Shinzo Abe's death raises doubts over Japan central bank's 'super-easy' monetary support

Initial market reaction to assassination was a rush on haven assets as the yen edged up 0.5%

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As traders absorb the tragic news of the death of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, they are also left facing a debate about how the loss of a strong advocate of the central bank’s super-easy monetary policy could affect markets in the days to come.

The initial market reaction to the shock news on Friday that Abe had been shot was a rush to haven assets.

The yen climbed alongside Treasuries, with the currency rising as much as 0.5 per cent against the US dollar as details filtered through about the shocking attack in the western city of Nara during campaigning for Sunday’s national election.

While some market strategists suggested the yen could extend gains and weigh on stocks should Abe's passing hasten a rethink of central bank policy, economists largely expect the impact to be limited.

Abe had been a key supporter of Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s policy of maintaining rock-bottom interest rates to support economic growth and had recently described the central bank as a subsidiary of the government.

“Abe was well known outside Japan and foreign investors have seen him positively,” said Masahiro Yamaguchi, a senior market analyst at SMBC Trust Bank.

“It could be negative for markets if the government’s policy, including its stance on monetary easing, is affected, as it was evident that he was pulling the strings behind the scenes in many ways.”

While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida distanced himself from Abe’s subsidiary remark, he has continued to support the central bank's policy that first emerged under Abe.

The US Federal Reserve’s acceleration of interest rate increases and European Central Bank preparations to follow suit have put the BoJ a long way out of sync with global peers.

That has put pressure on Mr Kuroda and tested the resolve of a government worried about yen weakness and popular discontent over rising prices.

The outlier stance has contributed to this year’s sharp slide in the yen to a 24-year low against the dollar. It has also led to waves of upward pressure on the central bank’s 0.25 per cent cap on 10-year government debt.

However, the shock assassination of Abe is causing some observers to reassess where the yen, equities and credit markets may head next, given his clout in political circles and stance on monetary policy.

“This may have an impact in the medium to long term, and the markets will see a considerable appreciation of the yen and a decline in stock prices,” said Tomoichiro Kubota, a senior market analyst at Matsui Securities.

“Abe had been supporting Bank of Japan governor Kuroda. The bank’s policy could change as they would lose that backing.”

However, economists largely argue that any impact will be limited. Some of them say the continuation of the central bank's stimulus stance after Abe stood down as prime minister in 2020 shows it was no longer dependent on his support.

During the campaign for Sunday’s upper-house election, Mr Kishida has made the case that higher interest rates would hurt “mom-and-pop” shops and homeowners even more.

“It is very unlikely this will open the door for the BoJ to raise rates or change its easing course to be on the same page as the Fed and the ECB,” said Shinichiro Kobayashi, a senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research & Consulting.

“Kishida has already established his own economic agenda and has supported the BoJ at least so far. Abe wasn’t the reason the BoJ has stuck with keeping rates very low.”

Abe hand-picked Mr Kuroda for the post of central bank chief back in 2013, when he launched his “Abenomics” platform to revive Japan’s flagging economy through unprecedented monetary easing, flexible fiscal spending and regulatory reforms.

This may have an impact in the medium to long term, and the markets will see a considerable appreciation of the yen and a decline in stock prices
Tomoichiro Kubota, senior market analyst at Matsui Securities

Those policies, including a commitment to achieve stable 2 per cent inflation, have largely stayed in place even after Abe stepped down.

Mr Kuroda strongly believes that accomplishing the 2 per cent target will help Japan to emerge from deflation and revive its economy, and will continue the current easing until he sees clear signs of sustainable inflation or economic growth, said Yuki Masujima, an economist at Bloomberg Economics.

“We can say that Kuroda is his own man,” Mr Masujima said.

Still, Abe's death guarantees traders will be extra sensitive to the election results, especially if support for the government is eroded by the cost-of-living crisis, according to Valentin Marinov, a strategist at Credit Agricole in London.

“While not our central scenario, potential losses for the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] could encourage PM Kishida to nominate a less dovish BoJ governor as the process to replace Kuroda kicks off in earnest in the second half of 2022,” Mr Marinov said.

“In turn, this could encourage markets to start expecting a policy rethink perhaps later this year.”

Updated: July 11, 2022, 7:12 AM