The Bank of Japan’s success in stoking inflation is changing the way 63-year-old Tokyo housewife Ritsuko Ueda manages her savings. Ueda is one of thousands of Japanese trying to protect the value of their capital by resorting to currency margin trading, a high-risk way of dealing in foreign exchange that employs borrowed money to bet on currency shifts. Individual Japanese investors held 767,902 accounts for speculating on currencies in February, up from 595,698 a year earlier, according to Tokyo Financial Exchange. “I have high hopes that [Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko] Kuroda’s next measures will drive yen weakness and stock gains,” Ueda said in March at a training seminar run by Gaitame Online, a currency-trading company focused on individual investors. Ueda says her trading profits reached 5 million yen ($49,000) last year. She predicts the yen will slide to 120 to the dollar by yearend from 102.3 today.
“Rising inflation means I have no other choice but to invest if I want to protect myself.” —Minako Sakurai
Kuroda was appointed in March last year to carry out Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of flooding the markets with cheap money and ending 15 years of deflation by driving down the value of the yen. Since April 2013 it has weakened 9 percent, which is driving up the cost of imports. That is affecting consumer prices, which increased 1.3 percent in February from the previous year, more than halfway to the Bank of Japan’s 2 percent target. An increase in the nation’s sales tax this month has also pushed up living costs. “On top of inflation, the sales tax increase is a double whammy, and individuals can’t afford to simply leave their money in bank accounts,” says Masakazu Sato, a foreign exchange adviser at Gaitame. “We’re seeing the number of applications for our seminars increase as these Mrs. Watanabes seek to protect their livelihoods.” The colloquial term “Mrs. Watanabe” describes the individual Japanese investor, traditionally a housewife who runs her family’s finances.
The need to prevent inflation from eroding the value of their money is all the more acute for the Japanese given their high savings levels. Japan’s households had 1,645 trillion yen of investments as of Dec. 31. A total of 874 trillion yen of these funds was in cash or bank savings, which offer minimal returns.
Minako Sakurai, 49, who lives in the Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, says she needs her money to earn more. She started margin trading nine months ago after losing her call-center job and was attracted partly because newcomers can trade with borrowed funds. Says Sakurai: “Rising inflation means I have no other choice but to invest if I want to protect myself.”