Okayama Metal & Machinery has become the first Japanese pension fund to make public purchases of gold, in a sign of dwindling faith in paper currencies.
Initially, the fund aims to keep about 1.5 per cent of its total assets of Y40 billion ($500 million) in bullion-backed exchange traded funds, according to chief investment officer Yoshisuke Kiguchi, who said he was diversifying into gold to “escape sovereign risk”.
The move into a non-yielding asset comes as funds in the world’s second-biggest pension market are under increasing pressure to meet promised payments, as domestic interest rates remain rooted near zero. This year, the first of Japan’s baby boomers turn 65, becoming eligible for payouts.
Mr Kiguchi said the lack of yield was a concern for the fund’s investment committee, but he persuaded them that “from a very long-term point of view, gold may be one of the safe currencies”. He added that he had sold Australian dollars this month to meet his initial target allocation for gold for the fund, which has 20,000 members.
Mizuho Trust & Banking, a unit of Mizuho Financial Group, has begun to offer investment schemes allowing smaller pension funds to invest in gold.
While few fund managers are counting on a crash in core assets such as Japanese government bonds, said Takahiro Morita, head of the Tokyo arm of the World Gold Council, a producers’ association, they were increasingly receptive to the idea that gold could act as a buffer against shocks. “Last year’s tsunami and the eurozone debt crisis shows that it was wise to expect the unexpected,” he said.
Historically, institutions in the $3.4 trillion Japanese pension market have clung to traditional assets. Bonds accounted for 59 percent of industry assets in 2011, the highest share in the world, according to Towers Watson, a consultant. Just 6 per cent — the lowest share — was invested in alternatives such as property, private equity and hedge funds.
Within Japan the image of gold has struggled to recover the lustre lost after a scandal in the mid-1980s involving Toyota Shoji, which duped thousands of elderly investors by promising gold bars that were never delivered. Now, though, households are showing more interest.
Nomura, Japan’s biggest wealth manager, added a gold option to its monthly survey of 1,000 randomly selected retail investors in February. Every month since, gold has been ranked the third-most desirable addition to portfolios, well ahead of competing assets such as investment trusts, bonds or foreign securities.
With institutions warming to gold, too, demand could grow further.
“If you look at assets over the past couple of decades, equity has been a loser, while fixed income offers tiny coupons,” said Yoshio Kuno, Japan head of Newedge, the futures broker. “Gold is becoming an acceptable currency substitute.”