Japan mask-maker stocks climb as flu comes to Tokyo

TOKYO, May 21 (Reuters) - Shares of Japanese medical mask makers rose on Thursday, a day after the first case of the H1N1 flu virus was confirmed in Tokyo, further fueling speculation of strong demand for masks to prevent infection.

The government has recommended using disposable masks for those who suspect they have been infected with the new strain of flu, and some businesses are ordering employees to wear them, especially if they deal face-to-face with clients.

“Expectations for more demand for masks has grown since the virus has reached Tokyo. Shares of mask makers could continue to rise depending on the number of infected patients,” said Masumi Yamamoto, market analyst at Daiwa Securities SMBC.

Shares of mask maker Shikibo 3109.T, which rose 4.4 percent to 190 yen on Thursday, have now nearly doubled their price in the last month.

Osaka-based Shikibo booked orders for 2 million masks in April -- 25 percent more than the volume it sold in the entire business year ended in March, a spokesman said.

Rival Daiwabo 3107.T nudged up 0.3 percent to 344 yen on Thursday, and has climbed 57 percent in the past month as the virus spread internationally.

Long popular with Japanese who want to avoid passing on a cold or breathing in pollen, masks have become an essential accessory in the western areas of Osaka and Hyogo prefecture, where 172 people have already been infected. [ID:nT320193] [ID:nT233823]

Daiwabo, also based in Osaka, is churning out its specialised masks as fast as it can after the government asked it to supply more, a spokesman said.

The company expects to take at least until next month to deliver on all of its April orders alone, he and a sales official said.

Daiwabo will likely exceed its targeted mask sales of 1.5 billion yen ($15.88 million) for the nine months ending next month, a spokesman said.

Still, the impact on mask makers’ earnings and share prices may be short-lived as they are unlikely to boost capacity in view of the current surge in demand, which may soon run out of steam.

“The manufacturers will probably only use existing capacity, which I think is a decent decision based on the fact that the virus spread won’t go on forever. So not too much earnings impact is likely,” said Katsuhiko Hiroshige, general manager of equities trading at Marusan Securities.

Hiroshige added that masks are popular mostly in Japan and that experts say cheap masks offer little protection anyway.

“Buying of these stocks has been mainly by speculative individuals on margin. It’s not for long-term investment but quick capital gains,” he said. (Reporting by Yumiko Nishitani; Editing by Hugh Lawson)