World News

Japan warns against yen spike as investors seek safety on virus spread

By Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s finance minister on Monday warned investors against pushing up the yen rapidly, saying the government is closely watching markets, which he described as “nervous” amid the global spread of the coronavirus.

Taro Aso made the comment at an ad-hoc news conference held after the yen <JPY=> jumped more than 3% to a day high of 101.58 per dollar, its highest in three years.

The benchmark Nikkei share index <.N225> tumbled to 14-month lows on Monday on rising fears the spread of the coronavirus could severely damage the global economy.

“We must watch currency and stock market moves for a while. We’ll examine them carefully,” Aso told reporters, describing recent market moves as nervous.

Asked whether Japan needs to intervene in the currency market to stem the yen’s strength, Aso declined to comment.

Aso’s comment came after a senior finance ministry official stepped up warnings that the authorities would watch market moves with a “greater sense of urgency” amid the virus fears.

The spread of the epidemic has prompted heavy selling of riskier assets by investors and a scramble into assets such as the yen, which are perceived to be safer havens during times of financial distress.

Japanese policymakers tend to talk down gains in the currency as sharp appreciations hurt competitiveness of the country’s exports and could weigh on the export-led economy, which is teetering on the edge of recession.

“Nervous moves are seen” in the currency market, the official told reporters, after the yen broke <JPY=> through 104 per dollar. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Senior officials from the Ministry of Finance (MOF), the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and the financial watchdog, including top Japanese currency diplomat Yoshiki Takeuchi will meet at 0630 GMT to discuss global financial markets, the ministry announced on Monday. The currency tsar will brief reporters after the meeting, it said.

The number of people infected with the coronavirus topped 107,000 across the world and 3,600 people have died, as the outbreak caused more economic disruption.

Japan last intervened in foreign exchange markets in 2011 to stem yen gains in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by large earthquakes and a tsunami. Tokyo has stayed out of the market since then.

Japanese officials say they are sticking to an agreement of the Group of Seven and Group of 20 economies that excess volatility and disorderly market moves damage the economy, a tacit agreement they interpret as allowing action against sharp market swings.

(Editing by Kim Coghill and Jacqueline Wong)