Aerospace

Alitalia – what is it with airlines and government support?

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Last Friday Italy extended a bridge loan for Alitalia, which is in special administration as plans for it are determined by the state.  Italy’s cabinet has  passed an emergency decree to add a further 300 million euros on top of the 600 million euros it made to the ailing airline in May. It has extended the deadline for the repayment of the loan from November 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018.

Airlines are perhaps one of the worst industries as an investment one can find. High fixed costs, variable fuel prices, volatile economic cycles and intense competition. Yet with all of this, governments see them as national icons. Losing the flag carrier is viewed by some governments as a sign of economic impotence.

Several years ago, Japan Airlines went through a state-funded rehabilitation where the airline was able to overhaul its fleet while its legitimately profitable and unassisted competitor All Nippon Airways (ANA) got nothing. In the reverse poor old ANA was effectively taxed as its biggest rival got free kick after free kick from the government.

Qantas reported a $235 million loss in the last half of 2013 and cut 5000 employees to save the company $2 billion. The government was pressured to give state aid to prop up the airline but then PM Tony Abbott said, “because we do not want to be in the business of subsidising any single enterprise. It’s not sustainable in the long term”. So Qantas didn’t get help in 2014 and the airline has since rebounded and recently compensated its CEO Alan Joyce over $24mn as the shares have stormed 6x since the lows of 3 years ago. Most of the 5,000 let go have been recovered.

Which begs the question of state subsidies. When looking at Australia once again the state spent billions over decades to defend a bloated, inefficient and uncompetitive car industry. Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Toyota, GM Holden and Ford all closed local auto making opps. When businesses are subsidized, the necessity to reform is numbed. There is less need to get fit and look for efficiencies to get off the taxpayers’ teat. So even after 20 years and $12 billion spent to protect 45,000 jobs, all makers packed up and went home. Would have been better to write each worker a $250,000 cheque.

Of course some will argue that protecting jobs is a noble quest. Nobody likes seeing people unemployed. However if the rest of the world can make the same products cheaper and more efficiently why should consumers and taxpayers be forced to prop up those who won’t make the effort to reform.

Alitalia is yet another one of these businesses that is in the citizen’s pockets. If KLM and Air France can pair, Lufthansa and Swissair can join why shouldn’t Etihad back the initial investment it made in Italy’s national carrier. Another Loan is Time-warped, All Logic Is Abandoned.

Kobe Steel scandal may make Takata look like a picnic by comparison

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Actually this could be so much worse than the Takata scandal. Kobe Steel’s data falsification on its products – especially to Subaru Corp – could raise the risk of insolvency of the former. Subaru is responsible for the MOST crucial part of the Boeing 787 – the centre wing box (CWB). While Boeing has assured us that there is no imminent safety risk, the question is one of determining the fatigue of the substandard materials supplied to Subaru by Kobe are part of the CWB. What many fail to realize is that commercial aircraft approval by the regulators makes getting drugs approved by the FDA as easy as shelling peanuts. Every time a plane is in the air it has to be as near as makes no difference 100% safe. Drugs that give you a side effect of drowsiness is not a big deal to the FDA. In fact for aircraft it gives “do not operate heavy machinery” a whole new meaning.

The CWB effectively is the piece that connects the wings to the body. It is without doubt the most important structural piece on the plane. Worse, it is perhaps the most difficult part to replace in terms of man hours. Effectively the plane would have to be broken apart and reassembled. The sheer logistics of this would also be mind boggling. The retrofit (if even feasible) would be a $20-30mn per job including the parts, labour and time out of service (compensation to airlines) and recertification. That’s per aircraft. So that would cost around $10-15bn.

The question then becomes of the 500 odd 787s in service what the FAA decides to do. Perhaps the planes’ useful 25 year life are reduced to 15 years. That would smack residual values and airlines would demand compensation for the gap and the potential for lost revenues. So were 500 aircraft to lose 40% of the serviceable life at $150mn a copy that is $75bn.

While this is worst case scenario analysis for Kobe Steel which would be liable for the lot, we are staring at the risk of a wipe out. Kobe Steel has $1.8bn in cash. Somehow it’s $8bn market cap may fall much further.

Hardly any of this is priced because the FAA doesn’t take things lightly until it has all the facts.

This article is not intended to be sensational rather highlight the potential for a huge weight from the US (not Japanese) regulator to push for a safety recall of epic proportions. We won’t know yet but buyer on dips beware.

Kobe ‘Steal’ – why this scandal could get much uglier

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Kobe Steel is the next in a growing list of Japanese corporates embroiled in data falsification. Kobe Steel has been supplying lower spec material to customers than advertised. In a sense stealing. Sure VW is no better in lying about its emissions but Kobe Steel has the potential to be more like Takata than Mitsubishi Motors in terms of impact. The issue here has to do with Kobe Steel products being in structures of aircraft, trains (including bullet trains) and cars. While much is being made of ‘little risk’ attached to these slightly lower spec products the reality is that ‘metal fatigue’ is calculated in the resesearch, development, testing and evaluation of such products.

For instance when planes are in the development phase FAA certification depends on making sure products can meet certain tolerances, cycles and stress tests. Once certification is granted, if subsequent production is met by sub-standard intermediate products unbeknownst to the manufacturer of the part then the trail becomes a much more serious matter. It is easy enough to determine which Honda’s had defective airbags as it is a specific part on specific models. Yet Kobe Steel steel products shipped all over the globe may have been used in different parts. Then those discrete parts would need to be traced to the next intermediate stage and then on to the finished part to which may be fixed to an airline on the other side of the world. Boeing is naturally not raising any alarms until they can assess the issue.

JR has already noted 310 sub standard parts in wheel bearings in its bullet trains which will be replaced at the next scheduled service. It is likely that the JR parts are over spec for the extra margin of safety.

None-the-less aircraft could turn into a much bigger problem. There is only one spec that is supposed to be met. Failure to meet it could cause planes to be grounded until parts are replaced. This could be massively costly as planes not in the air earning money cost millions on the ground. Not to mention the risk of the US government fining the company for reckless behaviour.

Kobe Steel has seen revenues track sideways for the better part of a decade. Profits have been all over the shop. Much like Toshiba tried to fiddle the books with one division in the hope that in time it would be able to put the money back and no one would notice. As for Kobe Steel, there was obviously a plan to try to boost profitability by lowering specs and charging prices for superior spec. Even then the contribution has been poor. Hardly surprising when the cash conversion cycle has exploded from 38 days a decade ago to around 82 today. To be faker most of the big steel companies have a similar CCC which hasn’t changed much over the last decade.

What we can be pretty sure of will be the soft touch of the local authorities. Even with such willful deceit, it is unlikely anyone will see inside of a jail cell or pay multi million dollar fines in Japan. However the tail risk here is the likes of Boeing who will extract every pound of flesh with the help of its authorities to rent seek from Kobe Steel if certain parts are found to be ultimately faulty because of negligence. This is not a staged Nissan-Mitsubishi Motors leak to force a cheap entry into the latter. Still, 37,000 employees at Kobe Steel will be seen as a sizable number to protect at a national level hence a limp wristed response to follow.

One final point. Do we honestly think that Kobe Steel can conduct an honest audit of its deceit? Surely flagrant data fiddling will be milled down to more acceptable cheating.  It is a time honored tradition to leak a bit, then a bit more so as to minimize the shame.

Until Japanese listed corporates face far harsher penalties for such malfeasance, it will be hard to shake off the cynicism that the corporate governance code has introduced anything more than mere lip service. That is OK if that is what Japan wants to project to the world that shareholders are not a priority.

All of Maizuru’s ballistic missile destroyer fleet are at sea

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Passing through JMDF Port of Maizuru in Kyoto, Japan (the red pindrop) today  I noticed that all her destroyers were at sea. Note Maizuru is the closest naval base to North Korea’s east coast. Maizuru has three destroyers the JDS Atago, JDS Shimakaze and JDS Myoko. The Atago and Shimakaze carry the SM-3 Anti ballistic missile system which theoretically can shoot Kim Jong Un’s rockets.

The Maizuru Regional District Command is responsible for defending the central part of the Sea of Japan, from Akita Prefecture in the north-east of Honshu down to Shimane Prefecture, in south-western Honshu. It participated in the search for and subsequent chase of two North Korean ‘spy ships’ that were found o the Noto Peninsula in March 1999. A detachment of SH-60J Sea Hawk patrol helicopters from the Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture air base has been deployed to Maizuru. The Maizuru District HQ depends on the underwater surveillance stations at Wakkanai, Rebun Island and Matsumae at the northern end of the Sea of Japan, and in the Tsushima Straits at the southern end, to keep it appraised of submarine movements into its area of responsibility

It is not hard to deduce these ships are on high alert in the Sea of Japan. Sea drills and war games are one thing.

Full interview on Bolt Report on Japan’s regional security conundrum

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The full interview can be found on the August 30 podcast from 21:17-34:30  where I discuss Japan’s Constitution Article 9 and 96 and the changing face of Japan’s Self Defense Force moving from “static deterrence” to “dynamic deterrence”  The wheels to defend herself are already well under way

 

Forget North Korea. Japan is more worried about China & Russia

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What many are probably unaware of is the changing nature of Japan’s threats in the region and how it isn’t just North Korea. Russia and China have aggressively stepped up their activity in aand around Japan’s territorial waters. In June last year I noted the sharp jump in aircraft and naval activity here.

If you refer to the Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF) White Papers it is clear that the current softly softly approach is completely incompatible with its defence needs. Unbeknownst to many Japan converted its SDF from an agency reporting to the PM to a full blown ministry which can apply for its own funding.

Japan is quickly developing its SDF to be ‘dynamic’ as opposed to ‘passive’. It’s security issues demand it. The latest SDF White Paper can be found here.