For the first time in my 20-year career, I feel like the cool kid in town. Suddenly, almost everyone wants to know what I think about Japan; about the new Bank of Japan Governor, the Yen, the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s (TSE) focus on low valuation stocks, about what companies I think Warren Buffett will buy next and whether I think Japan is really changing “this time”. Apart from a brief period of Abenomics-induced euphoria a decade ago, Japan is the hottest I can remember, and yes, “this time” it is with good reason.

Having experienced and (just about) survived Japan’s “lost decades”, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest this exuberance was balanced with caution. But first, let’s talk about why Japan is enjoying the spotlight.

Japan is cheap , flush with cash, and in the midst of sweeping corporate governance reform. It is the third largest economy in the world, with nearly 4,000 listed companies, yet despite eight straight weeks of net buying , foreign ownership is at multi-year lows . This underweight exposure by the investment community is despite Japanese companies booking low double-digit returns over 10 years, driven by dividends and higher EPS growth than the S&P . Impressively, these returns have come through despite the market de-rating, meaning a negative contribution from valuation compression.

Now, GDP growth is widely forecasted to be the highest among developed nations in 2023, and the outlook for earnings growth is strong . The country is potentially set to benefit from its relatively recent re-opening to foreign travel (October 2022) and in particular, to its largest trading partner, China. Geopolitical friction and re-shoring efforts globally are drawing attention from regional investors to a politically and socially stable, deep and liquid alternative market that has been hiding in plain sight. Japan is viewed as a key destination for capital seeking innovative and vibrant firms, geopolitically aligned with the west.

Amidst the global angst surrounding inflation, Japan remains relatively buffered and has counter-inflationary traits in the large cash positions of both corporates and households. Uniquely, Japan welcomes some of the inflationary pressures, which are almost exclusively imported through higher energy and food pricing. With those cost-pressures looking to ease later this year, real wage growth is predicted to turn positive in the 2H , which could help drive domestic demand.

The near monopoly of political power held by the Liberal Democratic Party since the 1950s means that Japanese politics lack the soap-opera dramatics seen elsewhere. The finely choreographed cooperation between the Government, the central bank, financial institutions and regulators is a rare strength of Japan and provides a reassuringly consistent platform from which to determine and accomplish long-term goals – the most important of which in recent years, were arguably the Abe administration’s corporate governance reforms, given teeth by the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s recent announcements.

Many market watchers will remember there was similar excitement amongst foreign investors about Japan when the late PM Abe announced his 3rd Arrow of Corporate Governance reform through Abenomics, followed by frustration that changes were not happening fast enough, which was fair! Changing deeply entrenched corporate cultures and values takes time and takes an element of herd mentality in Japan. We have now passed that point of critical mass. 18 years ago when the Redwheel Nissay Stewardship strategy began, stewardship and engagement were relatively new and alien concepts in corporate Japan. Finding corporate management teams who were willing to embrace change and see shareholders as partners with whom they could work towards a common goal, was often a long and grueling process. Now, stewardship is an established concept and engagement is a recognized instrument of responsible investing (when wielded correctly). This means that sectors and industries which were historically more difficult, or near-impossible, to engage with have started to open up to shareholders and their opinions. There are clear signs of change throughout corporate Japan in areas ranging from gender diversity to shareholder return, and although the pace is accelerating, the seeds of change were planted many years ago.

What then, has happened recently to finally bring foreign investor focus back to Japan?

Last year the TSE restructured their listing categories and requirements (into TSE Prime, Standard and Growth), giving an indefinite grace period for companies to meet the new criteria. At the beginning of this year however, they announced the end to the grace period was March 2026, and expectations are that companies which don’t meet requirements by then will be downgraded or de-listed. At this point, there aren’t any hard and fast enforcement measures from the TSE, but the language they have used is more powerful than it has ever been. Companies are expected to demonstrate financial literacy, including assessment, explanation and defence of their share price and capital efficiency . There is a particular focus on companies with a PriceBookRatio (PBR) of less than 1, who are “encouraged” by the TSE to disclose their plans for improvement. The simplest way to improve metrics for many of these companies are to lighten balance sheets by selling off assets, unwinding cross-shareholdings and returning excess cash to shareholders.

Many of us have heard this all before, but these new measures from the TSE and the resolve behind them imply firm determination from the top. The master stroke of marketing for Japan was delivered from the very unlikely location of Omaha. Buffet’s highly publicised recent visit to Tokyo was followed shortly after by his comment that “we’re not done in Japan” at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, and value investors globally set about trying to figure out where Buffett would strike next.

Now, the pinch of wasabi:

The warning from the TSE aimed at companies trading below liquidation value, refers to more than 40% of stocks in the index, or around 2000 names, including corporate behemoths like Toyota Motor and Mitsubishi UFJ group. It is therefore very tempting for investors to buy a large swathe of the Topix and hope for the best. However, I believe that although huge strides have been made across the market, the majority of these companies will not change, even with pressure from the TSE or from activists.

As recently as last month, companies from global retailer Seven & I Holdings to the country’s third largest oil refiner Cosmo Energy, have taken steps to bat away activist investors (Value Act and Murakami, respectively). Smaller, more domestic, companies which make up the majority of the <1PBR cohort may be even harder to convince, with or without activist pressure. They key point is that Japan has always been a stock-pickers’ market, and crucially for engagement or activist funds, it is a management-pickers’ market. Identifying corporate managers with the will to change will be key. It is all very well identifying companies which have challenges that we can help address, but what of the quality and receptiveness of the management themselves? Engagement is highly inefficient and ineffective when met with a firmly closed door. Part of a teams’ expertise should be focussed on assessing whether the door towards constructive dialogue is open, or even, just slightly ajar.

Through Redwheel’s joint venture with Nissay Asset Management, we have one of the longest-running dedicated engagement strategy in Japan, supported by a 22-person sector analyst team based in Tokyo. Company analysis is based on over 3,000 in-person meetings with Japanese corporates per year, and their knowledge is an invaluable resource to discover management with “engageability”. Having on-the-ground resources and the ability to identify companies that are changing will be more important than ever to navigate and benefit from the stars potentially aligning for Japan. One can’t overstate the over-riding importance and impact of corporate reform in a market which is home to truly excellent companies who are leaders in their global fields. After a slow start, corporate governance reform has gained momentum and is now self-sustaining, while at the same time, some companies have fallen victim to market style-shifts and tumbled despite solid earnings and steady reform. We believe we have a rare opportunity to invest in excellent companies at severely undervalued levels, in an environment which has never been more supportive of determined and active engagement.

[1] MSCI World and Developed World, Citi Research, MSCI, Factset, March 2023

[2] Mizuho Securities research, 30.05.2023

[3] Goldman Sachs Research, 30.05.2023

[4] Bloomberg data

[5] Market reports JPMorgan, Schroders, Citi Wealth, SocGen, Deutsche Asset Management, Invesco, AXA, T Rowe Price, January 2023.

[6] NLI Research Institute, May 2023

[7] JPX January 30, 2023

Key Information
No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risks in any market environment. Past performance is not a guide to future results. The prices of investments and income from them may fall as well as rise and an investor’s investment is subject to potential loss, in whole or in part. Forecasts and estimates are based upon subjective assumptions about circumstances and events that may not yet have taken place and may never do so. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author as of the date of publication, and do not necessarily represent the view of Redwheel. This article does not constitute investment advice and the information shown is for illustrative purposes only