This is mainly because there has been no let-up in the popular yen carry trade – whereby investors borrow yen to buy dollars and then harvest the higher yield. As rates have risen in the US over the summer months, this trade has continued to be a simple, mechanical and rewarding source of returns.
But the contestants’ fingers are on the buzzers. This policy adjustment matters because it changes a key dynamic in global debt markets.
Historically, when JGB yields float higher, domestic investors are incentivised to unwind their foreign bond holdings and repatriate the proceeds back into the home market. The dynamic is more pronounced today due to how far Japan’s monetary policy has diverged from other major central banks – not least the US Federal Reserve, which has conducted a fast and steep hiking cycle to contain inflation. Given Japanese government debt represents 16% of global sovereign bond indexes, an eastbound flow of capital could send ripples across markets. Most patently it would revive a flagging yen.
Whilst the event risk (‘what will happen if the BoJ removes the cap?’) has been allayed, the pressure on yields could gradually drive global risk premia back up and further expose market vulnerabilities. We think this is just the first step on a longer path to a stronger yen and higher Japanese rates.
Moreover, the BoJ is conditioning its inflation outlook on further US disinflation and economic slowdown. If US inflation proves stickier than expected, the BoJ’s revised stance may amplify the market’s response.
The portfolio is well positioned to benefit from a change of heart on the yen; we have 16% across yen cash and JGBs, with an additional 10% exposure via yen call options against sterling and the US dollar. We also hold Japanese interest rate options, positioned to make money as Japanese rates rise. Portfolio duration remains towards the lower end of our recent range at 3.5 years (the higher the duration, the more a bond’s price will drop when interest rates rise), equities are below 15% and cash weightings remain high.
Markets are currently pricing in a lot of good news: immaculate disinflation, a recessionary ‘near-miss’ and rampant investor appetite for US equity and corporate debt. But disappointment on any of those three fronts would force a rethink.
Defensive assets have been punished by markets this year, as animal spirits have been unleashed. But we have high conviction that the yen is exactly the sort of asset to which investors will flock as the effects of tighter financial conditions come to bear.