The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe, which took office on 26 December 2012, has been pursuing a policy of weakening the yen. Using a combination of low interest rates, quantitative easing, expansionary fiscal policy and a declared aim of depreciation, the government has succeeded in driving down the value of the yen.
Since mid-November last year, the yen has depreciated by 28% against the dollar, 30% against the euro and 21% against sterling. The effective exchange rate index has fallen by 22% (see first diagram below: click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram).
But will this depreciation succeed in stimulating the Japanese economy and will it improve the balance of trade? The hope is that the falling yen will boost export sales by making them cheaper abroad, and will reduce the demand for imports by making them more expensive in Japan. The balance of trade will thereby improve and higher exports (an injection) and lower imports (a withdrawal) will stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth.
Traditionally Japan has run balance of trade surpluses, but since July 2012, it has been running monthly deficits – the longest run of deficits since 1980. But depreciation cannot be expected to turn this position around immediately. Indeed, theory suggests that the balance of trade is likely to deteriorate before it improves. This is known as the J-curve effect and is illustrated in the second diagram below. As page 768 of Economics, 8th edition states:
At first a devaluation or depreciation might make a current account deficit worse: the J-curve effect. The price elasticities of demand for imports and exports may be low in the short run (see Case Study 25.1 in MyEconLab). Directly after devaluation or depreciation, few extra exports may be sold, and more will have to be paid for imports that do not have immediate substitutes. There is thus an initial deterioration in the balance of trade before it eventually improves. In Figure 25.12 [the second diagram], devaluation takes place at time t1. As you can see, the diagram has a J shape.
Evidence suggests that the first part of the ‘J’ has been experienced in Japan: Japan’s balance of trade has deteriorated. But there is debate over whether the balance of trade will now start to improve. As the article by James Saft states:
But a look at the actual data shows Japanese companies, like British ones during a similar bout of currency weakness in 2008, appear to be more eager to use a newly competitive currency to pad profits through higher margins rather than higher export volumes. Thus far, Japanese exporters appear to be doing just that. Despite yen falls the price of Japanese exports in local currency has barely budged.
“Japanese companies have not actually cut the foreign currency prices of their exports. Just as with the UK exporters, the Japanese have chosen to hold foreign prices constant, maintain market share, and increase the yen value and thus the yen profit associated with yen depreciation,” UBS economist Paul Donovan writes in a note to clients.
The extra profits earned by Japanese companies from export sales may be stockpiled or paid out in dividends rather than reinvested. And what investment does take place may be abroad rather than in Japan. The net effect may be very little stimulus to the Japanese economy.
As stated by Saft above, the UK had a similar experience in the period 2007–9, when sterling depreciated some 27% (see the second diagram). The balance of trade improved very little and UK companies generally priced goods to markets abroad rather than cutting overseas prices.
But times were different then. The world was plunging into recession. Now global markets are mildly growing or static. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the upward slope of the J-curve in Japan may be pretty flat.
Weak yen a boon for investors, not Japan Reuters, James Saft (14/5/13)
Japan’s Trade Data Suggest Even Lower Yen Needed Wall Street Journal, Nick Hastings (22/5/13)
2 Misunderstandings About Japanese Trade Seeking Alpha, Marc Chandler (22/5/13)
Japanese trade deficit widens Financial Times, Ben McLannahan (22/5/13)