Japan lost, but not dead, in deflation

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For Japan, the 1990s are commonly referred to as the “lost decade.” Those that know me are aware that I look beyond that and actually regard a quarter-century as the appropriate “lost” duration. However, if one really thinks about what has transpired and where we are today, it is rather impressive that Japan continues to function in much the same way. Similar to Jesper Koll, who is now head of Tantallon Research, I find promise in Japan’s sustained, and comparatively large, investment in capex.

The problem for equity investors is one of procyclicality. And unfortunately, the global recession has displayed all the things that could go wrong and did (among them, the velocity of capital fleeing; widespread asset correlation; and the lack of sovereign unity towards a concerted acknowledgment and solution). Meanwhile, interestingly, Japanese companies keep plugging away, while both domestic and overseas consumers, and investors, alike, keep shying away. Unsurprisingly, I see no change in the procyclical behavior of people, whether in government, the markets, or among consumers. It almost seems like a catch-22 to be publicly traded.

In closing, as we rapidly approach the extended Golden Week holiday, let’s remember that the economic situation could be far worse than what it is. A decent chunk of companies will report earnings prior to GW, while a majority will be reporting after. The mood seems to be one of deflated expectations that go hand-in-hand with deflated results and outlooks. Although deflated does not mean dead, it means for the time being a misguided cap on the promise of what could come out of all the capex. The reality is that the best way to play Japan is either to be a trader, or to look for dividend yield supported by stable cash flows. In all likelihood, the Nikkei remains range bound: 7,000 at the bottom and 9,000 to the upside.

Pricey Japanese stocks?

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Pricey, and Japanese stocks, are typically not heard together in the same sentence. However, since last September’s market rout, earnings have deteriorated to the point that the Nikkei 225 is trading at over 175x forward earnings; 10.1x on a trailing basis. No doubt the ratio will swell some more, potentially going negative for a quarter, before it begins to ease. For some time now, I have believed that Japanese stocks are being priced fairly by the market. Still, it remains true that money managers the world over see deep value in Japan.

In order to prevent this article from getting long winded I will summarize my position as follows: (1) Recent trading has been ostensibly positive given the strong rally in percentage terms off the bottom, but the action has been quite thin; which leads me to point (2) in that the 9,000 level has proven pretty elusive due it being right about the middle point of last year’s finish and this year’s high (remember the N225 flirted with 6,000 a month ago); and (3) buying up headline exporters and bank stocks is the easy and obvious way to play, but lack of participation and depth in this rally will surely create a situation of more range bound trading between 7,000 and 9,000. Therefore, with all eyes on the U.S., and with the country’s financial magicians seemingly running out of rabbits, I would exercise caution at current levels. Aside from media cheerleading, last check the economic negatives far outweighed the positives.

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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.

The Nikkei’s Losing Streak in Focus: No Plunge Protection Needed

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If you haven’t heard yet, then you probably will some point on Monday: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average closed in the red on Friday, marking its 12th consecutive decline, the longest since a 15-session losing streak in April-May 1954 during a time of “economic uncertainty” after the end of the Korean War.

However, the current losing streak is likely to end over the next day or two, as buyers emerge and tip the close into positive territory. No plunge protection team at work that we know of and largely unnecessary, because even though the Nikkei 225 has declined just over 8.5% during the losing streak, over half of the losses have been limited to double-digits, with most of those being very small in percentage terms. That said, we’re not expecting a strong bounce back, although maybe, perhaps a gradual one, since recovering even 14,500 remains a big hurdle. Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Just Wait Until Friday

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Last week was another down week for the Nikkei, albeit very limited, but the Friday close of 13,942 was over 3.5% off the weekly high and the second consecutive week of a sub-14,000 finish. So, while the Nikkei had been showing signs of promise and not simply selling-off on every piece of bad news, a move beyond 14,500 has proven elusive. The N225 is up over 19% from its year-to-date and multi-year low of 11,691, but there are just not enough positive catalysts to push stocks higher, at present, in the face of all the bad news that continues to hit the wires day in and day out. And this month, we have hedge fund redemptions that could be putting further downward pressure on equities. Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Eyes on I-banks, Inflation, Yen

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The Nikkei had a rough go last week indeed, losing 3.6% and the 14,000-level (13,973.73); TOPIX fell to 1,371.57 after a short-lived recovery of 1,400 two weeks ago. No worries though, as Chicago Nikkei 225 futures not only held 14k, but added 140 points to the upside (14,220) setting the stage for a gap up on Monday (Osaka N225 futures: 13,980). Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Tough Week Ahead

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The Nikkei 225 had a positive week, up a modest 1% to 14,489.44, its highest close since early January, but fell short of its calendar year high of 14,691. Remember, keeping things in perspective is important because the N225 opened the year at 15,155 and was trading 18,000-plus last year. In spite of recent resiliency in Japanese equities, it looks like this week will be a tough one, starting with a big gap down on Monday and external factors as well as domestic economic data all putting potential downward pressure on stocks. Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Testing Dubious Highs

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Last week’s question of resiliency or reluctance at 14,000 for the Nikkei 225 Stock Average was answered, somewhat predictably, with another late-week rally. The Nikkei ended the week higher by 2.3% to 14,338.54 and the broader TOPIX, which rose by the same amount, recouped the 1,400-level (1,408.14) for the first time since January 10th.

This week, the N225 is poised to test its Jan. 10 high of 14,388 and perhaps it’s not a stretch to throw in the 14,691 close on the first day of trading this year (its calendar year high close). But don’t get too excited (just trying to keep things in perspective), considering the N225’s 15,155 open on the first day of trading in 2008, let alone the 18,000-plus levels it once traded at last year! Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Resiliency or Reluctance at 14,000?

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What to watch: Thursday, May 29: U.S. Revised Q1 GDP; Friday, May 30: CPI for April (May for select metropolitan areas); April – Industrial Production; April – Household income and expenditure survey; April – New housing starts; April – Unemployment and Ratio of Job Offers to Applicants

Ongoing: Commodities and forex volatility — more inflation reporting chicanery. Protectionist tendencies may be pressured by a report (and the realization) of $3.2 billion in cross-shareholding losses in FY2007, as well as greater urgency from within for acceptance of foreign investment. In the meantime, we can enjoy watching the latest round of TCI (The Children’s Investment Fund (UK)) vs. J-Power (JP: 9513). Continue reading

Nikkei Weekly Outlook: Stayin’ Alive

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What to watch: Monday and Tuesday, May 19-20: Bank of Japan [BoJ] Monetary Policy Meeting; Tuesday, May 20: Monthly Report of (May) Economic and Financial Developments [BoJ]

Ongoing: Earnings season is in the home stretch; 150 announcements are scheduled for Friday (less than 50 are scheduled for the week of May 26); It goes without saying that external factors will continue to impact domestic stocks, however record oil and yen hovering around the ¥105 level have not stopped the Nikkei’s recovery of 14,000. Continue reading