The foreign exchange market is vast, complicated and ruthlessly competitive. Major banks, trading houses and funds dominate the market and quickly incorporate any new information into the prices.

So, forex trading is not a market for the unprepared or ignorant. To effectively trade in it on a fundamental basis, traders must be knowledgeable when it comes to the major foreign currencies. This knowledge should include not only the current economic stats for a country, but also the underpinnings of the respective economies and the special factors that can influence the currencies.

Introduction to the Yen

Just seven currencies account for 80% of the forex market, and the Japanese yen is one of the largest currencies, in terms of international trade and forex trading. That is only fitting, as Japan is one of the largest economies in the world, with one of the highest GDP among nations; it is also one of the largest exporters, in dollar terms.

All of the major currencies in the forex market have central banks behind them. In the case of the Japanese yen, it is the Bank of Japan (BoJ). Like most developed-country central banks, the Bank of Japan has a mandate to act in a fashion that encourages growth and minimizes inflation. In the case of Japan, however, deflation has been a persistent threat for many years, and the BOJ has pursued a policy of very low rates in the hopes of stimulating demand and economic growth; at various points in the 2000s, real rates in Japan were actually slightly negative.

The Economy Behind the Yen

The Japanese economy has some particular and peculiar attributes that yen traders need to understand.  Firstly, despite its size, Japan has been notably lacking in growth since the collapse of its equity and real estate bubbles in 1990. Writers often refer to the ensuing years as a "lost decade" in Japan because of this reason. Since then, growth has rarely exceeded 2% in Japan between 2001 and 2011, and has contracted to zero or negative rates multiple times. Japan is also notable for inflation, or rather its almost near-absence of it; Japan has actually experienced deflation for much of the last decade.

Second, Japan is also the oldest major economy in the world and has one of the lowest fertility rates. That suggests an increasingly aging workforce with fewer and fewer younger workers to support the economy through taxation and consumption. Japan is also quite closed to immigration, and that establishes difficult demographics.

Lastly, Japan is also an advanced economy with a well-educated workforce. Although industries like shipbuilding have migrated to countries like South Korea and China, Japan is still a leading manufacturer of consumer electronics, autos and technological components. This has left Japan with significant exposure to the global economy, but also with increasing reliance on China as a trade partner.

Drivers of the Yen

There are several theories that attempt to explain foreign exchange rates. Purchasing power parity, interest rate parity, the Fisher effect and balance of payments models all offer explanations of the "right" exchange rate, based on factors like relative interest rates, price levels and so forth. In practice, these models do not work especially well in the real market – real market exchange rates are determined by supply and demand, which includes a variety of market psychology factors.

Major economic data includes the release of GDP, retail sales, industrial production, inflation and trade balances. These come out at regular intervals, and many brokers, as well as many financial information sources like the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, make this information freely available. Investors should also take note of information on employment, interest rates (including scheduled meetings of the central bank) and the daily news flow; natural disasters, elections and new government policies can all have significant impacts on exchange rates.

In the case of Japan and yen traders, the Tankan survey is particularly noteworthy. Many countries report information on business confidence, and the Tankan is a quarterly report published by the Bank of Japan. The Tankan is seen as a very important report, and often moves trading in Japanese stock and currency; trade flow data is also uncommonly important for the yen.

In many respects, BoJ policy drives carry trades across the world. Carry trading refers to borrowing money in a low-interest-rate environment, and then investing that money in higher-yielding assets from other countries. With a stated policy of near-zero interest rates, Japan has long been a major source of capital for that trade. That also means, though, that talk of higher rates in Japan can send ripples throughout the currency markets.

Unique Factors for the Japanese Yen

While the BoJ has maintained low rates since Japan's property bubble collapsed, the bank has also been involved in currency intervention – selling the yen to help keep Japanese exports more competitive. This intervention has carried political consequences in the past, however, so the bank is relatively hesitant to intervene in the forex markets.

Japan's trade balance also impacts BoJ policy and forex rates. Japan has large trade surpluses, but very large public debt and an aging population. A large percentage of that debt is held domestically, though, and Japanese investors seem willing to accept low rates of returns.

The yen is the signature currency for Asia; it is one of the top most frequently traded currencies in the world, and its relative stability has made it a significant reserve currency for many Asian countries. While the significance of the yen could be at risk if the Chinese yuan becomes more liquid, that would likely be a multi-year process.

While Japan has very high debt levels, traders tend to be more comfortable with Japan's debt balance, as so much of it is domestically owned. Moreover, traders often balance the high debt level of Japan with its high trade surplus, though the devaluation of the dollar and the "safe haven" status of the yen have led the Japanese coin to become so strong that it threatens the very trade surplus that makes it attractive.

The Bottom Line

Currency rates are notoriously difficult to predict, and most models seldom work for more than brief periods of time. While economics-based models are seldom useful to short-term traders, economic conditions do shape long-term trends. Japan's strong trade surplus will likely maintain the country's position as a relative safe haven for some time to come, but the aging workforce, persistently low consumer and business confidence, as well as the rising significance of China as an economic rival, do threaten that position.