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.

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.

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Nikkei Weekly Outlook: To 13,000 or Back to 12,000?

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What to watch: Monday, 3/31: February Industrial Production; Tuesday, 4/1: Tankan (watch capex spending outlook and yen/dollar predictions — the FY07 second-half ¥/$ prediction for the December survey was 113.79 compared to 114.23-33 in the Sept. and Mar. surveys and a most recent quote of about ¥99). Continue reading