Shareholders

Tesla – zero emissions and zero registrations

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An eagle eyed reader spotted this article in the South China Morning Post today showing that private EV registrations in Hong Kong fell to ZERO in April 2017 from 2,964 in March. The SCMP noted; “Since the April 1 introduction of the first registration tax on EVs, vehicle prices have shot up by 50 to 80 per cent, depending on the model, with tax relief now capped at HK$97,500. A Tesla S was HK$570,000 (under the new tax regime, the price is more than HK$900,000)…the domination of Tesla means zero-emissions motoring in Hong Kong has been largely an elitist activity.” HK is 6% of Tesla’s global volume yet the share price is pricing in blue sky.

Yet more evidence that Tesla product can’t stand on its own without massive subsidies. In previous Tesla dispatches the argument has been the car is an ostentatious fashion accessory to show the world one’s commitment to climate change but only if the price is right.

Tesla – when the plug is pulled on subsidies

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It seems that the removal of generous electric vehicle (EV) subsidies in Denmark shows the true colours of those willing to buy a car in order to signal their willingness to save the planet. While Musk has been one of the most effective rent seekers around, it seems that if consumers aren’t given massive tax breaks they aren’t as committed to ostentatious gestures of climate abatement. In Q1 2017 alone it seems that Danish sales of EVs plummeted 60%YoY. In 2015 Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen announced the gradual phasing out of subsidies on electric cars, citing government austerity and evening up the market. Tesla’s sales fell from 2,738 units in 2015 to just 176 in 2016. The irony of the Tesla is that it is priced in luxury car territory meaning that taxes from the less fortunate end up subsidizing the wealthy who can afford it!

Naturally if internal combustion engines (which by the way are becoming more efficient by the years as new standards are introduced) are taxed the same as EVs then it is clear they’d sell many more. Do not be fooled – car makers have not heavily committed to EVs for a very good reason – brand DNA. That is why we see so many ‘hybrids’ which allows the benefits of battery power linked to the drivetrain, which outside of design is the biggest differentiator between brands.

While many automakers missed the luxury EV bus, Tesla has opened their eyes. The three things the major auto makers possess which Tesla doesn’t are

1) Production skill – much of the battle is won on efficiency grounds. Companies like Toyota have had decades to perfect production efficiency and have coined almost every manufacturing technique used today – Just in Time, kanban and kaizen to name three.

2) Distribution – the existing automakers have been well ahead of the curve when it comes to sales points. Of course some argue that there is no real need for dealers anymore, although recalls, services (consumables such as brakes) and showrooms are none-the-less a necessity.

3) Technology – The idea that incumbent auto makers have not been investing in EV is ridiculous. Recall Toyota took a sizable stake in Tesla many years ago. Presumably the Toyota tech boffins were sent in to evaluate the technology at Tesla and returned with a prognosis negative. Toyota sold Tesla because the technology curve was too low. Toyota invests around $8bn in just hybrid technology alone per annum. Tesla spent $830mn last year as a group across all products. A ten fold budget on top of decades of investment in all available avenues of planet saving technology gives a substantial advantage.

Tesla is a wonderful tale of hope but it rings of all the hype that surrounded Ballard Power in fuel cells in the early 2000s. Ballard is worth 1% of its peak. As governments around the world address overbloated budgets, trimming incentives for EVs makes for easy savings. Now we have a good indicator one of the electric shock that happens when the plug is pulled on subsidies.

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Why Alan Joyce didn’t take one for the team

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While getting smacked in the face with a pie was uncalled for, the decision by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce to press charges against the perpetrator is over the top and actually harms the cause he chooses to enslave his own employees by. Had he chosen to laugh at it and make light of the situation he would have not only taken the moral high ground but showed he was above it. In the process show that those for it aren’t so brittle and fragile. Still Joyce couldn’t resist the opportunity to press charges when the only damage was done to his tailor’s heart! Jeremy Clarkson showed the right way how to deal with being pied. He could have turned it to a massive advantage which is now an own goal.

I’ve written before that I think his use of Qantas as a way to publicize marriage equality is dead wrong. One of his stunts was to get staff to wear ‘acceptance’ rings and distribute them to passengers as a way to promote it. I said it was wrong. I suppose were someone to politely decline to wear one they’d undoubtedly be branded homophobic, bigoted and summarily ostracized for such expressing such views. That they may indeed support gay marriage but not feel it important enough in their list of priorities (mortgages, job security, kid’s school, health etc) to do more. That is a conscious choice. Fail to wear the ring and perhaps your career takes a turn for the worse all because you don’t want to be forced to outwardly express your political views. Yet if you feel forced to wear one that makes you a slave.

Corporations should keep their political views to themselves. If Alan Joyce wants to go on a personally crusade to fight for the cause he can do it on his own time not on the shareholders clock. If CEOs feel so passionately about politics maybe they should come down from their multi-million dollar ivory towers and run for office for a fraction of the pay. Now that IS the best way to show you truly back the cause (of course assuming people would vote you into office).

Here I was thinking the Irish had a sense of hunour? In the case Mr Joyce you didn’t take one for the team! What a place he could have shown it – a speech on why leadership matters.

The McTurnbull Burger – 2017 budget that says ‘waistline be damned!’

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Remember the Big Mac jingo? “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles,  onions on a sesame seed bun?”  Well the 2017 budget From the Coalition might as well be called the super sized McTurnbull Burger. Two all thief parties, special porkies, levies, fees, spun on a $600bn dollar bomb. While the government needed to introduce a vegan budget of lentils, tofu and alfalfa to get the country’s nutrition properly sorted they’ve said waistline be damned. Morgan Spurlock couldn’t keep up with this super sized meal. As my wise sage Stu told me last week, “About as well-timed as Mining Super Profits tax – ding ding ding – top of the banking cycle just called by inept bureaucrats”

If people wanted a tax and spend party they’d have voted Labor. In a desperate attempt to supersize the meal they’ve made of the economy since Turnbull took office the debt ceiling will be raised. Wage growth has slowed for the past 5 years from 4% to under 2% according to the RBA. Throw higher Medicare on top why not?!. Cost of living is soaring. So let’s look at the extra calories they’ll inevitably load on the taxpayer.

1) Let’s tax the big 4 banks. That’ll work. What will they do as responsible shareholder owned organizations? Pass those costs straight on to the tapped out borrower where 1/3 mortgagees already under strain and 25% odd have less than a month of buffer savings. NAB already jacked interest only loans 50bps.

2) allowing retirees to park $300,000 tax free into super if they downsize their empty nest. Wow! So sell your $5mn waterfront property so you can park $300k tax free into superannuation. Can see those Mosmanites queue up to move to Punchbowl to retire. Hopefully the $1mn fibro former council shack the Punchbowl pensioner flips will mean they can move to a $500,000 demountable in Casula in order to free up the property market for the first home buyer who is getting stung with higher interest rates, .

3) Australia has a property bubble. The Reserve Bank has recently had an epiphany where they’re afraid to raise rates to crash the housing market and they can’t cut because they’ll fire it up more. Allowing creative superannuation deposit schemes (max $30,000 per person & $15k/year) to help with a deposit only doubles down on encouraging first home buyers to get levered up at the top of the market using a system designed to build a safety net for retirement. When governments start abusing sensible policies in ways it was never designed for then look out for trouble down the line. This doesn’t help first home buyers it just pushes up the hurdle to enter.

4) Australia’s credit rating is on the block. Australia’s main banks are 40% wholesale financed meaning they have to go out into the market unlike Japanese banks which are almost 100% funded by their depositors. Aussie banks could see a rise in their cost of funds which the RBA could do little to avoid. That will put a huge dent in the retail consumption figures.

5) speaking of credit cards. Have people noticed that average credit card limits have not budged in 7 years. If banks are confident in the ability of consumers to repay debt, they’d let out the limits to encourage them to splash out! Not so – see here for more details.

6) Infrastructure – I live in the land of big infrastructure. Jobs creation schemes which mostly never recover the costs – especially regional rail. The Sydney-Melbourne bullet train makes absolute sense. We only need look at the submarines to know that waste will be a reality.

7) small business – tax concessions of $20,000 not much to write home about. Small businesses thrive on a robust economy which is unlikely to occur given the backdrop. Once again this budget is based on rosy assumptions and you can bet your bottom dollar Australia won’t be back in surplus by 2021.

Some  media are talking of Turnbull & Morrison stealing the thunder of the Labor Party, providing a budget more akin to their platform. Sadly I disagree that this legitimizes Turnbull. It totally alienates his base, what is left of it. Tax the rich, give to the poor. Moreover voters see through the veneer. The stench of the Coalition is so on the nose that without ditching Turnbull they have no chance of keeping office. Labor is not much better and One Nation and other independents will hoover up disaffected voters by effectively letting the others dance around the petty identity political correctness nonsense.

In the end the McTurnbull Burger meal will look like the usual finished product which resembles nothing like the picture you see on the menu. A flattened combination of squished mush, soggy over-salted fries and a large Coke where the cup is 90% ice. Yep, the Coalition has spat between your buns too. This is a meal that won’t get voters queuing up for more. Well at least we know Turnbull remembers that smiles and selfies are free after all ‘he’s lovin’ it‘! After all virtue signaling is all that matters. All this to arrest some shoddy poll numbers which will unlikely last more than one week.

Why don’t firms hire staff like they’d choose a heart surgeon?

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How many times have I heard over my career senior management talk incessantly about the need for new blood yet when it comes to doing anything about it with regards to new hires 99% of the time  the safe cookie cutter is favoured over the left field choice. It is ever more so the truth in the post GFC world. Managers seem afraid to take calculated risks because the left-field candidate may jeopardize their own positions if he/she fails.

As an example managers in finance often fall foul of hiring exclusively within the industry. The level of inferiority complex can be so overwhelming that they fawn at the idea a Goldman Sachs employee will work for them for some ridiculous sum. Invariably they forget that Goldman hires duds too and usually those that get cast off are in that bucket. If you are properly good, there is no incentive to leave Goldman as the salaries, opportunities and product capabilities are too wonderful vs peers.

Yet many financial firms set upon trying to change the firm into a wannabe Goldman Sachs. They forget that their clients can already deal with Goldman directly should they feel the urge. Why on earth would they choose to deal with a wannabe copy? Surely each firm has a unique selling property that is of value to clients. Why not invest and promote that rather than overlook the talent within. Who honestly values flattery? Besides, there are so many cautionary tales with hiring ex-bulge bracket employees who are so used to being spoon fed every possible product line that they struggle immensely when they are required to actually put elbow grease into the job. It is uncanny.

Some firms occasionally hire from outside the industry with huge success. Instead of financial analysts pontificating about a stock, someone who has worked within the industry has a far better feel for cycles, internal decision processes and strategy that formulates under different points in the cycle. Clients glean that value. They couldn’t care less about the stock target or valuation metrics because that ultimately is the investor’s job. Besides the history of brokers behind the curve is etched in stone. Unique context and perspective trumps commoditization every time.

Some financial (and other) professionals have such checkered histories that one wonders how on earth they get rehired. If companies viewed their hiring decisions as akin to selecting a heart surgeon for a life threatening operation, many of these people would never make the cut (no pun intended) given the body count from previous poor execution. Yet many firms continue to put quacks in their ‘surgeries’ with expected disastrous results. Generally hiring managers run interference on these bad choices to cover their own mistakes.

Many HR surveys (including Harvard) show that bad hires end up costing way more than the salary when the cost of onboarding is included. Not only do companies potentially have to foot the cost of a headhunter (25-30% of salary is a standard fee) , what follows is poorer output, the potential for incumbent employees to become disgruntled at the new hire’s lack of ability and most worryingly an increase in dissatisfied customers. If they land a toxic employee that can damage team productivity to such an extent the best performers will seek challenges elsewhere.

So in a world that is getting harder and harder to succeed in, on what basis does conventional thinking bring anything to the table but more of the same? What does hiring a competitor do other than bring similar tactics? In fact, the more telling question is if they were knocking the lights out their success would permeate within their current employer. Unseating happy employees requires dynamite way over and above what they can probably afford.  What hirers often forget is the extent to which internal human capital plays a part. How awful does one’s human capital creation have to be to consider jumping ship?

That is where the left field choice comes into its own when hiring. A person genuinely looking for career change may well be doing it because they’ve tired of several decades of the same industry. They’ll likely come full of fresh ideas, out of the box solutions and lessons from a completely different background with the passion of a new graduate.

Many companies fail to adapt because the stupid questions don’t get asked by the incumbent staff for fear of ridicule. Yet someone eager to learn may ask the most basic of questions and ask “does it work?” One company I consult had a new boss join from HQ and he questioned why staff had meetings on such trivial matters? One staff member said “we’ve been doing it for 15 years!” When the boss said “does it work?” all replied ‘not really”. Yet they offered little in the way of proposals to change what was broken.

In a sense I see many businesses that operate in status quo mode where change if ever happens on a trivial or traumatic basis not through consistent due diligence and proactive leadership.

Think of it like asking an elderly person “if you had one more day to live what would you do?” “Well I’d play golf, take my wife to an expensive dinner and drive a Ferrari” If you asked Athenia”why don’t you do it now” the response would be “well I’m not dead yet!”

Look at the successful businesses around the world today and invariably the corporate culture is likely to be open and flexible. Bosses are prepared to hire people more qualified than them because they want to learn. Show me a company where inferior staff are hired to protect a manager and I’ll show you a dud business.

Which then goes back to the most important ingredient in a tech savvy smartphone world. Analog relationships. Look at the latest recruitment sites which ask candidates to fill in fields where a computer will sift through algorithms to screen. These systems remove the most important skill in selecting good candidates – gut feel. A good recruiter can understand a client’s needs far better than a computer. Besides if a computer is searching for terms fixated on what you’ve done and not what you want to do it will screen you out every time. What a wasted opportunity!

Human nature is uncanny. Risk taking is inevitable but instead of most people becoming  victims of change only a mere few will end up being agents of it and there will be no second guessing who dares wins! So instead of screening for the textbook definition of identity based diversity how about focus on diversity of thought!

 

Not capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots

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I was fortunate enough to attend an LDP function last night where Deputy PM and Minister of Finance Taro Aso spoke. The audience was largely retirees in their 60s-80s in the Yokohama area who in part likely came for the hotel buffet. I was the only foreigner to attend among 1,000 guests. Aso truthfully described the difference between Japan and the West. Talking of how many foreign politicians can’t understand how Japan can have so many vending machines because in their countries they’d be vandalized  for their cash. Aso’s bigger point was made around deflation and how Japan is coping far better than most of the West, especially the EU. While there is a sense of celebrating an own goal, the biggest mistake made by the West in its analysis of the ‘lost two decades’ in Japan has been its unique society. Only in Japan could a population withstand two decades of hardship. Shared grief.

In the West, when it all goes to the dogs people will run as far away from the implosion as they can. Moral hazard is the order of the day. Make someone else pay. I recall the tale of a friend who had bought a condo in a ski resort in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture for around $20,000 off a family who had paid $800,000 for it during the bubble. They religiously paid off the loan as a form of moral obligation. In Japan, bankruptcy is seen as failure. A bankruptcy record is hung around one’s neck forever. In America, bankruptcy is seen as a badge of honor in some circles for someone pursuing the American Dream and in the next credit cycle, financial institutions will forgive the infraction, albeit at a slightly higher risk premium.

The point Aso was making was on the money. Japan is different. It is a society based on values. While the West may frown on the Japanese taking on a 250% debt: GDP ratio to allow the air to slowly leak out of a balloon, the society demands it. Despite all of the studies I’ve read on financial resurrection from deflation in the West I can safely say ‘society’ is the seemingly most overlooked yet most relevant part of the equation. As the game of convenient lies mount up from the mouths of politicians, a growing number of people are realizing that failure to act will lead to unpleasant truths. Economic cycles can only be toyed with to a point until trust leaves the system. The Japanese are indeed the most capable people on the planet to embrace change. It may take a tragedy, shock or disaster to force true action but one can be rest assured the people will unite in common purpose while the West go out of their way to look after themselves at the expense of all others.

Japan is not capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots. With the coming global financial train wreck approaching Japan is the best place to be.

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Tesla recall – Tempting Extremely Serious Legal Action

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Exactly 1 year and 2 days ago I concluded that Tesla was tempting too much fate with its auto pilot function. I wrote along the lines that it’s Mario Kart type rainbow road auto pilot function was distracting so much so that owners were taking cellphone screenshots and videos while they were breaking the speed limit. Even worse Tesla CEO Elon Musk was encouraging its use and talking of its infallibility. I wondered whether his legal team had been consulted before he tweeted there were more such gimmicks on their way.

It now appears that Tesla has a 53,000 car recall on its hands and as predicted a class action lawsuit against it. While Tesla’s market cap may have exceeded the likes of Ford and GM it still doesn’t generate a profit. Car makers are the target of ambulance chasers. Toyota know a thing or two about that. How many traffic accidents in Toyota’s spiked after it was revealed they had a sticky accelerator when so few incidents occurred before.

Tesla’s autopilot has killed people who trusted it to save them. It so happens that the lawyers smell blood with a class action being launched as follows:

“The lawsuit, filed by law firm Hagens Berman on Wednesday in California’s Northern district court, said Tesla’s partial autopilot technology was advertised as safe and “stress-free,” but instead “is essentially unusable and demonstrably dangerous.”

“Unwittingly, buyers of the affected vehicles have become beta testers of half-baked software that renders Tesla vehicles dangerous if engaged,” the lawsuit says.”

Tesla cars with the Autopilot 2 features were first sold in October 2016. The first generation of the system was first unveiled in 2014. The Autopilot 2, or Enhanced Autopilot, feature costs consumers $5,000.

That is the problem with Tesla. It is a victim of its own self created bubble. It promises everything but delivers realities far removed from those dreams. Quality control is still an issue and the endless stream of subsidies has to  have an end date.

Tesla  is valued at 18x more than Mercedes Benz. Musk mentioned how he recently discovered how important production efficiency was. That is much of his battle. Even if he irons out his product glitches the incumbent makers have decades of experience in mass production, distribution and a swathe of new product lining up to challenge the space  Tesla has opened. Don’t forget Toyota sold its stake in Tesla. After  lifting the hood on its technology Toyota realized it was an empty shell. Let that sink in.