The Japanese stock market is the single best performing market so far this year. That’s saying something, since we all know that our own markets are hitting record highs on a daily basis. I’m betting this is just the dawn of a new age for this island nation.
Frankly, there is still a lot of skepticism that the Japanese have finally turned the corner. There have been so many false starts since their markets peaked in the late 1980s that the last three-plus decades have bred an enormous amount of cynicism from both the Japanese themselves as well as international investors.
On Wall Street there are only a handful of us left who remember the glory days of Japan. I first visited Japan in 1977 as a Fulbright Fellow. In those days the Japanese export miracle was in full throttle. Fueled by an invincible stranglehold on the world’s exports markets, the country had transformed itself into the second largest nation in terms of Gross Domestic Product. There was even talk that at some point Japan would overtake the U.S. for the number one spot in GDP.
It all came crashing down as a result of excess speculation, missteps in government and monetary policy followed by the rise of truly cost effective competition in the form of emerging markets. Japan’s decline has been long and depressing. The country’s troubles and the private and public sector’s attempts to fix them have been held up as a textbook case of what not to do in economic policy. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke actually did his doctorate thesis on that very subject.
We old Japan hands thought the country’s woes could get no worse and then two years ago an earthquake and tsunami devastated the eastern part of Japan. The resulting melt down of the Fukishima nuclear plant was the final blow. Credit agencies downgraded the country’s sovereign debt to negative, the market sank (the Nikkei was trading at 9,815) and the hit to the economy convinced most investors that Japan’s sun was setting, not rising.
I begged to differ. In June, 201I in my column “Japan: is the sun beginning to rise?” I argued
“ To my way of thinking, here is an economy that is on the eve of a massive stimulus program, a declining currency (good for increasing exports), a corporate sector hell bent on increasing capacity and re-gaining global market share ( think autos) and a population that is willing to finance the effort regardless of Moody’s outlook on their bonds. In the eastern region, new housing (unlike the U.S.) is in great demand. And unlike our own financial institutions that refuse to lend despite low interest rates, Japan’s banks will lend and lend to corporations and individuals in order to help the recovery effort.
What this indicates to me is that a “V” shaped economic recovery in Japan is a strong possibility. If I’m right, the stock market is a screaming buy.”
Granted it took some time for the country to reorganize, find its footing and develop an alternative direction. In November of last year, a new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was elected promising a radical new approach (for Japan) to eradicate two decades of stagnation. This year the Japanese government, along with the central bank, has embarked on a huge stimulus program. Although comparable to the type of quantitative easing our own country has employed to lift us from recession, Japan’s program is far greater given the size of their economy.
They are deliberately attempting to combat years of deflation by reigniting its opposite. A daunting task since it is far easier to manipulate inflation than deflation within a country. The process has begun. The value of the yen has plummeted, bond yields are rising and the stock market is taking off. Yes, the stock market is up some 13% so far this year, but we have to put that gain in perspective. The peak level for their market index, the Nikkei, occurred on December 29, 1989 at 38,957. Today the Nikkei is trading at 13,549.
In hindsight, it took the U.S. market four years to reach its present state of record highs from the bottom of the financial crisis. I attribute that gain to the efforts of our central bank’s stimulus programs. In Japan, after thirty years of bottoming, the stock market is just beginning to respond to their central bank’s quantitative easing. We still have a long, long way to go before the Nikkei approaches even the half-way mark when comparing record highs.