Corporate Japan’s shopping spree

Japanese firms have thrown caution to the wind and “are leading some of the most… aggressive deal-making”, says Lex in the FT. The most recent example is Osaka-based drinks group Suntory, which has just paid 20 times operating cash flow for Beam, America’s spirits brands producer.

After spending $46bn on overseas mergers and acquisitions (M&A) in 2013, Japanese companies are set for another year of shopping abroad.

They certainly have lots of money, says Assif Shameen in Barron’s. Firms have become leaner after being forced to restructure during Japan’s long slump. They have paid down debts and built up a cash pile worth more than $2trn, while last year’s stock-market surge allowed them to raise $50bn in equity.

Unlike their Western counterparts, Japanese firms “don’t have a tradition of share buybacks or big dividend increases”, says Nat Ishino of Macquarie Securities. So if they have money, they’d rather invest in foreign firms.

Profit margins in Japan are also usually much lower than in the West, so scooping up a foreign rival can give profitability a quick lift.

The success of ‘Abenomics’ also bodes well for M&A, as managements are more aggressive when the economy is growing. There is one cloud on the horizon: the yen is weakening, so firms would be better off making their foreign purchases sooner rather than later.

For the moment, though, says Hiroshi Watanabe of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the currency is still historically strong and shouldn’t dampen M&A.

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