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Contrarians' Day: It's Time to Consider Japan

For the value-oriented investor comfortable with a little added risk and a longer time horizon, it's time to invest in Japan. Seriously.

The words "it's time to invest in Japan" should never be uttered casually. In fact, a Dow Jones Interactive news search finds the phrase turned up with regularity -- in 2001, 1997, 1994 and so on. Investors who jumped haven't fared well: The average mutual fund focused on Japan lost 23.11% a year over three years and shed 3.93% over five years, placing Japan funds among the bottom three among all fund categories, according to Lipper, a Reuters company. Despite glimmers of hope like 1999's stock market moon shot, the world's No. 2 economy remained mired in a 12-year slump. Talk about contrarian plays.

Yes, Japan's government still has to go beyond half-measures in righting the economy. And yes, many titans of Japan Inc. still move too slowly to turn themselves around. And yes, a lot of people -- including Japan's savings-rich denizens -- remain deathly afraid of investing in Japan. But with stock prices recently hitting 20-year lows, if even a fledgling, slow-growth recovery takes root, the Japanese stock market looks dirt cheap.

"This is a great market for patient investors," said Jean-Marie Eveillard, the outstanding skipper of four First Eagle Funds. One of Eveillard's few questionable moves over the past few years has been his early bullish stance on Japan. However, other value-oriented fund firms such as Longleaf and Third Avenue have taken a shine to Japan as well. "Short of Japan sinking into the sea," Eveillard asked, "how many times in one's life does one get an opportunity to buy securities in a developed market for prices knocked down by a 12-year bear market?"

This week's Five Winning Funds offers a few stellar mutual fund choices for the intrepid investor. The title is a bit misleading: We only chose four funds, not to reflect that everything has shrunk in Japan over the past decade, but rather because these funds offer four prudent, diverse options on tapping Japan. A fifth isn't necessary.
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