First of all, Happy New Year! I hope you all had a fantastic holiday season. Keeping with the spirit of the last three years, we have not been anywhere! Ok, we did have a couple of mini-holidays here in Japan and a peaceful family Christmas and New Year at home, so no complaints!
2023 is shaping up to be interesting in many ways. I have taken on a freelance financial writer project that has diverted some time away from writing here. I will link to that at some point, once I am settled into the routine. It’s an interesting project and I am really enjoying the new challenge. However, if there’s one thing that writing to order and to deadlines has taught me, it is to be grateful for the freedom I have to write whatever I want here, hence the somewhat irreverent title of my first post of the year!
So how screwed is the yen???
Well, before we jump into that, let’s take a quick look back over 2022. As per my previous post, the lesson for us all is that liquidity drives markets, and in 2022 Jerome Powell was the first central banker to start draining liquidity. Throughout the year he continued to raise interest rates in order to fight inflation and, in doing so, pretty much killed the bull market in risk assets. Literally adding fuel to the fire, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and fanned the flames of inflation, particularly in the energy sector. The S&P 500 index ended the year -19.4%, the NASDAQ -33.1%. European stocks were down around -13%. And not only equities suffered: US bonds, the so-called safe haven asset, were down around -13%. Even well-diversified portfolios were down somewhere between 15-20% on the year. The only big gains were in energy stocks, with that index up over 60%.
So how about Japan? Well, the Nikkei 225 index was down -9.4% on the year, but I can tell you from personal experience that if you picked the right stocks you actually made money last year. So not bad right? The danger, however, lurked in the fixed-income and currency markets. The strong US dollar crushed everything in its path, with the yen coming off perhaps the worst of the developed market currencies, although the pound and the euro suffered too.
I just listened to a great interview with Brent Johnson, of Dollar Milkshake Theory fame. It gets interesting around the 16-minute mark. Here’s a quick summary if you want to save bandwidth:
During 2022, after years of zero to negative yields, inflationary pressure caused Japanese Government Bond (JGB) yields to rise by 0.25%. That may not sound like much, but it had a huge effect on the price of JGBs. Remember, as yields rise, bond prices fall. As a result, the Bank of Japan had to repeatedly come out and reaffirm their commitment to Yield Curve Control. (YCC) In short, they had to do more quantitative easing, which meant printing more money and buying more bonds, which also translates to more yen going into the market and a weaker currency.
Keeping it simple – they had to devalue the yen to save the bond market. Why? Because the owners of those bonds are Japanese banks, pensions and insurance companies. Not the kind of institutions you want falling over. Things got so bad that, by the end of September, the BOJ had to come out and artificially support the yen.
Here’s where it becomes a problem: The programs you would have to enact to save the yen are the exact opposite of the programs you would have to do to save the bonds. To save the currency you have to raise rates. To save the bond market you need lower rates.
Then, at the end of the year, the BOJ made the surprise move of widening the band for their Japanese Government Bond Yield Curve Control from 0.25% to 0.5%. When they did that, the yen started to strengthen. However, if you allow interest rates to rise, what happens to bond prices? Down they go!
And herein lies the crux of the matter: you can save both the currency and the bond market for a short period of time, but ultimately, over a longer period of time, you have to choose one. Now, governments always say that they won’t sacrifice the currency, and then they always do. The reason is simple: the currency benefits the citizens the most, to the detriment of the government, and the bond market benefits the government the most, to the detriment of the citizens. Which do you think the government will choose to save?
Also if you save the currency, you will effectively collapse the banking system, which isn’t going to be pretty. And more importantly, as the government, if you sacrifice the bond market, you can’t raise money anymore. You essentially cut off your income. What government is going to do that?
So how screwed is the yen???
I try to avoid being sensationalist about this kind of stuff. People have been predicting the collapse of the Japanese economy for decades now and it still kept muddling through. The thing that has changed is that it was muddling through in a low inflation environment, which allowed the BOJ to keep rates low. If you are hoping that the value of your yen will hold up, you better hope that inflation calms down pretty soon! The thing that shocked me about the interview with Brent was not the fact that he thinks the yen is screwed – I always thought it would be at some point down the line – it’s that he thinks it is already screwed now and it gets really ugly from here. The ECB and the Bank of England are in a similar position, but Japan is so much further down the road. In terms of monetary policy, Japan is not just the canary in the coal mine. It’s the whole damn coal mine!
I wrote a post back in April 2022 called The Weak Yen Dilemma, where I basically noted that over time things tend to revert back to the mean, and that is what would eventually happen for the yen. In the realm of ‘nobody knows’, that is still a possibility but I am starting to think that from a financial planning/investing perspective we need to consider the big question: What if it doesn’t?
What if the yen is screwed?
I am not an intellectual and have no interest in a debate about the fate of the yen. As a financial planner and investor, I deal in probabilities. So I think it’s important to consider what we can do in case the yen is actually in trouble.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I am the guy who never shuts up about base currency. I’m sure it’s annoying but here’s the thing: you can have the perfect tax-advantaged, low-fee account with the best asset allocation, but if you are in the wrong currency you are shooting yourself in the foot and by the time you realise it, it may be too late. If you found yourself last year saying “I want to do x but the yen is too weak” then you know what I mean. Base currency is not the currency you are earning in, it’s the currency you plan to spend the money in. So let’s take a look at what people living in Japan with different base currencies can actually do to prepare:
JPY Base Currency
If you live in Japan, earn yen and plan to spend it here until you die, you have the least to think about. The main thing you need to concern yourself with is beating inflation in yen terms. However, are you really 100% yen base currency? Might your kids want to study abroad? Do you plan to travel overseas regularly to visit family or for other reasons? If you think that Brent might be right, do you want to maybe allocate a portion of your investments to USD so you can take advantage of the eventual collapse of JPY?
USD Base Currency
If your BC is the global reserve currency and you have all your money languishing in yen, it’s time to start putting in some serious thought. You probably experienced severe pain last year watching the yen slide to ¥150. You’re probably waiting for it to get back to something reasonable, like say ¥110, before you convert your yen to dollars. Right? But what if it doesn’t get there? Maybe ¥130 is the best deal you’re going to get? I’m not saying you should panic and convert everything today, but you need to consider the probabilities. Maybe you should start converting a little every month, or every quarter? Again, I’m really not the alarmist type, and maybe things will gradually get back to normal. But what if they don’t?
GBP/Euro Base Currency
The good news for you guys is that the UK and Europe are just as screwed as Japan! Japan might go down first, but you are the next dominoes in line. So you may find that there is less of a differential between GBP/JPY and EUR/JPY than there is with dollar vs. yen. All the same, if you are not planning to spend the money in Japan, you should be saving and investing in your base currency. And maybe, given the situation we are describing here, you should consider owning some dollars too in case there is something to this milkshake theory?
Other Base Currency
Please forgive me for lumping everyone else together but there is only so much time that can be spent on one post. If you are from a country considered an emerging market, you are probably already well-experienced with currency fluctuations. Saving in your base currency is a great idea, but you should perhaps consider USD as an option too as it offers more stability. If you are going to retire somewhere like Australia or New Zealand then again, the local currency plus maybe a dash of USD seems like the way to go.
Outlook for Japan Investments in 2023
I will likely get into this in more detail in future posts. I’m thinking, given it is January, of writing a post on strategies for investing in NISA. But for the time being, here are some things to consider: Bonds are a no-go in my opinion. Stay away from them. Equities are likely to struggle just due to the general economic climate and the spectre of recession, but there are some stocks paying nice dividends out there that are probably a better option than cash. However, if the BOJ really does enter a tightening cycle, which has been unthinkable for longer than I care to remember, I would be pretty concerned about Japanese stocks. Remember that liquidity drives markets! Inflation, troublesome as it is, may provide a tailwind for property values.
I hope that provides some food for thought. Wishing you all the best for 2023 and let’s hope that the yen isn’t actually screwed!
Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.