Market close to reading last rites over Abenomics

TOKYO —

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his three-pronged program to revive Japan’s stagnant, deflationary economy three years ago, the stock market cheered every step along the way.

Not any more.

The “third arrow” of Abenomics—reforms to make the economy more productive—is barely a work in progress, but Abe got straight to work on the first two, fiscal expansion and monetary stimulus, with the enthusiastic support of a new governor at the Bank of Japan (BOJ), Haruhiko Kuroda.

In the first year of the program, the Nikkei index jumped nearly 60%, drawing in a net 15 trillion yen of foreign cash. Enthusiasm for Kuroda’s bold stimulus, in particular, was strong, with each of his first two money-printing announcements prompting a 7% weekly surge.

His decision last week to introduce negative interest rates was equally bold, and quite unexpected, but as Abe’s arrows have sailed wide of their target, investors have sat on their hands.

“The market’s reaction is getting duller day by day. The negative interest rates boosted the market only for two days,” said Norihiro Fujito, senior investment analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, and trading data shows even that was down to short-term “gamblers”, he added.

A week later, even those gains are gone, as foreign investors withdrew a net 207 billion yen from the market, taking their total for 2016 to more than 1 trillion yen. U.S.-based Japanese stock funds also saw an outflow in the week ended Feb 3.

Though the Nikkei is up about 36% since Kuroda was appointed in March 2013, the yen has weakened from 95 to nearly 117 to the dollar over that period, so in dollar terms it is up only 10%, less than half the rise seen on the U.S. S&P 500 index.

It is hard to fault foreign investors’ pessimism, when Abenomics has failed in its principal aims to shake off two decades of deflation and flat growth.

Many economists expect last quarter’s GDP data, due later this month, to show a contraction, the fifth in the last nine quarters.

Kuroda’s primary goal, to achieve 2% growth in prices, is as far away as ever, with core inflation stuck around zero as oil prices tumble.

Despite the easing, the yen is near its strongest level in more than a year, dimming the prospects for exporters.

The headwinds, such as slowdown in China, weak external demand and the oil market rout, are mainly beyond the control of Abe and Kuroda.

But that is why investors think Japanese policymakers are pushing against a piece of string, despite Kuroda’s defiant talk that there is no limit to monetary easing.

“Negative rates will do little to enhance prosperity and economic growth … They are a means to depreciate the currency and boost asset prices to some extent. But the global economy is already rather weak,” said Michael Kretschmer, chief investment officer at Pelargos Capital in the Hague, the Netherlands.

Some investors are pinning their hopes on Abe’s third arrow, structural reforms such as addressing labour market rigidity.

But they are not holding their breath.

“Real economic reform will only make a difference in the longer term. So I can only hope that Abenomics doesn’t lose momentum,” said Hannah Cunliffe, senior portfolio manager at Union Investment in Frankfurt.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2016.

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