After decades of subdued growth, Japanese equity markets rallied in 2013 following Abe’s election and announcement of his triumvirate of measures. The three arrows, as his policy approach is called, consist of monetary measures, fiscal measures as well as growth oriented structural measures. The first two of these have been implemented early on and were well received by investors. Japan outperformed other developed markets returning +55% in 2013 compared to +34% for the US and +21% for Europe. However, Japanese equity returns this year have been held back by scepticism over the potential success of Abe’s third arrow. The TOPIX index is flat on the year at the time of writing, compared to +8.6% and +5.5% for the US and Europe indices respectively.

Structural measures envisioned as part of the third arrow aim to improve companies’ capital efficiency to promote economic growth. The main provisions of this program are to encourage companies to allocate their cash more efficiently and to promote corporate governance. Japanese companies have been notorious for hoarding their cash over the last few decades, a habit which gained new life following the Global Financial Crisis. In the reflationary environment that the government wishes to create, cash becomes an unprofitable asset.

Within developed, capitalist countries, companies have to manage the expectations of a range of stakeholders, namely: customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, bondholders and lending banks. In some societies, a diffuse range of societal responsibilities are at play. Japan, being essentially a consensus culture, is one such society.

The itinerant Western investor, business schooled to respect economic value creation and growth above all other things, has tended to notice Japanese attributes that are inimical to the unbridled creation of economic value. In particular, the societal responsibility to employ people is taken very seriously and lay-offs are cataclysmic events for Japanese companies.

Asset turns in Japan are comparable with Europe and the US, however the twin effects of overstaffing and cash hoarding combined with endemically lower margins has meant that corporate Japan has lagged in terms of return on equity (ROE) or return on capital employed (ROCE) measures.

Table 1: Return on Equity as of 6 October 2014 – Japan, US, Europe

 

TOPIX

Nikkei 225

S&P500

MSCI EUROPE

Return on Equity

8.2

8.0

15.0

11.1

Source: Bloomberg, Cerno Capital

With an ROE of only 8.2% for the Japanese equity market, compared to 15% and 11% for the US and the European markets respectively, returns for equity shareholders in Japan are lagging behind and have done so for the past twenty years as the graph below demonstrates.

Graph 1: Historical Returns on Equity – US, Europe, Japan

Historical Returns on Equity – US, Europe, Japan

Source: Bloomberg, Cerno Capital

ROE is a function of companies’ profit margins, leverage used as well as asset turnover. Asset turnover measures with what efficiency assets are being deployed. We can infer that Japanese companies’ focus has not been on increasing shareholder value, but rather that they haven’t been in control of their costs and capital has been allocated inefficiently; the focus has been on pleasing employees, suppliers and customers. The latter two very much so due to the significant cross shareholding between firms which is typical for the Japanese equity market. This has led to a lack of risk taking of corporates and short termism, i.e. focusing on quarterly earnings rather than having a long term strategic plan in place that will deliver sustainable shareholder returns over time. It has also made companies reluctant to engage in business restructuring and to divest unprofitable parts of their businesses. These inefficient investments along with the enormous cash holdings have depressed firms’ ROEs.

Abe’s structural reform aims to refocus corporates’ attention to the shareholder. He is looking to prompt companies to allocate capital more efficiently and target returns on equity above their cost of capital, or to return cash to investors in form of higher dividends and share buybacks.

Dividend yields have been low in Japan, even compared to the US.

Table 2: Dividend Yields as of 6 October 2014 – Japan, US, Europe

 

TOPIX

Nikkei 225

S&P500

MSCI EUROPE

Dividend Yield

1.8

1.5

1.9

3.6

Source: Bloomberg, Cerno Capital

One regulation already implemented aims to change the cross holding ownership. The below graph shows that for the first time the ownership of firms and banks is below that of the equity ownership of investment management firms, individuals and foreign investors.

Graph 2: Transition of Shareholder Composition in Japan %

Transition of Share holder Composition in Japan

Source: TSE Shareowner Survey 2013, Cerno Capital

However, not all measures can be implemented via regulations. Corporate governance and stewardship codes are only principle based guidelines, which companies can subscribe to, or not.

To encourage companies to adhere to these principles, the Japanese Exchange Group (JPX, world’s third largest bourse operating the Tokyo Exchange amongst others) and Nikkei have jointly created a new index, called the JPX Nikkei 400 Index, which launched at the beginning of this year. This new index explicitly selects companies which focus on the efficient use of capital, specifically referring to ROE, as well as those promoting good corporate governance.

The index excludes companies that have been listed for less than three years, have liabilities in excess of assets during any of the past three fiscal years, those which had an operating deficit in all of the past three fiscal years and those which are designated for delisting.

Eligible companies are scored and ranked according to the following criteria:

  1. 3 year average ROE
  2. 3 year cumulative operating profit
  3. Market capitalisation on the base date for selection

Point one and two are each given a weighting of 40% and market cap is only weighted with 20%. In contrast, the TOPIX is a market cap weighted index and the Nikkei 225 a price weighted index.

To encourage adoption of corporate governance standards, scoring based on qualitative factors is also applied and focuses on the following three items:

  1. Appointment of independent directors (with the requirement of at least 2)
  2. Adoption or scheduled adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
  3. Disclosure of English earnings information via TDnet (company announcement distributions service in English)

One would expect the above three from companies listed in the US or Europe as minimum standards, however to the majority of Japanese companies, these are rather uncommon features to date. The scoring of these criteria is determined so that around 10 names are different from those if only quantitative criteria were applied.

The overall 400 highest scoring companies are selected for the index, subject to buffering rules to minimise turnover.

Constituents are reviewed once a year in August. This year’s first review saw 31 in and 31 out, with Sony being one of the companies dropped. This is consequential in a shame culture, such as Japan’s, and the index was already dubbed the ‘Shame Index’.

Public endorsement for the adoption of this index was given by Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) which currently manages around US$1.2trillion. Historically, the GPIF is very conservatively positioned but is expected to slowly shift more money towards a higher equity allocation. It has identified the JPX Nikkei 400 as one of its equity benchmark indices. Given the size of the GPIF and its influence on other pension funds, this should be regarded as significant support for Abe’s structural reform program.

What does this mean for investors? First of all, we can expect that better ratings and higher share prices as a result of inclusion will induce companies to modify their behaviour and spark competition to grow ROEs and an alignment with global governance standards. This in effect should contribute to asset price inflation, with the hope that is matched by wage growth to contribute to Abe’s 2% inflation target.

Critics argue that this index is little more than another smart beta offering and investors buying high ROE stocks will be disproportionately exposed to cyclical companies at the top of their cycles. They argue that by simply buying the index, not enough attention is given to the consideration of value versus quality.

Clearly, companies included in the index will tend to have higher ROEs. This is demonstrated in the below table 3 which lists the average of the most recent (August 2014) inclusions and exclusions of the index. However, we otherwise do not concede to this argument. We consider the growth in ROE to be the most critical factor and expect that via improvements in capital efficiency, Japanese ROEs will continue to improve and align with other developed markets. As they are starting from a low base, a plausible strategy is to invest in both index constituents as well as those expected to join the index.

Table 3: JPX Nikkei 400 – Inclusions & Exclusions August 2014

 

ROE

3 Year Av. ROE

5 Year ROE Growth

Inclusions (Av.)

15.4

9.3

25.1

Exclusions (Av.)

3.4

6.8

-4.9

Table 4 below illustrates that the combined ROE of the new index, the JPX Nikkei 400, is only marginally higher than that of the TOPIX and Nikkei 225 and well below that of the S&P500 and the MSCI Europe.

Table 4: Valuations as of 6October 2014 – Japan, US, Europe

 

JPX Nikkei 400

TOPIX

Nikkei 225

S&P500

MSCI EUROPE

Return on Equity

9.3

8.2

8.0

15.0

11.1

Dividend Yield

1.8

1.8

1.5

1.9

3.6

P/B

1.4

1.3

1.6

2.8

1.9

Source: Bloomberg, Cerno Capital

To date, two ETF providers have launched an ETF on the JPX Nikkei 400 for European domiciled investors. One of these is an improved investment for clients of Cerno Capital.

We have substantial balances at work in Japan and the advent of JPX Nikkei 400 trackers provide the opportunity to structure low cost exposure around the main themes at work in that market.

If you would like to find out more about how we access the Japan opportunity, please contact Hannah Sharman ([email protected]).

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