Another source of potential financial crisis?reversal of yen carry trade

February 19th, 2007

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Interest rates in Japan had been zero for many years. It was only until recently that it had risen to only 0.25%. Such an unusual financial phenomenon sparked an interesting money-making opportunity?the yen carry trade. Basically, in a yen carry trade, you borrow money in Japan (where the interest rate was zero and is now 0.25%) and lend in countries with much higher interest rates. The interest rates differential makes up your profit. There are many ways to play with the yen carry trade. The most conservative way is to invest the borrowed money in US Treasuries. No doubt, there will be some hedge funds who want to achieve higher but more risky returns by investing in more risky assets such as stocks and Shanghai real estate.

What is the risk with this kind of strategy? Well, this strategy counts on the exchange-rate of yen not rising. A rising yen can wipe out your interest rates differential profits, even possible resulting in losses. Thus, the next crucial question is: what can result in an appreciation of the yen? For 16 years, Japan lived under the threat of deflation and economic malaise?that is the reason why the Japanese central bank made its money as cheap as possible (i.e. zero interest rate) in an attempt to counter such an economic threat. It is only until recently that the first lights of economic recovery can be seen. At this point in time, the Japanese economy is still dependent on exports to grow, which means that they have an interest to keep the value of yen low.

What will happen if the Japanese economy finally makes a confirmed recovery back into normality (there are signs that the Japanese economy may be recovering?read this report)? We can bet that Japanese interest rates will rise, thus putting a squeeze in the carry trade profit margins. More importantly, it means that the Japanese are finally willing to allow their yen to appreciate. Any appreciation of the yen will result in massive reversal of the yen carry trade, which in turn will trigger further appreciation of the yen, resulting in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The danger right now is that a massive amount of yen are being borrowed (some experts says it is worth a trillion dollars), which in effect is a gigantic bet that the yen will not rise. A disorderly reversal of the yen carry trade will almost certainly mean that there will be losses in terms of billions of dollars, triggering yet another financial crisis. We will then see the collapse of many hedge funds.

The bad news is: This is just the beginning.

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