Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Japan's Yen Intervention: A Trade Skirmish?

The Japanese central bank has unilaterally stepped into the currency markets and bought U.S. dollars in an effort to lower the value of the yen and push up the dollar. It appears to have increased the dollar by about 1%. In economic terms, this intervention is similar to a 1% across-the-board tariff on all U.S. goods imported into Japan. Conversely, it creates a 1% price cut on all Japanese goods imported into the U.S.

While American consumers wouldn't mind a 1% price cut, this intervention could export some of Japan's unemployment to the U.S. American workers making products that compete with now cheaper Japanese goods may face a greater risk of layoffs and reduced income.

The Japanese government apparently had hoped for international support for its intervention. It got none. Everyone's hurting and no one wants to take someone else's unemployment.

There was no public reaction from the U.S. government to the Japanese intervention. A 1% shift in currency valuations is small from a medium to long term perspective, and could easily shift back within a few days from now in today's volatile currency markets. The U.S Treasury has its hands full squabbling with the Chinese about the valuation of the yuan, and probably doesn't want to fight on two fronts simultaneously.

The yen is rising because it's becoming more valuable. One reason is that the Chinese government has been buying yen denominated assets in order to diversify away from the dollar. The Chinese are killing two birds because this diversification is also likely to weaken the dollar. Because the Chinese yuan is still essentially tied to the dollar, when the dollar sinks, so does the yuan. The Chinese tack allows them to maintain approximate parity with the dollar while gaining a trade advantage over the Japanese.

By intervening, the Japanese central bank is in effect riposting with a two birds with one stone tactic of its own. Pushing the dollar up also pushes up the yuan against the yen, thereby recovering some of the trade advantage the Chinese have gotten lately.

Next week, the Federal Reserve will meet again and perhaps give more guidance on the extent of the quantitative easing (read, printing of money) it has in mind for the foreseeable future. The more the Fed quantitatively eases, the lower the dollar will fall in the currency markets. The Japanese may perceive this as aimed at them, even though it isn't. They might respond with more intervention.

With economies around the world slowing and governments too leveraged for much more stimulus spending, currency manipulations are a deceptively cheap and easy way to improve a nation's prospects. The problem is that one nation's gains come at the expense of other nations. When they all start to maneuver their currencies around, they wittingly or unwittingly form a circular firing squad aiming inward. Things weren't pretty when that happened in the 1930s and they wouldn't be pretty if it happened again.

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