A change is occurring in Asia that is having repercussions on global financial markets.
Japan’s stock market, ignored by investors for decades, is making a furious comeback. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index is approaching the record it set on Dec. 29, 1989, which effectively marked the peak of Japan’s economic rise before a collapse that led to decades of low growth.
China, long a market impossible to ignore, has been falling into a downward spiral. Stocks in China recently hit lows not seen since the 2015 crash, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index was the world’s worst-performing major market last year. Stocks halted their decline only when Beijing recently signaled its intention to intervene, but remain well below previous highs.
This year was set to be a tumultuous one for global markets, with unpredictable swings as economic fortunes diverge and voters in more than 50 countries head to the polls. But there is already an unforeseen change afoot: a change in perception among investors about China and Japan.
Taking advantage of this shift, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addressed more than 3,000 global financiers gathered in Hong Kong this week at a conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs. It was the first time a Japanese prime minister had given a keynote speech at the event.
“Japan now has a golden opportunity to completely overcome the low economic growth and deflationary environment that has persisted for a quarter of a century,” Kishida said in a video recording. His government, he said, “will demonstrate to all of you Japan’s transition to a new economic stage by mobilizing all political tools.”
It’s the kind of message Japan has been honing for a decade and now investors want to hear more about it. Foreign investors pumped $2.6 billion into the Japanese stock market last week, adding to $6.5 billion the previous week, according to data from the Japan Exchange Group. This is a radical change from the approximately $3.6 billion that was withdrawn in December.
All that money has sent Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 up about 8 percent this month. The market is up more than 30 percent in the last 12 months. This week, Toyota reached a record market value for a Japanese company, around $330 billion, surpassing the mark set in 1987 by telecommunications conglomerate NTT.
A combination of factors has contributed to Japan’s recent success. A weak yen has made stocks look cheap to foreign investors, and has been a boon for exporters and Japan-based multinationals that make their profits overseas. Major reforms in the corporate sector have given shareholders more rights, allowing them to demand changes in strategy and management. Unlike inflation in other parts of the world, rising inflation in Japan has been a sign that things are heading in the right direction, after decades of falling prices and slow economic growth that reduced consumer appetite. and companies to spend.
And there is an additional factor: geopolitics. The long-term prospects for Japan, the third-largest economy, look good when parts of the world are discouraged by the second-largest economy, China.
“One of the best things that can happen to Japan is China,” said Seth Fischer, founder and chief investment officer of Oasis Management, a Hong Kong-based hedge fund.
“Japan has been working for 10 years to create a more productive corporate environment and a better place to be an equity investor by constantly trying to improve value,” Mr. Fischer said. “People don’t believe the same about China.”
In a recent survey by Bank of America of global fund managers, selling Chinese stocks and buying Japanese stocks were two of the three most popular trading ideas. (The other was to acquire high-flying American technology stocks.)
China’s ruling Communist Party has sought to insert itself into the business sector in recent years, leaving investors concerned that politics often trumps the results of many of China’s corporate titans. The confusion between politics and business has also raised concerns in Washington and European capitals, leading to regulations that have prevented foreign investments in certain sectors and companies.
China has not struggled for economic growth like Japan, but a prolonged housing market collapse has shattered consumer and investor confidence. Persistent problems with China’s economy have exacerbated the weakness of the country’s currency, the yuan.
Much of the negative sentiment has manifested itself in Hong Kong, an open market where global investors traditionally place their bets on China and its companies. The market took a hit last year and fell further during the first three weeks of this year.
Beijing intervened this week to try to reverse the liquidation. On Monday, the country’s No. 2 official, Premier Li Qiang, called on authorities to be more “forceful” and take more measures to “improve market confidence.” His speech boosted stocks, as did a Bloomberg report, citing unnamed officials, that authorities were contemplating a $278 billion market bailout.
Then on Wednesday, the central bank, the People’s Bank of China, freed commercial banks to make more loans, essentially pumping $139 billion into the market by reducing the amount of money banks must keep in reserve. Regulators also relaxed rules on how indebted real estate developers could repay loans.
Words and actions drove the market higher this week, with the Hang Seng Index recording three of its best days this year. Chinese markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen also rebounded, although not as much.
But many investors say the measures have failed to address a much bigger problem: China’s economic trajectory. They remain disappointed with China’s response to its broader economic crisis and its apparent reluctance to implement dramatic stimulus, as it did in previous periods of economic stress.
“We hope it still happens,” said Daniel Morris, an analyst at BNP Paribas, referring to a more substantial effort to shore up markets. “But we have no confidence that this will be the case. Honestly, I would have thought that at the end of last year we had to discount all the bad news and, however, this year we have fallen even further again.”
Economists, financiers and corporate executives around the world looked to China last year for an economic recovery after its government scrapped its “zero Covid” policy, punishing lockdowns that at times froze the country’s economy. But Chinese consumers did not engage in the kind of “revenge spending” seen elsewhere after reopenings, and a housing crisis has weighed on families, many of whom have nearly three-quarters of their savings invested in real estate.
“There’s not a lot of confidence domestically and then we have a government that’s not very interested in supporting the economy,” said Louis Kuijs, chief Asia economist at S&P Global Ratings. “In some ways the markets expected much more and are increasingly disappointed and disillusioned.”
And the ranks of the disillusioned include some Chinese investors, who have been moving money into exchange-traded funds that track Japanese stocks. At times, the prices of these funds have traded well above the value of their underlying assets, a sign of investors’ eagerness to invest.