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Forex

Trump singles out Japan, China, Germany for currency attack

Real aim may be to boost bargaining power in trade talks

TAKESHI KAWANAMI, Nikkei staff writer | China

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump and his deputies have lashed out at China, Germany and Japan for alleged currency devaluation. But if Trump's aim is to address the U.S. trade deficit, his approach could backfire by destabilizing the currency market.

The U.S. president took aim at Asia during a meeting with American business leaders Tuesday. "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," Trump said. Peter Navarro, head of America's new National Trade Council, accused Germany of doing the same with the euro, according to the Financial Times.

The targets of Trump's ire suggest these blasts' ultimate goal is reducing the U.S. trade deficit. The U.S. incurred a $745.6 billion deficit in the trade of goods in 2015. China accounts for about half of the imbalance, while Germany and Japan -- the No. 2 and No. 3 culprits -- each account for around 10%.

In Trump's reckoning, the trade deficit shows that the U.S. is "losing" to its trade partners as other countries' export promotion efforts pull American jobs and industry overseas. Accusing China, Japan and Germany of intentionally devaluing their currencies likely aims to extract concessions from those countries to work toward balanced trade. But Trump's mention of the "money market" has sparked concern that the Bank of Japan's monetary policy, the true source of the yen's weakness, could be subject to future attacks.

"We have entrusted the BOJ with implementing appropriate policy to achieve the 2% price stability target," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Diet's lower house budget committee Wednesday, saying the allegations of currency devaluation are "not applicable."

"It is critical that we maintain strong communication between Japan and the U.S. on economic and trade matters, including foreign exchange issues," Abe said.

The Japanese government has not sold yen to weaken the currency since 2011. But the BOJ's long-standing monetary easing program, combined with the promise of rising interest rates in the U.S., encourages the yen to soften against the dollar. The greenback's effective exchange rate against a basket of other currencies stood at nearly 130 in December, where 100 represents the 2010 level. This is nearly as strong as before the 1985 Plaza Accord, in which key economies agreed to weaken the dollar.

Steve Mnuchin, Trump's nominee for treasury secretary, told the Senate during his confirmation hearing that long-term strength in the dollar is "important." But his nomination has yet to be approved, keeping him from reining in Trump's reckless statements regarding currency markets. If the president keeps firing off random comments to gain the upper hand in trade talks, international efforts to keep the foreign exchange market stable, pioneered by the Group of Seven rich nations, could begin to break down.

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