Japan – Politics, Central Banking and the Nikkei 225

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Macro Letter – No 84 – 29-09-2017

Japan – Politics, Central Banking and the Nikkei 225

  • PM Abe called a snap general election for October, amid rising geopolitical tensions
  • The BoJ maintain QQE despite Federal Reserve plans to reduce its balance sheet
  • Japanese stocks will benefit if the ‘Three Arrows’ of Abenomics continue
  • Japanese wages are rising whilst inflation is stuck at zero

On Monday Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, called a snap general election. During the press conference in which he made the announcement he said:-

It is my mission as prime minister to exert strong leadership abilities at a time when Japan faces national crises stemming from the shrinking demographic and North Korea’s escalating tensions…

He went on to outline a JPY 2trln stimulus package, to be implemented before year end. This will be financed by raising the consumption tax rate from 8% to 10% in October 2019. The tax increase is expected to generate JPY 5trln/annum and, if any revenue remains after the stimulus, it will be used to reduce government debt. With a further JPY 2trln earmarked for education and social programmes it seems unlikely the maths will add up.

Meanwhile, despite the Federal Reserve’s announcement, last week, that they will begin balance sheet reduction, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) continue their policy of quantitative and qualitative easing (QQE) involving the unorthodox ‘yield curve control’ measures. From more on this please see Macro Letter – No 65 – Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE which I published in November 2016. I stand by my conclusion, although my prediction about the JPY (I thought it would continue to weaken) has yet to come to pass:-

If zero 10 year JGB yields are unlikely to encourage banks to lend and demand from corporate borrowers remains negligible, what is the purpose of the BoJ policy shift? I believe they are creating the conditions for the Japanese government to dramatically increase spending, safe in the knowledge that the JGB yield curve will only steepen beyond 10 year maturity.

I do not believe yield curve control will improve the economics of bank lending at all. According to World Bank data the average maturity of Japanese corporate syndicated loans in 2015 was 4.5 years whilst for corporate bonds it was 6.9 years. Corporate bond issuance accounted for only 5% of total bond issuance in Japan last year – in the US it was 24%. Even with unprecedented low interest rates, demand to borrow for 15 years and longer will remain de minimis.

Financial markets will begin to realise that, whilst the BoJ has not quite embraced the nom de guerre of “The bank that launched Helicopter Money”, they have, assuming they don’t lose their nerve, embarked on “The road to infinite QE”. Under these conditions the JPY will decline and the Japanese stock market will rise.

In the long run demographic forces may halt Abenomic attempts to debase the Yen. This 2015 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis – Aging and the Economy: The Japanese Experience – makes fascinating reading. Here is a snippet, but I urge you to read the whole article for an overview of the impact of an ageing population on economies in general, Japan exhibits some unique characteristics in this respect:-

In a third study, economists Derek Anderson, Dennis Botman and Ben Hunt found that the increased number of pensioners in Japan led to a sell-off of financial assets by retirees, who needed the money to cover expenses. The assets were mostly invested in foreign bonds and stocks. The sell-off, in turn, fueled appreciation of the yen, lowering costs of imports and leading to deflation.

Returning to the current environment, on Monday, in a speech to business leaders in Osaka entitled – Japan’s Economy and Monetary PolicyBoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda made several observations about the economy, labour market and inflation:-

The economy is expanding moderately, and the real GDP growth rate for the April-June quarter registered a firm increase of 2.5 percent on an annualized basis. It is the first time in eleven years, since 2006, that it has continued to mark positive growth for six consecutive quarters…

The year-on-year rate of increase in hourly wages of part-time employees, which are particularly sensitive to the tightening of the labor market, has registered about 2.5 percent. This is higher than that of full-time employees, implying that the difference in wage levels between part-time and full-time employees has become smaller…

In the labor market as a whole, the unemployment rate has declined to around 3 percent, which is equivalent to virtually full employment, and the active job openings-to-applicants ratio stands at 1.52, exceeding the highest figure during the bubble period and reaching a level last seen as far back as in 1974…

The year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) excluding fresh food has increased to around 0.5 percent recently, but that which also excludes the effects of a rise in energy prices has been relatively weak, remaining at around 0 percent…

Kuroda-san went on to defend the BoJ 2% inflation target and explain the logic behind their ‘QQE with Yield Curve Control’ mechanism. I am struck by the improving affluence of the average worker in Japan. Inflation is zero whilst wage growth, except for the dip in July to -0.3%, has been positive for most of this decade. Real Japanese wages have been rising which is in stark contrast to many of its G7 peers. See Pew Research – For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades for more on this subject.

The minutes of the July 19th/20th BoJ – Monetary Policy Meeting – were released on Tuesday.  They left policy unchanged. The short-term interest rate target at -0.10% and the long-term rate (10yr JGB yield) at around zero. Commenting on the economy they noted continued solid investment, especially by larger firms and the sustained improvement in private consumption. The consumption activity index (CAI) for Q1 2017 showed a fourth consecutive quarterly increase. I was interested in the statement highlighted below (the emphasis is mine):-

…members shared the view that, with corporate profits improving, which mainly reflected the growth in overseas economies, business fixed investment plans were becoming solid on the whole. They also shared the recognition that the employment and income situation had improved steadily and private consumption had increased its resilience. Members then concurred that a positive output gap had taken hold, given the recent tightening of labor market conditions and the increase in capacity utilization rates, with the latter reflecting a rise in production. Based on this discussion, they agreed to revise the Bank’s economic assessment upward to one stating that Japan’s economy “is expanding moderately, with a virtuous cycle from income to spending operating” from the previous one stating that the economy “has been turning toward a moderate expansion.” One member pointed out that Japan’s economy was shifting from a recovery dependent on external demand to a more self-sustaining expansion brought about by an improvement in domestic demand. This member continued that it was also becoming evident that improvements in economic activity had been spreading across a wider range of areas, urban to regional.

The current QQE policies were reconfirmed (emphasis mine):-

With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, it would conduct purchases at more or less the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings of about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of the long-term interest rate specified by the guideline.

With regard to asset purchases other than JGB purchases, many members shared the recognition that it was appropriate for the Bank to implement the following guideline for the intermeeting period. First, it would purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding would increase at annual paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively. Second, as for CP and corporate bonds, it would maintain their amounts outstanding at about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively.

An independent summation of the current environment and the prospects for the Japanese economy comes from an article by Kazumasa Iwata – President of the Japan Center for Economic Research – AJISS – The Future of the Japanese Economy: The Great Convergence and Two Great Unwindings:-

Since bottoming out in November 2012, the Japanese economy has been in an expansionary phase that reached its 58th month in September of this year. Although not yet as long as the economic expansion achieved during the Koizumi reforms (73 months), the current phase exceeded the mark set by the Izanagi boom of the late 1960s (57 months). While this phase is technically termed expansionary, it lacks strength. In contrast to the average growth rate of 1.8% seen during the Koizumi reforms, the average rate in the ongoing expansion has only been about 1%.

The economic strategy underlying Abenomics is to put the Japanese economy on the road to 2% growth. The experiences of the Koizumi reforms demonstrate that it is quite possible to realize 2% growth by implementing an effective growth strategy. This is evidenced by the theory of convergence through technology diffusion. The catch-up attained by China, India and other emerging countries since the 1990s through offshoring and the construction of global value chains has been astounding. Professor Richard Baldwin argues that the start of the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era of Great Divergence for the global economy via technological innovation and capital accumulation in the developed countries and elsewhere, and that from the 1990s we have been in an age of Great Convergence due to rapid drops in information and telecommunications costs.

In contrast to the brisk development enjoyed by emerging countries, Japan has found itself in a two-decade-long period of stagnation, its economy falling far below the convergence line predicted by Convergence Theory…

Japan already failed to boost its productivity during the 1st IT Revolution of the mid-1990s, and it is now in the 2nd IT Revolution, otherwise known as the 4th Industrial Revolution, centered on IoT, AI, and Big Data. OECD research shows that the top 5% frontier companies have not seen a decline in productivity growth since the financial crisis. Other companies lag behind these frontier companies in globalizing and using digital technology (digitalization), which has only widened the productivity gap between them. Were all companies in Japan able to boost their performance on par with the top ten companies utilizing AI and IoT, Japan’s growth rate could be accelerated by 4% (JCER 2017).

It is interesting to note that Iwata-san sees the greatest risk coming from the unwinding of QE by the Federal Reserve and the ECB, combined with the increasingly protectionist stance of US trade policy. He does not appear to expect the BoJ to reverse QQE, nor Abenomics to falter.

Market Impact

What does the forthcoming election and continuation of infinite QQE mean for Japanese financial markets? Firstly here are three 10 year charts, of the USDJPY, 10yr JGBs and the Nikkei 225:-

USDJPY 10yr - monthly - Tradingeconomics

Source: Trading Economics

!0yr JGB - 10yr monthly - Tradingeconomics

Source: Trading Economics

Nikkei 225 - 10yr monthly - Tradingeconomics

Source: Trading Economics

The Yen has been trading a range this year; it has strengthened against a generally weakening US$, whilst weakening against a resurgent Euro. 10yr JGBs have been held in an effective straightjacket by ‘Yield curve control’. Meanwhile the Nikkei 225 has followed the lead of other equity markets, both in Asia and the US, and marched steadily higher. A break above the highs of August 2015 would see the index trading at its highest since 1997. A dividend yield of 2% (source: Star Capital – as at 30/6/2017) looks attractive compared to JGBs or inflation, although a P/E ratio of more than 17 times and a CAPE ratio above 26 may be cause for caution.

An assessment of financial markets would not be complete without a review of real estate. The BoJ mentioned that house prices have been fairly flat this year. Below is a r chart of the Japan Housing Index and the CPI Index since the financial crisis of 2008:-

Japan Housing Price Index and CPI 10yr Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics, Japan Ministry of Internal Affairs

Real Estate rental yields are currently around 2.5% making property an alternative to stocks for the long term investor. Personally, with dividend yields around 2%, I would want more than 50 basis points to invest in such an illiquid asset: chacun a son gout.

The Geopolitics of North Korea makes Japan vulnerable: Japan’s currency will bear the brunt of this. Given that much of the recent economic growth has been export led, this Yen weakness is unlikely to damage the prospects for the stock market, except perhaps in the short-term.

If Abe wins a convincing mandate on 22nd October, military spending may be added to the mix of public sector stimulus. Pervious consumption tax increases have proved damaging to the nascent economic recovery, this time, dare I say it, might be different. With wages increasing and domestic demand finally beginning to rise, a moderate tax hike maybe achievable, although I still think it more likely that implementation will be deferred.

The table below, which shows the top 10 best value stocks in the Nikkei, was calculated on 28th April. It is produced by Obermatt – click on the name to find out more about Obermatt’s excellent range of services and their valuation methodologies:-

Nikkei_225_-_Top_10_-_Obermatt_-_28-4-2017

Source: Obermatt 

To be clear, being a top-down macro investor, I have not personally delved into the relative merits of the stocks above, but I am comforted to note that most of them are household names, even outside Japan. A testament to the quality of many Japanese corporations.

From a technical perspective one should have bought the chart breakout back in November 2016. The market is close to resistance at 21,000 and I would like to see a monthly close above this level before risking additional capital, however, after nearly three decades of deflationary adjustment, the Japanese economy may be beginning to find sustainable growth. I believe this is despite, rather than as a result of, government and central bank policy: but that’s a topic for another time.

 

 

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Japan: The Coming Rise?

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Macro Letter – No 1 – 6-12-2013

Welcome to my first blog. Those of you who have followed my commentary previously will be used to the eclectic mix of subjects I tend to write about. In my new blog I aim to expand on that reportage service by adding my own, more market centric, opinions.

Japan – The Coming Rise?

On the 4th December Bank of Japan (BoJ) board member Takehiro Sato gave an interesting speech on the prospects for the Japanese economy: –

http://www.boj.or.jp/en/announcements/press/koen_2013/data/ko131204a1.pdf

Japan’s economy has been recovering moderately. While it will be affected by the two scheduled consumption tax hikes, the economy is likely to continue growing at a pace above its potential, as a trend, on the assumption that the global economy will follow a moderate growth path…

… The growth rate for fiscal 2014 is likely to dip temporarily in the April-June quarter due to a decline in demand subsequent to the front-loaded increase in the previous quarters. However, I do not expect an economic downturn such as what we experienced at the time of the previous consumption tax hike in 1997. This is because the current economic situation differs in some aspects from that of the previous tax hike. Specifically, (1) the government is preparing an economic package with a total size of about 5 trillion yen; (2) emerging economies, some of which suffered from simultaneous declines in stock prices, bond prices, and in the value of their currencies this year, are becoming resilient to negative shocks compared to 1997, when the Asian currency crisis occurred, due to the establishment of backstops such as the accumulation of foreign reserves; and (3) Japan’s financial system has been stable as a whole.

Sato went on to predict above trend growth in 2014 H2. I think the majority of this information is priced into the market already.

BARCHART.COM - USD-JPY Weekly - December 2013.

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Source: Barchart.com

Bigcharts - Nikkei 225 - December 2013.

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Source: Big Charts

Despite the sharp correction since Tuesday,during the last few weeks the Japanese Yen (JPY) has begun a renewed decline (see weekly chart above). Earlier this year short JPY and long Nikkei futures (see daily chart above) proved to be an excellent trading opportunity. The election of Shinzo Abe (LDP) as the 90th Prime Minister in December 2012, with his “Three Arrows” policy, spelt hope for an economy which had been moribund, in GDP growth terms, for more than a decade. However, the present Japan story really begins on 25th April 1949 when the JPY was fixed against the US$ at a rate of JPY360 – this fixed rate remained in tact until the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971. In the aftermath of WWII Japan, like Germany, took advantage of, what proved to be, a relatively low rate of exchange to rebuild their shattered economy. In the case of Japan one of the societal responses to the end of WWII was to encourage a nation of savers and investors.

As the US withdrew from Japan the political landscape became dominated by the LDP who were elected in 1955 and remained in power until 1993; they remain the incumbent and most powerful party in the Diet to this day. Under the LDP a virtuous triangle emerged between the Kieretsu (big business) the bureaucracy and the LDP. Brian Reading (Lombard Street Research) wrote an excellent, and impeccably timed, book entitled Japan: The Coming Collapse in 1989. By this time the virtuous triangle had become, what he coined the “Iron Triangle”.

Nearly twenty five years after the publication of Brian’s book, the” Iron Triangle” is weaker but alas unbroken. However, the election of Shinzo Abe, with his plan for competitive devaluation, fiscal stimulus and structural reform has given the electorate hope.  Abe’s “Three Arrows” policy takes its name from a 16th century Japanese legend which gives his proposal a cultural attraction, but he will need more than elegant words to overcome the difficulties of implementing the third arrow:-

Mori Motonari(1497 – 1571)ruler of the Chugoku area of Western Japan, found his land on the brink of war. He called his three eldest sons to his castle and gave the first an arrow, asking him to break it. Of course, his son easily broke the arrow in two. Then, Mori gathered three arrows together, gave them again to one of his sons, and asked him to break these three arrows, all together. His son tried with all his strength to break the arrows but it was impossible. Mori explained to his sons, “Just like one arrow, the power of just one person can easily be overcome. However, three arrows together cannot be destroyed. Human strength is the same as these arrows; we cannot be defeated if we work together.”

The BoJ’s 2% inflation target and policy of “quantitative and qualitative easing” (QQE) have been effective in managing market expectations – the JPY is lower and the Nikkei higher without too dramatic a backing up of Japanese Government Bond (JGB) yields. However, doubts about Abe’s ability to deliver the essential third arrow heralded a reversal of both JPY and the Nikkei during the summer. Now the JPY is declining once more and the Nikkei, rising – although other major stock markets have also performed strongly of late.

Is this the beginning of the next stage of the “Japan Trade” or are we merely witnessing year end rebalancing of portfolios?

Emerging Markets

To answer this question I believe we also need to consider the position of China, South Korea and other emerging markets. China is the growing regional hegemon within South East Asia and its territorial disputes with its neighbours around the South and East China Sea are likely to escalate – its announcement last month of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is likely to sour relations with South Korea. This article from The Diplomat provides more information: –

http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/is-the-china-south-korea-honeymoon-over

Yet, at the same time China is an essential export market for these neighbours; according to a recent article from China Daily, Japan’s exports to China hit a four year low as a result of the rising military tensions surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands : –

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2013-08/15/content_16897913.htm

This year the US resumed its place as Japan’s largest export market, a position it had lost to China in 2009, however China is still a close second – although it also remains Japan’s largest import market.

For a broader review of the current geopolitical situation within the region, this week’s China-US Focus newsletter from the China – United States Exchange Foundation –  Japan and China: Courting Confrontation – is a useful resume:-

http://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/japan-and-china-courting-confrontation/

South Korea’s exports to China are also lower this year due to a slowing of Chinese growth, but, helped by stronger exports to Europe and the US, they have been able to support higher GDP growth – together with higher inflation – than Japan. The ending of the Iranian Oil embargo, easing upward geopolitical pressure on energy prices, will help South Korea maintain growth. Its exports to Japan have been strong throughout 2013. Nonetheless, the South Korean administration is extremely sensitive to a weakening JPY, notwithstanding the world class quality of a number of its exporters. Of course, lower oil prices will also benefit Japan but its energy consumption per capita is roughly 20% lower than that of South Korea.

The US has been leading the way with structural reform and parts of Europe have followed suit, however, a number of commentators have voiced concern about the need for emerging markets to embrace structural reform. Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute had this to say: –

http://www.piie.com/publications/wp/wp13-10.pdf

The hypothesis of this paper is that the emerging market growth from 2000 to 2012 was atypically high and we might be back in a situation that is more reminiscent of the early 1980s. The growth of the last 12 years was neither sustainable nor likely to last. Several cycles that are much longer than the business cycle exist. One is the credit cycle, which Claudio Borio (2012) assesses at 15 to 20 years.

Another is the commodity cycle, which last peaked in 1980 and might last 30 to 40 years (Jacks 2013, Hendrix and Noland forthcoming). A third is the investment or Simon Kuznets cycle, which appears related to both the credit and commodity cycles (Kuznets 1958). A fourth cycle is the reform cycle, which might also coincide with the Kondratieff cycle (Rostow 1978).

The author goes on to highlight seven reasons why high emerging market growth will not continue at the pace of the past decade:-

1. One of the biggest credit booms of all time has peaked out. Extremely low interest rates cannot

continue forever. A normalization is inevitable. Many emerging economies are financially vulnerable

with large fiscal deficits, public debts, current account deficits, and somewhat high inflation. 

2. A great commodity boom has peaked out, as high prices and low growth depress demand, while the

high prices have stimulated a great supply shock. 

3. The investment or Simon Kuznets cycle has peaked out, as the very high Chinese investment ratio is

bound to fall and real interest rates to rise.

4. Because of many years of high economic growth, the catch-up potential of emerging economies has

been reduced and growth rates are set to fall ceteris paribus.

5. Many emerging economies carried out impressive reforms from 1980 to 2000, but much fewer

reforms have taken place from 2000 to 2012. The remaining governance potential for growth has

been reduced. Characteristically, reforms evolve in cycles that are usually initiated by a serious crisis,

and after 12 good years complacency has set in in the emerging economies.

6. Worse, the governments of many emerging economies are drawing the wrong conclusion from

developments during the Great Recession. Many think that state capitalism and industrial policy have

proven superior to free markets and private enterprise. Therefore, they feel no need to improve their

economic policies but are inclined to aggravate them further.

7. Finally, the emerging economies have benefited greatly from the ever more open markets of the

developed countries, while not fully reciprocating. The West is likely to proceed with selective,

regional trade agreements rather than with general liberalization.

I am more optimistic about EM growth than Peterson because of the underlying economic renaissance I believe is happening in the USA, combined with the benefits which will accrue from harnessing Big Data and the improving “health-span” (the upside of extended Life-span) over the next ten to twenty years.

Free Trade

A further factor to consider is the progress, or otherwise, of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other agreements.  The European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) has produced a timely up-date here: –

http://www.ecipe.org/media/publication_pdfs/ECIPE_bulletin_TPP_Nov_2013_final.pdf

The TPP is not the only Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on the agenda but the negotiations, even of bi-lateral FTAs, is so protracted that the financial markets are unlikely to afford them any credence until they are signed and sealed.

Demographics

As I mentioned earlier, historically Japan has been a nation of savers and investors. As JGB yields trended towards zero, investors looked for higher yields abroad. Today, in a world of near zero interest rates in the major economies, the “carry trade” is no longer the attraction it once was. More significantly, going forward, demographics will also change the direction of capital flows. Savers are retiring and become consumers. Foreign assets, which have gradually been repatriated during the last decade, will be eclipsed by consumption of foreign goods – the Japanese have been running a trade deficit since the beginning of 2012 – see the link below from Trading Economics:-

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/japan/balance-of-trade

Derivatives

The “carry trade” is discussed extensively in a recent working paper from the IMF – The Curious Case of the Yen – they make an impressive empirical case for a non-domestic cause of JPY “safe-haven” behaviour: –

http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2013/wp13228.pdf

During risk-off episodes, the yen is a safe haven currency and on average appreciates against the U.S. dollar. We investigate the proximate causes of yen risk-off appreciations. We find that neither capital inflows nor expectations of the future monetary policy stance can explain the yen’s safe haven behavior. In contrast, we find evidence that changes in market participants’ risk perceptions trigger derivatives trading, which in turn lead to changes in the spot exchange rate without capital flows. Specifically, we find that risk-off episodes coincide with forward hedging and reduced net short positions or a buildup of net long positions in yen. These empirical findings suggest that offshore and complex financial transactions should be part of spillover analyses and that the effectiveness of capital flow management measures or monetary policy coordination to address excessive exchange rate volatility might be limited in certain cases.

The IMF concludes that the derivative “carry trade” is largely responsible for the safe-haven behaviour of the last few years:-

The evidence presented in this paper supports the interpretation of the yen as a currency with safe haven status. But safe haven effects work differently for the yen than for other safe haven currencies. Surprisingly and in contrast to the experience of the Swiss Franc, yen risk-off appreciations appears unrelated to capital inflows (cross-border transactions) and do not seem supported by expectations about the relative stance of monetary policies. Instead, we presented evidence that portfolio rebalancing through offshore derivative transactions occur contemporaneously to yen risk-off appreciations. This could reflect either a causal effect of portfolio rebalancing through derivative transactions or the workings of self-fulfilling expectations causing both currency appreciation and portfolio rebalancing.

Conclusion

In an unreformed developed economy like Japan the downside risks to growth remain and these risks temper my enthusiasm for Japanese stocks. Protracted fiscal stimulus by the Japanese government has been crowding out productive private investment for many years.  Japan and South Korea may have similar deflated GDP growth rates since 1997 but I would prefer to invest in a country where private domestic product is the engine of growth. Japanese stocks may rise as the JPY trends lower but the initial windfall to Japanese corporate profits is likely to be tempered by regulatory or tariff style retaliation from their neighbours and the need to repay Japanese government debt via taxation in the longer-term.

The JPY, however, is a different matter. Regulatory reforms such as the introduction of central counterparty, increasing margin requirements for OTC derivatives and the introduction of swap execution facilities (SEFs) are factors which should reduce the nominal size of the JPY “carry trade”.  The lower yield differential between the major currencies has also reduced the attraction of trade.  Demographic headwinds are now beginning to favour consumption over saving and Japanese government debt will need to be repaid in the fullness of time. Japanese corporations may defy gravity by overseas expansion but domestic firms will have to accept a protracted period of slow growth as the economy rebalances away from government spending towards private sector investment.

At the beginning of 2013, whilst I liked both trades, I advocated being long Nikkei futures rather than short JPY. Going into 2014 my preferences are reversed.