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Is post-Abe Japan a buy or sell? Foreign investors seek insights

Next premier inherits unfinished task of structural reform

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends the last trading session of 2013. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- Shinzo Abe's decision to step down as prime minister has triggered a mad dash for information among Japanese market watchers, who are looking for clues on whether to dump or double down on the country's equities.

More than 50 overseas investors joined a telephone conference hosted by Goldman Sachs Japan on Sunday, eager to find out what Japan would look like after the exit of the nation's longest-serving prime minister, who announced his resignation over health concerns just two days earlier.

About 20 questions submitted in advance ranged from who was most likely to succeed Abe to whether Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda would stay on.

"It was like we woke up a sleeping child," said Hiroshi Ueki, who heads Goldman's governmental affairs division, commenting on the sudden interest among investors.

Investors are largely concerned by what economic policies Abe's successor would take. Telecommunications stocks fell in Tokyo on Monday, with mobile carrier KDDI down 5%, after news broke that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party race to succeed Abe. 

Suga led the charge to cut mobile rates, an initiative many believe he would carry on should he become prime minister.

Whoever wins the leadership race will inherit a country at an economic crossroads.

When Abe began his second stint in office in 2012, the Nikkei Stock Average stood at about 10,000. It has since increased by roughly 130%, thanks to his eponymous Abenomics policies and other efforts to lift the economy.

His push for corporate governance reform led to 30% of major corporations appointing an external director, despite their initial pushback.

Abe was a rare prime minister in that his government wielded more clout than Japan's powerful bureaucrats, said Peter Tasker, who heads Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

But some believe he lost momentum toward the end of his tenure. The Nikkei index fell 614 points at one point Friday following Abe's resignation, but recovered quickly.

"The sell-off was just an automatic response to the news by machines," said an executive at a Japanese brokerage. "The relative stability of the market shows that the market wasn't really expecting a further boost from Abenomics."

"Stock trading has doubled by volume," Abe boasted in December 2013 at the Tokyo Stock Exchange's final session of the year -- an event no other sitting prime minister had attended before. But he later started to distance himself from the bourse. Foreign investors, who eagerly snapped up Japanese stocks at the beginning of Abe's tenure, turned into net sellers in late 2015, as they refocus on the country's structural issues like a shrinking population.

Abenomics was made up of three arrows -- monetary easing, fiscal spending and structural reforms. Many believe the third arrow in particular failed to truly take off.

"Foreign brokerages are shutting down their Japanese equities divisions left and right," said Yoshiko Iwato at J-Euris IR, which works to connect foreign investors with Japanese companies. "Unless the new government can send a strong message and enact change, investors interested in Japanese stocks will only decrease."

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