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Japan is on an unsustainable path of a strong yen and deflation. The unprofitability of Japan’s major exporters and emerging trade deficits suggest that the end of this path is in sight. The transition from a strong to weak yen will likely be abrupt, involving a sudden and big devaluation of 30% to 40%.
It will be a big shock to Japan’s neighbors and its distant competitors like Germany. The yen’s devaluation in 1996 was a main factor in triggering the Asian Financial Crisis. Japan’s neighbors must have a strong banking system to withstand a bigger devaluation of the yen.
No bubble is sustainable. While the Japanese can always take care of business within, they cannot control the outside world. The country’s Achilles heel is losing trade competitiveness due to the destructive impact of deflation on business confidence and the strong currency itself. When a trade deficit emerges, it signals the beginning of the end.
Japan’s trade balance may swing into surplus from time to time, but the negative trend is irreversible. Japan will face rising trade deficits. That makes foreigners’ views important because Japan would need foreign money to fund its deficit. When foreigners change their views, which they surely will, the yen will crash.
Yen devaluation is likely to unfold quickly. A financial bubble doesn’t burst slowly. When it occurs, it just pops. The odds are that yen devaluation will occur over days. Only a large and sudden devaluation can keep the JGB yield low. Otherwise, the devaluation expectation will trigger a sharp rise in the JGB yield. The resulting worries over the government’s solvency could lead to a collapse of the JGB market. Of course, the government will collapse with the JGB market.
The day of reckoning for the yen is not distant. Japanese companies are struggling with profitability. It only gets worse from here. When a major company goes bankrupt, this may change the prevailing psychology. A weak yen consensus will emerge then.
A yen collapse will impact China and South Korea most, just like in 1998. It will trigger substantial weakness in their industries. If a banking system succumbs, the shock can bring down an entire economy, as South Korea’s experience in 1998 demonstrates.
Both China and South Korea have weak banking systems. South Korea’s banking system is one of the most leveraged in the world due to high level of household loans. In 1998, a similar shock sank its banking system that was overleveraged with industrial loans. Now it is overleveraged with household loans. A shock could sink it again.
Overinvestment and a property bubble make China’s banking system very vulnerable to such a shock. Unless China substantially increases the capital in its banking system, a big yen devaluation could cause China’s banking system to sink. China suffers from overinvestment and a property bubble, as Southeast Asia and South Korea did in 1997. In terms of the magnitude of leverage, China’s situation is much worse. Hence, a yen devaluation could wreak havoc to China’s economy.