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A rising trend of share buybacks has made corporates the real whales of Japan’s stock market as the Bank of Japan continues to step back from its asset purchase program.

Total share buybacks by Japanese companies are on track to top ¥7 trillion ($61.3 billion) this fiscal year, a near 50% increase from the previous one, according to Tokai Tokyo Research Institute market analyst Makoto Sengoku. That’s more than the Bank of Japan’s old ¥6 trillion guide for annual exchange-traded-fund (ETF) purchases, a target that was scrapped earlier this year.

SoftBank Group Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group have all announced major share-buyback plans recently.

“Companies had held back on buybacks because of the virus outbreak, but with earnings in recovery, they’re increasing purchases,” Sengoku said. “There’s room for greater share buybacks, as the level of shareholder returns remains low compared to that in Europe and the U.S.”

Firms in Japan have been slowly stepping up their efforts to improve shareholder returns after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a corporate governance code in 2015 to rekindle growth. Activist investors have been increasingly targeting Japanese companies with poor returns on equity, seeking buybacks and dividend payouts among other measures.

Japan’s stock market has underperformed global peers this year with a 14% gain by the Topix lagging the 25% rise of the S&P 500 and the 22% gain of Europe’s Stoxx 600.

SoftBank has said it will buy back as much as ¥1 trillion of stock, Toyota unveiled a ¥150 billion plan as it released quarterly earnings, Takeda last month announced its first buyback since 2008 and SMFG said last week it will buy back up to 2.4% of its own shares for ¥100 billion.

Meanwhile, the BOJ has been dialing back its ETF purchases, with the pace of buys slowing notably this year.

In May, the central bank didn’t buy any ETFs for an entire month, the first time since Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda kicked off his easing campaign in 2013. The bank has bought about ¥873 billion of the funds so far this year, though has pledged to step into the market if sentiment worsens.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. forecasts total share buybacks will reach ¥7.9 trillion this fiscal year, ¥9 trillion in the next and ¥10.4 trillion in two years time. The U.S. bank sees shareholder returns recovering to “slightly above” pre-pandemic levels this year and notes room for a “significant” increase in the total payout ratio.

“While companies opting for share buybacks as the preferred means for shareholder returns remain in the minority, we think these could increase on the back of the significant demand created by the sale of strategic shareholdings,” analysts including Kazunori Tatebe wrote in a note this month.

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