The Nikkei Is Back at 30,000, But It’s a Whole Different World

The last time stocks in Tokyo were this high, things were a little different.

Orders now silently processed in milliseconds were shouted across smoky open outcry trading floors. Yuriko Koike, now Tokyo’s Governor, was a fresh-faced TV presenter on the country’s leading business news show. The U.S. fretted over “Japan as number one,” while China was an economic backwater.

That’s how long it’s been since the Nikkei 225 passed 30,000, an event which first took place in December 1988. With the index crash in 1990 that followed the deflating of the asset-price bubble, it would take more than three decades for the benchmark to regain that height.

The Nikkei Is Back at 30,000, But It’s a Whole Different World

“Sometimes it took an hour or two just to execute an order,” Taketsugu Agari, a 51-year-old veteran trader and investor, remembers of those days. He began his career in 1988 as a “batachi” -- the traders who used complex hand gestures to communicate buy and sell orders across deafening trading floors. “Now you can just do it yourself on your phone.”

Since those days, Agari has amassed $50 million in his investing career, and is no stranger to new trends -- he shares his investing secrets with his nearly 100,000-strong Twitter following. While he sees similarities between today and the bubble era in the floods of money in search of an outlet, he doesn’t expect a repeat of the collapse with less wealth packed in to the market versus the 80s.

“Japan’s market value is small these days compared to globally,” Agari says, pointing to the order-of-magnitude difference between Japan’s biggest stocks, Toyota Motor Corp. and SoftBank Group Corp., and the likes of Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. Unlike the speculative fever of the 1980s that saw builders surge along with land prices -- some like Kumagai Gumi Co. are still down 99% from their peak -- investing is more sensible these days, he says.

The Nikkei Is Back at 30,000, But It’s a Whole Different World

In the late 80s and early 90s, Japan’s largest companies were Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. and the financial institutions that would eventually merge into today’s three megabanks.

“There was no such thing as calm logic back then. The Nikkei’s price-to-earnings ratio was at 70 at one stage, and people thought that Japan would grow forever,” said Norihito Fujito, 64, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co. and was previously a fund manager. “Things are different now globally -- even with all the excess liquidity, investors are still calm.”

While NTT remains among the biggest market cap, and Sony Corp. is still among the best-known names, it’s often less-glamorous but more profitable firms that dominate these days, from industrial robot maker Keyence Corp. to motor manufacturer Nidec Corp. Casual clothing giant Fast Retailing Co., which has the biggest weighting of 12% in the Nikkei, is the country’s sixth-largest company. Fast Retailing and SoftBank Group Corp. have contributed to about a third of the Nikkei’s gains since the end of March.

“We’re not seeing the extreme numbers” such the price-to-earnings ratios seen in 1989, Shigeharu Suzuki, chairman of the Japan Securities Dealers Association, said at a news briefing in Tokyo on Wednesday. “Even though things have been rising, they don’t feel overheated.”

The view that this time is different is also shared by other market veterans.

“It might look like the same path once taken when you look at it on a chart,” said Yoshihiro Ito, 77, chief strategist at Okasan Online Securities Co. and a veteran of Tokyo’s markets for almost 60 years. “But comparing then and now, the economy, the market and the sentiment, they’re all completely different.”

The Nikkei Is Back at 30,000, But It’s a Whole Different World

Ito says that unlike in the bubble era, when foreign investors pulled money out due to fear over rate hikes, overseas cash is this time helping to support the gains amid hopes that the economy will soon return to normal, even as earnings are improving. There are still similarities, he cautions.

“While the names are different, there are still a handful of stocks that are driving the index,” Ito said. “The whole thing could still plunge given just a little push.”

Yet confidence is rising, as Japan begins coronavirus vaccinations on Wednesday. And unlike the three interest rate hikes seen in 1989, the Bank of Japan this time remains as accommodative as possible while inflation’s being pushed ever further down the line.

“The impossible has been happening,” says Agari, who now has one eye on the Nikkei’s all-time high. “It won’t happen soon, but it wouldn’t be strange to see the Nikkei pass the record in two to three months.”

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