Many stock markets around the world offer active managers room to generate superior returns. Among them, Japan stands out. Its equity market appears particularly inefficient. Reforms are also shaking up the once stagnant economy, creating new winners and losers in the corporate sector. That said, stockpicking still demands skill and discipline. We believe that managers will need nothing less than exceptional research and a long-term perspective to come out ahead.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reflationary policies have brought Japan’s stock market to a level of health not seen in decades. Even with the pullback earlier this year, the TOPIX has gained more than 70% in Japanese yen terms since end-2012, when ‘Abenomics’ started raising hopes for Japan’s economic recovery. Investors are rightly interested in gaining exposure to Japan. But how they do so matters.
Adopting a passive strategy may seem attractive. An exchange-traded fund, for instance, would simply track a stock market index in Japan. But why should investors settle for market returns? Japan has traditionally been a stock picker’s market, and it still is. Active managers that are adept at identifying opportunities and managing risks stand a good chance of beating the index over time. The sheer size of Japan’s stock market makes it a fertile hunting ground. It is the third-largest in the world by market capitalisation (US$5.2 trillion) and comprises more than 3,800 listed companies. But there are more reasons why conditions in Japan favour an active approach.
Japan’s stock market appears highly inefficient. Mispricing opportunities can be captured by active managers armed with superior research and insights. What drives stock market efficiency? Research coverage is key. The more analysts there are following a company, the faster information is likely to be shared. In that respect, Japan trails other developed markets like the US and UK significantly. On average, 12 analysts follow each company in the Nikkei 225 index, compared with 22 for the S&P 500 Composite Index and 21 for the FTSE 100 index.1 Research coverage tends to be even thinner for small- and mid-cap companies in Japan (see Exhibit 1). After the global financial crisis, many securities houses cut their research in this space to focus on larger companies instead. Within the electric appliances industry, for example, as many as 12 major securities houses track conglomerate Hitachi. But just two follow commercial kitchen equipment maker Hoshizaki.
Small firms, big reach
Japan’s small- and mid-cap sector is also home to numerous quality companies with leading positions in niche industries. This means there are ample opportunities for extensive bottom-up research to pay off.
Hoshizaki is a case in point. It receives little analyst coverage, yet it dominates the market for ice makers both domestically and abroad. Its energy-saving technology is a key competitive advantage as it eyes a bigger slice of the market for other appliances like refrigerators.
Likewise, few investors may have heard of Sysmex. But it is the world’s leading supplier of blood tests, ranking above healthcare giants such as Abbott. Over the years, Sysmex has gained market share with its highly efficient medical diagnostic tools and is pursuing further growth across various geographies and product lines.
Many small- and mid-cap companies trade at a discount to the market, making them seem even more attractive. But it pays to be careful. Certainly, some companies are undervalued because the market has overlooked them. But there are also those that simply have poor prospects. Active managers make a real difference when they can separate value finds from value traps.