Are You Focusing on the Wrong Central Bank?

February 26, 2023 Jeffrey Kleintop
While investor attention is on the Fed, changes at the Bank of Japan might bring shifts to the economic environment, impacting the global markets.

With all the attention on the U.S. Federal Reserve, it can be easy for U.S. investors to forget about the impact of other monetary authorities. Policy changes at the Bank of Japan (BOJ), in particular, have the potential for major impacts on global financial flows and markets.

  • For over a decade, BOJ policy has enabled Japan to be an important source of investment funding. Zero (or negative) interest rates in Japan have allowed investors to borrow cheaply in yen and then purchase investments in other countries offering a higher return.
  • Since October of last year, BOJ policy has served to offset the impact of the Fed's quantitative tightening (QT) on global financial conditions keeping them from tightening and coinciding with the rally in stocks and bonds.

With Kazuo Ueda set to be the new head of the BOJ in April, might a shift in policy result in an unraveling of this borrowing and a repatriation of capital back to Japan, prompting turmoil across global markets in the coming months?

Carry trade

A popular strategy known as the "yen carry trade" takes place when investors borrow yen at a very low interest rate then purchase investments denominated in another currency in a country that pays a higher rate of return. This trade generally works if exchange rates are stable. But should the value of the yen increase, carry traders must then pay more dollars or euros to pay back the yen initially borrowed. If the rise is significant enough, they could go bankrupt if they don't act swiftly to mitigate losses. As a result, the carry trade can unwind quickly and lead to outsized cross-market volatility.

According to data from the BOJ, the yen carry trade has led to net investment outflows for more than a decade, with only a couple of modest periods of reversal. But late last year, as the BOJ shifted policy, hedged foreign bond positions started to offer negative carry. In response, Japan's net capital outflow turned into sizeable inflows, as you can see in the chart below.

Carry trade starting to unwind?

Area graph shows net investment of overseas long-term debt securities from the Bank of Japan since 1998.

Source: Charles Schwab, Macrobond, Bank of Japan data as of 2/24/2023.

Yield curve control

Keeping rates capped at 25 basis points (bps) while other central banks were hiking led to sustained outflows that weighed on the yen as carry traders sold borrowed yen to buy investments denominated in other currencies. When the BOJ finally shifted the target range higher for the 10-year JGB yield late last year, the yen strengthened (a drop in the line of yen-per-dollar on the chart below) as the carry trade reversed. Now, the market is challenging the yield curve control (YCC) range again as the yen weakens and yields climb above the BOJ's stated 0.5% cap. With BOJ head Kuroda's term ending with the BOJ meeting in March, the market believes YCC is due for another change with new leadership under Governor Ueda.

Markets testing BOJ yield cap

Line chart of the yen and U.S. dollar exchange rate overlayed with Japan's 10-year bond yield since 2015. Shaded areas represent targeted yield range of the Bank of Japan's Yield Curve Control policy.

Source: Charles Schwab, Macrobond, data as of 2/25/2023.

The expected change in policy is not merely the result of the change in leadership. The increasing demands of maintaining the yield curve control rate are becoming harder to justify. The 10-year Japanese government bond (JGB) yield has consistently closed above the 0.5% ceiling, forcing the BOJ to step up its bond purchases as it attempts to constrain the yield, as you can see in the chart below. The uptick in purchases has pushed the BOJ ownership to over 50% of Japan's government bonds.

Bank of Japan purchases of government bonds

Bar chart shows purchases of Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan since 2016 in local currency.

Source: Charles Schwab, Macrobond, Bank of Japan data as of 2/24/2023.

All this quantitative easing (QE) by the BOJ to maintain the yield cap and limit the unwinding of the carry trade has been impactful on a global scale. From mid-October through the start of February, the BOJ's QE more than offset the impact of the Fed's quantitative tightening (QT). This net global QE has helped support stocks' rally since October, as you can see in the chart below.

BOJ's QE more than offset Fed's QT in the past few months

Bar chart shows net impacts of central bank tightening/easing policies on the USD dollar for the Bank of Japan, U.S. Federal Reserve, and the European Central Bank.

Source: Charles Schwab, Macrobond, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, U.S. Federal Reserve data as of 2/24/2023.

The options for the BOJ include: a wider yield curve range, targeting a shorter bond maturity, or abandoning yield curve control entirely followed by eventual rate hikes. Any of these may result in less QE and a further unwinding of the carry trade, posing a risk to global markets.

Inflation in Japan

After bucking the global trend of central banks tightening policy with rate hikes and QT over the past year, a shift in policy at the BOJ may finally be at hand. The BOJ's target for inflation is 2%, but currently, inflation is running at around 4%, the highest level in 40 years following decades of deflation in Japan. Wages are on the rise, suggesting higher inflation may be sustained. Just last week Toyota and Honda both agreed to union demands for wage hikes of 5% this year. Fast Retailing, best known for its UNIQLO brand, will raise wages by up to 40% beginning in March. Nintendo plans to increase workers' base pay by 10%.

At the parliament hearing on Friday, the BOJ's new leadership team seemed to point to a gradual transition and emphasized being "creative" in policy. Although Mr. Ueda did mention there are occasions when policy decisions need to be made with a "surprise" and outgoing Governor Kuroda demonstrated a fondness for abrupt tactics during his tenure, the chances that current Governor Kuroda will do something at his final meeting on March 10 are very small. It is more likely that the markets may begin to price in the risk of a change beginning with Ueda's first meeting as Governor on April 28. The potential for volatility in global markets stemming from changes at the BOJ in the coming months could be significant, overshadowing the impact of future Fed's actions.

Michelle Gibley, CFA®, Director of International Research, and Heather O'Leary, Senior Global Investment Research Analyst, contributed to this report.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results and the opinions presented cannot be viewed as an indicator of future performance.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. International investments involve additional risks, which include differences in financial accounting standards, currency fluctuations, geopolitical risk, foreign taxes and regulations, and the potential for illiquid markets. Investing in emerging markets may accentuate these risks.

The policy analysis provided by the Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any political party.

All corporate names and market data shown above are for illustrative purposes only and are not a recommendation, offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security.

For additional information, please see schwab.com/indexdefinitions.

0223-3KET