A new way to bet on Japan

July 22, 2011, 8:22 PM UTC

If you’re thinking of rolling the dice on Japan, the betting just got a little easier.

This month marks the debut of an exchange-traded fund that tracks Japan’s most widely followed stock index. The Maxis Nikkei 225 index fund, listed under ticker NKY, began trading last week.

Has it come to this?

The launch is noteworthy because it gives investors an easy way to wager on corporate Japan at a time when the world’s third-biggest economy is trying to bounce back from March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. That story is important here because economists are crossing their fingers that a robust recovery there will keep the United States from stumbling into a new downturn.

It’s also worth watching because it marks a rare plain vanilla ETF offering at a time when the industry is awash in new products enabling users to place leveraged bets on Internet initial public offerings, for instance – because hey, those aren’t nearly risky enough as it is.

“You can’t just keep ignoring Japan,” says Stuart Thomas, a principal at Precidian, an exchange-traded funds developer whose backers brought you the popular SPDR Gold Shares exchange-traded product that trades under GLD.

To be fair, ETF buyers haven’t really been stranded when it comes to Japanese equity exposure. The iShares MSCI Japan index, which trades under EWJ, has been around for 15 years and has gathered $8 billion in assets. It’s a fine product whose expense ratio, at about 50 cents for every hundred dollars in assets under management, is in line with the Maxis fund. There is also the less popular Wisdom Tree Japan Hedged Equity fund that trades under DXJ.

And let’s not forget that ignoring Japan has been a pretty good idea for quite a long time. Japanese stocks have lost three-quarters of their value over the past 20 years, and while past performance is no guarantee of future results it is sort of hard to turn a blind eye to a track record that sorry.

Be that as it may, the Nikkei is the household name for those watching Japanese stocks, which gives Thomas hope that his fund will over time attract a substantial following. He says the fund gathered $75 million in assets in its first week. That is a standout response in an industry characterized increasingly by synthetic ETFs tracking Russia (charmingly they hold swaps, not actual stocks) and funds offering the must-have of all must-haves, exposure to Mongolia.

“Some of the startup ETFs would give one of their appendages for the sort of response we have had,” Thomas says.

The ETF industry has boomed over the past decade, recently passing $1 trillion in assets. Investors have flooded into the sector because exchange-traded products – there are more than 1,300 by now by one count — offer a low-cost way to gain exposure to a wide range of asset classes and themes, enabling the diversification-minded saver to put eggs in lots of different baskets.

Meanwhile Japan, despite its well publicized lost decades and pathetic equity market returns, remains the third-biggest economy on the planet, after the United States and China, and the home of the world’s third-biggest stock market (after New York and London).

Yet the Nikkei 225, the Japanese equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, has sat out the ETF boom, thanks to licensing disputes. Thomas says Mitsubishi approached Precidian two years ago and the sides have been working together and with regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission since to bring the fund to market.

The timing is good because despite Japan’s long-running malaise, strategists have been talking up Japanese stocks lately. Goldman Sachs contends Japanese stocks could benefit from a syndrome all too evident on these shores recently: corporate earnings aren’t anywhere near as sorry as the state of the economy.

“The profit rebound last year wasn’t recognized by the market,” says Gregory Stanek, executive director of equity sales at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities.

He believes the economy is returning to normal, for what that’s worth. What’s more, the strength of the nation’s big exporters (from Sony (SNE) and Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) on down) and the probable depreciation of the dollar against the yen could further aid Japanese stocks.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Stanek says. If you share his sentiment and like buying into an unlikely resurrection story, NKY could be the way to play it.