Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Abe’s Death Raises Doubts Over BOJ Policy Support as Yen Gains

Abe’s Death Raises Doubts Over BOJ Policy Support as Yen Gains
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, wearing a protective face mask, departs following a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, April 17, 2020. Abe’s sudden about-face on a cash handouts initiative indicates the government was no longer convinced the original plan was quick enough or big enough to support households as Japan ramps up its state of emergency.

As traders absorb the tragic news of the death of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, they are also left facing a debate about how the loss of a strong advocate for the central bank’s super-easy monetary policy could affect markets in the days ahead. 

The initial market reaction to the shock news earlier Friday that Abe had been shot was a rush to haven assets.The yen climbed alongside Treasuries, with the currency rising as much as 0.5% against the dollar as details filtered through about the shocking attack in the western city of Nara during campaigning for Sunday’s national election. The former premier’s death was confirmed publicly around six hours later.

While some market strategists suggested the yen could extend gains and weigh on stocks should his passing hasten a rethink of central bank policy, economists largely see the likely impact as limited.

Read More: Ex-Japan Leader Abe Assassinated in Shooting at Campaign Rally

Abe had been a key supporter of BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s policy of maintaining rock-bottom interest rates to support economic growth and had recently described the central bank as a subsidiary of the government.

Stocks in Tokyo pared earlier gains of over 1% to close just modestly higher.

“Abe was well known outside Japan and foreign investors have seen him positively,” said Masahiro Yamaguchi, senior market analyst at SMBC Trust Bank. “It could be negative for markets if the government’s policy, including its stance on monetary easing, is affected, as it was evident that he was pulling the strings behind the scenes in many ways.”

While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida distanced himself from Abe’s subsidiary remark, he has continued to support the BOJ policy that first emerged under Abe.

The Federal Reserve’s acceleration of interest-rate hikes and European Central Bank preparations to follow suit have put the BOJ a long way out of sync with global peers. That’s put pressure on Kuroda and tested the resolve of a government worried about yen weakness and popular discontent over rising prices.

Investors seek out Treasuries and the yen after former PM Abe shooting

 

The outlier stance has contributed to this year’s sharp slide in the yen to a 24-year low against the dollar. It has also led to waves of upward pressure on the central bank’s 0.25% cap on 10-year government debt.

The shock assassination of Abe, though, is causing some observers to reassess where the yen, equities and credit markets may head next, given his clout in political circles and stance on monetary policy.

“This may have an impact in the medium to long-term, and the markets will see a considerable appreciation of the yen and a decline in stock prices,” said Tomoichiro Kubota, senior market analyst at Matsui Securities. “Abe had been supporting Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda. The bank’s policy could change as they would lose that backing.”

However, economists largely argue that any impact will be limited. Some of them say the continuation of the BOJ’s stimulus stance after Abe stood down as premier in 2020 shows it was no longer dependent on his support.

Yen just a hair's breadth away from its worst drawdown ever
Read more on the shooting here:
Shooting of Japan’s Ex-Leader Shocks Nation Where Guns Are Rare
Abe Shooting Shocks Japan Two Days Before Elections: TOPLive
Japanese Stocks Pare Gains as Abe’s Shooting Spurs Uncertainty

 

During the campaign for Sunday’s upper-house election, Kishida has made the case that higher interest rates would hurt mom-and-pop shops and homeowners even more.

“It’s very unlikely this will open the door for the BOJ to raise rates or change its easing course to be on the same page as the Fed and the ECB,” said Shinichiro Kobayashi from Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting. “Kishida has already established his own economic agenda and has supported the BOJ at least so far. Abe wasn’t the reason the BOJ has stuck with keeping rates very low.”

Abe handpicked Kuroda for the post of central bank chief back in 2013 when he launched his “Abenomics” platform to revive Japan’s flagging economy through unprecedented monetary easing, flexible fiscal spending and regulatory reforms. Those policies, including a commitment to achieve stable 2% inflation, have largely stayed in place even after Abe stepped down.

Swaps traders ramped up their bets on a shift in BOJ policy this year

 

Kuroda strongly believes that accomplishing the 2% target will help Japan to emerge from deflation and revive its economy so he will continue the current easing until he sees clear signs of sustainable inflation or economic growth, said Yuki Masujima, economist at Bloomberg Economics. “We can say that Kuroda is his own man.”

Still, the death guarantees traders will be extra sensitive to the election results, especially if support for the government is eroded by the cost-of-living crisis, according to Valentin Marinov, strategist at Credit Agricole in London.

“While not our central scenario, potential losses for the LDP could encourage PM Kishida to nominate a less dovish BOJ governor as the process to replace Kuroda kicks off in earnest in the second half of 2022,” Marinov said. “In turn, this could encourage markets to start expecting a policy rethink perhaps later this year.”

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