Japanese, Swiss Move to Push Currencies Lower
By TAKASHI NAKAMICHI And TOM LAURICELLA
The collateral damage from the U.S. and European debt crises has shifted the front lines of the currency wars to Japan and Switzerland.
Japan has intervened in currency markets in an effort to stem the rising yen. Will this unilateral move effectively contain the currency's climb and improve conditions for the country's exporters
.The Japanese government intervened Thursday morning in currency markets to stem the rise of the yen against the dollar, hoping to preserve modest growth in an economy rebounding surprisingly well from the March earthquake and tsunami—but that now appears threatened by a soaring currency undermining exporters.
The Bank of Japan also announced that it would end later in the day a policy meeting originally scheduled to spill over to Friday and would make an announcement Thursday afternoon. That suggested the central bank was coordinating with the Ministry of Finance in moving to keep the yen from hitting the postwar record high it has flirted with in recent days. The BOJ has been widely expected this week to take steps to pump more cash into the economy by purchasing bonds and other assets.
The action in Tokyo came a day after the Swiss National Bank caught markets by surprise, cutting interest rates to nearly zero and pledging to pump billions of newly minted francs into its markets in order to fend off a flood of money entering the country from investors seeking a safe haven.
In announcing Japan's intervention, Finance Minister Yoshiko Noda said the government was moving to counter what he called "one-sided," "excessive" and speculator-driven rises in the yen.
In similar language, the Swiss central bank called its currency "massively overvalued," adding that it "will take further measures against the strength of the Swiss franc if necessary."
The intervention by the Finance Ministry underscores a renewed currency activism by Japan as the yen has danced near record highs over the past year. Above, Japan's Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda in a parliamentary committee meeting in Tokyo Wednesday.
The moves by the two economies—which analysts doubted would have lasting success as long as uncertainty dominates global markets—reflects another in a growing list of knock-on effects from the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.
The dollar this week flirted with a record low against the yen near ¥76.25. After heavy verbal threats from officials earlier in the week that intervention was imminent, the dollar rose back above ¥77, and was at ¥77.13 just before the intervention at 10 a.m. Tokyo time. It then popped up to as high as ¥78.47.
Traders said Japan spent about ¥400 billion to ¥500 billion on the move, and acted alone, without support from other countries. Some analysts expect Japan to keep intervening, as it tries to push the dollar to ¥80, a level seen as critical for exporters.
Prior to Wednesday's move in Switzerland, the franc had risen 11% against the dollar in just the past month and 13% against the euro. On Wednesday the Swiss franc fell 0.6% against the dollar and 1.6% against the euro.
The pressures on Japan and Switzerland emanating from the currency markets echoes the complaints about a "currency war" last September from Brazil's finance minister. Brazil has slapped penalties on certain kinds of investments by foreigners in order to try to limit money flowing into the country.
Some investors speculate that the currency moves may prompt a globally coordinated intervention, although the complex logistics, expense and limited chance of success make that unlikely.
Before last year, Japan had gone more than six years without buying or selling currencies to alter the value.
.While emerging-market countries such as Brazil and others in Asia have seen their currencies rise for reasons different to Switzerland and Japan—investors in search of high yields and economic growth—the end result is similar: Domestic economies can be heavily influenced by outside events.
"When the financial seas are choppy as a result of what the whales are doing, it makes life very uncomfortable for the shrimp as well," says Barry Eichengreen, a professor at University of California, Berkeley.
Because investors are moving money out of two of the most widely used currencies—the dollar and euro—the dislocations at the other end of the trade are that much greater for small economies such as Switzerland, says author Liaquat Ahamed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Lords of Finance."
"Tiny shifts in capital…just swamp their capital markets and cause disruptions in their domestic economic management," he said.
Japanese officials were driven to act as Japanese companies have reacted with increasing alarm to the yen's steady rise against the dollar and other currencies. While lowering the cost of some critical imports, including oil and food items, the elevated Japanese currency has eroded profits at Japan's many exporters. A strong yen hurts Japan Inc.'s competitiveness by lowering the yen-value of revenue earned in dollars and making products more expensive overseas.
A litany of executives at brand-name companies such as Nissan Motor Co., Panasonic Corp., and Toshiba Corp. warned last week during first-quarter earnings press conferences that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain their current production levels in Japan amid the high yen. "The current strong yen is out of reach of an individual company to deal with," Nissan corporate vice president Joji Tagawa said last week.
The Swiss stock market is also feeling pressure. The country's main stock index is off almost 15% this year.
For Japan, Thursday's intervention by the Finance Ministry underscores a renewed currency activism as the yen has danced near record highs over the past year. Before last year, Japan had gone more than six years without buying or selling currencies to alter the value.
.On Sept. 15, 2010, with the dollar worth about ¥83, the Japanese government executed its largest-ever, single-day, yen-selling intervention. In conjunction with BOJ easing, that helped stabilize the currency for a time. A sharp spike in the value of the yen after the March 11 natural disasters prompted joint intervention by the Group of Seven on March 18. The dollar strengthened in the following weeks, before new U.S. weakness pushed the greenback down again in recent days.
Switzerland has been more active in recent years in trying to cap its currency's rise.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis through June 2010, the Swiss National Bank conducted massive purchases of euros to fight the rise of the franc. Thanks to the euro's decline in the first half of 2011, the central bank reported losses of roughly $15 billion.
The Swiss central bank is owned by shareholders, including Swiss member states known as cantons. To the extent that currency market losses hurt the bank's profits, the Swiss franc's rise "becomes a fiscal issue," said Edwin Truman, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
The challenge for Swiss authorities is that investors aren't being driven by interest-rate differentials, so the bank may have limited ability to curtail their appetite for Swiss assets.
"It's not a yield issue, it's a safety issue," Mr. Truman said.
University of California's Mr. Eichengreen says there are lessons for the U.S. from Switzerland's woes, despite the huge differences between the two economies.
"We're going to have to learn that what the Chinese think about the debt-ceiling imbroglio can turn out to be really important to the U.S. in the same way that what the foreign investor thinks about Geneva is really important for Switzerland," he says.
Late Wednesday, the dollar was at 0.7703 franc from 0.7625 late Tuesday. The euro traded at $1.4323 from $1.4202.
—Takashi Mochizuki, Neil Shah and Chester Dawson contributed to this article.
Write to Takashi Nakamichi at firstname.lastname@example.org and Tom Lauricella at email@example.com