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IN AUGUSTA

thursday : Pension plan management seminar, E. Thomas Foster Jr., Hartford Financial Retirement Plan spokesman; 7:30 a.m. and noon; Augusta Country Club, 655 Milledge Road, Augusta; free; (706) 922-3590

IN WASHINGTON

TUESDAY: INSTITUTE FOR SUPPLY MANAGEMENT RELEASES manufacturing index for February, 10 a.m.; Commerce Department releases construction spending for January, 10 a.m.

WEDNESDAY: FEDERAL RESERVE RELEASES BEIGE BOOK, 2 P.M.

THURSDAY: LABOR DEPARTMENT RELEASES WEEKLY JOBLESS CLAIMS and fourth-quarter productivity data, 8:30 a.m.; Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for February, 10 a.m.; Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates, 10 a.m.

FRIDAY: LABOR DEPARTMENT RELEASES EMPLOYMENT DATA FOR FEBRUARY, 8:30 A.M.; COMMERCE DEPARTMENT RELEASES FACTORY ORDERS FOR JANUARY, 10 A.M.

ON WALL STREET

Japanese stocks have disappointed investors since 1990. No longer.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index has climbed 15 percent since Nov. 1. The increase means Japanese stocks have done better over the past four months than they have in 17 of the past 21 years. They are also beating the major indexes in the U.S. and other countries.

It's new ground for the Nikkei 225, which has done worse than U.S. stocks in all but four years over the past two decades. Even with the gains, the Japanese index is still 73 percent below its peak, set Dec. 29, 1989.

"I don't think this is just a one-time event," said Taizo Ishida, a portfolio manager who runs the $76.6 million Matthews Japan Fund and the $340.4 million Matthews Asia Pacific Fund. "I'm not bold enough to say this time is different, but it may be. The next 10 years won't be like the 1980s, but it will be up."

Ishida said investing in Japan can appear daunting to someone looking at Japan's demographic or economic data. Its population is aging, and Standard & Poor's last month downgraded its credit rating. Last year, Japan ceded the title of world's No. 2 economy to China.

Still, Ishida said Japanese executives he talks with now are focused on growth, when a few years ago they cared more about keeping employment steady.

Among other reasons to be optimistic:

- Price: Japanese stocks are some of the world's cheapest, when measured against their book values. A company's book value shows how much it is worth after subtracting its debt and other liabilities from its assets. A lower price-to-book ratio indicates investors are getting ownership of the company's assets more cheaply. Japanese stocks at the end of January traded at an average of 1.2 times their book value, according to investment analysis company MSCI. That's nearly 50 percent cheaper than U.S. stocks, which traded at 2.3 times their book value.

- Economic strength: Investors can benefit from stronger-than-expected U.S. growth in several ways, but "Japan is the best way," Credit Suisse strategists wrote in a recent report. Japanese companies that export to the U.S. will benefit from stronger U.S. spending. Japanese exporters also benefit from strong growth across Asia.

- Safety: Stock markets in China, India and other developing countries have sunk in recent months on worries that inflation will hurt growth. Protests in the Middle East have also highlighted the risks of investing in emerging markets. In search of safety, many have turned to Japanese and other developed market stock funds. Investors poured more new money into Japanese stock funds in the week ending Feb. 16 than in any other week in nearly four years, according to fund-tracker EPFR Global.

-- From staff and wire reports


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