It’s official: Japanese stocks are in correction.
After closing at a recent high of 16,291 on Dec. 30, the Nikkei was down by about 14% through yesterday’s close. The iShares MSCI Japan ETF (EWJ), the most popular Japan ETF, is down a more modest 9%, due in part to currency effects (the yen tends to rally during “risk off” market conditions).
I’m not big on technical definitions. It’s not particularly important to me whether a market is in “correction,” meaning down 10%, or whether it is officially a “bear market,” meaning prices have declined by 20% or more. What matters to me is what I can expect going forward.
So with that said, what can we expect from Japanese stocks?
Let’s start with valuation. The stocks that make up EWJ collectively trade for 21.79 times earnings, which is on the pricey side, particularly given Japan’s sluggish growth. Of course, trailing P/E can be over- or understated depending on what stage of the economic cycle we are in, so the Shiller Cyclically-Adjusted P/E (CAPE) can be a useful tool to smooth out the noise.
Well, based on the CAPE, Japan has the third-most expensive market in the world, after Sri Lanka and the United States. (And yes, Sri Lanka does indeed have a stock market. I was as surprised as you.)
Looking at the EWJ and the Japanese economy, it’s hard to see how a premium valuation is warranted. Despite all attempted to ignite inflation, the specter of deflation lingers. Sure, Japan’s CPI rose 1.3% in December … but virtually all of that was due to rising energy costs and distinctly not rising consumer prices. Excluding food and energy, Japan’s CPI was up 0.7%.
I suppose it might be good that inflation is tame given that Japanese wages have fallen for 19 consecutive months and are now at a 16-year low.
If I sound a little down on Japan, it’s because I am. While I’m open to the occasional short-term trade, I am definitely what you would call a Japan perma-bear — you won’t find me recommending the EWJ any time soon.
Last year, writing about Japan’s bid for the 2020 Olympics, I wrote that if you considered Japanese stocks a viable investment, you should “close your brokerage account, withdraw the cash balance in a duffel bag, then douse it in gasoline and set it on fire. Because if you believe Japan is investable, you’re inevitably going to lose your money. The fiery duffel bag will help you skip a few steps and save some time.”
Aside from my belief that the Olympic games are of questionable economic value to the host country, I consider Japanese stocks and the yen to be long-term shorts for two related reasons: debt and demographics.