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Economists say yen to remain strong, won may weaken in 2012

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – Can’t afford to have a beer off base in Japan anymore? Blame Europe.

The Eurozone’s debt crisis is one of the key factors keeping the Japanese yen at record strength against the U.S. dollar – a strength that makes buying goods and services off base in Japan very expensive for U.S. servicemembers paid in dollars.

Meanwhile, servicemembers who rarely venture off base have reaped a windfall in the form of unspent cost-of-living adjustments added to their paychecks, which range from hundreds of dollars for junior enlisted to thousands of dollars monthly for senior officers, depending on location and family size.

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The euro’s weakness is fueling an investor demand for secure currencies, and the yen is among the world’s safest bets.

The demand is also why several economists expect the yen to remain strong against the dollar for at least the first part of 2012, and then weaken slightly in the second half as the euro market stabilizes.

Expect the Eurozone situation to remain unsettled for three or four more months, said Mitsumaru Kumagai, chief economist at Daiwa Institute of Research.

“There is a high possibility that yen will go up to 75 yen to the dollar [in market trading],” Kumagai said.

As of Friday, one dollar bought 77 yen in market trading, while military banks were selling the dollar for 75 yen.

The rate is now 29 percent higher than it was in January 2008, when a dollar bought 109 yen. The global downturn in the economy spurred the yen’s strength then, much as its continued woes and the Eurozone crisis are doing now.

The Japanese government would likely intervene if the yen gets any stronger than 75, Kumagai predicted. A strong yen makes exports like cars and electronics more expensive for U.S. and other global customers to purchase.

Japan’s record of intervention is mixed. It sold more yen to weaken the currency in 2011, but that effort worked only briefly.

If the Eurozone finds itself in a doomsday scenario – for example, Greece defaults on its massive debt and Italy can’t find enough financing for its debt woes – then the yen could strengthen well beyond current rates, said Yoshikiyo Shimamine, chief economist of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo.

The more likely scenario is that the yen continues in the 75 to 80 range against the dollar until the Eurozone uncertainty shakes out, Shimamine said.

For the yen to weaken considerably, the U.S. economy would have to show strong signs of a recovery, he added.

“If that happens, the yen will dip over 80,” Shimamine said.

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, the outlook is murkier. The investor flight that is strengthening the yen could weaken the less-established South Korean won in the coming months.

“I predict the won will be considerably volatile between a 50 won and 100 won [margin],” said Kang Seoghoon, an economics professor at the Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul.

Kang speculates that slower growth in China could weaken the South Korean economy and demand for its currency.

Chung Chae-shick, an economics professor at the Sogang University in Seoul, expects a stronger won in the first half of 2012 followed by a dip against the dollar.

Eurozone uncertainty will drive investors to buy into emerging markets like South Korea, Chung said. As the year continues, dollar demand will rise, weakening the won – but not by much, he said.

“The [South Korean] government will prevent the won from getting too strong or weak,” Chung said.

The won was trading at 1,160 per dollar in commercial markets, and 1,128 per dollar at military banks Friday.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida and YooKyong Chang contributed to this report.

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

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