2017 Japan Outlook—Poised to Perform

Senior Advisor

Japanese risk assets—equities and real estate—remain on track for a multiyear structural bull market. For the new year 2017, we anticipate strong performance, driven by an upturn in the business cycle in general and the earnings cycle in particular. From a starting point of attractive valuationsTOPIX currently trades on a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio that is at a discount to both its own long-term average and to Wall Street multiples—we think Japanese equities could rise as much as 20% (i.e., TOPIX could climb back up to the 1,800 level last seen a decade ago, in 2007).

Specifically, we see the following five positive factors:

1. Rising visibility of positive earnings growth surprises—boosted by accelerating sales growth and currency depreciation

Japanese equities are a highly cyclical asset class, sensitive to the domestic and global business cycle. For 2017, an upward inflection appears likely on both fronts. As this gets compounded by yen depreciation and U.S. dollar strength, the net effect should be a steady stream of upward revisions to corporate earnings. Against a conservative consensus call for 10% earnings growth in 2017, we forecast a potential rise of 25%.1 Our forecast is based on an average exchange rate of ¥115/$, while the consensus call appears to be based on ¥103/$ at the time of this writing. Every 10 yen of sustained currency depreciation adds back approximately 8% to listed companies’ earnings. 
In terms of timing, positive earnings revision momentum should be particularly strong in the run-up to the full fiscal year corporate results season end-April/early May (i.e., positive market momentum could well accelerate in the first months of the year).

2. Portfolio rebalancing by domestic investors—private institutions and retail investors to shift from bonds to equities

Two years ago, Japan’s public pension fund, GPIF, changed asset allocation and raised domestic equity holdings from around 14% to around 24%.2 In 2017, we expect private institutional investors and retail investors to follow suit. They did not do so in 2016 because of global uncertainty and domestic policy confusion—the Bank of Japan (BOJ) introduced in January 2016 its negative rate policy, which cast a negative spell on Japanese risk assets in general and financials in particular. In September 2016, the BOJ took countermeasures and changed its regime. Its “zero-rate bond yield anchor” is now working to assure investors that equities are the primary domestic asset choice. In addition, financial sector profit margins are likely to have bottomed as a result of the new BOJ policy. This bodes well for the financial sector and its ability and willingness to take more risks. 

In terms of timing, the major institutional investors typically set the asset allocation for the new financial year—Japan’s fiscal year starts April 1—around mid-March. For retail investors, both base pay and summer bonus decisions are important determinants of risk appetite. The former gets decided around mid-March and the latter sometime in June. 

3. Corporate focus on capital stewardship—both dividend and buyback stream accelerating

On top of a cyclical upturn in corporate earnings, structural improvements in capital stewardship in general, and shareholder yield in particular, are bound to create significant support for Japanese equities. Last year, despite an earnings recession, both dividends and buybacks streams accelerated—a first. This year, as earnings growth accelerates, we expect accelerated growth in both dividends and buybacks. 
Here, the general shareholders’ meetings, usually held in June and July, should offer concrete trigger points.

4. Steady policy mix—fiscal dominance while BOJ caps yield curve at a de facto zero rate

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe committed to a large-scale fiscal boost, promising ¥28 trillion to be spent over the coming three years—a fiscal boost of around 0.75% to 1% to GDP every year from 2017 to the Tokyo Olympics year 2020. In turn, the Bank of Japan changed its policy target to cap Japanese government bond (JGB) yields at de facto zero. A key theme for 2017 will be rising market speculation about when this rate-cap policy could end. 
In our view, no change is likely until Japanese inflation begins to move decisively toward the 2% target set by Governor Haruhiko Kuroda. At the earliest, this could be the case by late summer or early autumn. Until then, Japan’s unique combination of fiscal dominance and zero-rate cap is poised to make the yen a structurally weak currency, undermined by a rising fiscal deficit as well as a rising Japan-U.S. interest rate differential.

5. Upturn in the global business cycle in general, China and U.S. capex cycle in particular

The likely turn in the policy mix toward fiscal spending by Japan’s two major trading partners, the U.S. and China, is poised to turn 2016 global headwinds into tailwinds. In addition to the de facto “new G3”—the U.S., Japan and China—policy coordination, the yen’s depreciation has boosted both competitiveness and profitability for Japanese capital goods makers. 

In terms of timing, the immediate issue should be the exact content and timeline of the new U.S. fiscal agenda, followed by the run-up to China’s Communist Party Congress in the autumn of 2017. 
Sector Allocation 
Against a general preference for blue-chip exporters and dividend payers, we expect alpha generation from the financial sector and the capital goods sector. In addition, we remain structurally over-weight Japanese small caps. 

Risk Factors

We see two fundamental risks to our positive outlook on Japan. On the domestic front, cost-push inflation from an increasingly tight labor market could cut profit margins sooner than we expect. On the global front, a China devaluation could not only undermine Japan’s export competitiveness but also trigger the next “risk-off” move in global capital flows.




1Source: WisdomTree Japan.
2Source: “Adoption of New Policy Asset Mix,” GPIF, 10/31/14. 

Important Risks Related to this Article

Investments focused in Japan increase the impact of events and developments associated with the region, which can adversely affect performance. 
For more investing insights, check out our Economic & Market Outlook


About the Contributor
Senior Advisor
Jesper Koll is a Senior Advisor to WisdomTree. Over the past two decades Jesper has been consistently ranked as one of the top Japan strategists/economists, working as Chief Strategist and Head of Research for major U.S. investment banks J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. His analysis and insights have earned him a position on several Japanese government advisory committees and Jesper is also one of the few non-Japanese members of the Keizai Doyukai, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives. He has written two books in Japanese, Towards a New Japanese Golden Age and The End of Heisei Deflation. After arriving in Japan in 1986 Jesper initially worked as an aide to a Member of Parliament. Jesper has a Masters degree from the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and was a research fellow at both Tokyo University and Kyoto University. He is a graduate of the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific.