Business

A Tokyo stock picker watches his nation age

by Tom Redmond and Nao Sano

Bloomberg

It’s an early weekday morning in Tokyo and the Japanese pub is already filled with a boisterous clientele, mostly pensioners. Sitting among them is Kengo Kuzuhara, taking notes.

The 41-year-old wants to know how his elders spend their cash, as he runs a stock fund that invests in things they buy. The strategy is paying off as Japan’s baby-boomer generation reaches retirement age: Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co.’s Active Senior Life Open Fund is gaining even as the market falls, and has beaten more than 90 percent of peers over the past five years.

Japan has about 34 million pensioners — more than the combined populations of Australia, New Zealand and Ireland — and people in their 60s or older control about two-thirds of household wealth. Kuzuhara is betting they will spend it on everything from healthy chocolates to property developers that can minimize inheritance tax.

“It’s starting to show in the results of companies we invest in,” Kuzuhara said in an interview in Tokyo. “And the rate of old people in Japan is only going to grow.”

Kuzuhara’s ¥11.5 billion ($106 million) fund has returned 12 percent over the past year, against a 16 percent drop for the Topix index. It has posted an average annual return of 24 percent over the past five years, beating 92 percent of peers, the data show. That has helped it win best Japanese equity fund in both the Lipper Fund Awards Japan and the R&I Fund Awards this year after taking top spot in a ranking by Morningstar Inc. in 2015.

Kuzuhara’s fund mixes defensive bets on health care shares with a kind of cautious growth investing. It picks companies likely to benefit from spending by the nation’s healthy elderly, firms with stable long-term earnings, rather than flashy Internet stocks. Seniors appreciate this strategy and are big investors in the fund, he says.

Kuzuhara has also been lucky. His 77 holdings have a domestic focus, meaning they escaped much of the impact of the slump in oil and strengthening yen.

In seeking to profit from Japan’s growing ranks of pensioners, Kuzuhara is taking a different slant on what is viewed as one of the nation’s biggest challenges. People aged 65 or older make up slightly more than a quarter of the country’s population — already the highest level in the world. That is projected to increase to 40 percent in coming decades, curbing growth prospects and adding to pressure on the pension system.

Kuzuhara’s largest investment, Daito Trust Construction Co., targets the elderly’s aversion to inheritance taxes, which were raised last year. The top rate is now 55 percent. Daito Trust, which builds rental properties used to mitigate the levy, has seen record profits in each of the past five years, and its shares are up 18 percent in 2016.

The second-biggest is Toridoll.corp, an operator of chicken and Japanese noodle restaurants whose stock rose 47 percent from a September low. The noodles are cheap, so three generations of a family can eat there for less than ¥1,000, and udon noodles are the perfect baby food, Kuzuhara says. He notes that while Japan’s elderly are willing to spend big on certain things, they are reluctant to waste money on routine ways to pass time.

“Seniors go out a lot and eat out when they do,” Kuzuhara said. “In the restaurant industry, lunchtime and holidays were a cash cow, and weekdays were dead. Now seniors are showing up and filling this gap, so many companies are seeing their results improve.”

Fuji Oil Holdings Inc., the third-largest holding, is an unusual bet on chocolate. It became the most popular sweet in the country in 2014, surpassing more traditional confectionery, and that is down to a boom in nutritious high-cocoa chocolates among health-conscious pensioners, according to Kuzuhara. Fuji Oil, which makes cocoa-butter equivalents, was cheaper than buying shares in a sweet company, he said. The stock’s up 4.9 percent this year.

Japan’s elderly will also always splash out on younger family members, Kuzuhara says. People in their 50s, 60s and 70s spend about ¥3.8 trillion annually on grandchildren, according to estimates by Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc. That is more than the entire outlay by the record 19.7 million visitors to Japan last year.

Kuzuhara says companies such as Studio Alice Co., which runs photography studios for children, capture this trend. The stock has climbed 32 percent this year.

The fund’s other investments include a gym popular with older customers and a provider of support for computers and smartphones, he says.

Kuzuhara worked as a small-cap analyst at Citigroup Inc. and Ichiyoshi Securities Co. before joining Sumitomo Mitsui Asset in 2008. The fund was established in 2000 and he has been running it since 2013. He says his timing was good.

“Many of the baby boomers are now reaching retirement,” he said. “These active seniors have time on their hands and are able to spend money on leisure and buying things. That’s a fairly recent development. We may have started focusing on this too early, but it’s really showing in related companies’ results just lately.”