Royce International Micro-Cap Fund Portfolio Managers Jim Harvey and Dilip Badlani recently returned from their trip to Japan, where they were greeted with a sense of renewed optimism about the country’s economy and growth potential from the management teams they met.

Why We're Optimistic About Japanese Micro-Caps

At the end of the first quarter, Japan was the largest country weighting in Royce International Micro-Cap Fund‘s portfolio. What has been exciting about Japan?

Jim Harvey: When we run screens for micro-cap companies around the world, some countries will consistently show promising investment candidates, and Japan typically returns a lot of companies exhibiting the characteristics that we find attractive, the most important of which being valuation. Compared to some other developed markets, the valuations for many Japanese smaller companies look relatively low, and have been for some time.

So the challenging part is distinguishing a compelling value from a value trap. There’s no point in buying cheap companies if they don’t appear poised to grow, if there’s no enthusiasm in the economy, or if sentiment isn’t positive. Part of the reason why we are attracted to Japan today is that things are changing—there are lots of things going on in the country today; things that have not gone on for decades. While ultimately we are bottom-up stock pickers, there’s a renewed feeling of vibrancy on the ground.

Dilip Badlani: Japan has not seen significant growth since the late 1980s-early 1990s. Instead, it’s suffered from deflation and has been in a bear market for about 20 years. The political and economic landscape in Japan today is starting to change after decades of stagnant growth.

We’ve visited Japan a number of times over the years. In the past it’s been easy to observe the low enthusiasm from both investors and management teams. For the first time in a while, this is not the case. The policies that the Japanese government is putting in place and the stimulus efforts that the Bank of Japan (BOJ) is implementing feel like they’re having a bit of an effect on the economy.

JH: Just by their nature, Japanese management teams are very conservative—in fact, they are among the humblest, least promotional groups of management teams that we meet with around the world. But during our latest visit we actually heard a few of them expressing optimism and hinting that they are excited about the future. That has not really happened in our past visits, so it is definitely part of the reason why we think Japan is exciting today.

Jim and Dilip in downtown Tokyo near the Imperial Palace

What is your take on Shinzo Abe’s “three arrows”—monetary, fiscal, and growth strategies—and how do you think his policies will affect Japanese smaller companies and consumer behavior going forward?

JH: The first arrow was using the BOJ to pump massive amounts of money into the economy, primarily via the purchase of government bonds. The second arrow was similarly dramatic and came in the form of a fiscal stimulus package worth 10.3 trillion yen, or $116 billion. While we haven’t yet seen the effect these policies will have on the economy, the stock market certainly saw them as big positives.

DB: I think the most important of the three arrows is the third, which is ultimately structural reform. Stimulative monetary policy is what central banks are doing throughout the developed world, but I think the significant policy is structural reform, which can be a huge boost to Japan’s economy. It makes people commit to longer-term capital decisions, and I think when capital spending picks up a lot of these smaller companies are going to see their earnings shoot up as well.

We think it’s fascinating that over the last year Japan was one of the only markets in the world in which both earnings and the stock market have risen. Corporate profits have arguably come in a lot higher than what people expected them to be. So I think in the grand scheme of things, Abe has put policies in place that will turn things around.

Part of the reason why we are attracted to Japan today is that things are changing—there are lots of things going on in the country today; things that have not gone on for decades. While ultimately we are bottom-up stock pickers, there’s a renewed feeling of vibrancy on the ground.

JH: The Japanese stock market was up big last year. The question is, was the market reacting to the first two arrows or was the market discounting the third arrow, which has not fully unfolded yet? I think it’s a balance among all three arrows—and another key change that didn’t get a lot of coverage was Abe’s aggressive push to revamp the investment committee of Japan’s pension fund, which is one of the largest in the world.

The committee, which went from 10 members to eight members, now includes three who are in agreement with Abe in terms of shifting the allocation of the fund, which is currently about 60% bonds, 12% domestic equities, and 12% foreign equities. If he can succeed in influencing the investment committee to start placing more of that money into equities, that would be a real boost. That’s just a piece of what you can label as structure reform.

DB: There has been a lot of talk around labor market reforms, including hiring and firing practices, women entering the workforce, changes to the corporate tax rate, improved corporate governance, and creating lightly taxed, deregulated economic zones around the country. In terms of consumer behavior, the message we heard a lot in March was that people were pulling in purchases ahead of the 3% consumption tax increase in April from 5% to 8%.

Another major topic is a push for wage increases. Of course, this could be a double-edged sword—while it would prove helpful to consumers and hopefully increase spending, it could squeeze margins on small businesses that do not have pricing power. But in general we think these potential reforms will benefit the types of smaller Japanese companies that we typically invest in.

Jim and Dilip in a park in downtown Tokyo

What do you look for in Japanese companies? Do you focus mostly on businesses that are more export oriented as David Nadel and Mark Rayner often do in Europe?

JH: On our most recent visit to Japan, we met with companies in the transportation, industrial, pharmaceutical, financials services, and tech industries, in addition to a few other types of companies. So we do not have a specific focus in terms of importers, exporters, industry groups, etc.

What we’re looking for in Japan are the same things that we’re looking for in other micro-cap companies around the world—strong balance sheets and niche businesses run by capable management teams. Our biggest focus is on returns on invested capital (ROIC). Companies that have high ROIC are typically doing something right—there’s usually something about a business that’s good if it’s able to generate high ROIC over long periods of time.

DB: We do not have a specific mandate—we look at a mix of businesses. Our goal is to find companies that

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