Almost exactly ten years ago, on September 12, 2007 Japan’s current prime minister Shinzo Abe resigned less than a year into a tenure dogged by scandals, the suicide of a minister, a raft of resignations and corruption allegations, and a humiliating election drubbing for his Liberal Democratic Party. Never one to shrink away from resposibility, Abe blamed it on crippling diarrhea:
Shinzo Abe resigned as Prime Minister, claiming that diarrhea was preventing him from carrying out his duties. The diarrhea was due to ulcerative colitis, a bowel illness caused by ulcers. Abe had suffered from this illness for decades, but after becoming Prime Minister, the stress of his job apparently made the symptoms worse.
Apparently it did not prevent him from taking on the job again some five years later, when he was reinserted in the prime ministerial position again, largely as a smokescreen meant to keep the government together as BOJ’s then-new governor Haruhiko Kuroda unleashed the greatest “wealth creation” and bond monetization experiment in the history of Japan, which has culminated with the Japanese central bank owning nearly 100% of Japan’s GDP in Japanese Government Bonds.
Unfortunately for Abe, it may be time to buy Imodium again.
As Deutsche Bank reports, following a fresh series of political scandals, the Abe cabinet’s approval ratings have kept falling and are now in the sub-40% “danger zone” and as DB’s Makoto Yamashita writes, it is now starting to look as though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might be forced out of office until the Liberal Democratic Party leadership race scheduled for September 2018, “in which case JGB yields might be at risk of climbing quite significantly.”
Ironically, in many ways this mirrors Abe’s first fall from grace. This is what the Economist wrote some ten years ago:
“Mr Abe’s government was initially very popular. Yet the tide in Mr Abe’s affairs only ebbed. True, early on he made a notable opening towards China, with whom relations had been strained under Mr Koizumi. Other than that, Mr Abe proved unable to impose discipline upon a cabinet of the corrupt and incompetent. Worse, he had a tin ear for the political mood. Voters, it had turned out, had been beguiled more by Mr Koizumi the messenger than by his message of structural reform, which entailed pain and uncertainty, notably in Japan’s rural regions and among the old. Mr Abe failed to address these concerns.”
This time around, the reason for the German bank’s dour outlook is because sub-40% approval ratings have almost invariably triggered changes of leadership around one year later over the past two decades and have always resulted in significant national election defeats.
“We will thus be watching quite closely to see whether Abe’s upcoming cabinet reshuffle proves successful in regaining the 40% level. Given that this political risk is a yen-specific factor, it should be sufficient to buy foreign bonds as a hedge against the possibility of a “risk off” decline in interest rates.”
And since the financial world is far more interested in the implications of Abe’s departure on JGBs than his actual political fate, here is the background: while the BOJ has once again proved successful in curbing upward pressure on the 10y JGB yield by conducting a fixed-rate operation, it continues to buy more 5y–10y JGBs than are being issued each month and is thus likely to reduce its purchases when yields are declining. Moreover, the BOJ has this month left its offer amounts in the super-long sector unchanged (at least to this point) despite yields having climbed quite considerably. The central bank thus appears willing to tolerate steepening of the >10y curve, which may suggest that a “shock” political event like an Abe resignation may lead to an accelerated selloff off the longest-dated Japanese bonds.
As for Abe’s fate, here are the details:
Abe cabinet’s approval ratings already in dangerous territory: the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on July 10 that the Abe cabinet’s approval rating had fallen 13%pt from its previous survey to 36%, while other polls have shown a 5%pt decline to 33% (Asahi) and a 13%pt decline to 35% (NHK). An approval rating of 40% or higher is generally considered necessary for a prime minister to remain in office. The Yomiuri Shimbun also reported a 10% decline in the Liberal Democratic Party’s approval rating to 31%, a 1%pt decline for the Democratic Party to just 6%, and a 7%pt increase for independents to 47%. Some have suggested that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might still be “safe” for want of opposition, but past experience indicates that might not necessarily be the case.
And, as Deutsche Bank warns, it is now beginning to look as though Abe might be forced out of office prior to the LDP leadership race scheduled for September 2018. Here’s why:
For starters, no administration since 1997 has survived for more than a year after recording sub-40% cabinet approval ratings in consecutive months, although Keizo Obuchi should probably be considered an exception given that his cabinet’s approval rating had improved from 25% initially to 40% by the time he was forced to stand down due to the abovementioned diarrhea. Only Junichiro Koizumi served out his full term, having consistently maintained approval ratings above 40%. It is possible that Abe will redeem himself with his upcoming cabinet reshuffle, but failure to regain the 40% level would almost certainly point to a change of prime minister before the end of 2018 if past experience is any guide.
Second, the next lower house election needs to be called by December 2018, and it is important to note that each upper or lower house election since 2003 contested with a sub-40% cabinet approval rating has resulted in defeat for the incumbent party (chart below), with changes of government occurring after Abe’s July 2007 upper house election defeat, Taro Aso’s August 2009 lower house defeat, and Yoshihiko Noda’s December 2012 lower house defeat. The next LDP leadership race is scheduled for September 2018, and it seems highly unlikely that party members would throw their support behind someone with a sub-40% cabinet approval ratings. The lack of unified opposition is indeed a significant difference from the past, but it is quite conceivable that independents will have combined forces to establish a new party by the end of this year or soon thereafter.
Third, Abe will struggle to proceed with his attempt to revise the Constitution if his approval rating remains so low. Even if the necessary two-thirds majority can be secured in the Diet, it is difficult to envisage 50% support in a national referendum. There does not currently appear to be any headroom to use fiscal or monetary policy to boost the government’s popularity, with the Abe administration having already compiled a roughly JPY28.1 trillion “Economic Stimulus Package for Realizing Investment for the Future” under the second FY2016 supplementary budget. Some market participants appear to believe that further pump-priming could be on the cards, but recent experience has in any case demonstrated that even that might not be enough to win back the support of voters.
Fourth, while markets may be finding it difficult to envisage a post-Abe government, Kyodo recently claimed that Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida intends to stand down around the time of the cabinet reshuffle (although we are as yet unsure as to the accuracy or veracity of this report). Kishida heads a faction thought to consist of around 46 LDP lawmakers (chart below)). This faction has its origins in the Kochi Kai launched by then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda back in 1957, and is thought to be more dovish than Abe with regard to matters of diplomacy or the possibility of constitutional reform. Kishida is believed to have reiterated on June 28 that he remains reluctant to revise war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, and Finance Minister Taro Aso might also emerge as a contender now that he is effectively heading the LDP’s second largest faction. As a result, expect talk of a successor to Abe to heat up unless the upcoming cabinet reshuffle does prove successful in reversing recent declines in popularity.
Finally, here’s why the above matters for Japanese risk assets, from Deutsche Bank:
We have been stressing the potential for political risk to drive JPY rates higher for several weeks now, but have yet to see this possibility priced into the market. This is somewhat puzzling given that the demise of Abe would almost certain have ramifications for the BOJ (with Abe having been such a strong support of Governor Haruhiko Kuroda). The current climate of low bond market volatility thus looks likely to come to an end sooner rather than later. Weak inflation has of course helped to keep JPY rates anchored, but that might not be enough if political instability does develop into a major market theme. We will therefore be keeping a close eye on poll results following Abe’s upcoming cabinet reshuffle.
And for those who are seeking a pair-trade variant to a long position in govvies elsewhere, DB recommends shorting Japan dur to said rising Abe risk:
Given that this political risk is a yen-specific factor, it should be sufficient to buy foreign bonds as a hedge against the possibility of a (global) “risk off” decline in interest rates (including super-long JGB yields).
As for Abe’s life after resigning – for the second time, – we are confident he will be fine following a few unpleasant run-ins, pardon the pun, with the bathroom which will once again be scapegoated for his failures, and several Imodium prescriptions. Who knows, after Japan’s economy crashes for a few more years, we may just see the third coming of prime minister Abe to serve as the smokescreen to the BOJ one last time, which at that point will be forced to buy, well, everything to keep the market from imploding.