Less than a quarter-century ago, Japan was the economic envy of the world. In 1989, Tokyo-listed shares represented nearly half the planet’s equity value, while the land beneath the city’s royal palace was worth more than all of California. American nightly news anchors practically misted up when they had to report that Rockefeller Center was turning Japanese.
Two lost decades and massive property- and stock-bubble explosions later, Japan is a one-word cautionary tale. Caught in economic and demographic atrophy—and stewarded by countless false-start prime ministers—the country has become a hub for zombie banks, a generation of disenchanted youth, and fading brands such as Sony, Sharp (6753:JP), and Panasonic.
Last year, for the first time, sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded those for babies. Factor in how the strong yen has been making the country’s critical exports more expensive, and you can see why the world’s No. 3 economy (recently pushed into third place by China) has been quicksand for investors; when international markets hit bottom in early 2009, Japan’s Nikkei slumped to levels it hadn’t seen since 1983. A Merrill Lynch survey of global fund managers discovered that their net exposure to Japan is at its lowest in a decade (subscription necessary).
Accordingly, in his Nov. 14 note, “The Sun Also Rises?”, James Hunt, portfolio manager of Tocqueville’s International Value Fund and a rare Japan bull, concedes: “One of the questions we are asked most often by investors is why we would invest in Japan. Normally, there is a slight tone of derision in the question, as if to say: ‘Everyone knows that Japan has poor demographics, a huge public debt and weak growth prospects.’ And of course, all of these things are true.”
Hunt says his case for Japan boils down to its deeply contrarian pull: “Everyone thinks Japan is sinking into obscurity,” he writes, “and this negative sentiment provides us with the opportunity to buy what we consider to be excellent global franchise businesses at attractive valuations.”
Noting that Japanese equities have lagged their U.S. counterparts by 25 percent over the last two years, Hunt writes, “The storm of negative factors affecting Japan combined with the poor market performance is just of the sort of situation that piques our interest.”
Over the last 12 years of economic stagnation, Japan’s Nikkei 225 Index has, in dollar terms, posted zero total return. Meanwhile, aggregate earnings for its profitable companies have gone from ¥438 billion ($5.3 billion) to ¥608 billion, while their return on equity has swelled from around 6 percent to nearly 10 percent. At the same time, notes Hunt, the price-to-earnings ratio for these profitable listings has collapsed from 24 to 15, while their dividend yield has tripled to 2.3 percent.
Of course, Japan—Nikkei, Discman, and all—could just be in the middle stages of terminal decline. Zero interest rates be damned: Jobs are scarce, deflation constantly threatens, and China and Korea are not getting any easier to compete with. Japan’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio, now well over 200 percent, is tops in the world.
Not likely, says Hunt. “There will,” he writes, “be a moment when the broad process of [equity] de-rating has run its course. With valuation multiples having compressed to quite reasonable absolute levels, we may be approaching that moment.”
“Our discipline generally is to buy good business franchises at a discount to their intrinsic value,” he adds, “and we are not as focused as many investors on catalysts and timing for the realization of value. That being said, with expectations so low and the market having underperformed, we would not be surprised to see the sun also rise in Japan.”
Hunt isn’t alone in declaring contrarian ardor for Japan. David Herro, Morningstar’s international stock fund manager of the decade, also thinks its risk-reward profile is increasingly attractive.
Indeed, the Nikkei has recently sprinted higher on broadening sentiment that the country’s policy makers will act forcefully to lower the yen—a development that would provide a huge boost to Japanese multinationals such as Toyota, Canon, and Fuji Heavy Industries (7270:JP). The “yen rout play” is what market bloggers are already calling the trade.
Shinzo Abe, widely viewed as frontrunner to become the next prime minister, has been calling for unlimited monetary easing to incite inflation. The current governor of the (independent) Bank of Japan, who has been criticized for not being loose enough with his monetary purse strings, is expected to step down in April.
“(Shinzo) Abe’s focus is on two things—aggressive monetary and fiscal stimulus,” wrote CLSA Japan strategist Nicholas Smith in a report. “He made clear that the Bank of Japan will bend to his will or he will rewrite the BOJ Law to let him fire them.” The replacement governor, he added, will be selected for his “willingness to print money.”
“It has been a fool’s game to guess when the yen would finally weaken,” writes Hunt, “but economic healing in the West and eventually inflation and rising interest rates here could certainly be a catalyst, as could money printing in Japan.”
It should be remembered, however, that the Bank of Japan has already shattered what is widely regarded as the ultimate monetary taboo: printing money to buy equities to boost the chronically moribund economy. To little apparent avail, so far.