It’s pick-a-number time for Japanese stock bulls after the Nikkei 225 Stock Average zoomed past 22,666.80 on Tuesday to close at the highest since 1992. Okasan Securities Co. sees 25,000 by March 2019. Martin Malone, a strategist at Mint Partners in London, says 26,000 in the medium term, while Nikko Asset Management Co. says there’s a very good chance of 30,000 in two years. For Andrew Clarke, who says people laughed at him in late August when he first predicted 25,000, this is starting to feel like vindication. “People thought I was deranged,” said Clarke, director of trading at Mirabaud Asia Ltd. in Hong Kong. The gauge was trading lower than 20,000 when he first made his prediction. “Maybe I should change to 75,000 by 2020,” he joked. The Nikkei 225 is powering forward in a rally that earlier saw 16 straight days of gains, the longest run on record. The index has jumped 19 percent since Sept. 9, benefiting from everything from a strong earnings season and a weakening yen to a global advance in equities and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s landslide re-election.
The last time the Nikkei was at these levels, in January 1992, George H. W. Bush was in power in the White House, Kiichi Miyazawa was running Japan, and land prices were falling sharply as the Asian country headed into a cycle of deflation that became known as the lost decades. Now, with both the Topix index and the Nikkei 225 repeatedly setting new milestones, the mood is one of celebration. Foreign investors have been rushing back to Japan, buying 2.2 trillion yen ($19.6 billion) in cash equities last month, the largest sum since November 2013, at the height of optimism about Abe’s policy program to revive the country’s economy. The rally has been backed by a better-than-expected second-quarter earnings season, with 62 percent of Topix-listed companies posting profit that beat analyst estimates. Sony Corp., for example, surged 11 percent on Nov. 1 after increasing its annual operating-income forecast to a record, while Honda Motor Co. added 5.2 percent the next day after raising its profit outlook and saying it planned to buy back shares. Just after trading closed on Tuesday, Toyota Motor Corp. raised its annual profit forecast for a second time this year.
Malone of Mint Partners says the Tokyo stock market has evolved since the heady days of the bubble economy, which was collapsing by 1992. In the late 1980s, Japan suffered from tight monetary policy, a strong yen after the Plaza Accord of 1985 depreciated the U.S. dollar, high bond yields and political and policy instability. That’s all different today, Malone says. Plus, the level of the Nikkei 225 — which focuses on the country’s blue-chips — hides the fact that the country’s stock market capitalization is at a record high. “Our assessment remains max bull,” Malone wrote in a note.
Okasan Securities is looking further afield. Strategists led by Kenji Abe point to firm global economic conditions, with manufacturing indexes in the U.S., China and Europe at or near multi-year highs. This, they write, will feed through to stronger earnings in Japan and accelerate the return of foreign investors to the market. And the yen will continue to weaken, benefiting the Nikkei 225’s giant exporters, as the Bank of Japan keeps going with easy monetary policy while the Federal Reserve tightens. (The Japanese currency has slid more than 5 percent against the dollar since early September.) For John Vail of Nikko Asset Management, the Nikkei 225 will keep rising even if the yen stays near current levels. The chief global strategist at the $184 billion money manager is positive about Abe winning a new term — and foreign investors returning to the market. “Abe is the most powerful prime minister in modern history,” he wrote in emailed comments. “Even if the yen does not weaken much, there is a very good chance of 30,000 for the Nikkei in two years as foreigners are now excited about the market.” Amid all the optimism, Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co.’s Hitoshi Ishiyama sounds a note of caution, pointing to technical indicators flashing that Japanese stocks are overbought. The Nikkei 225’s 14-day relative strength index rose to 93 on Tuesday, far above the 70 level that indicates to some traders that the measure is poised to fall. The gauge fell 0.1 percent on Wednesday, while the broader Topix rose to its highest close since November 1991. “It wouldn’t be strange for the market to enter a correction phase in the near term,” the investment company’s chief strategist said. But even that, for bulls such as Mirabaud’s Clarke, would just be a reason to pile in. “People are still waiting for the pullback to buy,” Clarke said. The index breached “22,000 like a hot knife through butter,” he said. “The Nikkei 225 at 50,000 by 2020 doesn’t look so daft, really, does it?”