Aerospace

Yemen – Saleh’s death is the dangerous slice in the Iran & Saudi sandwich

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Even before the Arab Spring, CM (in a previous life) wrote that Yemen was a trouble spot. It’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Sunni) has died of natural causes – he was assassinated in a spate of tribal violence in the capital Sana’a yesterday. No stranger to being an oppressive tyrant during his rule, after being ousted in the Arab Spring he was in recent years working with the Houthi tribe (Shi’ite) to regain power before switching back to a US backed Saudi-friendly deal maker. He proved that power is more important than religious sect. However the Houthi weren’t prepared to suffer a turncoat who betrayed them so Saleh was duly dealt with.

Why is Saleh’s death important? What it now does is give Saudi Arabia more will to take more decisive action against the Iran backed Houthi. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia has cleaned house with the arrests of  royal family members to tighten the inner circle. It smells like the early stages of broader tit-for-tat skirmishes before all out conflict ensues. Yemen is often argued as a proxy war between the two.

While many are distracted by the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face” action, it is a very firm line in the sand to where the US cards already lie. No big surprises. For now most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran.

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At the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, cargo ships make their way up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, could become a major choke point. This year multiple US, Saudi and Emirati warships have been attacked by Houthi rebel forces. In January 2017 a  Saudi al-Madinah frigate was sunk in the strait. An Emirati HSV-2 swift naval craft was also put out of action in late 2015.

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Safe access to the strait is crucial at present because of Egypt’s reliance on imported LNG to maintain stable electricity supply. One LNG tanker heads to Egypt each weeknight through the canal. Just under 10% of global trade goes through it as well. Any blockage or restricted access would force ships to sail the long way around the Horn of Africa adding another 40% to the journey. This would have significant impacts on shipping and trade. Markets aren’t factoring anything at this stage.

The problem with naval conflict is that Yemen is backed by Iran which in turn is one of Russia’s best clients. Iran possesses the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile which is a supersonic anti-ship missile which even the US has no answer for. In recent years this has been upgraded to the Super Sunburn (P-270) which is even more lethal. It is a ramjet which travels at Mach-3 meaning if fired inside a 100km range then the target is likely to be toast (video here). It can be launched from a ship, submarine or land.

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Iran could blame a whole host of tribes (Sunni or Shia) sick of being under the jackboot of effective Saudi control/influence for an attack.

On December 2, Israeli jets bombed an Iranian military weapons base in Syria. Israel has warned Iran it won’t tolerate any military presence on Syrian soil. We shouldn’t forget that China has also deployed its special forces to Syria to help Assad. Clearly the Chinese see a good opportunity to clean up some of the spoils in the region. China is always happy to help out nations that are under sanction. It adds more mess into the geopolitical sphere.

While the GCC has stepped up its air attacks on Yemen post the death of Saleh, he was the only one that has been able to unite the country. Indeed it is possible that the secession of the south becomes an issue. At the time of reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 many in the south felt their northern neighbors were pillaging too much of their oil reserve wealth. Even their private land was appropriated and spread among the Sana’a elite. Now that Saleh has gone, and Yemen fragmented again, we may see old scores settled. The Southern Movement (loyal to exiled President Hadi) in Yemen wants to take back what was stolen from them. So Saleh’s death may open a vacuum of more instability.

Iran would relish the opportunity of a fractured Yemen to further build its influence. Bab al-Mandeb may become a flashpoint to fight the proxy war. It is extremely messy, creates proper disruption and pushes Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to conflict.

Which ever way you cut it, diplomacy in the Middle East (what little there is) looks set to worsen. In a sense we are dealing with two large clients of Russia (Iran) and America (SA). Now China is siding with Russian interests by using it as a test run of its military muscle. China isn’t committing anything major but it wants to be at the negotiating table when it all goes pear shaped.

It smells very similar to the lead up to the Arab Spring. More turmoil and complacent markets which are not quite absorbing the realities of “local problems” spreading to another neighborhood. Sure we’ve seen many leaders overthrown in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and so on in the last uprising but the pressure on Saudi is mounting hence the recent crackdown internally.

The other dark horse is Erdogan in Turkey. He is facing a corruption probe over money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions and he seems keen to externalise his problems so he can shut down the local threat. He is threatening to cut off ties with Israel if the US relocates the embassy but for a man with clear ambitions to revive the Ottoman Empire that fell less than 100 years ago that is a mere formality in the future.

The flashpoint remains Yemen. It has the perfect storm of a pawn in a global game of chess. While it whiffs of local tribes seeking revenge there are too many willing to help them achieve their aims which only plays to the broader ructions throughout the rest of the Middle East. Last week Houthi rebels launched a missile attack against the UAE nuclear power plant under construction. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

Mitsubishi Jet facing cancellations

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In 2009 CM argued (in a former life) that the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) was doomed to failure. It was answering a question that no one was asking. It seems that one of its customers, Eastern Airlines, which originally placed 40 orders found itself in receivership and its new owners do not seem to have any intention honouring Eastern’s order book. With a total order book (including options) of 447 MRJ aircraft, this would be a big dent. The plane has been beset with delays, material changes (it was to have carbon composite wings but it was deemed too expensive so switched back to alloys, increasing weight hence hurting economics) and the realities of the industry.

1. Demand – Both Boeing & Airbus publish detailed long range fleet forecasts every year. They are both in agreement that regional jets (50-100 seats) have little future forecasting they’ll represent a total of 3,000 orders in the next two decades. Around 8 years ago that forecast was 5,000.

2. Incumbents – Embraer and Bombardier dominate the regional jet market with some 80% share. Mitsubishi is looking to beat the door down in an industry where risk is not wanted. The Chinese are entering the market with the C-919 and the Russians with the Sukhoi Superjet. Mitsubishi wanted a 20% share. Of 5,000 units that’s 1000 units they banked on. At 3,000 that’s only 600 units their share target would hit. Boeing and Airbus are offering slightly smaller versions of the 737 and A320 series to cater to the market that would normally buy an RJ.

3. Pilots – well most pilots are certified to fly only one type of commercial plane at any given time so Mitsubishi needs to make sure it’s planes can have a supply of pilots to fly them and airlines need to take a bet on expansion. Same goes for ground crew training.

4. Existing fleet – if a regional airline wanted to expand, if they used Embraer ERJ-145s it is better to get more of the same as the economics are well understood. Also the pool of pilots is likely more accessible. Route gaps need to be filed as soon as possible so waiting 12 months to get an MRJ may not work for an airline.

5. Residual values – when airlines get into financial turbulence, sometimes fleets need to be trimmed. Having a ‘liquid’ fleet which is easily placed at another airline helps balance sheet (relatively speaking). The best example was the GE engined 747 (60% of market) which sold at a premium to the Rolls-Royce engined 747 (15% of  market) in the used market because very few airlines used RR. A fleet of MRJs may have few homes to go if airlines need to part with them quickly. Airlines know this so it is likely that Mitsubishi is providing such residual value guarantees to bank in the orders.

However if Mitsubishi keep losing orders then the airlines that intend to use them may switch away on the basis that the risks down the line are too great. Regional airline budgets are thin. Risks are avoided at all costs.

The MRJ will likely fall foul of the Mitsubishi YS-11 of the 1970s. Great concept but poor execution on the basis of not having a big enough grasp of the industry dynamics. JAL and ANA will likely he asked to do national service on top of the initial tour of duty to support the plane.

The ground’s the limit.

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