Japan's Strong Yen Problem

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Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News / Landov

A 1000-yen note is arranged on top of U.S. $1 notes.

In Japan, foreigners learn soon enough that a one-yen coin floats on water (or beer), a perfect analogy for the last few years of the dollar's strength against Japanese currency. Now, however, the yen is sinking to the bottom of the glass as the dollar has becomes featherweight. On Thursday it slipped to 99.7 yen, the lowest it has been since November 1995. Following suit on Friday, Tokyo stocks plummeted to their lowest levels since August 2005. Just a few months ago, the rate was 113 to the dollar.

Economists are quick to point out that a weak dollar doesn't necessarily mean a strong yen. The exchange rate of the yen to other currencies — such as the euro — still shows depreciation. But the dollar-yen pair heavily weights consumer sentiment and the stock market, says Takahide Kiuchi, chief economist at Nomura Securities, and the rate right now has an overall negative affect.

The weak dollar dumps cold water on some of Japan's largest corporations and exporters, since a higher yen value makes exports from the likes of Sony and Sharp to Toyota and Honda less competitive. On Thursday, Toyota Motor Corp. president Katsuaki Watanabe said that his company will need to maintain profit growth, since it forecast record profit for this fiscal year when the dollar was about 113 yen. For every yen the dollar drops, Toyota's operating profit falls 2%.

Meanwhile, Japanese consumers are faced with a mixed bag. The slight appreciation of the currency helps in capping the rising cost of food and fuel, which have both become concerns due to price inflation. But because dollar-based profits from overseas will drop, corporations could cut back on capital investment and employment, which will have a spillover effect on households. "The negatives outweigh the positives," says Masafumi Yamamoto, head of foreign exchange strategy for Japan at Royal Bank of Scotland.

The kind of appreciation the yen is experiencing now isn't necessarily a bad thing, says Takashi Omori, chief economist for Japan at UBS. He points to the fact that about 80% of Japanese imports are contracted on foreign currency and this would allow for savings on import costs with an appreciating yen and make up for some losses expected in export sales. He says that some Japanese firms have accumulated profits in the past years and can now be expected to live off of this while the yen stabilizes. If you take into account exchange rate and inflation, the current level is much weaker than in the beginning of this decade," says Omori. "Firms have diversified their procurements and improved hedging, and have been able to cope with stronger yen — if it is a short run." However, says Omori, if the exchange drops to 96 or 95, the government will need to consider intervention.

Others aren't that patient. "We need drastic measures to solve these problems," says Yamamoto of Royal Bank of Scotland. "Intervention may work to buy time, but it's not a fundamental solution. The authorities in Japan know this and they're hesitant to act." Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga did say this week that "excessive exchange rate moves are undesirable." But, in relative terms, the yen is not as weak as it was in 2004, when the government last intervened. Central bankers in Japan believe a rate of 100 yen to the dollar is not excessive appreciation but rather a form of normalization and adjustment. However, though the continuing weakness of the dollar stems from America's subprime crisis and is beyond Tokyo's effective control, its consequences on Japan's economy will be significant. Says Stuart Giles, director for Global Coverage Group at Credit Suisse Securities: "The prospect of Japan falling into a recessionary period is quite high, and the stronger the yen, the higher this becomes."With reporting by Yuki Oda