This time a year ago $1 bought about 120 yen. That figure was 125+ last June. The rate was 113, however, a week ago–and 108- today.
This amounts about a 10% year-on-year gain in the yen’s purchasing power against the dollar, half of that strength during the past week.
The rise is good for consumers for whom the cost of imported items like food has skyrocketed under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Not so good, though, for Mr. Abe’s grand plan to resuscitate his country’s still moribund industrial sector through massive currency depreciation.
There’s no particular reason for the yen to strengthen that I can see. Yes, Mr. Abe did recently observe that aggressive intervention in currency markets is an imprudent strategy. And, yes, this is the time of year when corporate cash flows back into Japan causes mild currency strength. But the Bank of Japan recently initiated a negative interest rate policy designed to weaken the yen. And in my view there’s no sign yet that Mr. Abe’s bet-the-farm gamble on 1980s-era export industries is paying off.
Yet the currency is going up.
This may just be bad luck.
If we assume that the US dollar has peaked, then the question for short-term currency traders is which of the two remaining majors, the yen or the euro, is a better bet. Given renewed uncertainty about Greece and the upcoming vote in the UK on a referendum to exit the EU, traders may think they have little choice other than to shift their holdings toward yen.
Still, the biggest economic problem for Japan–and the reason Japan is a cautionary tale for the US–is that the political power structure there is totally committed to defending the status quo and retarding structural change. It’s subsidizing industries whose heyday was in the 1980s, and it’s allowing its workforce to shrink by its anti-immigration stance in the face of an aging domestic population. A rising currency will only make the circle harder to square.