Some thoughts about investing in Japan

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I recently published an exclusive article at Seeking Alpha, “Thoughts About Investing in Japan.” I like how SA has incorporated the summary bullet points atop its posts. I’m posting them below here with the original article linked in the aforementioned title. It’s not easy writing about Japanese stocks on SA when fewer and fewer Japanese ADRs trade in the U.S. (you can’t link Tokyo-listed ordinary shares on the site), let alone the matter that I’m focused on smaller caps. Have a look at the SA article and by the way, if you missed it, I launched a small/micro cap quarterly best-idea Japanese stock newsletter (Uguisu Value) in January.

Summary

  • Nomura’s latest investor survey shows Japanese individuals remain long Japan.

  • Demand for Japanese stocks seen exceeding supply.

  • Most-watched stocks include many usual suspects.

  • Thinking of Soros, Templeton, and Marks for Japan 2015-20.

  • Japanese stock idea generation.

Barron’s on the Nikkei’s 2012 reversal

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Barron’s Kopin Tan writes about the Nikkei’s reversal this year in the International Trader – Asia section (first half discusses Prada’s valuation) of this week’s edition. After being the best-performing market in Q1, the Nikkei has slid 16% since its peak in late March. The vicissitudes of the market should not weigh on value investors. In a phone conversation I told Tan that the rallying and retreating is a recurring theme for Japan.  I am thankful for the cheaper stocks and see excellent opportunity in domestic demand stocks, yes, the debt-ridden, deflation defatigued, and demographically doomed domestic economy. I’m being facetious of course. But as I watched fiscal year-end March earnings and the next fiscal year forecasts come in, there were more and more companies reporting and/or forecasting record earnings. The persistently strong yen is far from ideal, but take a moment and think about the fact that the majority of Japanese companies have remained profitable despite the horrible aftermath of 3/11, the severe flooding in Thailand only a few months later (manufacturing facilities impacted), and of course the ongoing uncertainty in the EU and elsewhere.

To learn all about investing in Japan (comprehensive A-Z overview of the nuts and bolts of the market and its players, as well as key idiosyncrasies and enigmas explained) including why the debt, deflation, and demographic fears are overblown, see my book, Investing in Japan. If you are currently investing in Japan by way of the iShares Japan ETF (EWJ) or another Japan-focused ETF or a mutual fund, you’ll definitely want to see how your money is actually being managed. Japan’s broadly undervalued market (0.9-times reported book value among large caps and significantly cheaper for smaller caps) and abundance of deeply undervalued  (net-nets) and very attractively valued (“GARP”) stocks  means there are multiple viable investment approaches. Don’t be misled by tunnel-visioned macro opinion jockeying at one extreme and pedantic fault-finding on the other. Shares of Unicharm (Tokyo: 8113), a leading Japanese diaper and hygiene product maker, rose four-fold last decade.

Long precious metals, hope others stay long Treasuries

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Please see my exclusive article at Seeking Alpha, “Why I’m Long Precious Metals (And Hope Others Will Continue to Buy Treasuries).” I look at some of the perils of investing in Treasuries; the performance of select assets and money growth since 1971 when president Nixon closed the gold window; and discuss my investments in iShares Silver ETF (SLV) and Vanguard’s Precious Metals and Mining fund (VGPMX).

Domestic and overseas factors a plenty for Japan

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More often than not, it is overseas factors that have the largest influence on trading in Japan. However, from time to time there is enough commotion domestically that also warrants the attention of investors. Unfortunately, the cacophony coming out of the government these days is more concerning than usual (e.g. Japan Post management/reform, debt moratorium, JAL, etc). But let’s not forget earnings season is here.

Following is a market summary of last week’s action courtesy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange:

Despite the decline in the American exchanges reflecting weak corporate financial statements, the market continued with slight gains from the previous week backed by the strong tone of the Asian stock market. Further into the week, rising prices of oil and other commodities in the commodities market led to buying centered around resource stocks as the market strenghtened. Heading into the weekend, while there were positives with the yen falling to the 91 yen-per-dollar level, easing concerns over deterioration in corporate export estimates, many uncertainties such as the reconstruction of JAL and the direction on the moratorium remained. In addition, a wait-and-see sentiment grew amongst investors as they chose to wait for the announcement of July-September period financial statements by domestic corporations. As a result, the market struggled to make any headway.

Shanghai selloff overshadows DPJ, Nikkei

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The DPJ’s rise (and the LDP’s fall) is no longer debate material, but a welcome reality. As expected, the yen exhibited strength, and looks poised to test ¥92. The Nikkei meanwhile was quite volatile, gapping up, hitting a new ytd high at 10,767, tumbling into the start of the afternoon session to a low of 10,423, to close down 0.4% at 10,492. The star of the day, if you will, was the Jasdaq, up 1% to 50.49, right around its ytd high. Of course, now that the DPJ is in power, the real challenge is to keep campaign promises and stick to them, even if there is near-term pain — rather than postponing the pain as has often been the case.

In terms of the markets and forex, the DPJ has almost certainly created a situation for further yen strength (and sustained relative yen strength after everyone piles into the trade and eventually moves on). Domestic-demand stocks, while not immune to certain negative externalities of a strong yen, are likely to be favored over exporters. The exporters, whether they like it or not, will have to get accustomed to a stronger yen. To summarize the first day of trading after Japan’s historic election, it is suffice to say that politics is front and center as it should be, but the market reaction was diluted by both a dose of reality and by the 6.7% selloff in Shanghai.

The perils of overcapacity in Japan

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“Recession ends in Japan,” and headlines to that effect portray a different picture than the real one on the streets. In fact, despite the headline rebound in GDP, propping open the hood shows that the outlook for Japan is a return to status quo, little to nil export-driven growth at best, and raises the likelihood of further deterioration. The Nikkei and other benchmarks have had a nice run along with the pretty much global equities rally. However, the GDP was baked in, thus the opportune profit-taking, and meanwhile, serious issues persist, such as a lack of domestic demand and industrial over-capacity.  Even without further government stimuli and/or a return to conspicuous lending and consumption in the West, it is not clear there is any impetus for either the Japanese government or the nation’s biggest companies to take steps in fostering a more balanced economy.

At the time of publishing, the author did not have open long or short positions on any Japanese benchmark index/fund.

A look at Japanese stock valuations

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The Nikkei, like many other benchmark indices, is hardly the volatile, motion sickness inducing headline producer that it was of months past. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I just haven’t been able to turn myself into a green shoots market cheerleader. Nevertheless, I may be willing to concede that downside risk (in terms of a trading level) has lessened, although common sense would now suggest that significant further near-term upside is likely limited, too.

Now, on to the Nikkei 225’s valuation readings as of the end of May compared to a year ago’s levels.

  • P/E ttm 05/08: 16.7 vs. 05/09: negative
  • F/P/E 05/08: 17.1 vs. 05/09: 40.5
  • PBV (book) 05/08: 1.68 vs 05/09: 1.24
  • Dividend yield ttm 05/08: 1.4% vs. 05/09: 1.9%
  • Dividend yield expected 05/08: 1.5% vs. 05/09: 1.6%

In case you’re wondering, the readings for Topix-1 suggest more “value” as the forward PE is at 35x, book value is 1.15x and the expected dividend yield is 1.8%. The benchmark 10-year JGB last had a yield of 1.49%.

If you are bullish, you would argue that Japanese stocks are still undervalued and you could even claim the bullishness of the old dividend yield indicator (vs. the JGB). On the other hand, the deep value of the N225 trading for less than book and with a dividend yield a full 100 basis points over the ten-year are history since the rally from the March bottom. The yen is interesting at 95 per US$1 because it’s near its reported break-even value for exporters, even though it’s 10% stronger than a year ago. While cost-cutting has clearly been helpful, the big boosts from forex profits are gone for now. Finally, Steel Partners continues to win ground against Aderans (JP: 8170), but the stock price is moving in the wrong direction. Who knows, maybe Warren will prove everyone wrong. I hope so. Meanwhile, it really is a comical game that most AIMs play in Japan.

Nikkei 9000, 8000, or 7000?

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About a year ago today, I published a weekly Nikkei outlook discussing whether the Nikkei was headed to 13,000 or back to 12,000. Suffice to say that much has happened since then. At the start of the new fiscal year today, the range in question is broader, 7,000 – 9,000, but obviously it is not any better (unless one has profited on the short side or had a timely exit). At any rate, investors might be excited since March was a particularly good month for equities.

The Nikkei 225 gave back 500+ points in the last two sessions of March, but the usual claims of year-end window-dressing were audible, since the N225 still managed to gain more than 11% for the month — the ascent was upwards of 18% through last Friday. The 11.4% return tied 1999 for the best March performance since at least 1991. That’s history. So what can we expect for April?

The last two Aprils have produced gains of 9.4% (2008) and 2.2% (2007) for the Nikkei 225. Both of those followed losses of approximately 1% in March. The last positive March in 2006 (7%) was followed by a 2.5% decline in April. Of bigger concern is the fact that the ensuing April to December periods for each of the past three years have been rather brutal: -31% (2008), -11.5% (2007), and +1% (2006). For those looking for a trade or a glimmer of hope, note that the N225 has closed higher two-thirds of the time in April over the past 18 years. However, the first day of trading is no indicator for the remainder of the month since up/down days are split 50:50. Lastly, know that the average monthly gain for April in the past 18 years is 1.3% and the median gain is 2.2%. By the way, the 11% March performance in 1999 was followed by a gain of more than 2% in April.

My assessment of Japanese equities in light of the domestic and global economy is still primarily negative. I continue to be of the opinion that the current trading level of the N225 reflects fair value. A simple way to play may be to consider the low-7,000 level as an area of support and a buying point, and the approach to 9,000 as an area of resistance and thus a selling point. Remember that the N225 closed the year in 2008 at 8,859. The 52-week low was back in late October at 6,994, but most recently on March 10, the Nikkei flirted with the 6,000 level again when it closed at 7,054. Keep in mind that the N225 is now down only 10% for the calendar year thanks to the March rally.

While it goes without saying that stocks are a “leading indicator” and will recover before the broader economy, the best thing to do is to be realistic. No need whatsoever to rush into equities. There are too many lingering uncertainties and the potential for even more doom and gloom. With all eyes seemingly on the U.S. (after all we got everyone into this mess), don’t put much faith in the longer-term efficacy of tweaking mark-to-market valuation or public-private investment schemes that rely on the “goodwill” of banks. Too many ifs would have to be realized before a meaningful amount of confidence could be restored and sustained.

*This article may be reproduced only with the author’s prior consent.

Recession confirmed in Japan — tell us something we don’t know

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No need to get excited over the fact that the Japanese economy has now contracted two consecutive quarters (no shooting the messenger). That was largely already factored into equities, thus explaining the severely depressed levels registered of late. However, as The Economist reported in its latest edition, the “Toyota shock” of a sharp decline in expected earnings (-74% fiscal y-o-y) reverberated across Japan, bringing home the realization, to some, that stocks may not be so cheap anymore. So, it may be the case that we are closer to fair value, in spite of a market that pretty much trades at book value. Continue reading

Japanese stocks set to sink again as reality bites

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Prior to yesterday’s 6.5% drop in Tokyo (Nikkei 225 close at 8,899), the N225 had rallied 33% in the prior six sessions to recoup a good chunk of the 37% drop between Oct. 1 and the 26-year low reached Oct. 27 at 7,162. Yesterday I stated the obvious in that Tokyo would sell-off as reality set in post-Obama euphoria, but I made the point that the number of sellers would be limited. In fact, volume and turnover weren’t exactly heavy, although stocks were broadly lower. Continue reading