Great Chart: Oil Prices vs. Japan Trade Balance

The recovery in oil prices since February 2016 has eased financial conditions for most of the Middle East countries and has reversed the path of the corporate default rate for US energy companies exposed to the shale industry. Higher oil prices have also brought back inflation in most of the economies, hence pushed up expectations of nominal growth rates. However, for countries that are heavy importers of energy (i.e. Japan), higher oil prices usually mean a deterioration of the Trade Balance. Japan has limited domestic proved oil reserves (44 million barrels), which means that the country is a net importer of oil. According to the EIA, Japan is the fourth-largest petroleum consumer and the third largest net importer, and its daily consumption in 2016 was of 4 million barrels per day. Therefore, if we plot the WTI futures prices (6M lead) with the Japanese trade balance, we can notice a significant co-movement between the two times series. This chart suggests that oil prices can be used as a sort of leading indicator for the Japanese trade balance. For instance, when oil prices entered a bear market in 2014, the trade balance switched from a 1.1tr JPY deficit in the middle of 2014 to a 350bn JPY surplus in H2 2016. Hence, with oil prices constantly trending higher with the front-month contract on the WTI trading at $70 per barrel, its highest level since Q4 2014, we can potentially anticipate that the Japanese trade balance will go back into deficit in the medium term.

What are the consequence for the Japanese Yen?

In our BEER FX model, we saw that exchange rates (in log terms) react positively to a positive change in interest rate differential and in terms of trade differential, and negatively to a change in inflation rate differential. Hence, if we expect import prices to rise in Japan due to higher energy costs (especially Oil), the terms of trade should ‘deteriorate’ and therefore have a negative impact on the currency. However, we know that the Japanese Yen is also very sensitive to the current macro environment and often acts as a safe-have asset when the risk-off sentiment rises (Yen appreciates in periods of equity sell-off). In our view, the problem Japanese officials may face in the following 6 months is higher energy prices combined with a strong Yen at 105 (vis-à-vis the US Dollar), which will directly weigh on the country’s economic outlook as fundamentals will start to deteriorate, leaving less and less room for some BoJ manoeuvre.

Chart: Oil prices (WTI, 6M Lead) vs. Japan Trade Balance (Source: Eikon Reuters)

Japan Trade