Are consumers being short-changed by the yen’s appreciation?

October 20th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

"Endaka" sale: Limited time only?

An ongoing matter of concern in the Japanese financial pages is the continued appreciation of the yen against almost every other currency. According to the overriding narrative attendant to this concern, Japanese exporters “enjoyed” a lower yen (en-yasu) until the middle of 2007, meaning that because the yen was valued low in relation to the currencies in the countries where these companies’ goods were sold, they made more money. That changed, and especially after the financial crisis of 2008, the yen shot up and continued to rise over the next three years, even after Japan’s economy was pummeled by the earthquake and tsunami last March. The yen is now up about 25 percent over what it was four years ago.

This is generally considered a bad thing since Japan’s economy depends on exports, but a lot of economists are saying the situation isn’t as dire as the media has portrayed it. Major exporters like Toyota and Sony have the ear of the mass media, so their troubles tend to represent all of Japanese industry in the financial press, but exports account for less than 20 percent of Japan’s economy. These companies threaten to move operations overseas if the yen isn’t brought down, but they’ve already moved a huge portion of their manufacturing overseas. In addition, they buy parts and materials from countries where their yen goes much further.

The economists who point this out also explain that the high yen can be considered a good thing for consumers, who should expect to “enjoy” substantially lower prices for imported products and Japanese products that use foreign ingredients. That should go without saying, and we’ve been waiting to see these savings at our local retailers. We’re still waiting. When we ask why the high yen isn’t reflected in prices we get answers like this: Though the yen is appreciating, commodity prices are increasing; many countries are experiencing inflation; since all imports have to be shipped, prices depend on the price of oil. In the end, these answers sound like excuses, because except for some isolated retail areas (Amazon; one particular brand of imported camembert, pictured), almost nothing sold in Japan from overseas has become noticeably cheaper in the last three years.

Take two obvious examples: cheese and wine. Both are subject to import duties and have little real competition from domestic products. Nevertheless, given the appreciation of the yen, prices should have dropped substantially. When we’ve asked retailers, we’ve been told that there’s always a time lag with the prices of imports. But three years? And what about produce, which should have no time lag? Kiwi fruit from New Zealand, avocados from Mexico and California, bananas from anywhere are generally the exact same prices they were three years ago. And it’s not just products. Why are concert tickets still so high? Are foreign artists taking advantage of the high yen to boost their fees, or are promoters gouging their fans?

Over the years we’ve read a few other excuses. One of the most ludicrous is that Japan is now suffering from deflation, so it would only aggravate the matter if wholesalers and other middle men passed on the savings they enjoy through the high yen. Then there’s the cultural angle: Japanese people don’t trust things that are suddenly cheap.

A fairly good indication of how some companies are benefiting from the high yen is the rash of mergers and acquisitions that have taken place in the last year. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, between April and September of this year, Japanese companies’ M&A activities were worth some ¥3 trillion, which is a 120 percent increase over the same period a year ago. In particular, brewers have been quite active in this area. Kirin Holdings has acquired a Brazilian beer company and Asahi Beer bought companies in Australia and New Zealand. It’s not just that the high yen makes these companies cheaper to purchase. While Japanese beer companies face a shrinking market, they’ve made decent profits with the high yen since they import most of their ingredients, like wheat, from overseas.

Since the media doesn’t seem overly concerned with this issue, we invite the readers of this blog to comment and offer evidence that either supports our observation or refutes it. Have you seen the high yen reflected in lowered prices of imported goods? And we don’t just mean limited bargain sales, but rather continuing low prices. If so, tell us where to find them. We’d love to be wrong.

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7 Responses

  1. I’ve been here for 20-odd years, and clothing prices have definitely come down during that time. In the last 3 years perhaps there hasn’t been much difference, but over the time I’ve been here there’s been a huge difference. But most of the difference, I suspect, has been driven by stores like Uniqlo and Zara, which offer pretty good quality basic clothing.

    Mostly, in other consumer goods, prices haven’t so much come down so much as not gone up, while they have gone up in other countries. (I remember when a cup of coffee seemed extraordinarily expensive here. These days the price of a cup of coffee in London is more likely to shock, I suspect.)

    Oh, and in the last couple of years, of course, anyone who wears glasses is going to know about places like Zoff, which offer much cheaper glasses than were previously available. (Made in Korea, I think?) I paid ¥40,000 for my last pair of glasses (several years ago, and the cheapest I could find then – I usually wear contacts), and then Zoff came along and I could suddenly get a pair for around ¥6000. Zoff is the Uniqlo of the glasses world. I don’t know how any other glasses stores will stay in business over the long run if they don’t follow suit.

    In food it’s all a lot less noticeable. It seems that a minority of companies are taking advantage of the strong yen, and it’s only when they do that others in the same market are obliged to follow suit. I just wish they all did it. Perhaps if some food company starts importing and selling food at more realistic prices others will be forced to follow suit.

    (Furniture and construction is an area ripe for some enterprising company to get into, too, I reckon. Maybe houses have to be small, but they don’t have to be ugly and all the same.)

  2. 3 years ago I switched my business from 100% export to 90% import and only 10% export. It really depends on the product…as Kansai Mary said, some products have gone up in price which offsets some of the currency exchange. In other areas, companies are reluctant to lower prices, fearing the eventual return to higher prices will be met with much resistance. With the Japanese consumers still buying the same amounts at the same price anyways, unless a competitor forces them to lower pricing, they’re just enjoying the added margin. Keep in mind that changing pricing is also a big headache for a company that has a massive amount of printed advertising and such to deal with…the only real motivator there is going to be the competition. (Like ZOFF that KansaiMary mentioned)

    One of my import brands, however, has both tons of domestic competition and too many unique products that change too often to have a set price. I quote a yen price for those products based on the US$ price plus shipping/duties and the result has seen a 10,000% increase in sales this year. (now that word has gotten out) Fun stuff while it lasts.

  3. Really good points. Perhaps we should add that housing materials are always a sticky subject. Because the JIS standard is required by a lot of banks and insurers and foreign suppliers don’t receive the JIS certification without help from Japanese importers, it’s difficult for them to see their wares in Japan, even if they’re superior and quality and/or cheaper. Some say JIS is a form of indirect protectionism.

    Also, with regards to importers not cutting prices because they don’t think consumers will stay with them when they eventually raise prices again, from everything we’ve read the “endaka” phenomenon is predicted to be with us indefinitely (it has already been a fact of life for three years) and a lot of economists think the current exchange rate is more rational than it’s ever been.

  4. I just saved a ton of yen on CDs by buying from Amazon in the US. Even though prices in CD stores have come down a bit it’s still much cheaper to buy it on-line and pay shipping costs.

  5. Whoever believes, that for companies in Japan the appreciation of the the Yen is anything else than a chance to make higher profits, is simply a fool. This has nothing to do with Japan, it would be the same in every other country of the world, just ask the Swiss….

    When I came here, I got almost 170 Yen for one Euro, now I get around 100. Prices of imported food are basically unchanged, so you figure out he profits for yourselves.

    Another story is petrol. It cost around 90 Yen a liter then and it cost about 150 until it went down to 140 again….

    You do he maths.

  6. The yen’s appreciation is hurting Japanese competitiveness in the world market. Toyota as well as other car makers have cut their profits and more importantly their budgets for research, safety, and development because of the strong yen. The same goes for electronic giants like Sony, Matsushita, Sharp, etc. As such Japan is yielding her per-eminent position in these industries to countries with lower labor costs and weaker currencies. Look at Japan’s shipbuilding industry and you will see the future of her car and electronics endeavors. The US complains about how Asian nations manipulate their currencies to maintain their competitive edge. Only Japan does not manipulate the value of the yen and the result is the loss of jobs and key markets. Indeed if you look at the value of the yen to the dollar, one could conclude that the US is a major manipulator of her currency.

  7. I purchase most everything from overseas and have it shipped to my home in Japan. Even Japanese products. Simply, Japanese companies are extremely greedy, that is the only reason the prices have not dropped 25% as they should have. What can you expect from a culture whose deity is Okane.

    One example of an overseas purchase of a Japanese product is the Canon HD camera I purchased from B&H Camera. I tried to purchase it in Japan but the prices were sickening. The camera was 700,000 ¥ in Japan stores. I purchased it in the states for less than 3500.00.

    This is just another example of how complacent Japanese are. You’d think this nation would buy a vowel from Vanna by now, and figure it out. But, nope! They are too busy working six days a week for their demon buchos, to have any time to think for themselves.

    And forget places like Rakuten or Amazon.jp. Those places are a joke, and the websites look like they were designed in the 1980s. Seems the “tech savvy” (translated — greatly behind the tech times) Japanese still haven’t figured out how to upload a decent .jpg file.

    So, I’ll continue to take advantage of the smoldering U.S. dollar, and convert my ¥ to $ every couple of months, and get the high price ticket items I need, and get them at a 25% discount. I knew there had to be some good reason to remain in this radiated infested land.

    Please, U.S. keep sending all your factories to China. Keep the banks deregulated, and the Federal Reserve printing your money at huge interest rates. Don’t prosecute any of the bankers and fraudsters that bankrupted the entire nation and wiped the financial markets, trading markets and real estate markets off the maps. As for me… I’ll continue to raise a toast to the dwindling U.S. dollar, and only hope it continue it’s decline along with the American dream.

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