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Weak yen policy grounds an Internet high-flyer

by William Pesek

Bloomberg

Ask Japanese Internet millionaire Shinichi Nishikubo about Shinzo Abe’s weak yen and you’ll get an earful.

Nishikubo is that rarity in Japan: a rebel entrepreneur who bets big and makes deals many contemporaries would never contemplate. Most famously, Nishikubo bought into money-losing budget airline Skymark in 2003 and took on its presidency a year later. Indeed, he got so into learning what airlines do that he took flying lessons.

In 2010, he decided to soar higher. Peers shook their heads at news Nishikubo was ordering four Airbus A380s, later coming back for two more. A February 2011 Orient Aviation magazine headline summed it up succinctly: “Crazy or a Genius?”

As that deal now implodes, many might answer “crazy.” Still, Abenomics deserves a share of the blame.

Were Nishikubo’s ambitions bigger than demand for seats on his airline? Probably. But when he ordered that fleet of A380s, the yen was trading around 80 to the dollar. Its subsequent 20 percent-plus drop in value really smarts when you’re paying for planes that list at $414 million.

This is something Japan-watchers consistently seem to ignore. Prime Minister Abe’s devaluation is routinely couched as smart economic policy. But it’s disastrous for companies like airlines that buy fuel and aircraft — both prohibitively expensive in the best of times — priced in U.S. currency. Exchange rates clearly contributed to Nishikubo’s undoing.

If Abe were looking through the economic lens of today, not one from 1994, he might engineer a stronger yen. On the one hand, a rising currency is about confidence; Japan’s weak-yen obsession comes more from insecurity. On the other, with nuclear reactors idled amid safety concerns, Japan’s energy needs have the economy importing inflation — the bad kind. Also, a lower yen runs contrary to Abe’s ambitions for Japan Inc. to expand abroad anew.

The 1980s was about trophy purchases: New York’s Rockefeller Center, California’s Pebble Beach golf course, Universal Studios in Los Angeles and every Modigliani, Monet and Picasso companies and collectors could bid for. This time, it’s about finding growing markets overseas as Japan’s population shrinks and ages.

Here, think of Softbank’s Masayoshi Son’s acquisition of U.S. wireless provider Sprint, or the outward march of companies like the Uniqlo brand’s Fast Retailing, beverage titan Kirin, convenience-store chain Lawson and e-commerce giant Rakuten.

For many, like those in the energy sector, the weak yen can be an impediment, something Nishikubo can tell you all about. It’s also not working this time. In June alone, industrial output dropped 3.3 percent from the previous month — a reminder that the ongoing transfer of production overseas has deadened the benefits of yen devaluations.

The value of Japanese exports is now 23 percent below its March 2008 peak, while those of Germany, South Korea and the U.S. grow. And while currency rates are pumping up corporate profits, what good is that if executives aren’t sharing the spoils with workers?

Yes, Skymark is partly a tale of hubris. Nishikubo turned the carrier around by switching to smaller, more profitable Boeing 737 planes. He let his ambitions run away with him when he bet A380s would help him take on All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines.

But Nishikubo’s gambit might’ve stayed aloft had Abenomics not sent the yen plunging.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo and writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The high yen is why the Japanese people send Noda and the DJP packing.

    The high yen served only the interests of finance, mostly from the West.

    No doubt Japan has economic problems, but I’m not hearing any solutions proposed in this article, only indirect griping about the “weak yen” policy.