Japanese pension funds seek safety in gold

Section:

By Kosaku Narioka
The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142412788732440750457818671041546465...

TOKYO -- A small number of pension funds in Japan have started to invest in gold for the first time, largely to mitigate the damage from possible market shocks.

Japanese pension funds invest mainly in domestic stocks and bonds. Until recently none have looked to gold or other physical assets.

For example, Japan's Government Pension Investment Fund, the world's largest public pension, held 64% of its assets in domestic bonds, 11% in domestic stocks, 9.0% in international bonds, and 12% in international stocks, as of end-September. The remainder were in short-term assets.

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This strategy has produced meager returns at a time when bonds offer historically low yields and the stock market has stagnated.

Worse yet, when crises have roiled the markets, big funds such as the GPIF have seen red. The GPIF lost 7.6% in the 2008 fiscal year, when the global financial crisis struck, and a less-painful 0.3% in the 2010 fiscal year, when the euro-zone debt crisis spooked markets.

Gold, whose price movement isn't historically correlated with those of stocks or bonds, can protect portfolios from being damaged too badly in times of market stress, investment managers say. Low interest rates also justify holding non-yielding gold in place of cash.

Among those moving into gold is Okayama Metal & Machinery Pension Fund, which manages pension funds for about 260 small and mid-sized companies in the Okayama area. It started buying gold in March.

"By diversifying currencies, we aim to reduce risks associated with them," said Yoshi Kiguchi, the fund's chief investment officer. "Yields become stable if you put small amounts into as many types of holdings as possible."

Of its 40 billion yen ($477 million) in assets, the fund has invested around Y500 million-Y600 million in gold, he said.

Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking Corp. said it has secured more than Y2 billion in investments from two pension funds for a gold fund it started in March.

Gold is also used as a hedge against inflation, which is becoming a bigger concern as global central banks buy ever-more bonds, market watchers say.

The Bank of Japan has increased its purchases of Japanese government debt from the market and is under political pressure to do more. Shinzo Abe, Japan's next prime minister, has said he wants the central bank to employ "unlimited easing measures" to achieve a 2% inflation target.

"Responding to inflation is becoming one issue," said Hiroaki Nakaoka, sales manager for SPDR ETF Japan at State Street Global Advisors (Japan) Co.

Higher inflation could drive up interest rates and erode the value of the Japanese government bonds in which pension funds have invested most of their money.

In some ways Japanese pension funds are merely tracking a trend that has already been seen in other developed markets, industry watchers say. Gold's potential to offset inflation-linked losses has already prompted some U.S. and European pension funds to buy small volumes. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas pension trust fund, for example, held $235 million of SPDR Gold Shares GLD -- 1.01% out of its total investment net value of $111.1 billion, as of end-August.

Partly because it is seen as a hedge against inflation, the price of gold has more than doubled since the end of 2007, rising 103% to $1,695.75 an ounce Monday, according to the daily London fixing price.

The emergence of gold exchange-traded funds has enabled pension funds to invest in gold without holding the physical product. Some funds restrict themselves from investing in physical assets. The first ETF backed by actual gold was introduced in Japan in June 2008.

ETFs "opened the door" to investment in gold, said Tetsu Emori, chief fund manager at Astmax Investment Management Inc., which manages ¥70 billion in assets. Roughly 60% of its portfolio is invested in commodities, with gold accounting for the largest portion.

In March 2011, Mizuho Trust & Banking Co. started incorporating gold in a package product for pension funds that invests in various assets, including gold ETFs. Gold accounts for about 3% of the package. The product has attracted ¥180 billion in investment from about 200 pension funds.

The vast majority of pension funds continue to shy away from gold, an investment that offers no yield and, in the case of physical gold, actually costs money to store.

But the potential for market turmoil and expectations of inflation could change that, industry experts say.

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