MacroScope

from Global Investing:

Show us the (Japanese) money

Where is the Japanese money? Mostly it has been heading back to home shores as we wrote here yesterday.

The assumption was that the Bank of Japan's huge money-printing campaign would push Japanese retail and institutional investors out in search of yield.  Emerging markets were expected to capture at least part of a potentially huge outflow from Japan and also benefit from rising allocations from other international funds as a result.  But almost a month after the BOJ announced its plans, the cash has not yet arrived.

EM investors, who seem to have been banking the most on the arrival of Japanese cash, may be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Data from EPFR Global shows no notable pick-up in flows to EM bond funds while cash continues to flee EM equities ($2 billion left last week).

But first, some good news. Retail investors are demonstrating some interest in emerging assets. Barclays says launches of toshin or investment trusts last week garnered $2 billion in subscriptions, with a Pacific Rim equities fund, partly geared to Asia, receiving $1.2 billion.  The previous week saw a $500 million ASEAN fund while an emerging equities toshin started in March took in $1.6 billion. There has also been net new uridashi bond issuance in the Mexican, Brazilian, Turkish and Russian currencies over the past few weeks, Barclays data shows.

The bad news is that Japanese  funds and insurers -- and that's where the big money is -- have steered clear of emerging markets, and indeed foreign assets so far.   Barclays writes that could be bad news for markets such as Hungary and South Africa, which have poor fundamentals and have benefited from talk of Japanese cash:

Yellen-san supportive of BOJ’s aggressive easing

For all the talk about clear communications at the Federal Reserve, central bank Vice Chair Janet Yellen’s speech to the Society of American Business and Economics Writers ran a rather long-winded 16 pages.

However, while Fed board members generally do not take questions from reporters, there was a scheduled audience Q&A which, at this particular event, meant it was effectively a press briefing.

So I asked Yellen, seen as a potential successor to Fed Chair Ben Bernanke when his second term ends early next year, what she thought of Japan’s decision to launch a bold $1.4 trillion stimulus to fight a long-standing problem of deflation and economic stagnation.

A statement of non-intent

The flurry of activity about a G7 currency statement yesterday can now be put in perspective. It will almost certainly happen but it’s very much going through the motions.

We’ve been saying for a while that having urged it to reflate its economy for some time, Japan’s partners could hardly complain now that it is. Lael Brainard of the U.S. Treasury basically let that cat out of the bag last night, warning against competitive devaluations but saying that Washington supported Tokyo’s efforts to reinvigorate growth and end deflation.

What we’ll get is a bland recommitment to market-determined exchange rates and not much more.

Currency chatter

With the rhetoric getting more heated, the three-year market fixation on bond yields could well be supplanted by currencies in the months ahead.

This week, everything points towards the first meeting this year of G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Moscow on Friday and Saturday. We’ve already got a clear steer from sources that even though France wants the strong euro on the agenda there will be little pressure put on Japan and others whose policies are pushing their currencies lower. Having urged Tokyo to reflate its economy last year, its G20 peers can hardly complain now that it has. That is not to say there won’t be lots of words on the issue though.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece saying the G7 – or at least its European and U.S. constituents – are planning a joint message ahead of the G20 to warn against a destabilizing competitive currency devaluation race. If true, this will have a big impact on the FX market.

Trade entrails

An exercise in divination using the entrails of last week’s U.S. international trade report shows signs of a move with larger implications than just the gaping deficit that caught analysts wrong-footed: the possibility of a persistent burden on the American economy caused by Japanese and German imports, like in the 80s.

The U.S. trade deficit widened 16 percent in November to $48.7 billion, the Commerce Department said on Friday, above the $41.3 billion expected. The negative surprise prompted economists to cut hastily their U.S. gross domestic product estimates for the last quarter to a negligible rate. The stock market took a hit.

The disappointment was limited, however, as analysts attributed the bulky import bill behind the deficit increase to a resumption of merchandise flows into the U.S. after Hurricane Sandy paralyzed port activity in the East Coast the previous month. Some economists still on yuletide mode are, apparently, missing the big picture.

Japan finally takes Bernanke-san’s advice – 10 years later

This post was based on reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo

Japan has crossed the monetary rubicon: the government is actively intervening in the affairs of the central bank, pressuring it to more aggressively tackle a prolonged bout of deflation and economic stagnation. The Bank of Japan is expected to discuss raising its inflation target from the current 1 percent level during its next rate decision on January 21-22.

Overnight, a Japanese newspaper reported the finance ministry and the central bank were considering signing a policy accord that would set as a common goal not just achieving 2 percent inflation but also steady job growth.

Key Japanese policymakers played down the prospect of making the BOJ responsible for stable employment like the U.S. Federal Reserve, but said a 2 percent inflation target will be at the heart of a new policy accord with the central bank.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]

Euro zone may struggle with its own Lost Decade

Additional Reporting by Andy Bruce and polling by Rahul Karunakar and Sumanta Dey.

As Europe’s crisis drags on, the prospect of a Japanese-style lost decade of economic malaise is becoming increasingly real, according to a new poll. Half of the bond strategists and economists surveyed by Reuters are now expecting just such an outcome.

Many market participants have dismissed the fall of two-year German bond yields below their Japanese counterparts as being merely a result of a crisis-fueled flight to quality bid. Two-year German yields are now close to zero, offering returns of only 0.02 percent. By contrast, equivalent Japanese bonds are yielding 0.11 percent.

Resolving Shirakawa’s conundrum

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The governor of the Bank of Japan, Masaaki Shirakawa, says he is confounded by the still very low level of Japanese government bond yields given the country’s elevated debt to GDP ratio of over 200 percent. Speaking on an IMF panel over the weekend, he offered a rather unintuitive explanation for the phenomenon:

It seems difficult to explain the case of Japan in light of conventional wisdom. One frequently offered explanation is that the ample domestic savings in Japan have absorbed the issuance of JGBs and the share of JGBs held by foreign investors is very small. But a more fundamental explanation is that the stability in the current bond yields reflects market participants’ expectations that fiscal soundness will be restored through structural reforms imposed in the economic and fiscal areas.

Most economists think Japanese yields are low because of continued expectations for deflation and weak economic growth. But for Shirakawa, it seems, it is public confidence in future fiscal restraint that is keeping bond yields low. Except he then contradicts this point by saying weak confidence in future fiscal reforms is also simultaneously undermining consumer spending:

The pain in Spain – redux

Spain’s borrowing costs are likely to soar at an auction of 12- and 18-month T-bills after its 10-year yields were pushed through the totemic 6 percent level on Monday. The history of the euro zone debt crisis shows that once above 6 percent the spiral accelerates and before you know it you’re at 7 percent – the level generally seen as unsustainable for state financing.

Worryingly, Spain is dragging Italy’s yields up in its wake. But in Spain’s case, there are strong reasons for caution about imminent disaster. The government cannily used ECB-created benign market conditions in the first part of the year to shift nearly half its annual debt issuance needs already and the banks – which look like they will need recapitalization at some point – are well funded for now having also loaded up on the European Central Bank’s three-year liquidity splurge.

We also know Europe’s banks, too scared to invest elsewhere, are depositing 700-800 billion euros back at the ECB daily. If Madrid could engender a shift in confidence, some of that money could flow back into its bonds, particularly by Spanish banks.