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Foreign investors bet big on Japan stocks right before Abe’s snap election call

In the two weeks before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election, foreign investors using the futures market — which are often hedge funds — suddenly turned hugely positive on Japanese shares.

Foreigners bought a net ¥2.1 trillion ($19 billion) of Japanese stock futures between Sept. 11 and 22, according to data released by Osaka Exchange Inc. on Thursday and last week. That came after they sold more than $7 billion in cash equities this year through mid-September.

Some of the buying preceded even local media suggestions that an election would be called. But it came as Abe’s Cabinet approval rating jumped on his response to North Korea firing missiles over the country. Abe has previously called a snap election when his ratings were high, and Japanese stocks tend to climb in the run-up to such votes.

“If the ruling party wins, Japanese shares will rise even more,” said Norihiro Fujito, a senior strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co. in Tokyo. “That’s why hedge funds bought like crazy.”

North Korea unexpectedly refrained from launching a missile on the weekend of its founding anniversary on Sept. 9. Polls later showed Japanese people approved of how Abe was handling the increasing threat from the totalitarian state. Abe’s Cabinet approval rating topped its disapproval rating for the first time in three months, rising 8 percentage points to 50 percent, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll published Sept. 12. A few days later, local press began speculating about an election.

The benchmark Topix jumped to a more than two-year high on Sept. 19, the first trading day after the reports started to appear.

There are generally good reasons to buy Japanese stocks before election announcements. During the previous eight Lower House elections held since 1993, the Topix rose in the period until the vote, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., though it often retreated afterward. The measure is up 2.3 percent since Sept. 19.

Goldman Sachs also sees a favorable outcome if Abe succeeds in this particular vote.

“Abe’s political base will become more stable if the party secures enough seats for stable government management, which we believe is the prime minister’s objective,” strategists and analysts led by Kazunori Tatebe wrote in a research note. It would “be viewed positively, especially by overseas investors,” they wrote.

In fact, since Abe assumed office at the end of 2012, the perceived success or failure of Abenomics has served as a key barometer of foreign appetite for Japanese equities. In 2013, when Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda unleashed his unprecedented stimulus program, foreigners pumped $133 billion into the country’s stock market. By 2015, they had become net sellers as the sheen wore off Abe’s policy program. The next year, they sold a lot more, and they’re sellers again this year.

Hajime Sakai, chief fund manager at Mito Securities Co. in Tokyo, said the data on the foreigner buying binge in futures is a more important signal than a separate set of figures that showed continued selling of cash equities last week.

“To read what foreigners are trying to do, their moves in the futures market seems like a good place to look,” he said. “They were hurriedly covering their shorts.”

If hedge funds are betting that this election will strengthen Abe’s position and revive his policy program, it’s far from a sure thing. Opinion polls show Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is well ahead, recovering after months of conflict-of-interest scandals, but anything short of the two-thirds majority his coalition controls could prompt his party to oust him in a leadership vote next year. Abe has said he’ll resign if his ruling coalition fails to win a simple majority.

Making matters more complicated, a new party headed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike started this week, and the Democratic Party, another opposition group, has agreed to merge with it. The election will be a tough battle, Abe said Thursday in comments broadcast by NHK.

“Everything depends on the outcome of the election,” Fujito said.

Even the $18 billion economic package that Abe announced when he called the election is being called into question. The government plans to enhance social security and tackle the challenges of an aging society by measures including increasing spending on preschool education and improving conditions for people working in elderly care.

“Spending on education, for example, is a key part of it, but it’s not a policy that will spur corporate investment or boost employment,” said Hiroshi Matsumoto, head of Japan investment at Pictet Asset Management Ltd. ” I have no intention of jumping on the bandwagon.”

But others, such as John Vail of Nikko Asset Management Co., say that bets on Abenomics make a lot of sense.

“The election might introduce some volatility for the market,” said Vail, the New York-based chief global strategist at the money manager. “But the intermediate-term effect of Abenomics should be positive in the same way it has been very positive for the past four-plus years.”

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