In his latest visit to the United States, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to strengthen Japan’s ties with the new U.S. administration and dispel any distrust in his government’s motives.
Japan’s economy expanded at a modest pace in 2016 as a weaker yen continued to fuel the country’s export-driven recovery for the fourth straight quarter. Business investment improved to 0.9 percent in the last quarter, but consumer spending was dragged down by a slower wage growth.
Net exports make up 0.2 percent of the country’s 1 percent annualized growth. Japan’s dependence on its trading partners calls to question the sustainability of its economic recovery in the face of President Donald Trump’s protectionist threats and the political uncertainty surrounding Europe.
Trump, who has been critical of the growing U.S. trade deficit, accused Japan, along with China and Germany, of manipulating its currency to gain trade advantages. The U.S. trade deficit with Japan totaled $68.94 billion in 2016, the second largest among its trading partners. The deficit with China, which topped the list, decreased by $20.1 billion, but still came out to $347.04 billion.
“You look at what China’s doing, you look at what Japan has done over the years. They play the money market, they play the devaluation market and we sit there like a bunch of dummies,” said Trump in a meeting with pharmaceutical company executives.
Since being sworn into office, Trump has met with CEOs from various industries to discuss job creation and growth opportunities in the United States.
Japanese officials quickly rejected Trump’s claims by stating that the country’s monetary program was intended to fight deflation and not to devalue the yen. The Bank of Japan, which has been struggling to hit its 2 percent inflation target in the past couple of years, surprised investors last November when it offered to buy unlimited five to 10-year government bonds at a fixed rate. The BOJ shook the markets again earlier this month when it announced a limited expansion in its current bond purchasing program. When central banks unexpectedly change the money supply through operations like quantitative easing, the exchange rate falls due to the increase in the quantity of bills in circulation.
Following their meeting in Washington, D.C., the two leaders continued their talks through the weekend at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Investors, who were carefully monitoring the exchanges between the two sides leading up to Abe’s visit, showed more enthusiasm in the markets after Trump stated in a joint press conference, “the bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep.”
He also added, “This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer. We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance.”
Japan’s Nikkei share average surged to a four-and-a-half week high on the first day of trading after the Abe-Trump weekend meeting. The Nikkei 225, which is equivalent to the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the United States, closed the day 0.5 percent higher at 19,483.38 after jumping as high as 19,519.44 during intraday trading. Later in the week, Japanese financial stocks climbed higher on U.S. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s comments that the central bank will likely need to raise rates in one of its upcoming meetings.
Some of the biggest gainers of the day included Dai-ichi Life Holdings and Mizuho Financial Group, which jumped 5.1 percent and 1.6, percent respectively. Japanese companies and investors also increased their U.S. treasury holdings as yields extended their longest streak of gains in two months following Yellen’s remarks.
Meanwhile, shares of Toshiba, a Japanese electronics conglomerate, slid 10 percent after the company announced that it would book a $6.3 billion write down for its U.S. nuclear business. The company said it is currently planning to raise cash by selling a majority stake in its lucrative memory chips business. Government officials also weighed in on the situation, noting that the company’s turnaround will be vital to the Japan’s economy.
“Toshiba’s flash memory business is an significant part of Japan’s economic growth strategy,” said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief government spokesman, in a daily briefing cited by Reuters. “Its domestic nuclear business is important for reactor decommissioning and the clean up of contaminated water.”
On Saturday, Feb. 11, Abe and Trump held an unplanned news conference in light of North Korea’s latest nuclear test.
“North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable,” Abe said through a translator. “President Trump and I myself completely share the view that we are going to promote further cooperation between the two nations. And also we are going to further reinforce our alliance.”
Trump assured Japan that it could rely on the full support of the United States in the future adding, “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
Although Trump’s stance on trade will be a massive cause of concern for global economies that rely on the United States for their export revenue, his relationship with Japan seems to be on good terms.