London - Three months after the triple whammy of an
earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster rocked Japan's economy, some investors
and analysts are beginning to sense it may be time to return.
They are encouraged by low valuations, an over $300bn
reconstruction bill, positive talk from the Bank of Japan and recent signs of a
recovery at hard-hit companies.
Others are also relying on a recovery in Japan having a
broader, global effect by helping bring the world economy - and with it,
riskier assets such as equities - back on track in the second half.
At the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit this week, Societe
Generale's head of global asset allocation Alain Bokobza was effusive about the
prospects for Japanese equities, seeing the Nikkei average up 18% to 20% over
the next 12 months.
"Japanese equity markets are cheap," he said,
"I love Japanese equities."
He argued that Japan was one of the only countries in the
world likely to experience a V-shaped recovery because capital will be
mobilised to overcome the triple-disaster damage.
Equities were also trading at just 1.1 times book value, he
said, meaning share prices are only really reflecting what a company's assets
are worth and not any future profits or growth.
There are others on the buyside who go along with this.
Invesco Perpetual's Henley-based equities team, for example, is overweight
Japan in its global investment mandates.
"We expect good positive returns from Japan," the
firm's Japan specialist Tony Roberts said in a recent note
"It is trading at around book value, which suggests
that the entire listed corporate sector cannot add value over and above the sum
of its net assets ever again. This is nonsensical; it is valued far too
Long way to go
Current market positioning, meanwhile, would suggest that
being bullish about Japan has yet to become a consensus trade - sometimes a
counter-indicator that encourages investors.
Reuters asset allocation polls at the end of May, for
example, showed global allocations to Japanese equities at the lowest level
since November. Japan's own domestic allocation was at its lowest since August.
On the bourse itself, the Nikkei is down around 7.5% for the
year to date, dashing the hopes of those such as Goldman Sachs who had
predicted - pre-disasters - that it would be one of the big winners of the
It is down more than 9% from its pre-disaster level,
although it is up 15% from the lows hit just afterwards.
This could imply that the disasters have been priced in, but
not the reconstruction.
So investors looking for signs that Phase One (disaster) may
be ending and Phase Two (bounce back) beginning will have taken succour from
some recent comments from monetary officials and leading Japanese companies.
Speaking last week, Bank of Japan board member Seiji
Nakamura was relatively upbeat about Japan's economic prospects, along with the
usual caveats about complacency.
"Japan's economic recovery is expected to accelerate
towards the latter half of the current fiscal year," he said.
Nakamura also said Japanese companies were gradually
restoring output to pre-quake levels. This statement was underlined a few days
later by Akio Toyota, president of Toyota Motors, who projects his carmaker's
Japan output will be back up to 90% of levels seen before the March disasters.
The company says production at Toyota is returning to
pre-quake levels faster than it anticipated.
Not everyone goes along with this, of course. There are
plenty of arguments around that as primarily a trading nation, Japan is wedded
to the global economy, and that if that is facing headwinds, then so is Japan.
Similarly, some investors believe they can get better value
elsewhere given the strength of the yen and its likely weakening when recovery
gets under way.
"We know it is cheap," said Charlie Morris, head
of absolute returns at HSBC Global Asset Management. "(But) we can't find
the drivers for change yet."
His funds, which do not follow benchmarks, hold no Japanese
The biggest hurdle, however, may just be a feeling among
investors that they have heard the story of Japan's imminent attractiveness for
With Japan slipping in and out of recession, the Nikkei has
been in downward trend since hitting an all-time high in December 1989. It
remains 75% below that level even now.
By contrast, the US S&P 500 is up around 260% over the
That said, there have been at least a dozen significant
rallies in the Nikkei on its overall way down.
Could reconstruction be signalling another one?