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November 11, 2011

Japan Forces Down Value of Yen, Raising Concerns on Trans-Pacific FTA

Last week the Japanese central bank undertook the single largest intervention in its currency market since at least 1991 when it bought about $100 billion in U.S. dollars. The intervention was designed to push down the value of the yen, and it worked: the value of the yen fell five percent against the dollar, the largest single-day drop since the depths of the financial crisis in October 2008.

Even in ordinary times, this intervention would concern U.S. policy makers, as it will likely boost the U.S. trade deficit with Japan as Japanese imports become cheaper and U.S. exports to Japan rise in price. But now in particular it should give pause to policymakers since Japan has expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks. U.S. trade negotiators will be meeting with their counterparts from other countries to discuss the Trans-Pacific FTA during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this weekend in Honolulu, and Japan's interest in joining is sure to come up. As of yet, there is no sign that the Trans-Pacific FTA will discipline currency manipulation, so the U.S. could end up signing a trade deal with a country that is willing to massively intervene in the currency market, leaving U.S. businesses and workers vulnerable to artificially cheap imports.

Japan has a long history of intervening in its currency market for trade advantage. According to the Congressional Research Service, Japan has intervened heavily in its currency market to hold down the value of the yen in the periods 1976-1978, 1985-1988, 1992-1996, and 1998-2004. During the last period of heavy intervention, stretching from 1998 to 2004, the Japanese yen was undervalued by about 20 percent, or about 600 percent greater than the average U.S. normal trade relations tariff of 3 percent. To put this into perspective, GM estimated that the undervaluation of the yen amounted to a subsidy on Japanese autos sold in the U.S. of about $3,000 per vehicle in 2003. This virtual exchange rate subsidy likely hurt sales of U.S.-made vehicles in the United States and cost jobs.

The latest estimates of the equilibrium yen exchange rate suggest that the yen is undervalued against the dollar by about 10 percent, contributing to the $60 billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan. And those estimates were developed before Japan initiated its latest round of currency intervention. Will U.S. policymakers blindly sign a trade deal with a country that manages its exchange rate for trade advantage, like they did with Korea? Or will they steer the Trans-Pacific FTA negotiations toward the 21st-century fair trade model that the Obama administration has promised?


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