Back in the late 1990s>, I can vividly recall investors confidently assuring me they were buying stocks like Intel, Yahoo and Cisco for the long haul, based on their strong growth prospects for the Internet economy. The Internet did boom, but the valuations of the stocks did not, with a few exceptions like Amazon and Priceline. Earlier this week, Cisco hit a new yearly low, less than a quarter of the price it traded at 11 years ago.
I somehow doubt all those investors are still hanging on. Indeed, as we wrote about a few weeks back, a lot can change in the markets over just a few years. Its why, as we often note, you can t look too far into the future. The ideas that seem most promising today oftentimes end up looking idiotic even a few quarters down the line.
Way Back When
When I was growing up, it was Japan, not China or Russia, that was the undisputed world growth engine. Japan's powerhouse economy grew by $155 billion this year -- nearly three times as much as U.S. output gained -- underscoring the vitality of a Japanese business boom about to enter its 50th straight month, the Atlanta Journal reported back in 1990. At the time, the Japanese economy was expanding at the fastest clip in 15 years, more than five times that of the U.S.
''U.S. and European information technology companies face a stark choice: cooperate or become vassals of their Japanese competitors, one Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher warnedAt the time Dell had a market capitalization of only $40 million. In subsequent years, it eventually grew to over $100 billion.)
Just like today's Chinese nouveau riche or the Russian oligarchs of the 1990s, the Japanese of the late 20th century bought every expensive bauble in sight. For example, Japanese art dealers and collectors "dominated bidding" at a Christie's art auction in November 1987, paying record prices for Monet, Miro and Rouault, The New York Times reported.
Predictions of Japan s continued dominance quickly faded as the nation's boom turned to bust. Today, the Nikkei 225 stock market still trades at one quarter of the value it did back when these articles were published.
Once again, times have changed. Now, it s emerging markets like China and Brazil that captivate investors. Last week, fund-tracker EPFR Global reported that emerging-market equity funds saw $5.44 billion of new investments, the third-largest weekly inflow this year, putting the year s total near 2009 s $83.3 billion record.
So long Tokyo, Hello Mumbai
Most regions saw new investment dollars put to work last week, save one: Japan. The nation again saw withdrawals from its equity markets, continuing a trend that's lasted the better part of the past decade. Since 2001, investors have poured a cumulative $223 billion into emerging markets, while withdrawing $11.68 billion from Japanese funds, according to EPFR.
That 1980s powerhouse rep is long gone. Today, most investors know Japan s economy as a basket case, mired in a nearly two-decade-long recession. Now, Asia-focused mutual funds like iShares MSCI Pacific ex-Japan, WisdomTree Pacific ex-Japan Total Dividend and Columbia Asia Pacific Ex-Japan market themselves as specifically excluding Japan.
Knowing the inherent uncertainty of markets, I have positions, not predictions. And although I once invested heavily in regions like Latin America and Turkey, the massive influx of investment dollars into emerging markets inspires me to move on to less-popular ideas. Right now, Japan remains near the top of my list.
It s not that I long for the 1980s mullet haircuts or Dynasty reruns. I simply appreciate the timeless practice of finding strong ideas in unexpected places. Names like Hitachi, Sony, Honda Motor and Mitsui & Co.quietly climbing higher -- even as investors doubt, flee and disregard the region -- is an unquestionably bullish sign.
At the time of writing, Hoenig s fund held positions in many of the securities mentioned.