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Political black swan looms over yen, Nikkei

Doctoring of a Finance Ministry document relating to a controversial land sale presents a serious threat to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, political analysts say

Lawmakers are poised to endorse BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda for another five-year term, taking some of the sting out of the potential political overhaul and market turmoil.


THE scandal embroiling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration may be more serious than some investors realise, raising the potential for a rapid move in the country's markets to discount the potential for a surprise end to the champions of Abenomics.

While Mr Abe has faced down political controversy and public protests repeatedly in his more than five years in power, the doctoring of a Finance Ministry document relating to a controversial land sale presents a more serious threat, according to political analysts. And at this point, markets have not priced in the idea of a resignation by stalwart Abe supporter Taro Aso, the finance minister, or the potential for Mr Abe to lose office later this year.

"For global investors, Abenomics equals a higher dollar-yen, a higher Nikkei and a better Japanese economy," said Tohru Sasaki, head of Japan markets research at JPMorgan Chase & Co in Tokyo. "The perception of foreign investors will change drastically" if it looks like Mr Abe will be forced from power, said Mr Sasaki, who previously worked at the Bank of Japan (BOJ).

Weeks of turmoil could hit markets, though the impact would probably be short-lived, Mr Sasaki said - akin to the brief surges in the yen after Britain's "Brexit" vote in June 2016 and US President Donald Trump's election victory in November 2016.

A political overhaul probably will not be a game changer for economic policy and Japan's fundamentals, yen analysts said. First off, lawmakers are poised to endorse BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda for another five-year term, and confirm two deputies who have fully backed the reflationary stimulus of the past half decade.

Second, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweights who could win an autumn leadership selection would have little incentive to abandon the Abenomics programme that has helped drive five national election victories. Corporate profits have soared to records, and the economy sustained its longest expansion since the 1980s, thanks in part to a dramatic weakening in the yen that began when investors began pricing in Mr Abe sweeping to power in 2012.

"The market has apparently assumed Abe will win his third term of LDP presidency in September," Shusuke Yamada, a currency and equity strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Tokyo, wrote in a note on Thursday. "Pricing this out would quite likely lead to lower equities and a stronger yen."

He advised watching this weekend's poll numbers for Mr Abe. A "re-test" of 105 yen per US dollar could come if ratings fall sharply, he wrote. The yen approached 105 last week, and has not traded past that level since November 2016.

Japan's currency has already been strengthening this year - up 6.3 per cent, bearing the brunt of the US dollar's slump on concerns about deepening US borrowing needs, given the American trade and fiscal deficits. That could raise the risk of one-sided moves on any political repricing - even if fundamental economic policy is unlikely to change.

Markets have mispriced assumptions of policy change based on politics in the past. When an advocate of intervention to drive down the yen lost a leadership selection in 2010, and the yen then surged as traders assumed yen sales were off the table, Japan indeed intervened. BLOOMBERG