The just-released 2Q CY23 data on aggregate corporate profits in Japan was somewhat mixed, but the overall corporate recurring pre-tax profit margin rebounded near its record high on a four-quarter average.
The economic wheels continue to turn forward, surprising many given that the Federal Reserve lifted the overnight target rate to 5.5%, a level not seen since 2001. It is also above the top rate of 5.25% seen back in 2006–2007, before rate cuts ultimately failed to prevent the Global Financial Crisis. This time around, balance sheets are much stronger in the private sector and so are regulations. And now, the combined fiscal impulse and investment wave may keep pushing recession risk further away.
Recent data demonstrate that declining demand is now a major concern for companies as recent rate hikes by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand increasingly constrain economic activity.
The devastation from the tropical cyclone and flooding that struck New Zealand’s North Island in February 2023 was a reminder of the increasing need to mitigate extreme weather events and to take stock after they strike.
We retain our preference for Indonesian government bonds and for currencies, we believe that greater support for the renminbi from Chinese policymakers should remove a near-term headwind for currencies in the region. We take a more cautious view towards risk in the near-term due to a slightly weaker macro backdrop and uncertainties ahead which make the valuation of Asia investment grade credit look slightly stretched versus both historical levels as well as developed market spreads.
With the Chinese economy on the brink of deflation, the timing of the Chinese government’s recent pro-growth directives was a very welcome signal. If carried out, they can lead to structural changes that can potentially lead to an improvement in consumer confidence and growth in the Chinese economy, in our view.
Although the Bank of Japan tweaked its policy in July, we discuss why the move may have been a compromise given expectations the central bank will wait for more concrete signs of inflation before taking a more significant step; we also describe why the rise by Japanese equities could have “legs” this time.
While market positioning has shifted towards a more constructive outlook, the macroeconomic mood has not. Rather, persistent upside pressures in equity markets have forced investors back into the market so they do not fall too far behind benchmarks and their peers.
Nikko AM’s Head Portfolio Manager – Core Markets, Steven Williams, recently participated in Asset TV’s Masterclass on the threats and opportunities for investors in the climate transition. Here are the highlights of Steven’s contribution to the discussion.
We remain constructive on relatively higher-yielding government bonds amid a supportive macro backdrop. Our favourable view of higher-yielders is further grounded on the view that lower-yielding government bonds will be more vulnerable to volatility in UST bonds.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand indicated in May that the current interest rate hiking cycle is by and large complete, with the Official Cash Rate (OCR) having peaked at its current level of 5.5%. The central bank also signalled that it is unlikely to cut the OCR in the near future, stating its intention to keep interest rates at a restrictive level for some time in order to keep inflation under control. In addition, New Zealand has a general election scheduled for 14 October 2023, further reducing the likelihood of near-term moves in the OCR.
With inflationary issues subsiding across most of Asia, many regional central banks are now holding interest rates steady, if not cutting rates in the case of China. The US, meanwhile, is still warning of further rate hikes despite some overall softening in data. Of more concern to us is what China does next.
Right now, three megatrends are widely prevalent across Asia which look like significant drivers of investment growth for many years to come. These megatrends are consumption, healthcare and the net zero transition.
As a virtuous inflation cycle helps boost stocks, this month we focus on how labour shortages could nudge Japan away from a deflationary mindset; we also assess the BOJ under a new governor, who has said that monetary policy surprises could be unavoidable.
Japan’s corporate governance reform started nearly a decade ago is an ongoing process, but it received a boost from the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s latest initiative in January. The latest chapter in corporate governance reform coupled with Japan’s break from a deflationary mindset and the full re-opening of the economy after the pandemic are expected to create a more favourable investment environment for Japanese equities.
We expect occasionally quite volatile, but positive trends for the global economy, financial system and markets in each of the next four quarters. Regionally, we prefer the European market for the next two quarters, and also include Japan’s on a 9–12-month view.
The divergence in growth outlook reflected in equities continues to widen, as secular growth in the form of tech and artificial intelligence (AI) developments appears to have the upper hand in determining the overall market direction. This is evident with the tech sector being up (and Japan, for different reasons) while most other sectors and geographies are down over the month. This defies conventional wisdom—that earnings can continue to grow into a recession, but these disruptive developments are indeed significant, and perhaps this is the right directional prognosis should a recession prove to be shallow.
We remain constructive on relatively higher-yielding Philippine, Indian and Indonesian government bonds, on the back of the relatively supportive macro backdrop for these countries. As for currencies, we expect the Thai baht and Indonesian rupiah to continue outperforming regional peers.
A stable political backdrop is just one of several key considerations supportive of investors increasing their exposure to Japanese equities, in our view. We believe that reforms to both its corporate governance structure and the configuration of its stock market have made Japan a more attractive investment destination for global investors. The removal of COVID-19 inbound travel restrictions is expected to provide Japan with an additional economic boost, with tourism further benefitting from the yen’s relative weakness.
In an encouraging sign for New Zealand, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) signalled in May that the Official Cash Rate is likely to have peaked at its current level of 5.5%. The RBNZ appears to have shifted its focus from inflationary pressures to factors that will drive inflation down. Factors cited include weak global growth, easing inflationary pressures among New Zealand’s trading partners and reductions in supply chain constraints.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s decision to have the Official Cash Rate (OCR) peak at 5.5% surprised the market, which had started to price in a peak of 5.75% or 6.0%. The lower-than-expected peak in the OCR is positive for equities as higher interest rates dampen spending by consumers and businesses.
A recent trip to China offered first-hand observations of the country’s technological advancement, changing consumer patterns and new social norms as the world’s second largest economy moves on from the pandemic.
As the developed world continues to struggle with inflation and a lack of growth, Asia stands out as the bright spot, with inflation well in check and monetary cycles peaking ahead of the West. Growth in Asia is also expected to outperform the West over the next few years, reversing a decade-long trend of developed world growth outperformance.
This month we discuss the factors behind the Nikkei’s rise to a 33-year high; we also assess Japan’s opportunity to re-invent itself as a technology hub with leading global chipmakers bringing investments and manufacturing to its shores.
At times of stress, we believe that it makes sense for investors to reach for something that has recently provided comfort. Our view is that that is exactly what we have seen in Q1, as banking stock volatility has led investors back into the technology sector. Q1 is now behind us though and is often a time of the year characterised by mean reversion such as we saw in 2022.