Outlook 2016: Japanese Equities

The Japanese equity market has seen optimistic economic forecasts continue to be scaled down as the year has progressed, but it has still managed to post gains over 10% year-to-date in what has been a challenging environment.

Although the Japanese economy has entered a technical recession after negative growth in the third quarter, the headline numbers have disguised the fact that a broad-based economic improvement is underway in Japan.

There have been a number of factors that have contributed to the continued solid long-term outlook for Japanese equities.

It has also been encouraging to see that the previously strong correlation between the Japanese yen’s weakness and rising stock prices has started to subside.

Significant challenges for the Japanese economy remain in the short- to medium-term and the slowdown in Asian growth, in particular, has weighed on investor sentiment, reflecting the contribution to Japan’s external trade.

The economy: heading in the right direction

Investors have been closely watching short-term data releases in Japan but, in general, we believe Japan’s economy is heading in the right direction.

Although recent inflation data have been weaker-than-expected and far below the Bank of Japan’s (BoJ) 2% target, Japan does seem to have achieved a sustainable exit from deflation.

The labour market remains tight, with the unemployment rate at 3.1% – the lowest in 20 years.

Growth in real wages is rising and recent talk of a hike in the minimum wage should provide a further boost to consumer confidence.

In addition, we should remain cognisant of the fact that inflation data have been held down by lower oil prices and slower growth in China.

The direction of the economy remains positive, despite the fact that progress is happening at a slower-than-expected pace.

Looking further ahead, there is a potential obstacle to growth from the next planned increase in consumption tax from 8% to 10%, due to be implemented in April 2017.

If this goes ahead as planned it will, at best, cause additional short-term disruption to economic data and, at worst, could create another period of contraction for the economy for one or two quarters afterwards.

While we expect a smaller impact this time around for the economy, it will be worth monitoring closely for its potential ramifications.

Some signs of policy progress

A lot of controversy has surrounded Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s eponymous ‘Abenomics’ programme and whether it is having the desired effect on the economy.

The much-touted ‘three arrows’ have so far failed to impress investors due to a perceived lack of policy reform initiatives.

However, one area where Mr Abe can justifiably claim credit is in pushing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that encompasses 12 Pacific Rim countries including Japan and the US.

Covering about 40% of global GDP, this agreement could bring enormous benefits, although the market has yet to fully digest what these might be and we remain realistic on the timetable for ratification, especially given potential hurdles in the US.

Mr Abe has also made substantial progress in cutting the corporate tax rate, which is likely to be lowered again next year to below 30% from the current rate of 32%.

For the BoJ, the weaker-than-expected inflation numbers have restricted its policy options.

Although Governor Kuroda remains upbeat, at least officially, it is clear the BoJ’s original target of 2% inflation is virtually unobtainable.

As a result, there is mounting speculation about further easing moves by the bank and the central bank’s credibility remains in the spotlight.

Improving corporate earnings and governance

Domestically, Japanese companies’ earnings have been growing at a solid pace. Despite the weaker global picture, earnings are still expected to rack up positive year-on-year growth for the current fiscal year.

Although expectations have had to be scaled back slightly, growth has been well-balanced and dependency on the external global economy is now lower.

On the corporate governance front, the greater pressure being exerted by shareholders on management is beginning to pay off.

The introduction earlier this year of the Corporate Governance Code is, without doubt, a positive long-term development in Japan and is another success story for Mr Abe.

Changes already underway include better board structures which will ultimately lead to improved accountability and more efficient allocation of capital, all of which should benefit shareholders.

This trend of improving governance is unlikely to be reversed and we are already seeing the positive effects of this change via increased dividends and share buybacks by Japanese companies.

We have stepped up our own efforts to engage with company management with a focus list of companies and have seen encouraging results.

Sticking to the fundamentals

Although growth data have been weaker than anticipated, the overall trend for the Japanese economy remains positive.

In an environment of low growth and low inflation, we see the Japanese market being supported by firm corporate earnings growth and growing returns to shareholders.

Furthermore, the price-to-earnings multiple of the Topix benchmark (based on forward earnings) is still at a reasonable level of 15-16 times.

We feel that lower global economic growth has been sufficiently discounted in share prices and in some cases the negative impact from China’s slowdown may have been overestimated.

As always, we continue to remain disciplined and strictly adhere to our bottom-up stockpicking approach, leveraging our in-house fundamental research platform on the ground.

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