Business / Financial Markets

Market mayhem shakes brokers out of usual August lull

by Anna Kitanaka

Bloomberg

On Daiwa Securities Group Inc.’s Tokyo trading floor, Yukio Ikehata is spending more time listening to clients than processing orders to buy stocks.

“With volatility so high, a lot of investors are waiting things out,” said Ikehata, head of international sales trading at Daiwa. “Everyone is having to be patient. Because clients aren’t moving, I’m listening to stories about how tough they’re finding it.”

Less than three weeks ago, Japan’s brokers and investors could practically do their jobs on autopilot: equities were meandering higher, the currency was slowly weakening and volatility was, by one measure, the least since 1989.

Then China devalued the yuan, triggering a flight from risky assets that upended investment strategies in Tokyo. The Topix index was the worst performer among developed-market peers through Tuesday, and price swings on the yen have surged twice as much as any other Group of 10 currency.

“It’s hard. It gives you gray hairs,” said Richard Whittall, a fund manager at Alltus Capital (U.K.) in Singapore. Whittall says he’s never experienced market turbulence like this in August, typically a quiet month, in his 25 years investing in Japanese shares. “When you wake up in the morning, you don’t know if you’re going to make a million dollars, or lose a million dollars. It really touches all the emotions.”

The Topix rallied 3.2 percent on Wednesday after slumping 12 percent in the previous three sessions, sending a measure of short-term price moves to the highest since 2013. More than 3.4 billion shares changed hands on Wednesday, 47 percent more than this year’s average. The measure gained 2.5 percent as of 10:01 a.m. Tokyo time on Thursday on volume 18 percent higher than the 30-day intraday average.

Japan’s currency weakened 0.7 percent as of the Tokyo stocks close. On Monday, it soared by the most in five years. Volatility for the dollar-yen almost doubled this week to a two-year high, one-month options pricing shows.

Traders around the world are grappling with surges in price swings. At Meritz Securities Co. in Seoul, higher volatility means more paperwork, said Park Sungjin, the head of investment management.

There are “more meetings, more reports,” he said. “All those reports are about how can we recover.”

China’s unexpected devaluation of the yuan on Aug. 11 sparked the biggest slump in U.S. stocks in nearly four years on concern that the slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy is worse than anticipated.

A pull back in Shanghai equities torpedoed emerging-market assets and sank commodities from oil to metals. Also looming over risk sentiment is the Federal Reserve, which is contemplating the first increase in interest rates since 2006.

“At the start of August, it was getting to be a case of well, I might as well go on holiday as I stand a better chance of seeing a client on the beach than getting an order at my desk,” said Andrew Clarke, director of trading at Hong Kong brokerage Mirabaud Asia Ltd. “Turbulence has shaken everyone back to life.”

The day before China’s currency devaluation, the Topix and the yen-dollar’s aggregate 10-day historical volatility fell to the lowest since 1989, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Now it’s the highest since 2013. Even after the steepest one-day gain this year on Wednesday, the equity measure was 11 percent lower in August, set for its worst month since 2008.

“Every day is about whether the indexes will surge or plunge, whether all stocks will rise or fall, and it’s like gambling,” said Masayuki Otani, Tokyo-based chief market strategist at Securities Japan Inc. “Risk aversion has become the main thing I talk about with investors. I end up saying to them, ‘let’s wait for the market to calm down.’ “

Coronavirus banner