Falling yen to make Japan's goods more affordable

Attention, bargain-hunters around the world: Japanese goods — from cars to televisions — are going on sale.

Credit Japan’s drive to pump cash into its economy to stimulate growth. The extra money flooding its financial system is helping shrink the value of the yen. A U.S. dollar now buys about 100 yen. Last fall, it bought fewer than 80.

When the yen’s value falls, many Japanese goods become less expensive worldwide. Toyotas become cheaper in Germany, the United States and South Korea. So do Sony electronics. For tourists, Tokyo doesn’t cost so much to visit.

By contrast, goods made in Europe, Asia and the United States become pricier compared with Japanese products. And as sales of Japanese products grow, Japan’s economy benefits.

The rest of the world’s economies? Not so much — not right away, at least. Japan’s critics say it’s manipulating its currency to give Japanese companies an unfair edge over foreign rivals. Japan says it’s seeking to energize its economy, not lower the yen.

In the long run, economists say other nations gain, too. An economically stronger Japan means its consumers and businesses can afford to buy more goods from other countries, helping lift their economies, too.

Here’s how a cheaper yen will affect consumers, companies and investors worldwide:

JAPANESE CARS AND ELECTRONICS

If you’re a customer of Honda, Toyota or Sony somewhere outside Japan, a falling yen is your best friend. It means Camrys, Accords and PlayStations will likely cost less. And once foreign sales are converted into yen, more revenue flows to Japanese manufacturers.

When Toyota sold a Camry in the United States for $30,000, those dollars were converted into roughly 2.4 million yen. Today, Toyota would get 3 million yen from such a sale — 25 percent more.

That’s in part why Toyota, the world’s top-selling automaker, more than doubled its most recent quarterly profit from a year earlier. And why Sony is back in the black after four straight years of losses and predicts another profit for its current fiscal year.

Japan makes up about 35 percent of the U.S. auto market. It exported 1.8 million cars to North America in the fiscal year that ended in March, up nearly 6 percent from the previous year. Toyota’s Camry is the top-selling car in the United States.

TOURISM

Always dreamt of visiting Japan? It’s becoming more affordable.

Thanks to the yen’s fall beginning in late 2012, the number of visitors to Japan rose 18 percent in the first three months of 2013 to 2.3 million. Japan Tourism Agency officials say the dollar’s rise against the yen is a key reason.

If tourism strengthens further, it would help revitalize that industry after Japan’s 2011 nuclear crisis spooked many would-be visitors. The Japanese government has set an ambitious goal of attracting 25 million visitors by 2020.

GLOBAL TRADE

The weaker yen could hurt the sales of European companies already struggling from the region’s recession.

In Europe’s shrinking auto market, a cheaper yen could magnify price competition among manufacturers of mass-market cars, says Stefan Bratzel, an analyst at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. It could allow Japanese carmakers to keep prices down to retain or attract customers.

That would intensify pressure on struggling competitors like General Motors’ money-losing Opel brand and France’s Peugeot Citroen PSA.

“It heats up the price war even more,” Bratzel says.

INVESTORS IN JAPAN

For two decades starting in the early 1990s , Japan’s stock market fizzled alongside its economy. In 1989, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 stock index peaked at 38,915. A decade later, it was down to 18,500. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it sank to 7,054 in 2009.

Invest in Asia, advisers would typically tell you — but whatever you do, avoid Japan.

Bad advice this year. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index has returned 45 percent so far this year, to roughly 15,000. No other major stock index is even close. The U.S. Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, for instance, has delivered a terrific first four months. It’s up 16 percent.

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