Japan's Fund Envy

Posted by: Kenji Hall on December 6, 2007

With billion-dollar funds from Dubai, Russia and Brazil shaking up the world’s wealthiest markets, Japan appears to be suffering from a serious case of fund-envy. Over the next year, Japan’s politicians will debate whether to do something about it—by setting up a sovereign fund of their own. The questions facing the panel of Liberal Democratic Party bigwigs who are looking into the matter: Is Tokyo playing it too safe with its $954 billion in foreign currency reserves? And if the dollar’s decline lately also signals its loss of prestige shouldn’t Tokyo have an exit plan?

For the record, U.S. Treasury securities are about as safe a place for any investor to park extra cash. They’re also extremely liquid, so it’s possible to maintain a modicum of stealth when getting in and out. That’s why Japan, the most risk-averse big investor on the planet, likes to put its money in the U.S. for safekeeping. As of September, Japan had about $582 billion of its reserves stashed in U.S. Treasury securities—about a quarter of the U.S. government debt in foreigners’ hands—according to estimates from the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve.

Of course, safe rarely makes for juicy returns. Treasury bonds and bills offer yields somewhere in the neighborhood of 3% to 4.5%. You can bet Japan’s politicians will be tempted by the potential for higher returns—and imagine Tokyo’s influence on global markets!—if they were to give the green light to cash out part of the Treasury investment and spread the largesse around. No doubt they’ll have seen how rumors that the China Investment Corp., a body set up by the Chinese government to manage an estimated $1.4 trillion in currency reserves, was eyeing Japan injected a little exuberance into Tokyo stock trading. (A day later, traders returned to reality.)

According to the Japanese financialy daily Nikkei, the fund might be several billion dollars. But that’s just a start. And let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not talking about just any old bond investment. Japanese financial authorities draw on this money to smooth out the blips in foreign exchange rates. They’ll often buy dollar-denominated bonds or T-bills to deflate the yen just enough so it doesn’t slam Japan’s export machine (or sell to assuage U.S. politicians up in arms over a weak yen). The government would also have to have a good reason to persuade Japanese financial institutions, which factor into the overall tally, to sell off Treasurys.

And even before wagering how Japan might invest its sudden windfall, you'd have to consider the impact a huge Treasurys sell-off would have on the U.S. The mere hint of it would upset the markets, send U.S. rates soaring, and strangle the U.S. economy. One economist at the U.S. Federal Reserve's Center for Pacific Basin Studies broached the topic in a July, 2005 paper titled "What If Foreign Governments Diversified Their Reserves?"

Japan's remaining investments in the U.S. wouldn't be immune to the pounding; nor would its own markets and economy. That's not the kind of thing you'd want so soon after the damage caused by the collapse of the U.S. subprime mortgage market. It's also hardly the kind of crazy gambit a risk-averse Japanese government would try. We can imagine what would happen because there was a day when panic-stricken investors thought their worst nightmare might come true.

Rewind to June 24, 1997. During a luncheon speech in New York, Japan's then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto gave his guests indigestion by saying that continued currency fluctuations might "tempt" him to swap Tokyo's Treasury holdings for gold. I was in the room, working as a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires. Talk about a white-knuckled ride. The dollar nosedived, along with U.S. stocks and Treasury prices. Japanese authorities later backtracked, saying the real meaning of Hashimoto's remarks had been lost in translation. It was as close to a head-for-the-exits moment in the Treasurys market as you'll probably ever see.

Anybody still in favor of pooling Japan's currency reserves into a sovereign fund?

Reader Comments

mark

December 8, 2007 8:51 PM

Japan and US relation has a long history for security in a region, and the world. Japanese style of governing and business management generates an economic mechanism more efficiency and effectiveness, while US concentrates on the balance of the global political weather. T-bills or treasury bonds are another term of government debts indirectly handed on each US taxpayer. Americans still move along an axis of balancing politically and economically. Japanese government and investors may design a new plan of diversifying currency reserves in a priority of how many percentage for US's treasury bonds, and how many left for other hot areas. This new plan will influence and neutralize other forces in Asia and other continents.

takeshi

December 10, 2007 12:26 AM

As a Japanese, I'm ashamed of our government today that become an American lap dog. Where is our pride as the nation that brought down the Pearl Harbor? We should be able to say no to USA, China and Russia. Remember this slogan? Tora Tora Tora...

Chen Y.K

December 10, 2007 12:17 PM

I just hope that China, Japan and the US can work together on economic front. They are the last line of the stability today.

raju

December 12, 2007 1:33 PM

Bleh, Takeshi proved that the right wing is gaining popularity in Japan. India, China and US will be the three biggest economy in the future, and they are the one that should work together to maintain stability.

T. Wang

December 24, 2007 1:11 PM

Takeshi,
Tora, Tora, Tora?
Pearl Harbor was the most stupid thing the Japanese ever did. You want to do it again?
With US troops are still there, how can you not be a American lap dog?
Better find way to better serve the Boss.

Mike Murata

January 1, 2008 1:10 PM

Is Kenji's state "Anybody still in favor of pooling Japan's currency reserves into a sovereign fund?" a kind of joke?
There isn't reason to Japan not to diversify its investments. Even Japan being a considerable T-bill foreign investor, there are many other countries that can offset a Japanese change. Afterall, T-bills and Japanese aren't exempt of market rules. Are they?

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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