USD/JPY, or US dollar to Japanese yen, is a heavily traded major currency pair. Given the significant trading relationship between the United States and Japan, USD/JPY is watched closely around the world. More importantly, Japan is the largest international creditor in the world, and the biggest foreign investor in the US. Given Japan's low growth and low interest rates, the yen tends to sell off during economic booms. During a downturn, the yen tends to strengthen sharply as yen-based investors sell their international investments and return to yen-based investments. As such, USD/JPY is seen as a proxy for global risk sentiment.
The US dollar is currently trading at three year lows thanks to rising global risk appetite, strong growth outside the United States and a sharp run-up in the Japanese yen. As global equity markets rebound, safe haven flows into the US dollar are reversing. Looking at growth, current and forward-looking indicators suggest that growth in the Eurozone is on track to keep accelerating. While recent Japanese GDP growth was fairly disappointing, the yen strengthened following the announcement due to its safe haven characteristics. As USD/JPY is traded in significant volumes, a strengthening yen tends to weaken the US dollar in relative terms. Turning to US data, the US dollar has been fairly immune to positive economic data and rising US Treasury bond yields. Thanks to solid jobs and inflation figures, US Treasury yields are rising as the market bets on a faster pace of rate hikes. While the buck typically benefits from higher relative interest rates, this isn't the case today as markets expect monetary policy to tighten around the world. Later today, we will downgrade our short-term outlook to bearish, while our medium-term outlook remains bearish.
USD/JPY is down sharply today and currently trading above 105.70. EUR/USD is up and trading above 1.2540. The pound is up, and GBP/USD is currently above 1.4140.
Looking at US economic data this week, markets will be focused on retail sales and consumer price index figures. The monthly budget was worse than expectations. The YoY Consumer Price Index beat estimates (2.1% vs. 1.9% expected). MoM retail sales (ex-autos) were lower than estimates (0% vs. 0.4% expected). Initial jobless claims (230k) and the NAHB housing market index (72) met expectations. The Philly Fed manufacturing survey (25.8 vs. 21.1 expected) was ahead of expectations. MoM industrial production (-0.1% vs. 0.2% expected) and capacity utilization (77.5% vs. 78% expected) were slightly below consensus estimates. Later today, we’ll get housing starts and building permits. Last week, strong PMI numbers suggested a positive outlook for US growth.
The Japanese yen continues to strengthen today, particularly against the US dollar. As a safe haven currency, the yen tends to weaken when global growth is accelerating and strengthens during downturns. While the yen began rising following fears of an extended stock market rout, the currency continues to strengthen despite a rebound in most global stock markets. Looking at Japanese domestic data, weak quarterly GDP growth figures and falling machinery exports helped yen strength this week. Turning to monetary policy, the current Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda was appointed for a rare second term, despite his age (73). Kuroda was appointed alongside deputies including BoJ executive director Masayoshi Amamiya and Waseda University professor Masazumi Wakatabe. Both are well-known for their pro-monetary easing views. Unfortunately for the yen, this isn't enough to change the course of the currency as it continues to strengthen. Our short-term and medium-term outlook on the yen remains bullish.
USD/JPY is currently trading above 105.80. EUR/JPY is currently flat and trading above 132.70.
Looking at Japanese economic data, traders will be focused on upcoming GDP figures. Annualized QoQ GDP growth numbers (0.5% vs. 0.9% expected) widely missed estimates. Machinery orders (-5% vs. 2.2% expected) missed expectations by a very wide margin due to falling exports. Industrial output (2.9% vs. 0.5% prior) was higher than previous figures. Cross-border stock (-¥429.5b) and bond (-¥973.2b) investments continue to suggest capital inflows into the country. Last week, cross-border figures also showed that capital was flowing into Japan (strengthening the yen).
As USD/JPY falls, we are downgrading the pair to bearish. Note that the pair is now looking oversold in the short-term. This is based on various technical analysis tools on the daily chart.
As the pair runs out of steam, we are now bearish on USD/JPY in the medium-term. Looking at various technical indicators on a weekly chart, USD/JPY is trading within normal conditions.
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Significance of the USD/JPY pair
US dollar to Japanese yen is the second most traded currency pair in the world (after EUR/USD). Beyond Japan’s economic significance as the world’s third-largest economy (or fourth, if one considers the Eurozone to be an economic region), the country is also unique as it is the world’s largest international creditor. This means that Japan has more international assets versus liabilities. According to the Ministry of Finance, Japan’s net international investment position was ¥349,112 billion (almost $3T USD) at the end of 2016. The country’s position as one of the largest creditors to the United States drives trading in the USD/JPY pair. During economic booms, USD/JPY tends to weaken as yen-based investors seek returns outside Japan. In an economic downturn, the currency tends to strengthen as Japanese yen investors move their funds back into their home currency. Thus the US dollar to Japanese yen exchange rate is often seen as a barometer of risk appetite.
Relative GDP growth rates for the United States versus Japan are highlighted below:
2005 – mid-2007: The carry trade era
Prior to the global financial crisis, the yen was a popular funding currency for the carry trade. When currency speculators engage in carry trades, they borrow a currency with low interest rates (such as the yen) and invest the proceeds in currencies that offer relatively higher interest rates (such as the US dollar or the Australian dollar). In the early 2000s, the Bank of Japan set very low interest rates in order to discourage investors from holding the currency. As such, the currency was borrowed heavily by speculators in order to invest in high-yielding investments.
As the yen’s popularity as a funding instrument grew, the currency depreciated prior to the global financial crisis as a result. Looking at USD/JPY, the pair peaked in June 2007 around 124.
Mid-2007 – Late 2008: Build up to the crisis
Starting in the summer of 2007, currency speculators bought back the Japanese yen as fears grew regarding the health of the US housing market. As carry trades began unravelling, the yen began rallying. During this time, many believed that issues relating to the US housing market would be confined to the United States. Nonetheless, global risk appetite was falling during this time and yen-based investors sought to sell their international investments. After trading as low as 96 in March 2007, USD/JPY peaked around 110 in August 2008.
Late 2008 – 2009: The global financial crisis
By the summer of 2008, the US housing crisis had morphed into a global financial crisis. Most global currencies including the euro, British pound and the Australian dollar began selling off sharply relative to the US dollar. As we have described in a previous article, this is because global banks were raising funds by borrowing US dollars in Eurodollar (offshore US dollar) markets. These funds were used to invest in US mortgages and in international investments. Starting in 2008, lenders in Eurodollar markets began doubting the creditworthiness of many borrowers. As Eurodollar markets began freezing up, banks lost access to US dollar funding and the currency was in short supply.
Looking at USD/JPY, while the dollar rallied sharply in early 2008, the pair began selling off by August 2008. Relative to the US dollar, the shortage in Japanese yen was even greater. By the end of 2008, USD/JPY had fallen to around 87.
2009 - Late 2012: The world goes ZIRP
While Japan was the first country to experiment with zero interest rate policies (ZIRP), the US Federal Reserve also dropped interest rates to 0% following the financial crisis. Beyond ZIRP, the Fed also implemented several rounds of quantitative easing (buying bonds using its balance sheet) during this era. Prior to the crisis, the Bank of Japan had the loosest monetary policies, and this helped the yen stay weak. Following the crisis, many central banks were also running easy monetary policies, and the yen strengthened.
The Bank of Japan directly intervened in currency markets four times between 2010 and 2011 in order to weaken the yen. Yet the interventions had a limited impact on USD/JPY, and the exchange rate continued to fall throughout this time. In October 2012, USD/JPY was trading around 78.
Late 2012 - 2016: Abenomics and Kuroda
2012 was an election year in Japan, and a general election was scheduled for December. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan government was highly unpopular following increases to consumption tax amid a slowing economy. Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party candidate, campaigned on a platform of “Abenomics”. Inspired by “Reaganomics” (the economic agenda of former US President Ronald Reagan), Abenomics comprised of three priorities: (1) substantial monetary easing, (2) fiscal spending and (3) economic reform. As Abe rose in the polls, currency traders began increasing their bets on more monetary easing from the Bank of Japan. As a result, USD/JPY began rallying sharply.
This time, currency markets accurately predicted Abe’s victory, and the yen continued to weaken. By April 2013, the exchange rate had strengthened above 100. Remarkably, the yen weakened even as the US Federal Reserve launched QE3 (its third round of quantitative easing following the crisis).
Following the appointment of Haruhiko Kuroda as governor of the Bank of Japan, the BoJ unveiled a substantial monetary stimulus program. Kuroda announced that the Bank’s balance sheet would double in size by the end of 2014, and committed to open-ended asset buying. Specifically, he used the Bank’s balance sheet to purchase government bonds, corporate bonds as well as Japanese equities. The BoJ also abandoned its interest rate target and instead chose to target the size of the monetary base instead.
In late 2014, the sharp decline of crude oil prices resulted in further yen weakness. Beyond falling crude oil prices, the Federal Reserve was signaling a tightening bias in the future. As the Eurozone and Japan remained committed to quantitative easing and negative rates, the US dollar soared as a result. USD/JPY ended 2015 around 117.
2016 – 2017: Risk off/risk on
At the outset of 2016 (following a Fed rate hike in December 2015), global risk appetite began declining following poor US GDP growth figures. The upcoming Brexit referendum and US presidential elections later in the year also had markets concerned. As such, investors bought safe haven assets such as bonds and gold. Given the yen’s safe haven status, the currency also began strengthening. Looking at USD/JPY, the pair weakened to 100 following the Brexit vote in June 2016. The yen remained fairly strong until the US presidential elections.
In September 2016, the Bank of Japan reverted to targeting interest rates instead of the monetary base alone. This time, the Bank implemented a policy known as ‘yield curve control’ (YCC). As per YCC, the Bank of Japan maintained 10-year government bond yields at 0% by buying and selling bonds. If bond yields were to rise above 0%, the BoJ was willing to issue an unlimited number of bonds in order to drive yields down to its target. This made the currency exceptionally sensitive to global interest rates. In a recent take on the BoJ’s policies, we wrote that Kuroda was likely to signal the end of YCC in 2018.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections came as a surprise to many, and the yen initially strengthened. A few hours following his victory, markets began betting on higher growth and inflation. This was particularly the case once the Republican Party gained control of both houses of Congress. As bonds and gold began selling off, the yen soon followed. By December 2016, USD/JPY was trading above 118.
After rallying in the previous year, the US dollar performed very poorly in 2017. As Trump failed to pass healthcare reforms in early 2017 and inflation came in below expectations, the US dollar sold off accordingly. As we wrote in late 2017, sustained USD strength is unlikely without better inflation figures. USD/JPY gradually weakened in 2017 and ended the year just above 112.50.