear has so far avoided succumbing to this temptation is that GREED & fear has been observing Japan for more than 20 years. And for GREED & fear, and for anyone else who has been watching Japan for a similar period, the market action in the West since the global financial crisis hit in the summer of 2008 does not surprise. Rather it remains eerily familiar.

Alpha Sources is concerned, as ever, that a wash-out is coming and certainly remains in the structural deflation camp in so far as goes global debt and growth dynamics writ large. It is also the contention here that it remains a widowmaking trade to call the end of the bull market in bonds, that would require much a much more sinster involvement of bond vigilantes from whatever hole they might appear.

However two points are worth noting.

Firstly, G&F's comparison with Japan may only be as good as it goes. While the blueprint is the same and there central banks have woved no to repeat the Japanese experience. The stated intention of central banks remain to print when it doubt. 

Nowhere is this clearer than with Bernanke. The Fed chairman has demonstrably stated his intention not to travel down Japan's road to deflation. Could it be that this commitment in itself will lead us to an alternative outcome? As always, the proof will be in the actual effect of additional monetary and fiscal stimulus where I would note that in past periods of QE in the US, bond yields have increased! Then there is of course the BOE where Mervyn King and his council have been extremely aggressive in their efforts to combat perceived deflation risks. 

Secondly, on the scenario laid out by Albert Edwards,  one has to note that the stock market is essentially just a nominal price and nominal prices can be manipulated by authorities. While Edwards clearly believe that we are heading towards a situation where this is impossible, Alpha.Sources would be weary betting on a fallout in the S&P 500 to the 500s before the Fed's toolbox has been completely exhausted. Negtive interest rate on excess reserves as well as outright unsterilized purchases of financial assets are the likely next steps if things go south from here. 

But, as always, Edwards is on to something. As stock markets ran up in the aftermath of the ECB's LTRO yields stayed pinned to the floor. When and how aggressively would yields catch up to the stock market? Well, it seems now that we know the answer to this question; the market may just be about to catch up with falling bond yields even if the latter remains severly oversold in the short run. 

We are now in a situation where developed government bond markets still considered safe are pricing in a calamity, but it is important for investors to understand that such apparent grave "expectations" are amplified by the very nature of post crisis financial markets where government bond markets across the European periphery are considered nothing but a very risky equity investment (due to the implied subordination to an ever growing size of the institutional (ECB and IMF) sector involvement in this market). 

In this sense, there is a considerable fundamental mispricing mechanism being operated at the current juncture where normal discounted cash flow valuation analysis cannot be used to explain why anyone would want to pile into government bonds. Or put differently, there are many reasons to hold government bonds and the discounted return from holding to maturity is not necessarily one of them. Liquidity and preservation of the face value of capital are much more important in the current climate even to such an extent that investors are willing to pay a premium for the return of their capital at a later date (negative interest rates). 

In the US for example, it is not clear to Alpha.Sources for example that inflation expectations in the US are pricing in stagflation rather than deflation. This makes sense if we believe in Bernanke's commitment. Of two evils, the Fed appears to prefer stagflation over deflation and it will make sure that faced with such a binary menu, the former is what materialises. 

In the short run, the stark drop in US payrolls may give direction with equities likely to correct downwards towards what the bond market has been telling us for a while rather than the other way around. But ultimately and while Alpha.Sources is weary of the threat of deflation, it is important to show significant respect the playbooks of central banks. Evidence has taught us not to underestimate the ruthlessness by which central bankers are ready to provide inflationary stimulus and as such Alpha.Sources will be hesitant to claim, unlike in the case of Spanish politicians, that they are blowing smoke screens.