No Stock Market as Undervalued and as Misunderstood as Japan

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Japanese stocks have done very well in 2012 and of course the weakening yen has increasingly more to do with the rally; deservedly so for the people of Japan. Otherwise, and unless Japanese stocks continue to do well, they could become neglected once again. Not necessarily a bad thing for value investors, and regardless of the rally to-date, valuations in Japan remain extremely compelling. Allow me to introduce my book, Investing in Japan: No stock market is as undervalued and as misunderstood as Japan, just released this month. Continue reading

Japan to be world’s 3rd largest economy is good news

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“China poised to pass Japan as world’s No. 2 economy,” reports CNN.com.  Q2 GDP figures from Japan and China show the latter exceeding the former, $1.34 trillion vs. $1.29 trillion. In 2009, it was Japan ahead for the full year, at $5.07 trillion compared to China at $4.91 trillion, according to the IMF. Given the two lost decades now in Japan, this was only a matter of time. Jesper Koll’s (veteran Japan economy expert now with JP Morgan in Tokyo) simple forecast (see quote below) represents a real and substantial opportunity for Japan. This is not a new idea or sudden realization by any means, but it is far more tangible now than ever before; it is becoming more palpable given recent developments such as the Japanese government actively courting Chinese tourists. Continue reading

M&A is key for Japanese equities in 2010 – Goldman Sachs

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Reuters (article in Japanese) reports that Goldman Sachs issued a report earlier this week that argues M&A will be the major theme for Japanese equities in 2010. Having a ‘macro’ investment theme for the start of each new year is a ritual for brokerages in Japan, although it seems no one ever has the resolve to action or follow through; and the M&A theme itself is not a new one. So Goldman repeats known information that Japan (equities) was overly victimized in the financial crisis and remains largely defenseless to external shocks. With ROE so low, domestic demand remaining sluggish, and overseas competition ever-intensifying, the best bet for Japanese companies is to merge and restructure. M&A/restructuring should boost top-line growth, says Goldman, which also should help margins, and therefore drive stock prices higher.

However, the longstanding problem with inward M&A is that reorganization is easier said than done (as heads, and tails in the form of non-core subsidiaries, tend not to roll in Japan), the volume of M&A has often disappointed, and the size of deals has been on the small side.  Nevertheless, all of that means there is still great opportunity in Japan. The best opportunities appear to continue to be in smaller-sized deals, where there are plenty of gems, and in listed subsidiaries. Goldman is said to favor retail, machinery, services, land transport, non-bank financials, warehousing, and real estate — the underlying idea is that these industries are the most fragmented.

Bottoms-up then, as 2009 is winding down and 2010 is poised to be the year of M&A (at least thematically or in a macro sense).

The ongoing JGB battle

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No doubt David Einhorn (Greenlight Capital) is an astute investor. Recently he declared his bearish view on JGBs, which subsequently has generated heavy interest among financial and political circles. Hats off to Gwen Robinson of FT Alphaville for solid ongoing coverage of the latest JGB tale (see JGBs and the ‘end’ of the short-squeeze fest). My take is as follows:

Regardless of whether Einhorn still has his short trade on or not, the chips are stacked against him and any copycats. It’s a fat chance for opportunistic hedge funds, since JGBs, even with their paltry yields (and circumstantial concerns), have both sizable and perpetual domestic demand. As I said in my last post on this topic, in spite of subdued individual investor demand, there is always an obliged patron of JGBs (the domestic institutional investor), which in the collective can fend off any offensive.

On the surface, Japanese investors sure seem confounded, largely (and in the author’s opinion, mistakenly) shunning their own depressed equities, while settling for skeletal JGBs and feeling compelled to chase overseas trends.  I used to think they were unpatriotic, in a sense, for not being buyers of domestic stocks. However, it turns out they are exceedingly patriotic given that even if they’ve lost their appetite for JGBs (in the case of individual investors), they’ll be silent holders one way or another via proxy, thanks to institutional money managers.

The Einhorn-JGB story is a reminder to Japan bears that no matter how shaky the shoji rice paper sliding doors and tatami floors appear, the pillars are quite strong and have reinforcements. As I discovered last October (’08) when the Nikkei tumbled to 1982-levels, the seemingly disastrous cross-shareholding system in Japan actually turned out to be one solid floor for equities. With the addition of timely pension fund-buying, the two effectively stopped the hemorrhaging.

So it is, Japan remains an enigma to outsiders. JGB shorts with a prerequisite nine lives. And value investors stuck in, or already having pried themselves out of, the most elusive value trap.

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.

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.

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

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.

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