For all the talk about the surging yen as the biggest threat to Japan's embattled economy, the truth is that there is another soaring currency (and asset) that is far more troubling for Shinzo Abe.
While in past decades, the natural instinct of Japanese savers when faced with financial uncertainty has been to rush into the "safety" of cash (after all why allocate funds to government bonds that yield almost, or less, than nothing) as we recently showed in Safes Sell Out In Japan and Demand For Big Bills Soars As Japan Stuffs Safes With 10,000-Yen Notes, now something has changed. That something is increasing loss of faith in Japan's currency.
Take the case of Tetsushi Kudo, a 50-year-old office worker, who as Bloomberg writes, bought a one-ounce gold coin this month for the first time. With stocks slumping and zero percent interest on savings, he says it won’t be the last.
"I want to buy gold every year as a birthday present for my daughter,” Kudo said at a store in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district where he made the 162,000 yen ($1,600) purchase. “She will thank me for the gift when she grows up because gold will have value wherever she goes.”
What a delightful epiphany: if ordinary, 50-year-old Japanese citizens can get it why not Nobel-prize winning economists?
Ignore that please.
Individual investors like Kudo drove a 60% jump in sales of the precious metal in June from May at Tanaka Holdings Co., the operator of Japan’s largest bullion retailer, as the yen’s rebound against the dollar made it more affordable. Why the surge into gold? Because far behind the glitzy facade of Abenomics, which is really just the BOJ intervening daily in the USDJPY via trust banks, and manipulating the Nikkei to give the impression that all is well, the people have checked out. According to Bloomberg, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party scored a convincing victory in July 10 upper house elections, confidence in his economic policies is crashing. A July 2-3 Asahi newspaper poll showed 55% of those surveyed support a new direction versus 28% for maintaining course.
While both gold and the Yen have soared in 2016, it has been for oddly similar reasons. The yen’s 20% gain this year, slightly less than that of USD-denominated gold, has been a reflection of Japanese investors fleeing from overseas markets due to pessimism about global growth rather than confidence in their own economy. As for the reason why Japanese interest in gold has soared, it is an even simpler one: fear that the days of the Yen as a stable currency are numbered. Gold in yen terms has risen 7.5% this year, compared with the 28% jump in the dollar-based price of the metal
Gold sales more than tripled at Tanaka’s shops on June 24, when the Japanese currency jumped to an almost three-year high against the dollar after the U.K. decided to exit the European Union. Japan’s Topix stock gauge dropped the most in five years the day after the Brexit referendum, while 10-year sovereign bond yields tumbled further below zero.
"For investors, buying gold is similar to casting a no-confidence vote," saidItsuo Toshima, 68, an investment adviser and former regional manager for the World Gold Council in Tokyo. "Gold is the unprintable currency, unlike the yen. The yen’s appreciation in spite of the adoption of the negative-rate policy has kindled skepticism about the policy’s benefits. It’s also led to investors seeking to protect their assets in case Abenomics fails.”
Another traditional lament said about gold is that it pays no dividend. Well, when the return on other "safe assets" is negative - as it the case in Japan - gold does have a relative real return. Indeed, gold’s lack of yield isn’t a big draw-back for investors at a time when almost 90% of Japanese government bonds have yields below zero, according to Eiichiro Kato, a general manager at Tanaka’s precious metals retail department. The benchmark 10-year JGB yield was at minus 0.28 percent on Monday.
And then there are the philosophical questions.
“We don’t know who will take responsibility for reducing Japanese government debt,” said Akihiro Morishige, a senior economist at Mitsubishi Research Institute.
What reduction in Japanese government debt?
“If trust in Japan’s fiscal policy decreases, Japanese long-term interest rates may soar towards 5 percent by 2030.”
Make that 500%.
What makes Japan's gold rush more unique than in most countries is that many are not only buying gold as protection against a crash, they are storing it abroad as protection against confiscation as we reported last week. Japanese buyers of gold to store in Switzerland jumped 62% in the first six months from the second half of 2015 because of negative interest rates and concern the yen will eventually weaken, according to BullionVault Ltd., an online trading and storage company. Also: due to fears that Abe will pull an "Executive Order 6102", and force gold confiscation from the population.
Meanwhile, as they flood into gold, Japanese investors are retreating from riskier assets as the nation’s shares plunge. Households’ holdings of equities decreased 9.9% from a year earlier at the end of March and investment trusts fell 3.7 percent while their cash and bank deposits rose 1.3 percent to 894 trillion yen, the second-highest amount on record, according to BOJ data.
“Gold is attractive because its prices don’t move much, compared with other assets,” said Kudo, the buyer of the coin in Ginza. “I may lose lots of money if I buy stocks without doing much research on them."
Come to think of it, he is 100% right; making things worse, he may - and likely will - lose lots of money even if he buys stocks having done lots of research on them.
The good thing about gold: no research required for it to "work." Only lots and lots of stupid politicians and economists. Luckily, we have more than enough of those.