Japan's younger Watanabes seek more diverse portfolios

TOKYO (Reuters) - For years, Japan’s retail currency investors were known as “Mrs Watanabes”, a reference to the metaphorical housewife who invests family savings mostly in foreign exchange. Now, a younger generation of women is looking at a wider asset range in which to park investments.

Haruka Hirokawa (C) and 35-year-old Sayaka Kishi (R) take part in a women-only financial seminar named "Kinyu Joshi" (Finance Women) in Tokyo, Japan October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Like their elders, Japan’s “Kinyu-joshi” or “finance girls,” who are largely in their 20s and 30s, face a challenging investment landscape with bank deposits offering minimal, near-zero returns.

Unlike their senior counterparts, however, younger female investors tend to be more frugal and averse to overexposure to any one single asset class. For this reason, many of them are tapping a broader asset universe using mobile-based services to keep costs low.

While younger female investors account for a much smaller chunk of Japan’s investment base than their seniors do, their increasing appetite for yield represents a significant mobilization of personal capital into global financial markets.

“All my savings were in cash, but I thought that’s really scary,” said Haruka Hirokawa, 32, who works at a call center for a domestic life insurer. “I thought it’ll be necessary to diversify my investments globally from now on.”

Hirokawa, who has invested about 130,000 yen so far, has put her money into eight trusts, including international equity and multi-asset funds by investing 100 yen ($0.92) per trading day into each trust, for a total of 16,000 yen a month.

She constructed her portfolio after meeting like-minded investors at meetings of Kinyu-joshi, a women’s community largely made up of people in their late 20s and early 30s that regularly meets to discuss finance matters.

Japan’s senior Watanabes were best known for bets on speculative assets with volatile risk-reward ratios, specifically through foreign exchange margin trading.

That generation became big players in currency trading in the past decade as they sought to beat meager returns through tactics such as the famous carry-trade.

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However, the Turkish lira’s sell-off in August and its slump against the yen on Jan. 3 have forced many to abandon the high-yielding Middle Eastern unit, previously a popular choice for retail investors, and reassess their risk exposure.

By comparison, younger Watanabes are building nest eggs through regular and small investments into passive funds. Many take on international exposure by diversifying their holdings through multiple funds, rather than direct investments in underlying assets, said Minako Takekawa, a financial journalist.

Driving the shift in female investment habits in Japan is a wider anxiety about retirement in a country where the number of citizens age 65 and older is expected to grow from 28 percent of the population to 36 percent by 2040, according to the government-backed National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

More broadly, Japanese are flocking to new private retirement accounts to secure their own financial future, even with government encouragement.

Since opened to the general population in 2017, the new accounts, called “iDeCo” for individual defined contribution accounts, have grown more than threefold to more than 1 million. They are modeled on the U.S. tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts plans.

“The increase in new accounts is prompted by people’s concerns about the future, whether they can make ends meet in their old age,” said Aguri Sagawa, a researcher at Daiwa Institute of Research.

(GRAPHIC: Japanese are flocking to private pension accounts -

More than half of the 1.859 quadrillion yen ($17.19 trillion) in Japanese household assets are still either in bank deposits or cash, compared with 13.1 percent for the United States.

Data from the Central Council for Financial Services Information, a public entity, showed that 59 percent of households inhabited by people in their 20s didn’t have any savings in 2017, up from 31.8 percent a decade earlier.

However, another survey, from consultancy J.D. Power, showed 26 percent of Japanese in their 20s who didn’t already invest intended to do so, compared with 8 percent and 4 percent for those in their 50s and 60s, respectively.

For young investors like Hirokawa, there are still three decades left to build up retirement savings before these are needed.

“Assuming that we’ll only receive 60 or 70 percent (in pensions) of what people are now given when we reach our retirement age, we must increase our assets by ourselves,” said Hirokawa.

(This story has been refiled to make subject in first line plural)

Editing by Sam Holmes