BANKS the world over are wrestling with low interest rates. Nowhere have they grappled for longer than in Japan. Although the Bank of Japan (BoJ) introduced negative rates only in January, almost 20 months after the European Central Bank, its rates have been ultra-low for years: they first hit zero in 1999. In its long battle against deflation, it pioneered “quantitative easing”—buying vast amounts of government bonds—which depresses longer-term rates and thus banks’ lending margins. Since September the BoJ has also aimed to keep the ten-year bond yield at around nought, while holding its deposit rate at -0.1%.

Banks have had some relief lately: since Donald Trump’s election in November, the yield curve has steepened slightly—and share prices have leapt—as American interest rates have risen and the yen has tumbled. But on December 20th the BoJ kept policy on hold.

For Japan’s biggest lenders, negative rates are “an irritant, not a catastrophe”, says Brian Waterhouse of CLSA, a broker. Every tenth of a percentage point below zero, he estimates, shaves 5% from the earnings of the three “megabanks”: Mitsubishi UFJ…Continue reading