For most of 2012, the financial headlines were dominated by news about Europe, concerns about China's economy and, of course, the U.S. election and fiscal cliff.
In 2013, Japan will take center stage, according to John Mauldin, chairman of Mauldin Economics.
Consistent with the theme of his latest book, Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How It Changes Everything, Mauldin believes Japan is rapidly approaching the end of the road paved with government bonds and a strong currency.
Heading into the New Year, many on Wall Street are betting on a weaker yen (USD/JPY), especially after Shinzo Abe's election victory this weekend. "Economic recovery and overcoming deflation," are top priorities for the Liberal Democratic Party candidate, who is pushing for more fiscal stimulus — as much as $120 billion worth. Abe has also made overt calls on the Bank of Japan for additional monetary easing as well.
"It's almost obscene what they're talking about doing," Mauldin says.
Given Abe's agenda and an aging population that is less able to buy Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs), "they're going to have to print and print in size and level that will make what Fed and European Central Bank [have done] look small," he continues.
The combination of increased monetary and fiscal stimulus, plus less domestic demand for JGBs means "we're going to start seeing the yen deteriorate," Mauldin predicts.
Two "to be sure"-type observations:
Many traders are already betting against the Japanese currency, which recently surpassed the euro as the most shorted major currency for the first time in three years, The WSJ reports, citing Commodity Futures Trading Commission data. The yen has already fallen about 5% since mid-November in anticipation of Abe's victory and fell to its lowest level since April 2011 overnight in reaction. In other words, a lot of negativity is arguably already priced into the currency, at least in the near term.
Japan's economy has been a slow-motion train wreck for over two decades. While Mauldin says "Japan is a bug in search of a windshield," even he doesn't expect the yen to collapse in 2013. (Indeed, the WSJ also reports more foreigners are buying JGBs despite its ultra-low yields and notes Japan's "status as a haven for investors in times of turmoil consistently has buoyed the currency.")
Still, Japan is different than Greece or Spain, Mauldin explains. "They are really big. Their banks are very important" and any upheaval with the yen and or Japanese bond market is "going to effect the world economy."
Timing is everything in financial markets, of course, but Mauldin believes the yen will start to deteriorate in 2013 and ultimately trigger the beginning of a full-blown currency war among the developed economies, i.e. Japan, Europe and the U.S.
While there's been a lot of chatter about currency wars in the recent years "we haven't even seen the start yet," he predicts, suggesting the dollar might actually fare better than conventional wisdom currently expects.
Japan's deficits are "far bigger than the U.S and we know how bad our situation is," Mauldin says. "Depending on which politicians we have and how they solve the deficit, which is possible…we could see the dollar become massively stronger than anyone imagines."
Indeed, that would be counter to the prevailing wisdom about the dollar's fate and upset a lot of popular investment themes, most notably bullish bets on gold as a hedge against the dollar's demise.