• SHARE

Overseas investors are finally returning to Japanese stocks.

For that renewed interest, credit should go to Japan’s relative success in coping with the pandemic, as well as two men who are changing the way the world’s third largest stock exchange is perceived.

Newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, 71, and 90-year-old Warren Buffett, who in August placed a contrarian $6 billion bet on Japan’s trading houses, are shaking foreign investors out of their reverie when it comes to the country.

In the week ending Oct. 9, the latest week for which data is available, overseas investors spent ¥1.42 trillion ($13.5 billion) on Japanese stocks. That’s the most in more than 18 months and the fifth-largest amount on record.

It follows a ¥530.9 billion net purchase a week earlier, and marks a turnaround for a market that’s long been shunned in favor of sexier stocks in China or shares in the top-five FAANG technology giants.

"The ascent of Suga to prime minister tells us that if you liked Japanese equities before, you are going to love them now,” said Thomas Hayes, chairman of New York-based long-short equity manager Great Hill Capital. "If you didn’t like Japanese equities before Buffett’s investments, you have to at least take a look — if not at the whole market, at least at the trading companies.”

At the end of August, Buffett disclosed stakes in five venerable trading firms, all of whom were trading at discounts to valuations. The purchase was notable not only because it was a rare international foray for the Sage of Omaha, but also for illustrating how much a market he once actively disliked had changed.

In a 1998 speech, Buffett decried Japanese firms’ low return on equity and the indifference of Japanese company management to shareholders — two areas where Suga’s predecessor former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a difference, even if he struggled to enact broader reforms.

"Buffett making a move is a strong signal to a lot of western investors, particularly value investors, that Japan is potentially one of the most discounted markets,” said Nick Schmitz, Japan portfolio manager at Boston-based Verdad Advisers. Japanese stocks are trading at just over 17 times forecast earnings, compared with 22 times for the S&P 500.

Suga was a public figure in the previous administration, so isn’t strictly a fresh face. But a month into his prime ministership and the son of a strawberry farmer is making progress on key campaign pledges. Unlike Abe, who made grand reform bids that were hard to carry out, Suga has focused on smaller goals with attainable targets.

The most prominent of these is a "digital transformation,” a wholesale revamping of Japan’s paper-heavy and inefficient public sector. The government is setting up a "digital agency”, working under the slogan of "government as a startup” to signify its move-fast approach.

To top it off, while U.S. politicians bicker over stimulus, Suga is powering ahead, with lawmakers reported to have asked for a ¥40 trillion ($380 billion) package. The prime minister resisted the temptation to capitalize on early high support rates by calling a snap election, and is set to convene an extraordinary Diet session starting Monday.

"Overseas investors are sort of brainwashed to think that stability in Japan means no progress, and that’s just wrong,” said John Vail, chief global strategist at Nikko Asset Management in Tokyo. "All of his goals seem very much in the right direction.”

Of course, it helps that Japan is coping relatively well with the pandemic. Almost every sector of society is open despite a summer resurgence of the virus. Balance sheets are still relatively healthy. And even with a change in leadership, Japan is politically stable, with no Brexit, threat of a contested election or trade war.

The 225-issue Nikkei average has erased its year-to-date losses, the Nikkei 500 — a broader group of stocks that contains the likes of Nintendo Co. — has risen past its 1989 peak and foreign buying on the Mothers startup index has reached new highs.

In an Oct. 6 report, Goldman Sachs said Japan stocks could outperform on a combination of other points including M&A activity such as the $40 billion NTT Docomo Inc. buyout, the fact that investors overseas are already underweight on Japan stocks and a coming global shift to value.

While there’s plenty of good news of late in Japan, hurdles remain. Liquidity remains thin in many small-cap companies, and any investor putting their money in has to overcome a general "folklore pessimism” toward the market, said Schmitz. "For anyone from the age of 30 to 60, the stereotype of Japanese equities is the 1989 bubble,” he said.

And a share-price surge in Japan’s trading houses triggered by Buffett’s investment is already fading, due to a lack of fresh catalysts and a downturn in commodity markets.

Foreign investors may find, however, that at some stage, Japanese stocks will be hard to ignore. Stocks rose every week last month, even as those overseas sold — a sign that domestic investors have strong expectations for the Suga administration, wrote Tomo Kinoshita, global market strategist at Invesco Asset Management, on Oct. 7.

"Perhaps the greatest benefit from Buffett’s investment will be the impression on domestic investors,” said Vail. "Japan doesn’t need foreign investors to rally.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)