Popular tales of “Mrs. Watanabe” — the canny Japanese housewife who dabbles in currency trading in between school runs and shopping — barely begin to tell the story of the nation’s retail traders in the foreign exchange market.
With almost 800,000 active forex accounts, Japan boasts the world’s most powerful force of retail traders. It has doubled in size in little more than a decade and spurred some of the most dramatic price moves of recent times, including the January “flash crash” that hammered the dollar and sent the yen soaring.
Contrary to the widespread notion of “Mrs. Watanabe,” most of the traders are middle-age men, who’ve been driven into the market by years of ultra-low interest rates. They toil in offices by day and trudge home to moonlight in foreign exchange, hoping to build a family nest egg in a country where banks pay savers next to nothing.
“A lot of individual investors don’t realize that they’re doing something extraordinary,” says Yasushi Takagi, a 44-year-old financial writer who started forex trading in his early 30s to supplement his earnings. “They bet heavily on high-yielding currencies like the Turkish lira, the Mexican peso and the South African rand, while many players outside of Japan wouldn’t touch them.”
Individuals generally make one transaction per day, using margin accounts to leverage modest deposits of about ¥100,000 into wagers worth 10 times that amount, said Takuya Kanda, general manager of the Gaitame.Com Research Institute, part of the country’s leading internet platform for retail investors.
Their go-to strategy is the carry trade, which typically involves selling the yen and using borrowed money from the margin account to load up on currencies from economies where interest rates are much higher.
Takagi tells of a “nagging sense of doubt” about Japan’s future that has driven people like himself to take their chances in the $6.6 trillion per day international currency market. “There are huge fiscal deficits,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen to our pensions.”
Traders are mostly men
About 85 percent of the traders are men, mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s, according to estimates from Gaitame.
While few stand out as individuals, Kanda indicated that a small band of high rollers now buy and sell currencies on the same scale as the nation’s banks, and data from the Financial Futures Association of Japan show that margin trading drives almost half of all spot transactions in Tokyo.
This forex phenomenon is still very much Japanese, but the country’s investment trends are increasingly relevant to other developed economies as interest rates sink around the globe.
“The rest of the world is adjusting very quickly but still hasn’t worked out that it’s moving toward the Japanese dilemma,” said George Boubouras, director at Salter Brothers Asset Management in Melbourne, Australia.
Placing the wrong bets
Because the country’s retail traders take a contrarian view and go into the market when prices dip, they typically have a moderating effect on currency moves, according to research from the Bank of Japan.
But when their bets go wrong, the results can be explosive.
They are vulnerable to attack and this was the case on Jan. 3 during the New Year’s holidays.
In the witching hour between the winding down of trading in the U.S. and the opening of key financial centers in Asia, a wave of orders came into the market to sell the lira and the Australian dollar against the yen.
This shifted prices enough to put Japanese retail accounts into the red, which triggered an automatic liquidation of the loss-making positions that turned the wave into a tsunami within a matter of minutes.
Trading in the yen versus emerging-market currencies like the lira has surged over the past three years, even as the Japanese currency’s share of overall global turnover declined, according to a triennial report published last week by the Bank for International Settlements. Trading in the euro-yen and Australian dollar-yen crosses also increased, BIS data show.
Why ‘Mrs. Watanabe’?
Wives traditionally control the purse strings in the nation’s households. Tales of “Mrs. Watanabe” in the forex market started to pop up at least as early as the 1990s, when the bursting of the nation’s economic bubble forced savers to look beyond stocks, property and bank accounts to get a return on their money.
The idea of housewives as a trading force began to circulate more widely in the mid-2000s, when a change in financial rules made it easier for individuals to trade currencies. Cases of them running afoul of the tax office started to grab headlines and the view took hold that they dominated margin trading.
One of the most celebrated examples was a Tokyo flower arranger who entered the forex market to make some extra cash and was so successful she put traders at global banks to shame. She also earned herself a suspended jail sentence for failing to report about ¥400 million in profits to authorities.
“I’m a housewife. Am I a ‘Mrs. Watanabe?'” asks Tomoyo Morie, 50, who started trading in Tokyo eight years ago. “I don’t feel good about the label. If you look at the margin-trading market, you’ll see it’s predominantly men.”
Learning from seminars
Morie and Takagi, like many Japanese players in the currency market, learned to trade from seminars run by the retail internet platforms, self-study and large doses of trial and error.
They pore over technical charts on price trends daily, pick up tips from forex blogs and social media, and trade via laptops and mobile phones.
“I set alerts for specific levels and analyze how the market is behaving before I go in,” says Morie. “I usually clean up my positions ahead of economic indicators coming out, but it’s still a case-by-case thing.”
She has also tried her hand at trading precious metals but got burned on a wager that platinum would outperform gold around the time that the Chinese stock market plunged in early 2016. Takagi says he’s started taking an interest in cryptocurrencies, where price shifts are proving equally challenging.
“Extraordinary things happen. I saw that during the Brexit vote and when (U.S. President Donald) Trump got elected,” says Morie. “I know now to be more careful about managing my money.”
Young guns are coming
While middle-age men are the majority, younger investors are also starting to make their mark.
Eridanus Yano, a 19-year-old student from Tokyo who is preparing for university entrance exams, trades exclusively using a technique called “scalping.”
It’s an increasingly popular high-speed, high-frequency approach that profits from tiny price moves by repeatedly buying and selling currencies in the space of seconds or minutes.
“It’s purely technical. I don’t look at fundamentals,” says Yano, who has made about ¥3 million since he began trading a year ago. “I use my time after school to trade by watching charts, like one-minute charts.”
Yano is a keen cyclist and his initial goal was to buy a top-of-the-line bicycle, which wasn’t going to come soon enough working a regular part-time job.
“I began looking for ways to start investing and making money and I found that forex margin trading was the easiest place to begin,” he says. “And I also had (an) interest in the market.”
Now that he’s fulfilled his first goal, Yano has his sights set on a much faster and pricier form of transport: a Tesla Roadster electric sports car.
“I want to buy one in the future with the money I make in forex trading,” he said.