Japan is at a 28-year low: buy now

Have you noticed what’s been happening in Japan?

Chances are you haven’t. While most investors’ eyes have been focused on the turmoil in the eurozone, Japanese shares haven’t exactly been having a smooth ride.

In fact, they’ve dropped right back. Our favoured measure here is the Topix index (TPX), which tracks the performance of all the country’s leading domestic companies. Last week, the index hit a 28-year low.

That’s a pretty grim-sounding statistic. But it could also provide a very promising entry point for investors in Japan…

Japan’s recent performance is better than it looks

It’s no surprise that Europe’s stock markets have been tumbling recently. Yet at first glance, the returns from Japan look as bad. From the end of March to the start of June, the Topix lost 20% of its value.

However, when you drill a bit deeper, a rather different picture emerges. The latest drop in the Topix is clearly a setback. But it’s merely been a mirror image of the 20% gain the index saw in this year’s first quarter.

Put another way, Italy has declined by 15% this year when measured in sterling terms. Spain is more than 25% lower. The TPX, on the other hand, and the FTSE 100, are both down by around 5% on balance. So of late, Japanese shares haven’t done too badly in comparison to the rest of the world.

But a 28-year low is still a major milestone. As regular readers will know, we’ve been keen on the Japanese stock market for a long time now. So what should you do?         

You probably already have a good idea why we like Japanese shares. So I’ll keep my summary brief. In a nutshell, Japan’s stock market looks cheap.

First, the stocks in the Topix currently trade on an average price-to-book value (p/bv) ratio of 0.86, according to Bloomberg data. So investors are able to buy ¥100 of assets for just ¥86. Compare that with a p/bv ratio of 1.55 for the FTSE 100 and more than two for the S&P 500 index.

Second, TPX stocks look good on the corporate profit front. They’re standing on a forecast p/e multiple for 2012 of just over ten (also on Bloomberg numbers). In contrast the S&P 500 is on more than 12 times current year earnings.

Yes, on a price to earnings (p/e) ratio of slightly below ten, the FTSE 100 is a touch cheaper on this score. But when you compare the indices on a price-to-sales (p/sales) basis, Japan again comes up well.

The p/sales measure is useful because it shows the scope for a company to expand its profits, as I’ll explain in a minute. For 2012, stocks in the Topix are set to sell on just 43% of their sales. Against this, the FTSE 100 is on a p/sales ratio of 0.9. And the S&P 500 is on a multiple of more than 1.25.

The strong yen has hammered Japanese stocks

So why are stocks in the Topix standing on half the p/sales ratio of UK shares, but on a similar p/e ratio? It’s because their profit margins are lower. This holds down their earnings relative to their sales. I don’t have space here to examine all the reasons for this. But there’s one key factor at work: the strong yen.

Since the financial crisis kicked off in 2007, the yen has become just about the top ‘safety-first’ currency choice. Against such a backdrop, Japan’s exporters have had to cut their profit margins to keep selling their products.

Recent euro weakness has simply driven more people into buying the yen. And that has hurt the Topix even more. But after its latest drop, does now look a good time to buy? 

The country’s stock market clearly isn’t risk-free. It’s China’s largest trading partner. So Japan’s corporate sector would be hit by a prolonged slowdown in the latter’s economic growth rate.

What’s more, the eurozone’s woes are a very long way from being resolved. OK, lots of money has moved from Europe into the dollar. But the yen looks likely to remain the world’s favourite major currency.

Sure, the Bank of Japan has taken steps to reduce the yen’s value with its own version of quantitative easing. But other central bankers’ fingers are poised over the printing presses too – and they seem to have more enthusiasm for the idea than Japan’s central bankers. So the yen could stay strong anyway.

But there comes a point when all the negatives become factored into a price. And the Topix at a 28-year low is ‘discounting’ a great deal of bad news. This really does feel like a good time to buy Japan.

The downside risk from here looks limited. And if the yen does weaken a bit, exporters should really cash in profit-wise, which should give a big boost to their share prices.

How to invest in Japan

What’s the best way of capturing the upside? Cheaper-than-average Japanese stocks are the most likely to benefit from a market rally, Toshio Sumatani at Tokia Tokyo tells Bloomberg. Such a strategy has paid off before and it “should work this time too”, says Sumatani.

This all points to a Japan value fund. My colleague James Ferguson has pointed out the Morant Wright Japan Fund, run by a value specialist who concentrates on “undervalued Japanese companies that have strong balance sheets and sound business franchises”. For more ideas, you can see James’s recent cover story on this topic: Why Japanese stocks are set to soar.

Finally, there’s one issue that always crops up in relation to investing in Japan. It’s whether you should hedge the yen against sterling. The argument is that if the yen does weaken against the pound, you’d lose some of your stock market profits.

It’s a fair point. But we reckon that if the yen drops, you’re likely to make much more money from a stock market rally than you’d lose from the yen falling against the pound. And if the yen keeps rising, it will protect you against the stock market staying in the doldrums for the moment. On balance then, we’d still avoid hedging.

• This article is taken from the free investment email Money Morning. Sign up to Money Morning here .

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  • Phil

    The one issue that Moneyweek routinely ignores in relation to Japan is dividend yields.

    Can you clarify whether investors in Japan are likely to get reasonable dividend returns at present prices? Or is investing in Japan almost entirely a bet on the share prices rising faster than the value of the yen falls against the pound?

  • Roger

    Perhaps people who bought on your previous advice have all already bought in and get stucked with it. I sold out when it indeed rebounded a bit. Is it time to buy in again? It could, but the currency is at least 20% overvalued at the moment. Could they really stand up against South Korea and China’s competition? Very doubtful. China for example, the move up market has began, real living standard is catching up with Japan (already exceeded Japan in terms of food calories intake, average accommodation space) with the nation fully engaged in upgrading tech and innovation.

  • Roger

    The South Koreans beat the Japanese to their teeth with smart phones, LCD and energy saving technologies. Just like when a UK high street shop chain get “cheaper”, it could get cheaper again. Oh yes, Japanes companies pay little dividends, just like the Chinese (the chinese stock commission is passing rules forcing companies to pay dividends recently)

  • Robin

    I’m curious why all the articles on Japan of late have focussed on funds with relatively high expense ratios of about 1.5%. Wouldn’t it be more balanced to at least suggest an ETF like one of Barclays iShares offerings as well? They have both small cap and TPX 100 options with total expense ratios of about 0.5% for those of us that don’t believe it’s possible to distinguish between the few managers that natural statistics graced with a good run and those with durable talent.

  • George

    In all honesty I think the time has come for you to throw in the towel with respect to Japanese stocks.
    Set against your many other sound predictions you will be forgiven on this one . It is entirely possible if not probable that the Japanese market will recover someday, i.e. if capitalism survives as I expect it will, but has any investor infinite time at his disposal !

  • Thersites

    The other thing I’ve never seen you factor in to balance the discussion on Japan is Debt, yet it figures large in your accounts of each twist in the Euro-drama. So why is the monster debt that Japan is saddled with (and which it seems incapable of growing to escape from) not relevant here?

  • bobsto12

    Speaking as someone who got his fingers burnt following your constant buy Japan advice in the past, I would say you totally ignore two very important points.
    Firstly Japan’s population is forecast to decrease by 25%, the working age population more so.
    Secondly there is a serious corporate governance issue in that listed companies are run for the benefit of their management rather than shareholders.

  • Boris MacDonut

    My friend bought 4 years ago , on MW advice. Were they mistaken?

  • ricardo

    Some good posts here that highlight the 3 major drawbacks in investing in Japan. In no particular order of importance they are :-

    1. Japanese companies don’t pay dividends worth a spit. They never have and they never will.

    2. Taiwan, Korea, China, and a resurgent USA are leaving Japan for dead in the tech-sector. Japan aren’t even playing catch up any more.

    3. The scandal at Olympus highlights serious corporate governance problems. How many other other Japanese companies have been run this way ? Possibly more than you think. Japanese industry is stifled by its culture. A good work ethic ain’t worth much it you’re run by crooked idiots.

    …oh yes, and let’s not forget it’s geological problems. i.e. its unfortunate location along tectonic fault lines. Don’t focus just on the big earthquakes but look at the frequency at which they occur.

    Japan is cheap for very good reasons. It is at best a roulette table of a market.

  • Jeff

    Corporate governance problems, high yen, declining population plus mismanaged companies like Sony.
    Then, how can we trust the book values?

  • IJ

    @ Jeff – good point, we can’t. and on profit multiple it’s expensive. Another scary thing about Japan is it’s constantly promoted by experts, including Moneyweek, despite it’s apparently interminable slide. Therefore, it’s what one might term a “consensus contrarian call”. Those can be dangerous: think Nokia, HMV, Eastman Kodak, RIM, all of which i remember seeing promoted several times by several finance publications.

  • CKP

    The Japanese are fantastic engineers but lousy capitalists. Until the latter changes their stock market is going nowhere.

  • mic

    why no response from moneyweek to the excellent contributions above-??