Let us begin the week with some good news for the central bank from the land of the rising sun or Nihon. That is that the Nikkei 225 equity index rallied strongly this morning and its 2.44% surge saw it regain the 20,000 level and close at 20,038. The Bank of Japan will be pleased on two counts, of which the first is the wealth effects it will expect from a higher equity market. The second is that it will improve its own position as what we have labelled the Tokyo Whale.

The Bank of Japan’s purchases of exchange-traded funds since the start of 2018 exceeded 6 trillion yen ($53 billion) on Tuesday, reaching a record high on a yearly basis and signaling the central bank has been increasingly exposed to riskier assets. ( The Mainichi).

For newer readers the Bank of Japan has been buying Japanese equities for around 5 years and has been doing so on an increasing scale.

Under Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, the BOJ announced aggressive monetary stimulus in 2013 aimed at breaking Japan’s economy out of its deflationary malaise.

The measures included increasing the central bank’s holdings of ETFs by an annual 1 trillion yen, which it expanded to 3 trillion yen in 2014 and again to 6 trillion yen in 2016.

The name “Tokyo Whale” came about because as you can see it found the need to keep increasing the size of the purchases as the expect results did not materialise. This meant that it cannot keep this going for much longer as it will run out of equity ETFs to buy. Why does it buy them? Well the bit below hints at it.

ETFs allow investors to buy and sell exposure to a basket of equities or an index without owning the underlying shares.

So the Bank of Japan can avoid claims it is explicitly investing in the companies concerned or if you like is a passive fund manager. Those of you who recall the media claims last autumn that the Bank of Japan was in the process of conducting a “tapering” of its purchases will find the bit below familiar.

The purchases have been criticized by some as artificially buoying stock prices, leading the BOJ in July this year to give itself more flexibility by saying it “may increase or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.”

The Tokyo Whale bought more and not less as the 24,000 or so of late summer was replaced by the current level.

Purchases of the investment funds swelled as the BOJ stepped in to underpin the stock market, which in October suffered huge losses amid concerns over heightened trade tensions between the United States and China.

If we step back and wonder what influence this has been then this from the Tokyo Whale itself hardly provides much support.

a challenge lies in the household sector in that the mechanism of the virtuous cycle from
income to consumption expenditure has been operating weakly.

Money Supply

We have been observing for some months now that many countries have had lower money supply growth which has then led to lower economic growth. So as you can imagine I was waiting for the monetary base data released today. What we see is that the monetary base in Japan grew by 17% in 2017 but by a much lower 7.3% in 2018 and the annual rate in the month of December was only 4.8%. Quite remarkably there were spells in December when the monetary base actually fell. That begs a question about this.

The Bank of Japan will conduct money market operations so that the monetary base will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

As ever in Japan picking one’s way through this is complex as we arrive at what I think is the largest number we have noted on here. You see the Japanese monetary base which is some 504.2 trillion Ten has been pumped up so much by the Bank of Japan the annual rate of growth could not be kept up. For a start there was the issue of how many bonds and the like have already been bought.

The BOJ’s balance sheet, after all, reached a dubious milestone in 2018, when it topped Japan’s $4.87 trillion of annual gross domestic product. ( Nikkei Asian Review)

Rather oddly the NAR then tells us this.

The BOJ could easily buy more government debt and ETFs.

Actually there are not many ETFs left to buy and the Bank of Japan itself is seeing dissent against the current level of purchases. That is not to say that the Bank of Japan could not use other methods as it has shown itself willing to buy pretty much anything.

If we move to the wider liquidity measure of the Bank of Japan we see that the rate of growth was 3.5% in November 2017 but only 1.8% this November. Thus both the bass line and the drumbeat from the monetary system are not only the same but they are a 2018 theme. Because of the different nature of the Japanese system it is hard to be precise about any likely effect because all the expansion seemed to have only a minor upwards effect but one would expect that to now disappear.

Oh and my largest number did not last long as Japanese liquidity is 1788.5 trillion Yen.

The Yen

It was only last week that we were mulling the “flash rally” in the Yen as yet another weak period for equity markets saw a yen for Yen. A combination of thin markets and a Japanese bank holiday saw the Yen strengthen into the high 104s versus the US Dollar. I am told that exited some of the hedges placed by Japanese exporters but there was no sign of the “bold action” often promised by the Bank of Japan. Things are now calmer and the Yen is at 108 but even that is higher over time and that has been against a relatively strong US Dollar.

As the NAR points out this will not be welcomed by the Japanese authorities.

The central problem is that Japan’s economic growth relies largely a weak yen and its capacity to boost exports. Though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked grandly about structural reform, the yen’s 30% drop beginning in late 2012 was the fuel behind the 12-quarter run of growth Japan experienced until its July-September stumble.

Comment

The Tokyo Whale faces quite a few problems right now. For example the third quarter of 2018 showed something it has claimed was temporary.

Quarter-on-quarter, GDP shrank a real 0.6 percent, downgraded from the earlier reading of a 0.3 percent contraction. ( The Japan Times)

According to the Markit business survey there was a bounce back. From earlier today.

“Positive survey data from the manufacturing sector
were not mirrored by Japan’s dominant service providing industry in December, where business
activity increased at the weakest pace since May if
the natural-disaster-hit September is discounted.
The survey also pointed to abating demand
pressures, as private sector sales increased only
mildly on the month.”

But then we will expect to see the impact of slowing money supply growth. So 2019 may see the Tokyo Whale do this as we wait to see how those who have presented Abenomics as a triumph deal with Elvis Costello being number one again.

She’s been a bad girl, she’s like a chemical
Though you try to stop it, she’s like a narcotic
You want to torture her, you want to talk to her
All the things you bought for her, putting up your temperature
Pump it up, until you can feel it
Pump it up, when you don’t really need it

Meanwhile here is my podcast from last week with covers my thoughts on how Japan has survived the “lost decade(s)”.