Hideo Hayakawa, former Bank of Japan chief economist and executive director, set the scene on Wednesday when he discussed the BOJ’s ¥7-trillion-a-month effort to water down the yen by printing money and gobbling up Japanese Government Bonds. It wants to achieve what is increasingly called “2% price stability,” a term that must be a sick insider joke played on the Japanese people. He warned that if these JGB purchases are “perceived as monetization“ of Japan’s out-of-whack deficits, it would drive up long-term JGB yields “to 2% to 3%.” Up from 0.60% for the 10-year JGB. “But once interest rates start rising, they would overshoot,” he said. So maybe 4%?
He’d set the scene for the Bank of Japan’s 81-page semiannual Financial System Report, released the same day. Buried in Chapter V, “Risks borne by financial intermediaries,” is a gorgeous whitewash doozie: if interest rates rise by 1 percentage point, it would cause ¥8 trillion ($82 billion) in losses across the banking system.
This interest rate risk associated with all assets and liabilities, such as bondholdings, loans, and deposits has been dropping since April 1, the beginning of fiscal 2013, the BOJ explained soothingly – the largest decline in 13 years. Banks would be able to digest that 1 percentage point rise.
A big part of that interest rate risk is tied to the banks’ vast holdings of JGBs. The BOJ has begged banks to dump this super-low yielding stuff that could blow up their balance sheets. The three megabanks – Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Mizuho Financial Group, and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group – have done that. From the beginning of the fiscal year through August, their JGB holdings plummeted by 24% to ¥96 trillion. And much of what they still hold is paper with short to medium maturities that poses less risk.
The regional banks have not been able to do that, and their JGB holdings remained flat at ¥32 trillion. However, the amount of loans with longer maturities, such as those to local governments, has gone up, which raised the interest rate risk “slightly,” the report said.
Then there are the 270 community-based, cooperative shinkin banks. And they’re stuck in a quagmire. They’re stuffed to the gills with JGBs because, unlike megabanks and, to a lesser extent, regional banks, they have no other options to place their ballooning deposits. On their balance sheets, interest rate risk continued its long and relentless upward trend.
A 1 percentage point rise would cost megabanks ¥2.9 trillion, regional banks ¥3.2 trillion, and shinkin banks ¥1.9 trillion. A total of ¥8 trillion ($82 billion). If the yield curve steepened, with long-term rates rising 1 percentage point and short-term rates remaining low, the losses would be smaller. In all, it would be survivable. The banking system is safe.
Whitewash doozie because it assumes a 1 percentage-point rise. The yield of the 10-year JGB would rise from todays 0.6% to 1.6%. With annual inflation hitting 2% soon, bondholders would still get sacked. Hence Mr. Hayakawa’s warning: if inflation hits 2%, long-term interest would likely head to 2% or 3%, and once they start rising, they’d “overshoot.” So, with a little overshoot, 10-year JGB yields might rise by 3 percentage points, to 3.6%. Still a very moderate interest rate, by historical standards. What would that do to the banking system?
The report tells us what it would do: megabanks would be severely damaged; the rest of the banking system would be wiped out. If there is a parallel stock market crash, the megabanks would be wiped out as well.
The megabanks combined have ¥28 trillion in Tier 1 capital. Against it are credit risk, market risk from stock holdings, interest rate risk, and operational risk. The risk scenario the BOJ envisioned with a 1 percentage point rise in interest rates would create losses of nearly ¥17 trillion for the megabanks, a big part from its bond and loan portfolio, but an even bigger part from its stockholdings. That would leave about ¥11 trillion in Tier 1 capital.
But if the scenario plays out as Mr. Hayakawa sees it, with a 3 percentage point rise in interest rates, losses at megabanks, according to the report, would jump by ¥4.6 trillion, leaving only ¥6.4 trillion in Tier 1 capital.
Then there is the stock market risk. Traditionally, banks held large chunks of shares of companies they did business with. It cemented the relationship and propped up equities, which in turn made loans appear stronger. It worked wonderfully until the bubble it helped create blew up in 1989. Banks turned into zombie banks. Since then, 20 of these zombie banks have been consolidated into the three megabanks. And they have reduced ever so gradually their stock holdings to get out from under that risk that took them down the last time.
But in the money-printing induced mania, they’ve been adding stocks, and their exposure to the stock market remains enormous. The market downturn envisioned by the BOJ would produce around ¥7 trillion in losses. If that downturn becomes a crash, of which Japan has seen its share, losses could easily wipe out the remaining Tier 1 capital. Bailout time.
Regional banks will get wiped out by a 3 percentage point rise in interest rates. They don’t need a stock market crash. Even the BOJ is worried. According to its risk scenario with a 1 percentage point rise in interest rates, losses will eat up ¥11 trillion of the banks’ ¥15 trillion in Tier 1 capital. Leaves ¥4 trillion. If interest rates rise by 3 percentage points, another ¥4.6 trillion in losses would hit the banks, more than annihilating all of their Tier 1 capital. They’d be goners.
And the beleaguered shinkin banks? They have ¥6.5 trillion in Tier 1 capital. They don’t own a lot of stocks but are loaded with JGBs and local government bonds with long maturities. In the scenario where interest rates rise 1 percentage point, half of their Tier 1 capital would be wiped out. A 3 percentage point rise in rates would produce an additional ¥2.7 trillion in losses, wiping out almost all of the remaining Tier 1 capital.
But the 3 percentage point rise is only theoretical. If that happened, the government wouldn’t be able to make interest payments on its ¥1 quadrillion in debt. The whole house of cards would come tumbling down.
No, interest rates will not be allowed to jump this high. Even if inflation is 6%, the BOJ will see to it that yields remain low. It would impose brutal financial repression. It could use numerous tools, including a yield peg. If it had to, it could print enough money to buy the entire national debt of Japan, even if that might finally be “perceived as monetization” – with all the consequences that this would entail.
Japan is still the second richest nation in the world, according to Credit Suisse. About ¥1 quadrillion of that wealth is tied up in JGBs. But debt that yields almost nothing and can never be paid back, will eventually succumb to fate: either slowly through inflation and devaluation or rapidly through default. Abenomics has chosen the slow route.
But if the house of cards were allowed to come down rapidly, from the ashes would rise a young generation that suddenly could look into the future and actually see something other than the oppressive dark wall of the government debt hurricane coming their way.
Trade is another critical pillar of Abenomics. Devaluing the yen would boost exports and cut imports. The resulting trade surplus would goose the economy. But the opposite is happening. And it isn’t happening in small increments, with ups and downs over decades, but rapidly and relentlessly. It’s not energy imports. They actually dropped! It’s a fundamental shift. Read…. Why I’m So Worried About Japan’s Ballooning Trade Deficit
Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? Using ad blockers – I totally get why – but want to support the site? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:
Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.