How to Play "The Land of Rising Stocks"

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that, for the first time in three years, foreign investors are increasing their holdings in the Japanese stock market.

Data released by the Tokyo Stock Exchange shows that foreign ownership of Japanese shares rose to 26% for the year that ended in March, up from 23.5% a year earlier.

The Journal suggests that a recovery in Japanese corporate earnings is tempting foreign investors back to the country’s equity markets.

But I think there’s more going on here. Perhaps hedge fund managers and other savvy global investors have paged back through their old, dog-eared copies of Dr. Jeremy Siegel’s Stocks for the Long Run.

If so, they may have recognized something significant…

Crunching the Numbers on Japan

Siegel notes that it’s rare for stocks to go 10 years without giving a positive return. Yet we’ve experienced just such a rarity over the last decade.

For stocks to go 20 years without giving a positive return is almost unheard of. And 30 years? That’s rarer than Big Foot, Nessie and the Abominable Snowman combined.

Which brings me back to Japan…

In 1989, the Nikkei 225 – Japan’s equivalent of the S&P 500 – hit a new all-time high near 40,000. Today, more than 20 years later, it languishes near 10,000 – almost 75% lower.

In other words, the Nikkei 225 would have to rise 300% just to get back where it was in 1989.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if it did just that by the end of the decade. After all, it’s happened before.

In the 1970s, the US market returned just 0.34% a year – a 3.4% total return for the decade. Yet the Japanese market compounded at 16%, generating a 10-year return of 344%.

What other asset class offers that kind of potential return over the next decade? (Gold bugs, keep your seats.)

Don’t Chase the Bullet Train… Get on Board Now

The groundwork has been laid.

Last August, after more than 50 years, Japan’s opposition party trounced the Liberal Democratic Party in a landslide election.

The new government has promised to shrink the country’s massive bureaucracy and cut wasteful public spending. It also intends to end more than 20 years of economic stagnation by cutting taxes and focusing on small and mid-sized businesses.

Of course, we’re all skeptical of politicians’ promises, but there is evidence that they mean business this time. Twenty years is a long time to leave your economy in a funk.

It’s resulted in Japanese stocks being among the cheapest and most unloved in the world. Virtually no one is enthusiastic about the Tokyo market.

However, great opportunities are born when dirt-cheap valuations marry investor apathy. Plus, Japanese investors are flush with cash. They’ve largely ignored domestic stocks after two decades of sub-par returns. And as that money begins to find its way out of mattresses and back into Japanese equities, the Tokyo market should lift off.

This is doubly true when institutional money managers return to Japan in a serious way. For years, global fund managers have outperformed the world benchmark by simply underweighting Japan. But let the Shinkansen take off without them and they will be forced to dash after it.

So how do you play this?

Two Ways to Ride the Japanese Stock Market

There are dozens of worthwhile Japanese ADRs trading on Nasdaq and the Big Board.

But you can gain exposure to Japanese stocks through two ETFs…

– iShares MSCI Japan Index (NYSE:EWJ), which invests in large-cap Japanese stocks.

– Wisdom Tree Japan Small-Cap Dividend Fund (NYSE:DFJ)
, which captures the best of the Japanese small-cap sector.

Or you can spread your bets and own both.

Incidentally, if you remain skeptical about Japanese stocks digging their way out of this 21-year hole, consider again how unlikely it is that Japanese stocks will earn a negative 30-year return.

As Dr. Siegel writes in Stocks For the Long Run:

In the 12 years from 1948 to 1960, German stocks rose by over 30% per year in real terms. Indeed, from 1939, when the Germans began the war in Poland, through 1960, the real return on German stocks matched those in the United States and exceeded those in the U.K. Despite the total devastation that the war visited on Germany, the long-run investor made out as well in defeated Germany as in victorious Britain or the United States. The data powerfully attest to the resilience of stocks in the face of seemingly destructive political, social, and economic change.

The story in Japan was similar. By the end of 1945, stock prices stood at approximately one-third of their level just prior to the Empire’s surrender. Over the next 40 years, the Japanese market returned more than 20 times its American counterpart.

If 200 years of world stock market history is any guide, the current decade should be another barnburner for Japan.

Good investing,

Alexander Green
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning