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Japan’s banks are in trouble again

Government intervention shows that there is real cause for concern.

Monday October 27 in Tokyo started out sunny and clear, but by around 4pm ominous black clouds filled the sky and by 5pm there was total dark before the first flashes of lightning began to strike over the city’s skyscrapers. As a metaphor for the country’s fortunes over the last few months this would be hard to improve on: after a period in which Japan’s banks seemed to have risen above their stricken peers, that Monday saw the Nikkei 225 index fall to a 26-year low.

The banks’ fortunes plummeted almost in sync: their fates are, to a degree perhaps unparalleled elsewhere among sophisticated markets, tied to the domestic stock market. Hajime Kitano, an equity strategist at JP Morgan in Japan, estimates their collective average beta — that is, sensitivity to stock market fluctuations — to be between 1.3 and 1.4, much higher than their peers in the US or Europe.

Now Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, last of the big three banks to make an overseas splash during the good times with its $9 billion investment in Morgan Stanley, is the first to seek new capital in the form of up to $990 million in common and preferred shares to be issued over the next twelve months.

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