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Despite some global skepticism, Abenomics a success as Japan hedge funds outperform - Opalesque Japan Roundtable

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Abenomics has been on now for three years and the Nikkei has roughly doubled, even accounting the 2016 market slump (until mid February 2016.) For the first two years, overseas investors simply didn’t believe in Abenomics. And even if now they may still not believe in Abenomics, but it is getting increasingly hard for them to stay out of the market when so many of their global competitors have made money over the past three years. Japan, purely on a relative basis, was not as bad as other markets in terms of volatility, for example, compared to China in 2015. The interest in Japan, whether it’s still skeptical or enthusiastic, has grown a lot, and we are seeing this too through an increased footfall of global investors coming to Japan as an investment destination.

So, as a policy response, Abenomics has been a resounding success. Try to recall post-GFC Japan before Abenomics. Then, there were real problems with Yen strength, a pro-austerity government and a BOJ that was well behind the curve. Industries were struggling with weak operating environments and faced real liquidity issues after the tsunami. These were acute problems that if not addressed would have resulted in significant negative impacts on the economy. But the Japanese themselves recognized it was unsustainable and the LDP was voted in a landslide on the Abenomics “three arrows” reflationary platform which addressed these issue simultaneously. The LDP controls both the lower and the upper house, and they have broad approval ratings from the population, specifically because of Abenomics. And, most importantly, everyone is now on the same page, as there is no credible alternative to Abenomics. The regulators are on the same page, the bureaucrats are on the same page, politicians are on the same page, and the voters are on the same page. There are very few developed countries where such a broad policy mandate exists. This strength is not widely recognized.

The biggest activist in Japan right now is the government

It’s the Japanese government that wants to see corporates now generate higher earnings and all the economic benefits that accrue though higher taxes revenues and wages. The new Corporate Code and Stewardship Code forces management and shareholders talk to each other as to how they can raise returns. Another smart move was the introduction of the JPX 400, an index designed to include only Japan’s most profitable, shareholder-friendly companies. Now, rather than just having foreign share holders on the other side of the table berating management for the low returns, the situation is that institutional domestic investors are obliged to actually sit across the table from corporates and engage. The pressure to reform is coming from all sides, and this will start to address the major issue that global investors have with Japanese firms: low returns on capital. The gap between the Japanese corporate return on equity versus the rest of the world is already narrowing, and this is clearly a long term opportunity.

It is worth highlighting that equity investors own a “share” of corporate profitability, not a slice of GDP. Here the news is undeniably positive. The fact is that not only are corporate profits in Japan at record highs, so too are profit margins. Cash levels at corporates are also record highs, so too are net assets. Growth in earnings is likely to remain solid as corporates focus on core strength and a clear shift away from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder returns.

From Gaijin to local: The transformation of Japanese hedge funds

Japanese hedge funds have undisputedly benefited from Abenomics. But even before Abenomics, since 2008, Japanese hedge fund managers (as measured by the Eurekahedge Index) have been doing well with only one minor down year: 2015: +6.56; 2014: +5.73; 2013: +27.87; 2012: +5.77, 2011: -1.04; 2010: +8.10; 2009: +6.43.

Over the last ten years, there has been a fundamental change in the way Japanese hedge funds are managed. If you go back 10, 12 years ago, most of the large Japan-focused hedge funds were run by foreigners or “gaijin”, as foreigners are called here. When Japan went out of favor and pan-Asia (particularly China) became popular, those Japan funds closed down or they may have turned into Asian focused funds. What has happened over the last four or five years is that Japanese managers are now running Japanese hedge funds. And very often, they are poor communicators in English, which creates a bias in Western minds because many people assume that someone can't be very smart if they can't speak English, which is definitely not the case. If, for example, that manager has always worked for pure Japanese institutions, there was never the need to learn English.

The Opalesque 2016 Japan Roundtable was sponsored by Harney Westwood & Riegels and took place end of 2015 in Tokyo with:

  1. Kenichi Onuki, General Manager, Products Development Department, Amundi Japan
  2. Kenya Yonezawa, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Asset Management
  3. Leon Rapp, Portfolio Manager, Rogers Investment Advisors
  4. Matthew Roberts, Partner, Harney Westwood & Riegels
  5. Rory Kennedy, COO, Rogers Investment Advisors
The group also discussed:
  • How to best market a fund in Japan given that it’s not a “fly-in, fly-out place” (page 15)
  • How do Japanese pension funds and other institutional investors view the opportunities that alternative investments provide? (page 15) What is the targeted return of a typical Japanese corporate pension fund? (pages 8, 21)
  • Why Japanese hedge funds, even the smaller ones, can offer attractive niche strategies to a global allocator (page 14)
  • Why the Japan Post IPO, the largest in the world in 2015, was a game changer in Japan (pages 18-20)
  • Which is the fund jurisdiction of choice of Japanese fund managers? (page 16)
  • Not much left: A hedge fund manager’s take on the “Three Ds”: Japan’s Debt, Deflation, and Demographics (pages 17, 18)
  • What will be the trigger for Japanese retail investors to get out of bank deposits into more investments? (pages 20, 21)
  • Discipline & capacity limits: Why most Western institutions will miss the opportunity to invest with Japan hedge funds (page 12)
  • How do global investors address the fact that they have under invested in Japan focused talent for almost a decade? (page 10)
  • Why Japanese activist managers have been the biggest beneficiary of inflows (pages 13, 20)

Access the Opalesque Roundtable Series - Japan 2016 | Download here

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