Stick with Japan – there’s plenty of good news to come

Japan’s stock market has had a poor start to the year, after being the world’s best-performing market in 2013. But it’s not run out of steam yet, says Matthew Partridge.


Japan: more gains to come

Last year, Japan was the best-performing major market in the world up 57%.

But 2014 has been less kind to Japan bulls. Jitters over the gradual tapering' of quantitative easing (QE)in the US, and concerns about the impact of a rising consumption tax in Japan, have seen investors rush to take their profits.

Net foreign sales of Japanese shares recently have hit their highest level since the Asian crisis in 1997. Overall, the Nikkei has fallen by around 15% since the start of the year.

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So is the bull market out of steam?

We don't think so. In fact, we think there's quite a way to go yet. And one of the most promising signs is that Japanese companies are starting to treat shareholders with more respect.

Dividend payouts remind managers of their duty to shareholders

Yet since the Second World War, Japanese companies have paid a relatively small proportion of their earnings back to shareholders as dividends. In the first few decades after the war, this was understandable.

There was a huge need for capital investment to repair war damage and catch up with other countries. The partial breakup of the Zaibatsu' conglomerates also meant that firms faced more competition, so needed to invest to keep up.

However, it was clear that in Japanese firms shareholders tended to rank relatively low in the pecking order. A lack of hostile takeovers and the fact that firms tended to own shares in each other (known as cross-shareholdings), kept managers comfortably insulated from shareholder pressure. Rather than shareholder value, executives preferred to focus on expansion, either through increased investment or mergers.

Another factor inhibiting dividend payments was overleveraged balance sheets. During the long boom, firms took on a huge amount of debt. This reached a peak of 200% as a percentage of shareholders' equity in the late 1970s. Once the economy started slowing after the boom, this debt had to be repaid first in order to put companies on a more sustainable footing.

The good news is that things have improved a great deal since then.

Net debt levels are down to around 50% of equity, giving companies much more breathing room. Cross-shareholdings have fallen sharply since the mid-90s, forcing managers to pay more attention to the needs of shareholders.

As a result, firms are less likely to plough cash into unproductive investments. This has led to a dramatic rise in free cash flow.

A full 95% of listed Japanese companies now pay dividends.And although payout ratios (dividend payments as a percentage of profits) are still low compared to other countries, dividends have grown faster over the last 15 years than in the US.

The government is also encouraging the creation of a new index, JPX-Nikkei Index 400. Instead of simply weighting firms by their size, this index ranks firms on their profitability and return on equity.The hope is that it will further nudge' companies to use capital wisely, which should increase the money going to shareholders.

Japanese investors are being encouraged to buy more stocks

This aversion to shares among the Japanese can partly be explained by static or falling prices, which makes bonds attractive, even at low yields. An ageing population may also find a fixed income more attractive.

However, the government is trying to encourage a more aggressive investment culture by copying the UK and creating the Japanese Nippon Individual Savings Account (Nisa), allowing households to invest up to 1m (£5,836) a year tax-free in stocks or investment trusts.

Tokyo has also been trying to shift the investments in the Government Pension Investment Fund towards riskier assets. The share of the fund invested in domestic bonds has fallen from 70% in 2008 to around 55% at the moment. The share invested in Japanese shares has gone up from less than 10% to 15%, and is due to increase further.

How to invest in Japan

Despite last year's surge, Japan is still affordably priced. The Topix trades at a reasonable 14 times this year's earnings. Better yet, it trades at only a 15% premium to book value, compared with the 98% and 159% premiums of the UK and US markets respectively.

So we're happy to stick with Japan. You can read a lot more in my colleague Merryn Somerset Webb's recent MoneyWeek magazine cover story on Japan(if you're not already a subscriber, you can read the article and get your first three issues free by signing up here).

One fund we've recently tipped is the JOHCM Japan fund. Run by Scott McGlashan and Ruth Nash, it's beaten its benchmark over a three and five-year period. But if you want to take advantage of Japan's improving dividend culture, you should perhaps focus on a new fund from JOHCM - the JOHCM Japan Dividend Growth fund. This aims to find companies that have an above-average dividend yield, and the ability to grow those dividends in the long term.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri