Japanese stocks have been mired in a multi-decade bear market since 1990. Remarkably, Japanese equities had an annual gain of -0.3% between 1990 and 2023. Some of the major reasons for this poor performance was that stocks become extremely expensive at the peak in 1990, companies were less profitable than European and US competitors, deflation was raging, and the currency was also very strong which hurt exports.
Now, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum in many ways. Japanese companies are flush with cash and have low levels of debt. Deflation is no longer a threat, while the Japanese yen has weakened and become quite competitive with other countries. On the aggregate, profit margins have risen from 3% to 5.5% since the early 90s. In turn, Japanese stocks have returned 7.4% annually since 2010.
Another positive development for equities is that activist investors have been successful in unlocking shareholder value on balance sheets. The government is also actively encouraging consolidation within fragmented industries and companies to focus on maximizing shareholder value.
Despite these initiatives, Japanese stocks still remain quite cheap with half of companies trading below book value. Yet, there is some compelling evidence to believe that Japanese stocks have more upsides given this combination of catalysts.
Finsum: Japanese stocks are quite cheap relative to the rest of the world. In addition, there have been quite a few positive developments in recent years in terms of corporate behavior and government policy.