Investment

Austria proves again why the EU needs to listen more and talk less

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God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we’d listen more and talk less,’ so the old saying goes This is what the EU gets for trying to bully its member states. It wasn’t long ago that EU President Jean-Claude Juncker was telling Austrians that if they democratically elected Norbert Hofer of the right wing FPO then the EU would remove Austria’s voting rights and cut off any transfers. Well the Austrians have voted for a conservative anti-immigrant party (which wants a programme to get immigrants to assimilate with the local culture) with a 31yo leader, Sebastian Kurz. His People’s Party garnered 31.4% (+7%) of the vote with the far-right wing FPO coming in second at 27.4% and incumbent Social Democrat Party coming in third with 26.7%. The Greens will probably not make the cut off of 4% to make a party, So once again the EU has had yet another major repudiation of its totalitarian ideals.

CM has been making the point for ages that forcing one’s beliefs onto others must be done in a way that listens to the other side. Otherwise it delivers results like Trump. It seems the EU hasn’t learned a thing.

So what have we had?

-Le Pen garnered 1/3rd of the French vote (double the best ever achieved by Front National),

-the far right Freedom Party’s (FPO) Norbert Hofer still managed 46% in Austria farcical re-run presidential election),

-Geert Wilders’ 25% increase in seats for the anti-immigrant PVV in The Netherlands,

-the surge in the Sweden Democrats to the top of the recent polls, Elections in 2018.

-Italy’s referendum which turned into a backdoor vote to oust PM Renzi. Elections in 2018 likely.

Brexit (although PM May is handling negotiations in true British efficiency – Fawlty Towers ring a bell?),

the Swiss handing back a 30yr standing free ticket to join the EU,

-the AfD in Germany getting 13% of the vote (Merkel may have won but it was her party’s worse showing in 7 decades)

…these don’t look like promising trends for an EU which is already badly listing. Despite ample warnings the EU refused (and still refuses) to change its course or exercise due care. It just issues more threats.

While the left openly voices its rage at these ‘right-wing’ parties growing in support, they never bother to seek reasons why. The right are generally just dismissed as racists, bigots or worse.  Major party loyalty has never been worse. The fabric of the loyal party voter base is wearing thinner. Take Australia’s One Nation Party led by Senator Pauline Hanson. The popularity of the mainstream LNP and Labor Parties is at record lows. One Nation is now 10% of the vote from 2% several decades ago. While some parties may claim their loyal base has abandoned them the stronger case to be made is the clear shift of the parties away from their once faithful constituents. Why?

Incumbent governments seem to cower at receiving negative news from the 24-7 polling cycle that is social media. Being careful to avoid inviting attack, they pander to all of the socially acceptable agendas – climate change, gender fluid bathrooms, laws clamping down on free speech, open borders and afffirmative action.

However political correctness is clearly not the answer as these results across Europe and elsewhere show. People are sick of the brow beating by socialist activists. Tired of the constant protests and social justice bleating. The NFL might find that most of its fans are against police brutality but they aren’t wanting a weekly lecture in grievance politics with the price of entry or their cable TV channel. Growing weary of the idea that it is ‘free speech’ and anything against those ideals are deemed ‘hate speech’. It is not to deny some positions are not necessarily palatable but in the marketplace of free speech, ridiculous positions can easily be disproven. Better to give extremist voices a chance to talk and invite public opinion on them at their own peril. Shutting it down forces it underground., making it inherently more dangerous.

Too many mainstream political parties are moving off the policy reserve that defined them so their once loyal followers are actively seek ones that will. While Hanson’s One Nation or Senator Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives may not tick every box to existing LNP voters, they cover enough of the positions that matter to them that they’ll tolerate some of the more out there ideas. It is not uncommon to hear the left complain at One Nation’s is growing popularity at the expense of the Greens but it is a devil of their own making.

So will the EU listen to the Austrian call? Will it pay attention to the Hungarians who voted over 98% against accepting forced migrant quotas? Think through the logic. If you were an asylum seeker, would you think your chances of unincumbered settlement would be best placed where 98.4% of the population doesn’t want you? It is irrelevant whether we think the Hungarians are insensitive brutes not to extend a welcome to those that are legitimately in need. It is their country and their democracy has spoken. If Brussels assumes to dictate to Hungary how it wishes to protect its culture and whatever it holds precious, why shouldn’t the EU have the same rights to enforce income tax, housing benefits and anything else it sees fit? Of course it is a preposterous notion.

It will not be long before the EU will be front and center on Greece. Let us not forget that the EU colluded with Goldman Sachs to ‘fiddle’ the accounts to make Hellas much prettier optically than it was. Was this pig without lipstick it wouldn’t have gained acceptance to the club. So the EU is not in a position to claim innocence over a deliberate ploy to ram-road the Greeks into its federal state yet have no qualms treating it with disdain. Talk about double standards.

In all seriousness the treatment of the Greeks by the EU is despicable beyond words. So for all of the left’s blind love for the EU and its socialist agenda, 36% of Greeks live below the poverty line and 58% of the youth are unemployed. So for all of the EU’s shared sense of purpose and equality, that means many can’t access affordable healthcare because it is generally provided by corporates and when you lose a job you lose the healthcare. This means many are forced to use A&E of major hospitals which are now overcrowded and understaffed as more doctors are leaving to seek better fortune for their services elsewhere.

If that wasn’t enough, mothers who had given birth were being restricted from taking their new-borns home if they couldn’t pay the hospital fees. While the government has banned this practice they have introduced new laws to allow the seizure of assets (e.g. homes) if debts are not settled.

Shortly, the Greeks are coming up for discussion over its debt position and austerity. With just months left before Greece’s latest lifeline expires, officials directly involved in the country’s bailout say they don’t have the stomach for contingent aid program when the current one expires in August 2018. While the EU and Athens are battle worn after 7 years of this knife edge rescue,  Greece will need to show it can go it alone but it’s eurozone creditors will be reluctant without further strings attached.

Here is betting that the EU doesn’t heed the lessons that have been ringing loud and clear for years. Sincerely hoping Greece leaves the EU and lets market forces revive its economy. Better to die on its feet than live on its knees.

Kobe Steel’s White Samurai – who might be forced into national service?

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While we are some way off understanding the extent of damage to Kobe Steel, we shouldn’t rule out the inevitable action which could involve a structured rescue of it, a white samurai if you will. Japan’s largest steel company NSSMC (5401) owns 2.95% of the outstanding shares of Kobe Steel. Will we see a motion in several months time as more facts become known for a consortium like the INCJ to team up with NSSMC to turn it into another Hinomaru sunset business? We saw the dying semiconductor industry in Japan get rolled into Elpida (which went bust) and cell phone screen players get merged into Japan Display (still listed) so why would anyone doubt a Hinomaru Steel consortium which would be a forced sense of national duty. While still way too early to surmise we should not ignore such a scenario should Kobe really find itself hoisted by its own petard. Corporate harakiri is the last thing Nippon Sumitomo Steel holders want from a governance perspective

Kobe ‘Steal’ – will the market referee wave a red card at what looks a lot like insider trading?

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If the referee caught Kobe Steel’s (5406) rugby team up to such foul play it is likely that players would be red carded. While unconfirmed speculation at the moment, it would appear that since September 21st Kobe Steel shares came under heavy selling pressure in what a seasoned market punter might suspect looks like insider trading via aggressive short selling. 7 straight negative candle sticks. Kobe Steel spilled the ball on its data manipulation on October 8th.

This would not be the first time that a broker conspired with a fund to short sell a stock ahead of a negative release on insider information where several weeks later news broke and sent the shares collapsing. This is the current action of Kobe Steel shares.

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So excluding borrowing costs or any leverage, if one had managed to short sell Kobe Steel at 1350 (on Sep 21) and brought back at today’s prices a quick fire 53% return would be gained.

The important question is whether the regulator will investigate any potential foul play when looking at the video replay. I will be asking this question directly to the Financial Services Agency (FSA) as I have been invited the regulator to give a speech on ways to improve Japanese corporate governance in a few weeks time.

This won’t be just a beat up of Japan’s corporate governance as foreign corporates have made countless scandals post the introduction of Sarbanes Oxley in 2002.  However it will aim to be a realistic overview of tolerating what seems to be endless preventable insider trading scams with paltry penalties of $500 and a slap on the wrists with a feather duster.

Until serious punishments for flagrant market manipulation are thrust front and centre in front of bewildered and annoyed (foreign) investors, the cynicism will remain that Japan is not a safe place to invest. Remember insider trading is effectively fraud. Perhaps your pension fund owns Kobe Steel in a global portfolio meaning that some shady investor has stolen your retirement to feather his or her nest.

Perhaps I should thank Kobe Steel for getting dirty in the ruck area to help the final presentation draft.

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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.

When the “best” of today is far worse than the worst of the worst in 70 years

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The St Louis Fed records that in the last 70 years, the average time one is in a state of unemployment (i.e. duration) in America is now 25 weeks (6 months). Assuming that we are in the sweet spot of a tight labour market we can see clearly that this  post-GFC ‘recovery’ at its best is 25% worse than the worst we have seen over seven decades of post recession recoveries which has barely nudged over 20 weeks. Looking at CEO Bullard’s remarks in a presentation back in April 2016, titled ‘Slow normalization or no normalization?’ that these are extraordinary times.

Sad reality when horrific massacres turn into gov’t approved product endorsements

Perhaps one of the sad side effects of the Las Vegas shooter was that his horrific actions have become a product endorsement for the very equipment which assisted in the maiming and killing of over 600 people. While there is a ban on the purchase of fully automatic weapons, companies like SlidfeFire and BumpFire Systems have been getting around the problem with what is known as a ‘bump stock’ with the blessing of the ATF which declare these devices as legal in large part because they “[have] no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and [perform] no automatic function when installed.”.

Essentially the bump stock uses the recoil of the weapon to bump the shooters fixed finger which in effect bounces on and off the  trigger imitating a fully automatic rifle. Apparently sales of bump stocks are flying off the shelves since the LV attack. The SlideFire company has a video on its innovation.  With prices between $100 & $300 it is also exceptionally affordable. So government approved and 800 rounds a minute capability. Don’t take my word for it – in BumpFire Systems PR blurb, “Did you know that you can do simulated full-auto firing and it is absolutely legal? Bump Fire Systems is here to introduce you to Bump Fire Stock, that allows you to recreate the feeling of automatic firing.”

As much as the world looks in horror at the gun legislation in America it is still the ‘law’ of the land. As mentioned earlier with nearly 1 gun in circulation per citizen versus 1 for every 33 citizens in Australia at the point of the gun ban, a country wide buy back in the US would cost around $300bn. Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that guns will be banned.

Take me out to (just) the ball game

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Isn’t the sole reason to buy tickets to a ball game is so that you can relax and forget about stresses at work or home? It is a distraction. Family time. A way to unwind. Paying to see elite athletes do what they do best. What fans don’t pay to see is a game which is dressed in politics. Once again the President has smacked more people eager to disrespect the nation. While hardly presidential, he none-the-less made a very good point – “fire those sons of bitches” referring to those grossly overpaid players who make political gestures such as taking a knee when the national anthem is being played. When this whole ‘kneeling’ malarkey kicked off, NFL ratings have been on a slide and the 2017 start has showed a shocking 24% (FOX) and 15% (CBS) drop in the Prime 18-49 viewership stats.

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Now the facts are simple. 30 of the 32 NFL teams are owned by whites. The other two by Americans of Asian decent. The idea that Colin Kaepernick was fired because of racism is plain dumb. 70% of the players in the NFL are black. These players are paid huge salaries  and to all intents and purposes are employees of the club. Therefore the boss contracts players to behave in ways that not only win ballgames but respect their customers (i.e. fans) who ultimately fund their salaries. Kaepernick was on $12mn per year. Hardly skimping by because of his supposedly racist bosses. Yet in his quest to protest police brutality he decided to shove his politics into fans’ faces. While they just wish to enjoy a game he wants to sour the experience.

Ah yes, he has a right to free speech. Indeed he does. However when he is on the ‘company clock’ he is still required to follow the boss’ instructions. That is part of the contract of employer/employee. In a sense what Kaepernick was doing was dissent. If he wants to protest such matters why doesn’t he do it off the field. In fact his actions have spawned copycats in kid’s sports. What values are we teaching these kids? Instead of looking at ways to sensibly heal rifts, coaches are trying to brainwash innocent kids to doing their protests for them.

The AFL is also guilty of this political posturing over same sex marriage (SSM). The AFL has not been the poster child for best in class ethics (e.g. bosses having affairs with junior female staff) yet feel they should put “yes” on the footballs and their HQ logo. All fans want to do is watch the game and escape all the ills in society. They don’t pay to have it served up to them. It doesn’t matter if these fans support SSM it’s a question of why are corporates or sports teams campaigning on what consenting adults do behind closed doors. It is irrelevant.

The argument we often hear is that corporations should use their profiles to promote social issues. Corporations are nothing but buildings with desks, chairs some pot plants and desktop PCs. They aren’t people. Sure people work inside them but to think that “the corporation speaks for us” is nonsense. In most cases it’s a small committee forcing their sense of political will on staff about how they should behave. Sure basic standards in the office are fair but since when did political views, gender or sexual orientation become such a fertile ground for companies to push on staff. Surely the only true goal of the staff is to work as a team to produce results efficiently in the interests of their customers. Not seek to rebrand their logos and shopfronts to promote political causes.

If companies feel so strong about such issues perhaps they should chisel those principles under the other core goals respelendent in the office foyer. Yet it is different. Corporates are becoming so scared of lawsuits and reputational damage that they embark on social crusades to chalk up a track record to deny they discriminate in the workplace hence all these social targets. So while some staff see the corporate actions as virtuous many don’t realize the public point scoring element to the cheerleading

Ultimately consumers have choices. When it comes to sport people want to relax and enjoy the game, not absorb political posturing. When it comes to drinking coffee they don’t want Starbucks explaining their rationale as to why the removal of Christmas cups was done.

Here is an idea. If the NFL or AFL IR anymother business for that matter wish to push political causes offer fans/customers a choice. Half price tickets/services/goods with a political pamphlet handed out or a full priced ticket/service/good with none. That way the fan/customer can choose. I’d only suggest to put a recycling bin right by the ticket booth/register so you can see how many fans/customers  actually care what you have to say on political matters! You’ll soon realize the majority don’t care and your revenues will have halved. Best stop the politics and charge full prices.