The G20 summit is held in Osaka at the end of June. The economy of host country Japan is closely intertwined with the economies of the USA and China. The recently concluded free trade agreement with the EU, the Economic Partnership Agreement, has created the largest free trade area in the world and represents a symbolic counterweight to increasing protectionism. In addition, Japan is currently undergoing further transformations that offer interesting opportunities for investors.
The ongoing trade conflict between the US and China has left its mark on Japan’s trade balance, negatively impacting the Japanese economy. Demand for products from Japan declined noticeably, especially from the People’s Republic of China. The USA and China are the most important customer countries for this export-oriented country. According to the latest data published by the government in Tokyo, Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) forecast for the year from January to March 2019 rose by 2.1 percent despite a 2.4 percent decline in exports With the commencement of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA, also known as Japan-EU Free Trade Agreement or JEFTA) between Japan and the EU on 1 February 2019 the largest free trade area in the world has been created. It represents an important signal against increasing protectionism which is especially driven forward by the US. The EPA, which was negotiated over five years in 19 rounds and signed in July 2018, provides significant impetus for further stimulation of the Japanese and European economies. Since the EPA came into force, the broad Japanese share index Topix has shown a cautious positive reaction to this development and has risen by three percent to 1,622 points over three months.
For Japan, the third largest economy in the world, the European Union is one of the most important economic zones for trade, exporting in particular goods from the mechanical engineering, automotive, electronics and chemical industries. Japan is the EU’s second most important trading partner in Asia. Almost 74,000 EU companies export to Japan, 78% of which are SMEs. Services account for a larger share than goods. The main exports are pharmaceuticals, medical devices, agricultural products and foodstuffs, motor vehicles and means of transport.
What trade arrangements will apply between the EU and Japan following the Economic Partnership Agreement having come into effect? Over the medium term, 94 percent of all Japanese exports to the EU are to become duty-free. Japanese companies are already exempt from 14 percent import duty for electronic devices and 10 percent for cars. For the EU, 90 percent of customs duties on exports to Japan have been abolished. After the expiry of various transition periods, this figure will even rise to 97 percent. Significant progress has also been made on services and non-tariff barriers to trade. The commitment to the Paris Climate Protection Agreement places free trade on a sustainable footing.
Japanese and European companies benefit from the free trade agreement, because the reduction of customs duties and other trade barriers has made it considerably cheaper to export goods and services to each other’s markets. Japanese companies have moderate valuations, record earnings in the first quarter of 2019 and increased transparency thanks to corporate governance reforms. In particular, companies from export-oriented sectors such as car manufacturers or electronics companies are likely to increase sales and profits as a result of the EPA.
Japan is opening up not only to the outside world, but also to the inside. After the accession of Emperor Naruhito to the throne on 1 May, a fresh breeze is blowing through the country. The new era called « Reiwa » will bring changes. As a result, also high-growth companies that offer solutions for domestic challenges can benefit. Demographic development with a homogeneous ageing population and a low birth rate does not ensure sufficient skilled staff for the Japanese labour market. Of Japan’s approximately 125 million inhabitants, only 1.5 million (1 percent) are foreigners. Even if the Japanese government is planning to open the country to foreign skilled workers, the shortage of skilled workers will not been solved for the next few years.
Software companies whose products contribute to making workflows resource-efficient offer excellent investment opportunities. The Japanese government also intends to substantially expand tourism. The Olympic Games in Tokyo next year and the World Expo in 2025 should provide excellent opportunities for this. Against this background, companies whose products are in demand by tourists, such as hotels or discount chains, appear to be good investment opportunities.
Another interesting investment area is 5G, which will be extended over the next few years. Capital investments in information communication equipment industry has increased by 60 percent in Japan in 2018 and by 40 percent in 2017. In this respect, tech stocks can be a promising investment. In summary, it can be said that Japanese companies are extremely profitable as a result of structural change. Profit margins in 2018 were at a record levels not seen in several decades.
This article appeared in the Luxemburger Wort on 21 June 2019.
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