Business / Financial Markets

Yen leaps on referendum surprise; Nikkei tumbles

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Japan braced for global market turmoil Friday as the yen briefly soared above 100 against the dollar and the Nikkei stock average tumbled over 8 percent as Britain voted in favor of leaving the European Union.

The yen briefly touched 99 to the dollar — the highest since November 2013 — before retreating to 103.08 as of 5 p.m. in Tokyo. The benchmark Nikkei 225 tumbled by 1,286 points, or 7.92 percent, to close the day’s trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange at 14,952, the biggest dive in 16 years.

Finance Minister Taro Aso indicated that the ministry was ready to intervene in the markets if necessary.

“We are very concerned about the risks this will have on the world economy, finance, currency markets and other areas,” Aso told reporters. “In the foreign exchange market, we are seeing some very nervous moves, and so that these kinds of moves don’t continue, we are watching it with a sense of concern that is higher than before, and we will respond properly if needed.”

Separately, Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda said the central bank will do its utmost to stabilize financial markets in cooperation with its overseas counterparts.

In a bid to protect currencies from fluctuating sharply, senior officials from the Group of Seven nations were on Friday preparing to hold a telephone conference.

Some economists said the rising yen and tumbling Nikkei average were expected, but warned it could remain a long-term trend, depending on how Britain’s exit from the EU will affect the global economy, for example by spreading protectionism or triggering a potential financial crisis in Europe.

The business community here expressed disappointment over the result amid concern it could damage firms whose European operations were centered in Britain.

“Markets were to sell risk assets” including stocks, so “I think this was a natural reaction,” said Takashi Hiroki, chief strategist at Monex Inc.

Hiroki said the Nikkei’s plunge occurred in part because investors had positioned themselves for a decision for Britain to remain in the EU.

But the result was the opposite, which whipsawed the market, he said.

How the decision will affect the Japanese economy is largely based on what will happen from now on, economists said.

Hiroki said it would have been better for Britain to stay in the EU in terms of economic rationality, but the British did not take that into account.

“This might not just end with the U.K. It might spread to other countries,” he said.

That could lead to an increase in protectionism rather than globalism around the world, which would slow down global economic growth and eventually hurt Japanese companies’ overseas businesses, he said.

In addition, whether Japan can somehow stem the rising yen and the decline of its stock prices will be based on how policymakers here, especially the Bank of Japan, react to the situation, Hiroki added.

Shunsuke Kobayashi, an economist at Daiwa Institute of Research Holdings, said one thing to watch is whether high volatility in the markets leads to a credit crunch at European financial institutions that have already been struggling to cope with negative interest rates.

“I won’t say that it will be as big as the ‘Lehman shock.’ But there is a possibility of credit crunch,” said Kobayashi, referring to a critical stage in 2008 of the global financial crisis.

In that case, a strong yen will hurt profits at export-oriented firms, while falling stock prices dent people’s asset values and consumption, he said.

Kobayashi said it was critical that European countries work together to prevent this. If the yen continues to surge, joint intervention will remain an option, he said.

In the meantime, some major Japanese business associations said they were disappointed and also concerned about the impact of Britain’s referendum.

“As we were expecting that (the U.K.) would remain, the fact that ‘leave’ overtook ‘remain’ is disappointing,” said Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, better known as Keidanren.

According to Keidanren, Japan has invested over ¥10 trillion in the U.K., with more than 1,000 companies based there providing 140,000 jobs.

“I am worried that the result of the vote this time will affect those companies’ businesses and plans from now on,” he said.

Hitachi Ltd., which has a factory in Britain, said Friday that it will carefully evaluate how Britain’s exit from the bloc will affect the manufacturing giant’s operations there.

Auto giant Toyota Motor Corp. said Friday it will “analyze the impact on our business operations in the U.K., and how we can maintain competitiveness and secure sustainable growth together with the U.K. automotive industry and other stakeholders.”

Nissan Motor Co., which also runs a factory in Britain did not issue comment Friday, but its President Carlos Ghosn said in February that “remain” would be best for its business.

“Our preference as a business is, of course, that the U.K. stays within Europe — it makes the most sense for jobs, trade and costs,” he said at the time. “For us, a position of stability is more positive than a collection of unknowns.”

Information from Bloomberg, Kyodo added