WHEN it comes to foreign deals, Japanese drug companies are interested in buying the product, not the company, says Fumiyoshi Sakai of Credit Suisse, a bank. So the news that Takeda, Japan’s biggest pharmaceutical company, wants to buy Shire, a similar-sized Irish drugmaker that specialises in treatments for rare diseases, came as something of a surprise. At $85bn, the combined value of the two firms would be in the ranks of industry behemoths such as Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline.
In recent years Takeda and its domestic rivals, Astellas and Shionogi, have bought a handful of small foreign firms. Most were American biotechnology companies with one or two specialist products. But the need to expand abroad is becoming a matter of greater urgency for Japanese drugmakers.
Their main domestic client, the government-run health system, accounts for 40% of drug spending. As Japan’s ageing population puts ever more pressure on its budget, the health ministry is trying to cut back its outlays on drugs. It is promoting the use of generic drugs and pushing down prices, which it negotiates with the industry every two years.
A recent wave of mergers and acquisition in the global pharmaceutical industry has, however, left slim pickings for would-be dealmakers. Some analysts question whether acquiring Shire is the right move for Takeda, whose share price fell by 7.5% on March 28th, the day when the Japanese firm confirmed that it was considering a bid.
Shire’s portfolio of drugs for rare neurological disorders—which fetch high prices and in which the firm is a market leader in America—is a good buy, says Andy Smith of Edison, a research firm in London. But the firm’s drugs for haemophilia, acquired in 2016 through its purchase for $32bn of Baxalta, an American firm, are less appealing. Haemophilia drugs accounted for about 70% of Baxalta’s profits before the acquisition. Since then Bayer, Roche and Novo Nordisk have launched competing drugs. Analysts from Bernstein, an equity-research firm, reckon that Shire’s share of this market in America could fall from 49% in 2017 to 23% in 2025.
Shire’s pipeline is a clearer draw for Takeda. The Japanese firm has only two new drugs with blockbuster potential in late-stage clinical trials: a vaccine for dengue fever and a therapy for Crohn’s disease. Shire’s late-stage pipeline contains more than a dozen treatments for rare diseases.
Takeda’s big global ambitions might also be explained by its management. Foreign bosses are a rarity in Japan, but Takeda’s head, Christophe Weber, is French. Several members of his executive team are foreigners, too. At Takeda, says Mr Sakai, “the mindset is different.”
Japan still has great influence on global financial markets
IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.
“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds.
This week the board of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to leave its monetary policy broadly unchanged. But leading up to its policy meeting, rumours that it might make a substantial change caused a few jitters in global bond markets. The anxiety was justified. A sudden change of tack by the BoJ would be felt far beyond Japan’s shores.
One reason is that Japan’s influence on global asset markets has kept growing as decades of the country’s surplus savings have piled up. Japan’s net foreign assets—what its residents own abroad minus what they owe to foreigners—have risen to around $3trn, or 60% of the country’s annual GDP (see top chart).
But it is also a consequence of very loose monetary policy. The BoJ has deployed an arsenal of special measures to battle Japan’s persistently low inflation. Its benchmark interest rate is negative (-0.1%). It is committed to purchasing ¥80trn ($715bn) of government bonds each year with the aim of keeping Japan’s ten-year bond yield around zero. And it is buying baskets of Japan’s leading stocks to the tune of ¥6trn a year.
Tokyo storm warning
These measures, once unorthodox but now familiar, have pushed Japan’s banks, insurance firms and ordinary savers into buying foreign stocks and bonds that offer better returns than they can get at home. Indeed, Japanese investors have loaded up on short-term foreign debt to enable them to buy even more. Holdings of foreign assets in Japan rose from 111% of GDP in 2010 to 185% in 2017 (see bottom chart). The impact of capital outflows is evident in currency markets. The yen is cheap. On The Economist’s Big Mac index, a gauge based on burger prices, it is the most undervalued of any major currency.
Investors from Japan have also kept a lid on bond yields in the rich world. They own almost a tenth of the sovereign bonds issued by France, for instance, and more than 15% of those issued by Australia and Sweden, according to analysts at J.P. Morgan. Japanese insurance companies own lots of corporate bonds in America, although this year the rising cost of hedging dollars has caused a switch into European corporate bonds. The value of Japan’s holdings of foreign equities has tripled since 2012. They now make up almost a fifth of its overseas assets.
What happens in Japan thus matters a great deal to an array of global asset prices. A meaningful shift in monetary policy would probably have a dramatic effect. It is not natural for Japan to be the cheapest place to buy a Big Mac, a latté or an iPad, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale. The yen would surge. A retreat from special measures by the BoJ would be a signal that the era of quantitative easing was truly ending. Broader market turbulence would be likely. Yet a corollary is that as long as the BoJ maintains its current policies—and it seems minded to do so for a while—it will continue to be a prop to global asset prices.
Rabbit’s sales patter seemed to have a similar foundation. Anyone sceptical of his mileage figures would be referred to the April issue of Consumer Reports. Yet one part of his spiel proved suspect. The dollar, which he thought was decaying in 1979, was actually about to revive. This recovery owed a lot to a big increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It was also, in part, made in Japan. In 1980 Japan liberalised its capital account. Its investors began selling yen to buy dollars. The shopping spree for foreign assets that started then has yet to cease.
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