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ECB QE puts Nikkei rally back on

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The European Central Bank's (ECB) Japan-style quantitative easing (QE) program is just the trigger needed to put the sputtering Nikkei rally back on track, say Tokyo stock strategists.

"Money will be freed up to flow into equities and some of that will come into Japanese shares," said Nomura equity strategist Masaki Motomura. And, with a weaker yen expected to boost recurring operating profit at Japanese companies, the Nikkei is headed to the 18,000 level by March, he said. The Greece election may have sparked a decline on Monday, but the results do not fundamentally change Nomura's position that Japan stocks are set for a rally.

The ECB last Thursday pledged to buy 60 billion euros ($70 billion) worth of private and public bonds each month until September 2016 in a program that could amount to 1.1 trillion euros, surpassing market expectations.

Foreign flows into Japan have driven the so-called Abenomics rally - ownership of Japanese equities rose for two consecutive years in 2012 and 2013, reaching a record high of 30.8 percent in 2013. And foreign investors are active: on any given week, they account for around 70 percent of trading volumes on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Renewed momentum

The rallied in 2013, and again last November, after the Bank of Japan (BOJ) surprised markets by expanding asset purchases to 80 trillion yen. The Nikkei surged by nearly 15 percent between October 31 – when the BOJ fired its second bazooka – and its most recent high of 18,030 hit on December 8.

ECB QE will support markets: Pro

Since then, however, the benchmark stock index has struggled to find upward momentum,weighed by a slightly stronger yen. As of last Friday, the Nikkei was down 2.9 percent on the December 8 high at 17,511. The yen has also wobbled against the dollar: after weakening by nearly 15 percent between mid-October and early December, it strengthened to the 116 level in mid-January before weakening back down to 118 at the end of last week.

But bumper growth in corporate profits on the back of a weaker yen will send the Nikkei back on an upward trend, according to stock strategists. Quarterly earnings are forecast to rise by 15 percent for the 312 companies that are included in the Russell Nomura index, according to Motomura. The index includes the biggest companies listed on the Tokyo Exchange, excluding the financials.

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Japan's third quarter earnings season will go into full swing from the first week of February.

The positive momentum is back– "not only does the ECB's QE program put worries about the euro zone behind us, but oil prices appear to have bottomed out," said Daiwa Securities' senior Japan equities strategist Takuya Takahashi. He sees the Nikkei rising above 18,000 in the latter half of February, after the earnings reports are out.

Groping for catalysts

Some beg to differ with those bullish views, however.

"They are groping for catalysts," said Credit Suisse Japan economist Takashi Shiono. If anything, the kind of rally the strategists are forecasting would be a sign of an asset bubble propped up bythe illusion that quantitative easing is working, he said.

Central banks can't win the fight against falling oil prices, he said. He sees cheap oil tipping core consumer inflation in Japan into negative territory, to -0.3 percent in April and to -0.5 percent in May. The BOJ itself cut last week its annual inflation forecast to 1 percent for the fiscal year starting this April.

Another worrying sign is the fall in long-term government bond yields, which is evidence the broader financial markets, beyond stock investors, don't believe economic growth is anywhere on the horizon. Earlier last week, the yield on 30-year bonds fell to a record low of 1.067 percent, while shorter maturities also touched record lows, with the five-year dipping into negative territory before bopping back into the positive, albeit of just 0.017 percent.

Still, central bank easing does tend to lift stock prices, conceded Shiono. He expects that another round of easing by the Bank of Japan in April or May could lift the Nikkei to 18,500.