Corporate Governance

The unbiased ABC happily calls and treats us as c*nts

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) says it is strictly impartial when it comes to politics. No bias whatsoever. The point was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when it came to one of its comedy programmes calling conservative politicians c@nts. It is not a question of humour (if one can call it that) being like cartoons addressing political satire, it is a question of the organization flagrantly violating its own charter. Australian taxpayers deserve better. The financials of the ABC reveal how out of touch it is.

The ABC was originally established to make sure even rural communities could access news. Scroll forward c.90 years and we are able to stream radio programs from Berlin or TV shows from Canada right to our mobile handset, desktop or TV screen. Media choice is everywhere. Yet the Aussie taxpayer funds multiple ABC radio and TV stations to cater to markets well covered by the commercial sector. The ABC and the SBS get over A$1.5bn a year in funding.

Let’s dig a bit deeper in the stats of the ABC. Comparing 2016/17 and 2015/16 we see that TV audience reach for metro fell from 55.2% to 52.5% and regional slumped from 60.3% to 57.3%. If we go back to 2007/8 the figures were 60.1% and 62.4% respectively. For the 2017/18 period, the ABC targets a 50% reach. Hardly a stretch.

Since 2008, the average salary of ABC’s staff has risen 25% from $86,908 to $108,408. Total staff numbers have risen from 4499 to 4769. Therefore salaries as a percentage of the ABC revenues have risen from 37.1% of the budget to 50%. The ABC’s ability to generate sales from content has fallen from A$140mn to A$70mn last year. The multicultural SBS has seen its budget grow from A$259mn in 2008 to A$412mn in 2017. SBS staff numbers have grown from 844 to 1,466 over the same period with average salaries rising from A$82,689 to A$88,267 or 7.2%. Which begs the question why is the SBS able to operate at 31% of the budget in salaries while the ABC is at 50%? Surely the ABC’s economies of scale should work in its favour? Clearly not.

Australia’s largest commercial terrestrial station, Nine Network, has 3,100 employees against revenues of $1.237bn. So to put that into context, Nine can generate c. A$400,000 per employee whereas the ABC generates A$217,236 in tax dollars per employee. In a sense the ABC could be shut down, and each employee paid $108,000 in redundancy costs annually for two years simply by selling off the land, buildings and infrastructure. The SBS generates A$281,000 in tax dollars per employee. The ABC will argue it deserves $400,000/employee revenues rather than a 46% headcount reduction to be on equal terms with the efficiency in the private sector.

On a global basis, the BBC generates GBP 4.954bn and employs 21,000 staff. 22.7% of those revenues are spent on salaries. Average salaries have grown 17% since 2007/8. Average income per employee at the BBC is now GBP236,852 (A$428,000) thanks to the generous mandatory licensing fees. Average salaries at the Beeb are now GBP 55,651 ($A100,728).

Imagine if the ABC was listed and forced to compete. If it is infinitely confident it has the right content which captures future audience trends (which by its own measures doesn’t) then it can call whoever it wants a c*nt and see whether the ratings stack up when it comes time to attract revenue and capital. Why not give the ABC staff a choice to list and say what it wants or stay government owned and tow the line of the charter? Of course the answer is stay under the protectorate of blind politicians and say what they please. The beauty of the private sector is that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Is it really our ABC? There is no balance in content and even less balance in its accounts. It should be massively defunded.

Fasten your seatbelts!


The “Fasten your seatbelts” edition (March 6, 2018) of the High-Tech Strategist by Fred Hickey is best read with antidepressants or a stiff drink. To be honest I hadn’t seen a copy of this research for at least 5 years. Today I’ve read it three times hoping I haven’t missed or misread anything. It is well reasoned and well argued. I would even admit to there being confirmation bias on my side but it is compelling. Usually confirmation bias is a worrying sign although prevailing sentiment or group think, it isn’t!

Perhaps the scariest claim in his report is a survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. So their only reference point is one where central banks manipulated the outcome in 2007/8. S&P fell around 56% peak to trough. I often like to say that an optimist is a pessimist with experience. A lot of experienced punters have quit the industry post Lehman’s collapse, hollowing out a lot of talent. That is not to disparage many of the modern day punters but it does experience is a hard teacher because one gets the test first and the lesson afterwards.

Hickey cites an interview with Paul Tudor Jones who said that the new Fed Chairman Powell has a situation not unlike “General George Custer before the battle of the Little Bighorn” (aka Custer’s Last Stand). He spoke of $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries requiring refinancing this year. CM wrote that $8.4 trillion required refinancing in 4 years. In any event, with the Fed tapering (i.e. selling their bonds) couple with China and Japan feeling less willing to step up to the plate he conservatively sees 10yr rates hit 3.75% (now 2.8%) and 30 years rise above 4.5%. Now if we tally the $65 trillion public, private and corporate (worst average credit ratings in a decade) debt load in America and overlay that with a rising interest rate market things will get nasty. Not to mention the $9 trillion shortfall in public pensions.

Perhaps the best statistic was the surge in the number of articles which contained ‘buy-the-dip’ to an all time record. Such lexicon is often used to explain away bad news. It is almost as useless as saying there were more sellers than buyers to explain away a market sell off. In any event closing one’s eyes is a strategy.

Hickey runs through the steps leading up to and during the bear market that followed the tech bubble collapse. It was utter carnage. Bell wether blue chips like Cisco fell 88% from the peak. Oracle -83%. Intel -82%. Sun Microsystems fell 96%.

To cut a long story short, assets (bonds, equities and property) are overvalued. The Bitcoin bubble and consequent collapse have stark warnings that he saw in 2000. He recommends Gold, Gold stocks (which he claims are selling at deeper discounts than the bear market bottom) Silver, index and stock put options (Apple, Tesla, NVidia & Amazon) and cash. Can’t say CM’s portfolio is too dissimilar.

As Hickey says, “fasten your seatbelts

$8.4 trillion of the $21 trillion in US debt matures in 4 years. What could possibly go wrong?

E0F20948-4A5A-48F1-B8AF-06FA92EBAC7AWith a US Fed openly stating it is looking to prune its bloated balance sheet by around $2 trillion, it seems that $8.4 trillion of that debt held by the public matures within the next 4 years according to the US Treasury. To that end, debt maturing in the next 10 years totals $12.233 trillion. It needs to be ‘rolled over’. The national debt pile has jumped $1 trillion in the last 6 months. After the GFC and an overly accommodative central bank, the Treasury took advantage of this free money. Under President Obama, the debt doubled. That’s right, debt in his 8 years equaled that of the previous 43 administrations combined. Most of it was short term meaning the mop up operation starts earlier.

While there is little doubt this $8.4 trillion will be recycled, the question is at what price. With rising rates and a Fed back-pedaling one would expect the interest bill can only lift. At the moment the US federal government pays around $457 billion p.a. in interest alone. Average interest rates rose for the first time since 2006. Were average rates to climb back to 2007 levels then the interest bill alone would surpass $1 trillion.


This global aversion to tightening belts continues. Many US corporations have taken the same approach to their balance sheets as the government as pointed out in the previous example on GE. Lever up and be damned with the credit rating as the spreads have been almost irrelevant to higher rated paper. It has been a financially credible decision to lower WACC and increase ROE provided one didn’t lose control and overdose on free money. However the relatively short duration on corporate debt is facing a similar refinancing cliff as the US government.

All this cumulative debt needing refinancing while credit ratings are on average the worst they’ve ever been in a rising interest rate environment coupled with a bubble in bonds while a growing number of these levered consumer and industrial stocks have negative equity. What could possibly go wrong?

Do we see the Fed reverse its decision and embark on more QE? Indeed to do such a thing would tank the dollar and send the yen back towards the 70s to the US$. Interesting times ahead. Throw on the $7 trillion shortfall in state public pension liabilities and watch the fire from the other side of the river. Finally some university think tank has come out saying that wiping out the $1.5 trillion in student debt would be ‘stimulatory’ to the economy adding 1.5 million jobs. What a world we live in when we get to walk away from responsibility and accountability.

Gun makers or Drug makers? Who should we be more afraid of?


One by one, more of Corporate America is shunning the National Rifle Association (NRA). There is a touch of irony, perhaps hypocrisy about these moves. For a long time it has served rental car agencies, United Airlines and credit card companies to show their support for the NRA as its membership base was credibly large that it was ‘good for business.’ Despite dozens of massacres after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 why did they not shun the NRA in the last 19 years? Why didn’t the 14 gun massacres under Obama where Democrats had a majority in the House and Senate cause them to ban guns or automatic rifles period? Now all of a sudden corporates have woken up from their wistful slumber to realize that supporting the NRA may no longer be appropriate “in moving with the times”, the very phrase which is used to silence debate. In the process these corporates pillory all members of an association that in the overwhelming majority of cases are law abiding citizens.

Let’s make it clear. CM is no fan of guns. CM is a fan of laws. A fan of democracy that lets people vote on issues such as this. Changing the constitution is in most countries a matter for the people to decide, not just the handful of politicians within the walls of law making. CM doesn’t need a gun. CM doesn’t want a gun. CM, like most reading this can’t understand why one would want to massacre innocent people with a gun. However we’ve stated clearly that banning guns won’t fix the problem in America. One could easily drive a car through a school campus and mow down dozens of kids during play time. Do we ban cars? The two students who carried out the Columbine massacre had handgrenades, pipe bombs and propane time bombs. While guns were the sole cause of the 15 deaths, these kids had intended to murder 100s in the commons area with the bombs (which were made from everyday off the shelf items).

Although when United Airlines starts taking the moral high ground with respect to the NRA after its own scandals of heavy handedly frog marching passengers off its aircraft it isn’t worth listening to. If these corporates could openly say that running NRA discounts was not worth it on economic grounds in terms of the administration in running such programs one could understand. If they made rational decisions that showed their business would fall of a cliff by supporting the NRA one could understand. It hasn’t happened in 20 years, so why now? If one chooses to fly United for whatever reason (convenience, price, family emergency) will they stop flying it in fear of association with the NRA might be bad for their image? Does the average American, where there are as many guns as people, think ill of the NRA? 32% of US households own guns. Are 32% of households unhinged lunatics? Granted the NRA does itself  little favors in the PR department after such tragedies.

As we’ve written in recent days, the growing incidence of broken homes and the surge in the dispensing of antidepressants to ‘tranquilize’ those who might be tempted into suicidal or homicidal tendencies is a worrying trend. Pharma companies are expected to mint $17bn in antidepressants by 2020.  Should we spurn Eli Lilly’s over-the-counter drugs because they are the evil corporates milking billions from Prozac?

To put it into perspective the total number of overdose deaths involving heroin from 2002 to 2015 jumped 6.2-fold in the US. Automobiles killed around 32,000 people last year or a little over 2x that of heroin overdoses. When adding non-methadone opioids (illicit fentanyl) overdose that number surged to 20,000, a 33% YoY jump on 2014 and 5.9x 2002. Why is it happening? The problem for many prescription painkiller users is that once their bottle ends, the addiction doesn’t stop meaning many switch to heroin to get the same ‘opioid’ hit.

Excessive use of pain relievers make up a large proportion of illicit drug use. Oxycodone is one of the more common type of opiate pain killer and it is highly addictive. In 2010, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the formulation of OxyContin be changed to make it harder to become addicted to. Talk about loading patients with too much ammunition.

As opioid overdoses rise, companies such as Adapt Pharma have seen sharp rises in the sales of products like Narcan (Naloxone) which basically revives victims from the dead. Narcan publicizes its price that is even insured meaning one can overdose and revive with a $10 co-payment.

94% of insured lives in the US have coverage for NARCAN® Nasal Spray*. According to IMS Health, nearly three quarters (74%) of prescriptions for NARCAN® Nasal Spray have a co-pay of $10 or less**. For those paying cash, ADAPT Pharma has partnered with retail pharmacies to reduce out of pocket costs (Retail is $62.50/dose)…To expand community access, NARCAN® Nasal Spray is available to all qualified group purchasers for $37.50 per 4mg dose ($75 per carton of 2 doses). This pricing is available for all Qualified Group Purchasers, such as first responders (EMS, Fire Department, Police), community organizations and Departments of Health, regardless of size. This pricing represents a 40% discount off the Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC) of $125 per carton.”

Price hikes have been a feature of naloxene. As of January 2015, Amphastar’s version of naloxone was up to $41 a dose, according to Fierce Pharma, a pharmaceutical industry news website. That follows a price increase from $17 to $33 a dose back in October 2014, according to data provided by Truven Health Analytics. So not only is volume spiking, so is price. Walgreens has expanded the availability of prescription-free naloxone to 33 states.

West Virginia health officials are responding to opioid overdoses by distributing more than 8,000 kits with Naloxone that can get people breathing again if administered in time. Money for the kits comes from a $1 million federal grant to West Virginia, which has had the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths at 41.5/100,000 people.

Local emergency medical services agencies in West Virginia administered 4,186 doses of Naloxone in 2016, up from 3,351 the year before and 2,165 two years ago and that data doesn’t include uses by hospital emergency departments, urgent care centers, first responders and family members.

The gun industry in America is around $11 billion. 35,000 work in the manufacture of guns and ammo. There are 50,000 retailers in the US. 32% of American households possess a firearm. One-third. The federal government collects $132 million in taxes on guns. 17 million background checks for gun purchases are conducted annually.

By all means let’s have common sense debates on regulation surrounding guns. Sending memes of Republicans on the payroll of the NRA can be met with as many Democrats accepting fortunes from the pharmaceutical lobby so as to prevent price cuts being driven through Congress. While guns maybe noisy killers, pharmaceutical companies are  in a sense becoming (or already become) stealthy silent assassins. Their drugs causing patients to switch to harder substances. 13% of adolescents are on antidepressants. Thirteen percent. 68% of them have taken antidepressants for 2 years and a quarter for over a decade,

The tragedy of school shootings is awful in every conceivable way. How it tears families apart, destroys the lives of survivors who must cope with unspeakable trauma and creates a platform for such horrid knee jerk responses in all forms of media. How the loss of 17 lives takes a back seat to agendas which feed the very opposite of the intention they proclaim. Corporates joining the bandwagon only fuel mixed messaging. It is exactly the type of ‘shaming’ that was so prevalent at the time of the election.

Trying to get the NRA to come around to spreading the word amongst its members that banning bump stocks and certain weapons is feasible won’t occur when corporates and the media publicly kick them. It is never an easy discussion but it only makes members want to dig their trenches deeper. Do people honestly believe that all NRA members would reject common sense proposals about screening, age limits and certain weapons restrictions? Yet that is the picture that is painted. They’re lunatics to a man, woman and child. Let’s hope that United Airlines and others that have spurned the NRA now turn to the drugs list in the company health provider to ensure that those pharmaceutical companies behind so many of the deaths from the explosive concoctions they sell are dealt with in the same way. Here’s a prediction. That hasn’t crossed their minds. So much for pharma companies saving lives. They are cashing in as a growing number of patients check out.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?


The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.


Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.


Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.


While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.


Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.


By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.


PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018


Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?


Truly sickening US Public Pensions data


Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.


Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.


Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.


This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following yearFund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”


To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

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Trust in Japan? Strangled by sontaku 忖度


Trust and Japan used to go hand in hand. It was a hard earned reputation.  A mining executive once told me that “when you sign a contract with the Japanese, that is the contract. When you sign a contract with the Chinese that is the beginning of the negotiations.” Hardly a subtle difference. Yet here we are in the last few years where a plethora of scandals from Japanese companies have come to light. Houeshold names too – Olympus, Toshiba, Kobe Steel, Subaru, Toray, Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Takata, Mitsubishi Materials, Asahi Kasei, Obayashi, JR Central, Nomura etc etc. It is almost as if there is a coming-out of sorts so the crimes are somewhat diluted in the midst of others. Syndicated scandals? Expect more to come out. Perhaps the worst part about it is the limp wristed approach by the regulators. ‘Sontaku’ (忖度) in Japanese is a word meaning ‘glossing over’ which is exactly what the regulator is doing over scandals involving household names. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

In October I was invited to give a lecture to 70 bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance’s attack dogs – the Financial Services Agency (FSA) and the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission (SESC) on foreign perceptions of Japan’s handling of corporate  crime. In the interests of objectivity the first slide pointed to how no corporate governance system is perfect citing the minefield of foreign corporations caught up in bad behaviour – VW, Petrobras, Parmalat, HealthSouth, Lehman Brothers etc etc. I also highlighted the sentencing of executives who commit crimes – many received lengthy jail sentences, personal fines while the corporates faced eye-watering penalties.

Ironically much of the crime committed by corporates here is at a relatively pithy level. Instead of billions being massaged into or from the books, Japanese corporates tend to commit the equivalent of falsely submitting a $20 taxi receipt to your boss as a business related expense. One almost could conjure up a scenario that if Toshiba was ever able to make back the money to cover the accounting fraud they’d have broken into corporate HQ in the dead of night to put it back in the safe.

I touched on Kobe Steel which conveniently broke the news that it had falsified the true contents of its products to customers. While pointing out such behaviour was regrettable a chart which showed a heavy shorting of the stock on the day it announced it to its duped clients displayed the bigger problem. A question was asked directly to the regulator – “do you intend to investigate the heavy short selling of Kobe Steel stock 3 weeks before the company announced this to market?” No answer.  The following slide showed that a person that was able to short the stock 3 weeks before the announcement would have cleaned up a tidy 60% profit. Again no plans to investigate the insider trading. Why bother having the FSA if it is a toothless tiger?

The following slide showed the types of fines dealt to both the broker (Nomura was a regular feature in the leaks) and the investor (at the time Chuo Mitsui Asset). The fines were the equivalent of $500 and no suspension of license was pursued by the regulator, When the following slide that compared it to the types of fines meted out to foreign banks – lengthy jail terms, lifetime suspensions and monster fines in the the millions and billions jaws didn’t so much drop but celebrate the idea “thank God we live in Japan”. Truth be told the FSA did punish one dying asset manager $150mn but that is an exception. That is the problem. It is too conditional where convenient.

Rolling onto the next slide the discussion looked at how ‘sontaku’ was a problem. Whereas the FSA & SESC heavily pushed for license revocation of foreign investment companies that it found to break rules, it let off all the domestic companies that had ‘brand names’ to protect. What message is the regulator sending if local corporations know they can pretty much get away with anything. In what way is that a fair system? If foreigners will be turfed on a whim then why do the locals get special protection?

When looking at agency funding, the FSA was put up against the US SEC and Australia’s ASIC equivalents. The US was there for illustrative purposes. Yet Australia was the market that made the point clearest. Despite having a total market cap 5x the size of Australia and 30% more listed companies, Japan spends 20% less than the antoipodeans. Even worse it had fewer numbers of staff and its budget was shrinking.

When analyzing market surveillance, in 2014 the Aussie market issued 36,000 speeding tickets (alerts to potentially suspicious trading). The sophisticated systems are designed to catch any wrong doing. The Japanese issued around 180 speeding tickets. I suggested the FSA go cap in hand to ASIC and the ASX and ask if they can buy the software off the shelf. Safe markets attract capital because all actors feel adequate protections are in place to prevent crime. Higher liquidity attracts more liquidity. It is a win win.

Several years ago the fanfare of the Corporate Governance Code was thrust into the faces of the intenational investment community that Japan Inc was changing. After visiting multiple staff inside the FSA and the TSE there is absolutely no pulse of proactively to be seen anywhere. Even my slight nudge to get the FSA to tap the shoulder of the TSE to suggest listed corporates provide English language materials to encourage more transparency for foreign investment met with the response, “it might help if you spoke directly to the Deputy PM & Minister of Finance Taro Aso.”Not a word of a lie.

How can the Japanese authorities look to appropriately handle a slew of corporate scandals if the encouragement of English language documents requires someone (a gaijin no less) outside the agency to ask the Deputy PM to suggest it back down to them. It is an embarrassment.

In closing perhaps we can look to these corporate scandals breaking out as endemic of a greater underlying problem. While the knowledge that the regulator is likely to do next to nothing provides mild comfort, the reality is that Japanese companies have been strangling themselves for decades. The corporate fabric is fraying. The world is far more competitive than it was. For Japan to assert its ‘quality and/or engineering gap’ dominance now means profits likely suffer. In order to  get around that hurdle it seems that to maintain profit margins, corporates now lie about specifications hoping a history of ‘trust’ and ‘time honoured’ traditions can keep the bluff going. As mentioned earlier the scale of the ‘cheating’ is pitiful yet the shame it brings is multiples larger.

Japan’s cultural rigidities are on full display. Unfortunately they couldn’t arrive at a worse time. Clumps of companies confessing crimes to soften the collective blow is only the start of many more. I suggested in my speech that the authorities introduce a 3 month amnesty period for companies to fess up to any wrong doing. That way they can clear the decks and make it clear that any wrong doing after that date will be met with harsh repercussions. Of course it won’t happen but expect the list of companies above to have many join them at the table of shame.