Look beyond Japan’s Olympic omnishambles

Japan's insistence on going through with the Olympics in the midst of the global pandemic has been described as a "suicide mission". But the long-term case for investors in Japan is encouraging.

Welcoming “90,000 visitors from all over the world during a pandemic” to a “densely populated city where vaccinations trail Bangladesh… gee, what could go wrong?” asks William Pesek in Nikkei Asia. Japan insists that it can safely hold the Olympic games in July, but opinion polls show that more than 80% of the country’s citizens are opposed. Pressure is growing on the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who has backed the games. The head of e-commerce giant Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, has dubbed the Olympics a “suicide mission”. 

 Japan has so far done a relatively good job at containing the virus, but was forced to declare a state of emergency last month in response to a new wave of cases. Uncertainty about the Olympics has weighed on markets. The Topix index has gained 7% so far this year, making it a global laggard. 

Overseas investors dumped a net  ¥1trn (£6.5bn) in local stocks during the second week of May, says Hideyuki Sano on Reuters, the biggest outflow since March 2020. The economic costs of cancelling the Olympics would be limited as Japan has already barred foreign tourists from attending. The games look set to deliver a stimulus equivalent to just 0.3% of GDP. That is a poor return given the risk of importing “multiple Covid-19 variants”. 

Still, the long-term case for Japan is encouraging, says Simon Constable in The Wall Street Journal. The market was once shunned for its poor corporate governance, but reforms have forced Japan’s boardrooms to take shareholder value seriously. Schroders reports that the market’s average return on equity, a key gauge of profitability, has risen from 5% in 2013 to 6%-7% in 2019. That should spark more interest from global investors once the Olympics omnishambles has been sorted out.

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