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BOJ Faces Smallest Yield Gap With U.S. in 19 Years: Japan Credit

Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa
Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa speaks during a news conference at the central bank's headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011. Photographer: Toshiyuki Aizawa/Bloomberg

The Bank of Japan, struggling to keep the strengthening yen from derailing efforts to repair the world’s third-largest economy, is facing a new challenge -- the shrinking yield gap between two-year sovereigns and Treasuries.

The extra yield two-year Treasuries offer over similar-maturity Japanese notes fell today to the least since 1992. BOJ Governor Masaaki Shirakawa said on Aug. 4 there’s a “relatively high” correlation between that rate gap and the dollar-yen rate, as falling yield premiums in the U.S. damp dollar-buying demand from Japanese investors.

The central bank may need to lengthen the maturity of bonds in its asset purchase program to stop the yen’s appreciation, according to Mizuho Securities Co. The BOJ, whose policy rate is already near zero, bolstered stimulus by 10 trillion yen ($130 billion) on Aug. 4, the same day Japan intervened in the currency market for the first time since March.

“It’s significant that Governor Shirakawa discussed the Japan-U.S. interest rate gap, and specifically the two-year term, at a time when the yen is strengthening,” said Naomi Hasegawa, a senior bond strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co. in Tokyo.

The difference between the U.S. and Japanese two-year yields narrowed to a 19-year low of 3.7 basis points today.

U.S. two-year Treasury note yields dropped to a record low of 0.1568 percent after the Fed pledged on Aug. 9 to keep its benchmark interest rate at an all-time low at least through mid-2013 to aid the economy’s recovery. It was at 0.1869 percent today while Japanese two-year notes yielded 0.15 percent, according to Bloomberg data.

Bond Buyer

The central bank could increase the remaining maturity of government bonds it buys under its asset-purchase program to between two to three years from up to two years now, said Yasunari Ueno, chief market economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo. It could also lower the 0.1 percent rate the BOJ pays banks for keeping funds in its accounts, encouraging them to invest and lend more, he said.

Buying longer bonds would be in line with the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund, which last month said the central bank could “ward off deflation risks and support the recovery” by increasing purchases of government bonds with maturities of three years or more.

Japan’s central bank raised by 5 trillion yen a fund to buy assets such as government debt, corporate bonds and real estate investment trusts, while also boosting by the same amount on Aug. 4 a program to encourage banks to lend. Two-thirds of the 15 trillion yen asset-buying program is earmarked for buying Japanese government debt.

‘High Uncertainty’

In expanding its stimulus measures this month, the BOJ said there’s “high uncertainty” surrounding the economic outlook. Companies cut production and consumers held off from making purchases after a temblor and tsunami hit the nation’s northeast coast, causing an estimated 16.9 trillion yen in damage and triggering the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Japan’s economy shrank at a 1.3 percent annual pace in the three months through June, the third straight quarter of declines, the Cabinet Office said yesterday. It will probably rebound in the second half, according to a Bloomberg survey.

A climbing yen is an additional risk for Japan’s export-dependent recovery. The currency strengthened to as much as 76.31 per dollar on Aug. 11, near the post-World War II high of 76.25 in March that prompted the Group of Seven nations to jointly sell yen. It traded at 76.88 today in Tokyo.

Yen ‘Beyond 75’

“The yen may appreciate further, beyond 75,” Eisuke Sakakibara, a former Japanese currency official, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. “I would expect the U.S. economy to be fairly weak for a long period of time.”

There’s limit to how much the two-year rate could fall if the BOJ continues to pay a 0.1 percent interest on deposits, since banks may keep their money in the BOJ account, said Mizuho Securities’ Ueno.

Still, reflecting the continued decrease in short-term market rates, the spread between the Bank of Japan’s target of unsecured overnight call rates and three-month euroyen futures narrowed to a nine-month low of 20 basis points from a peak of 31.5 basis points in December.

The yield on Japan’s benchmark 10-year bond was little changed at 1.035 percent today, from this year’s low of 0.975 percent on Aug. 9, and 1.05 percent on Aug. 12, the most in two weeks. Ten-year Treasury yields declined one basis point to 2.30 percent, from a record 2.03 percent on Aug. 9.

Five-year contracts to insure Japanese government bonds against default fell 3 basis points to 105 basis points in New York yesterday, according to data by CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.

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