A significant shift is underway in Japan, and equity markets are taking notice. It may not have been obvious to U.S. dollar-based investors, but in local currency terms, Japanese equities as measured by the MSCI Japan Index have climbed 25% year to date (as of August 31, 2023).
The wave of optimism has been driven by two key factors: inflation and reforms. While inflation has been challenging for many developed economies, it’s a welcome sign in Japan, which has been battling deflation for three decades. Sustained and healthy inflation could change the mindset in Japan from saving to investing.
In terms of reforms, there is tremendous emphasis on improving corporate governance, and companies are focusing more on shareholder returns. In a recent move, the Tokyo Stock Exchange asked all listed companies to enact policies to improve profitability, long-term returns and valuations. About 39% of companies in the TOPIX (an index comprising Japanese stocks) trade below book value, compared to just 5% for companies in the S&P 500 Index.
Book values are depressed in Japan
Many Japanese companies have also fallen behind on converting information into digital formats and are now making concerted efforts to catch up, which could boost productivity. Put together, these steps can create a virtuous circle with a potentially positive impact on corporate earnings and valuations.
The economic transformation is not entirely new. It began around 10 years ago with Abenomics — then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s program aimed at reinvigorating Japan’s stagnant economy through a combination of monetary policy, government spending and structural reforms. But investor optimism has fluctuated. That said, in our recent travels through Japan, where we and many Capital Group portfolio managers and analysts met with various policymakers and corporate managements across many industries, we observed that the desire for change is more palpable today than it has been in the prior two decades.
Some other factors that support our positive outlook: valuations appear reasonable compared to other markets, the political situation is relatively stable, foreign investment in manufacturing is coming back and tourism has rebounded since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. Interest rates also remain low relative to other developed markets.
Against this backdrop, we have additional views on Japan and areas of the market that may present potential investment opportunities.
For all its economic woes, Japan has created a tremendous competitive advantage in certain industries. Japanese firms have developed unique technologies in niche markets from which they’ve been able to build durable businesses with highly defensible moats. These include areas like industrial automation equipment, sensors, inspection tools for semiconductor manufacturing, energy-efficient air conditioning systems and battery technology. Medical devices and pharmaceuticals are other areas where Japanese companies have built market share.
These types of companies should have long product cycles as we see an industrial renaissance in developed economies and ongoing industrialization in emerging markets.
SMC, for instance, is a leader in specialized components for automation equipment and semiconductor production. Shin-Etsu is the world’s largest maker of silicon wafers for semiconductor products, while TDK is one of the largest manufacturers of high-end batteries and specialized circuits used in electric vehicles.
Japanese stocks trade at highest levels since early 1990
Many Japanese companies have excelled in cutting-edge areas of science and engineering. However, equity prices in most cases have been hurt by subpar corporate governance. A number of companies have hoarded cash, created insular corporate structures, and operated conglomerates (large and small) that have not always been efficient or profitable.
Since the start of Abenomics in 2012, corporate Japan has been on a journey to improve profitability, capital allocation and corporate governance. But while progress has been painfully slow, in part due to Japan’s cautious approach to change, there is a stronger sense of urgency to address cash-heavy balance sheets and inefficient business lines.
We now believe there is greater alignment between companies and the government to improve governance standards, business models and capital structures. Over the next few years, this may well result in improved shareholder returns through divestitures, higher dividend payouts and share buybacks.
In our meetings with officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Financial Services Agency, they highlighted how company book values were much lower than those in the U.S. and Europe, and that this needed to be fixed. They also voiced support for more acquisitions between domestic companies.
Japan Inc. is cash heavy
More specifically, the government’s recent proposal addressing governance standards for mergers and acquisitions would make it more difficult for boards to reject reasonable takeover offers without justification.
This would represent monumental change. We believe merger-and-acquisitions activity has the potential to unlock the biggest hidden value remaining in Japan, which is the mountain of cash doing nothing across a multitude of corporate balance sheets.
At the height of their influence and power in the late 1980s, many Japanese companies decried the ruthless takeover environment in the United States. They placed more emphasis on operating large and stable businesses. Japan favored lifetime employment, seniority-based compensation and shared salary cuts over job cuts.
In sum, we don’t expect changes to happen overnight. They will likely be gradual, but getting ahead of those opportunities as investors is important.
Some companies have been reinventing themselves by shedding noncore businesses and narrowing their business focus. In others, there is new leadership driving change or existing managements and boards that seem willing to make changes.
Here are several examples:
Broadly speaking, we think these kinds of self-help stories can help support long-term growth.
Dividend growth in Japan looks encouraging
Japan is playing catch-up when it comes to moving into the digital age. The pandemic exposed this weakness when the government struggled to distribute emergency payments and as workers were challenged to work remotely.
Many Japanese companies need to upgrade their legacy computer systems, which we believe foreshadows a rise in information technology investment. Given the country’s aging demographics and persistent labor shortage concerns, businesses will need to improve productivity and increase automation. OBIC is one company that has benefited from this trend; it has seen sales for its computer cloud software grow for the past several years.
Meanwhile, Nomura Research Institute (NRI) is an example of how big companies are seeking to harness the productivity benefits of artificial intelligence (AI), which NRI is using to help large enterprises organize their proprietary data in a format that can train very large datasets for AI.
Japan is a country with relative social stability, and as an export-driven economy, it has a proven and reliable manufacturing base. With growing risks to doing business in China, Japan has been attracting more foreign investment. Manufacturing costs are also more reasonable after decades of deflation and the weaker yen.
One case worth watching is the construction of Taiwan Semiconductor’s plant in Kumamoto, where it reportedly may build a second facility as well. Japan’s government has brought in more than $14 billion in planned investment since 2021 from companies in the U.S., Europe, South Korea and Taiwan. Among those are South Korea-based Samsung Electronics and U.S.-based Micron Technology, both leaders in the development of memory chips.
We think Japan is in a position to capture some higher-end manufacturing as multinationals seek to diversify their supply chains in Asia. Countries like Vietnam and Cambodia can make items like sneakers and toys but lack the necessary expertise and infrastructure for more technologically sophisticated products. If this trend continues, it would be a sharp reversal from the past and could potentially reinflate the economy and provide a boost to regional business hubs.
A weakening yen has eroded Japanese stock returns for U.S. dollar-based investors. The Japanese currency weakened from 103 yen to the dollar at the end of 2020 to the current level above 145 yen to the dollar. The Bank of Japan’s (BOJ’s) bond-buying policy of depressing yields, known as yield curve control, combined with an anemic economy, have weighed on the currency.
Over the last couple of months, the BOJ has acknowledged that inflationary pressures have risen and adjusted monetary policy to allow 10-year yields to rise to 1.0%.
In the view of our Japan economist Anne Vandenabeele, it’s likely that inflation will persist above the BOJ’s target of 2% over the next 12 to 18 months. The central bank could therefore be in a position to end its negative interest rate policy next year and further loosen its controversial yield curve control policy as well (although the BOJ will likely continue to buy bonds to manage the rise in yields). This chain of events is expected to lead to the yen plateauing at these levels, or even strengthening from here, although much will also depend on other central banks and U.S. rates, in particular.
And a stronger yen should benefit dollar-based investors purely from the currency translation effect on portfolios.
From a fundamental perspective, many of Japan’s major exporters such as the auto companies, have diversified their manufacturing bases with factories around the world. As such, the impact of a strengthening currency on corporate earnings should be much more muted than in the past.
We’ve seen similar market rallies fizzle over the past decade. The introduction of Abenomics and subsequent corporate reforms in 2014 and 2015, along with the growing presence of U.S. activist hedge funds in Japan, have led to bursts of exuberance.
While positive developments are taking shape, we are taking a measured approach. Foreign investors make up a large portion of Japan’s equity market. The country’s economy is export-driven and heavily focused on industrial production. If the global economy weakens or reforms lose steam, stocks could come under pressure in a risk-off environment.
Nevertheless, we are currently more positive on Japan than we have been over the past two decades. The number of portfolio managers and analysts who have visited Japanese companies continues to grow, and the discussion on where the opportunities are is robust across equity groups and portfolios.
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