The Coming Week in Asia: Japan Panel to Mull Hacking Zeros Off the Yen

Near-parity levels with the dollar and euro would make transactions easier. Also, the Hang Seng index gets tweaked.
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TOKYO -- In the halls of Japan's

Ministry of Finance

and at the headquarters of the ruling

Liberal Democratic Party

, you're starting to hear officials grumble about how tired they are with all the zeros floating around.

They're not talking about members of parliament, although that might be a legitimate beef. And they're not talking about the size of Japan's staggering public debt, which roughly equals the $4 trillion economy. They're talking about all the zeros tacked on to Japan's yen notes.

Even the editors of newspapers are starting to get concerned. How, they must have wondered, were they going to fit the 11 digits needed to report the government's recent 18 trillion-yen ($169.7 billion) economic stimulus package into a headline?

There are 1,000- and 5,000-yen bills and a widely used 10,000-yen note, worth roughly a hundred clams. (Point of reference: If you had one of each in your wallet and took a taxi from the airport to downtown Tokyo, you wouldn't have enough to pay the hack.)

The government wants to eliminate this cumbersome mess. And this week, the ruling LDP set up a committee to consider pruning zeros from the yen, a process known as redenomination, by 2002. The date is not arbitrary. It was chosen to coincide with the deadline the

European Union

set for countries to complete their transition to the euro currency. Politicians believe if the yen is redenominated, it would leave the dollar, the euro and the yen trading roughly near parity, making currency calculations a whole lot less complicated. It would also make business and trade a wee bit easier and quicker to accomplish.

Officials are also hoping the plan would reflate the economy. Vending machines -- you can buy everything from rice to pornography at machines in Tokyo -- would have to be adjusted to accept the new denominations. Small-store owners would likely use the event as an excuse to jack up prices to cover the extra transition costs. And the government would have to commission a team to design the new money.

With or without the zeros, however, a cab ride in Tokyo will remain far from a bargain.

Meanwhile, Indonesian government officials are hoping the rupiah's exchange rate won't put on a few zeros as tensions rise in Aceh, a northern Indonesian province looking for independence.

Although the new president,

Abdurrahman Wahid

, promised the Acehnese a referendum within seven months to decide their future, Defense Minister

Juwono Sudarsono

told

BBC

radio that independence was not an option. Traders worry that the possibility of another East Timor-like situation could put immense pressure on the currency, which currently hovers at around 6,990 to the dollar. If riots continue in Aceh, as well as in Riau and Kalimantan provinces, Indonesia will live dangerously for another year.

Hong Kong investors are also looking at changes that could have them tweaking their portfolios over the next two weeks. The benchmark

Hang Seng

index will drop

Hong Kong Shanghai Hotels

,

Hopewell Holdings

and

Guangdong Investment

. They will be replaced by the better-performing

Johnson Electric Holdings

,

Dao Heng Bank Group

and

SmarTone Telecommunications

.

Although the Hang Seng ended the week with a bang, rising about 2.4% to 15,070.15, selling in those shares ahead of the Dec. 6 deadline will likely put pressure on the index and index-tracking funds.