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Currency traders were stunned last week by an aggressive action from Japan's Central Bank. It embarked on a bond-buying program, but by at least one measure, the effort is twice the size of a similar program undertaken here in the U.S. by the Federal Reserve. The point is to shock Japan's economy out of more than a decade of sluggish growth and deflation. As NPR's John Ydstie reports, the strategy is already having an effect both inside and outside Japan.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Yins Nordvig, global head of currency strategy at Nomura Securities, was one person surprised by the Bank of Japan's strong move.
JENS NORDVIG: The amount of money that they're essentially injecting into the system is unprecedented relative to the size of the economy.
YDSTIE: It wasn't a surprise that the central bank took action. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made clear his intention to provide strong stimulus to the economy, and recently installed a new president at the Bank of Japan who backs his approach.
Nordvig says the financial markets expected a stimulus comparable to the U.S. Fed's action. What they got was twice as large and it got an outsized response.
NORDVIG: It's being received in the financial market in a way where it's almost the entire focus globally, from the U.S. to Italy, Turkey to Brazil.
YDSTIE: For instance, long-term interest rates fell sharply in the U.S. and stocks in emerging markets strengthened, as the Japanese central bank flooded the financial system with yen. Japanese stocks also skyrocketed and the country's currency tumbled to four-year lows of about 100 yen to the dollar. That devaluation of the yen should help Japan move from deflation toward the goal of about two percent inflation a year, says Jens Nordvig, and boost economic growth by encouraging spending.
NORDVIG: If you know prices are going to rise in the future you're more inclined to spend now than wait. And that's the basic mechanism through which you can bring forward consumption and investment.
YDSTIE: Nordvig says it's too early to tell for sure but it appears the policy is working.
NORDVIG: They managed to really engineer a big sentiment shift, big changes in asset prices, and even on inflation expectations - which is at the core of what they're trying to shift - there, we're starting to see some upward movement.
YDSTIE: Professor Sung Won Sohn, of California State University Channel Islands, says Prime Minister Abe's policies are also beginning to have some effects on the ground.
SUNG WON SOHN: Some of the Japanese companies such as, you know, Honda and Toyota, they're reporting, you know, fairly good sales as a result of the yen depreciation making their products more competitive, at the expense of other countries such as, you know, South Korea, for example.
YDSTIE: Ah, and there's the rub. While a weaker yen might help Japan's economy, it's hurting the economies of some of its neighbors, particularly in Asia. Sohn, who just completed a visit to Japan and South Korea, says the countries compete head-to-head on seven of their 10 largest exports.
SOHN: Put yourself in the position of the South Koreans. They are saying that, while we are losing market share, should we engage in competitive devaluation. And I wouldn't be surprised if at some point they say, you know, we have to defend ourselves against the Japanese depreciation of the yen.
YDSTIE: That weakening of the yen has countries from South Korea to Brazil concerned about the specter of a currency war, where countries devalue their currencies to make their exports cheaper. But so far, the powers that be - like the U.S., the G20 and the IMF - have defended Japan's action.
Here's IMF managing director Christine Lagarde on CNBC yesterday.
CHRISTINE LAGARDE: They're doing what they can to kick-start growth when there has been none for a long time and to make sure that credit flows into the real economy so that investment can start again.
YDSTIE: While some see a return of growth to Japan as a positive for the world economy, despite the damage some of its direct competitors, Professor Sohn disagrees.
SOHN: I don't think Japan is going to be really the swing factor, as far as the global economic activities are concerned.
YDSTIE: That's because with an aging society and no population growth, Japan's ability to expand fast enough to be a global economic engine is limited.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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