War

Mason Crane – perhaps the brightest spot in a bleak Ashes tour

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CM was fortunate enough to hear the tale of cricket player Mason Crane via his parents Nick and Alison at the 5th Ashes Test in Sydney where Mason played his first ever game for England.

His parents said they had never been a cricket family but their only son Mason fell in love with the game in the 2005 Ashes series. At only 8yo he idolized Australian legendary leg spinner Shane Warne. They said he used to watch DVDs of Warne’s bowling action every morning while eating breakfast and told them “I’m going to play for England”. He stayed focused on his career until he got his chance this weekend.

On Day 3 when he got to bowl a proper spell his parents were understandably nervous. CM said that would vanish once he took a wicket. Indeed test cricket is as much a mental game as it is physical and given on Day 4 he bowled in 40 degree heat the test was even more severe.

As emotions go, he got the wicket of Khawaja for 171. While he ended up with figures of 1-193 from almost 50 overs, Mason revealed proper grit, something lacking in many of his teammates this series

After meeting with Nick and Alison today the relief on their faces was self-evident. Truly proud parents. CM said for them to enjoy the anonymity for now because before they know it the media will be calling for his story. There can be no doubt that he will be a player the English side would be stupid to ignore for a future as a full-time spin bowler.

The press is saying the English team management will do a huge post mortem on the disastrous 4-0 drubbing by the Aussies. While negatives are everywhere, Mason was probably the only real “positive takeaway.”

One can never find the answer by merely looking at the problems but focusing on the solutions. Mason Crane looks to be that solution in years to come. Good teams unite in adversity. Finger pointing and wailing over who is to blame doesn’t help. Acknowledging failure and embracing sensible strategy will win out every time.

Best of luck Mason!!

Punching Pakistan – money talks but money walks too

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$33bn in 15 years.  Trump has openly called to end support for Pakistan. Money talks but money walks too. As a defence analyst at the turn of the century it was interesting to see how the open acknowledgement of support was received by Pakistan. One of the best bets in emerging markets is to back the horse backed by the US. The Karachi main stock  index soared after George W Bush began to pour aid into the country.

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It was a gullible experiment. It was no surprise to any defence chiefs that the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) was a fervent sponsor of Al Qaeda, LeT and Taliban terrorism for decades. Search many a cartoon on the ISI and it will have whatever Prime Minister (at the time Musharraf) on a puppet hand. The cartoons even showed Obama being stabbed in the back. Indeed one could argue that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a gift from the ISI because the world’s most wanted man was of no use to it any more. These aren’t mere coincidences.

So it is rather ironic that Trump’s calling out of what has been a glaring miscalculation for almost two decades was already being priced in the markets when Trump won the election. The Pakistani government cannot be the least bit surprised by the president’s move.

We need look no further than the Indian government now holding hands with the US. A long term arms trader with Russia has now been replaced by the Americans. As China has been cozying up with Pakistan (the funding of the Karakoram Highway (aka the China- Pakistan Peace Highway makes a good example)) the US has done nothing to thwart the glaring problem that has faced them for years until now.

After almost a decade of appeasement, it is refreshing to see leadership that doesn’t mince words on making countries make true their loyalty commitments in public. Pakistan made true on the satire behind the cartoons about the ISI.

We can live in a bubble and deny the bleeding obvious in front of us or have a commitment to draw proper red lines that rogues get clear messages that overstepping will see consequences.

2018 – no more space for multiple ‘elephants’ in the room

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The Contrarian Marketplace wishes everyone a Happy New Year and prosperous 2018.

As oft the case people are busy making new year’s resolutions. CM mission doesn’t change. It aims to further energize the spirit of enquiry. To be the maverick voice that will not be silenced. We live in a world where we need to become comfortable being uncomfortable. We can no longer hide behind group think Because we feel it is dangerous to challenge consensus views. CM won’t buckle to identity politics, victimhood or social justice.

However that will never exclude us from criticism and we welcome feedback to improve the offering. We will not take The Guardian approach of refusing to acknowledge the content might be the problem when appealing for readers to ‘donate’. CM is self funded. It will remain so because it never wishes to be beholden to others to peddle tailored messages to keep the lights on.  If CM doesn’t survive on its own merits then it dies through market forces.

In 2017, Brandon Tatum showed what impact a Tucson, Arizona police officer can have on today’s media. His videos have gone viral (50mn+ views) on topics from the NFL, BLM to anti-Trump protests. He is now working for the Conservative Tribune such has been his impact. He speaks in cold hard truths. One doesn’t have to agree with what he says but he makes compelling arguments. No accolades from the journalist associations to self congratulate. As we used to say at high school sports competitions- “look at the scoreboard.”

CM started two years ago to challenge conventional thinking on all manner of topics.  It was born out of a growing realization that the mainstream media on both sides of the fence was too biased. Investigative journalism has all but disappeared, replaced with clickbait headlines and little more than biased piffle for what can only loosely be described as content. It seems that journalists are paid on the number of shares or likes rather than the quality of input.  As Ariana Huffington once said, “I’ve long said that those of us in the media have provided too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies.”

2017 has been a continuation of the ridiculous pandering to political correctness and our lawmakers seem even more determined to avoid censure from social media, somehow thinking it speaks for the majority. Gender neutral toilets, removing statues and same-sex marriage take priority to the oncoming fiscal/monetary train wreck and a fracturing geopolitical landscape. It is almost as if our elected leaders have the blinkers on.

2018 is shaping up to be one that our political class is ill prepared for. Out of one’s depth is not a harsh enough criticism. Too many governments (including conservatives) are running up the national credit card trying to bribe bewildered constituents into tolerating more of their nonsense. However at some point, appeasement will not work because government’s can’t economically afford it.

Silent voices are increasingly pushing back. Traditional parties are seeing their constituents abandoning them. Australia’s conservative Liberal Party is Exhibit A. It is no longer a party true to its core. After the Turnbull coup it has taken its constituents for mugs but they have left in droves. While the Libs champion superior leadership, how is it One Nation has taken a huge bite out of it’s support base? It doesn’t add up and its this sense of denial that guarantees they’ll be destroyed at the next election.

Look at the growth in nationalist parties in Austria, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and even America. While they may not have outright majorities in every case the reality is that all of these parties surged in the most recent elections. Mainstream parties can mark it down as a one-off or ‘they’ll be back’ mentality but this time is different. Take Trump. His GOP hate him almost as much as the Democrats. While the mainstream media ties itself into knots over the relevance of well done steak and tomato ketchup to running a country or the fact he paid millions in tax, his brand of political incorrectness is refreshing.

Sure his words are vulgar at times and Obama knocks the sports off him for eloquence or as a nice guy but we are in a world of ruthless people. The geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing. The last US administration allowed a free-for-all for nations such as China and Russia to roam free on the global landscape. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Syria and Iran or China building man made military bases in contested Asia-Pac waters have filled a vacuum vacated by the US. We should be glad that we have a Trump who is putting his foot down that things have changed.

While Trump’s use of ‘Rocketman’ to describe North Korea’s leader may seem juvenile, China hasn’t fully worked him out. They stroked his ego by allowing him to be the first President to dine in the Forbidden City after his rhetoric saying that if they don’t deal with Kim he will. The resumption of Chinese oil trading with North Korea in full defiance of UN sanctions tells two things. China thinks the UN is a waste of space and it is testing Trump’s resolve to carry out his threats to take care of business with minor provocations. China’s military is nowhere a match for the US so this could backfire badly if they miscalculate. This will escalate again in 2018.

Don’t rule out India’s growing frustrations with China. China’s built a naval port in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota. Recently the Maldives signed a FTA with China which should be ringing alarm bells in Delhi. For the last decade, China has been strengthening its armed (ground and air) forces to India’s north too, including the funding of the upgrade of the 1300km construction of the Karakoram Highway (aka China-Pakistan Friendship Highway). It is no surprise that Russia has been replaced by the US and UK as preferred arms suppliers to India.

As written several days ago, the Middle East seems to be an unstable powder keg. The way the stars are aligning with respects to the death of the former Yemeni President Saleh, the cleaning of the House of Saud, the repudiation of Qatar by the Gulf states and ructions in Iran point to something larger to kick off. Do not be surprised to see Israel and Hezbollah clash again in 2018. It won’t be an Arab Spring. Afterall this is more a shift toward a more direct clash between Sunni and Shia, not just played through proxy wars in Yemen, Syria or Lebanon. One can’t sink Saudi and Emirati naval vessels off Yemen’s coast with Iranian Revolutionary Guard support indefinitely.

These geopolitical problems will only put pressure on global markets which are already overstretched asset bubbles in almost every form – equities, bonds and housing. The realisation that unfunded pensions are likely to wipe out the retirements plans of millions causing even more pressure on economic growth. There is no escaping the fact that the can has been kicked down the road for too long. Whether 2018 is the precise year it unfolds is still a moot point but we are moving ever closer to the impending financial collapse which will be uglier than 1929.

Central banks have no plausible ammunition left to play with. Bloated balance sheets filled with mislabeled toxic assets (liabilities). Record low interest rates offer next to no policy flexibility and tapped out consumers face oblivion if asset prices keel over. A systemic banking collapse is absolutely plausible. No amount of QE will work this time.

Yes, it would be nice to see 2018 trump 2017 for good news (it wouldn’t be hard) but sadly the punch bowl at the party is empty and the hangover won’t be pleasant. No amount of painkillers will let one avoid a throbbing headache which will last a very long time.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Regime overthrow in Iran? Don’t get too excited (yet)

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The US State Department seems to be openly welcoming the outbreak of spontaneous demonstrations in Iran selling it as the early steps of regime change. In fact it is more likely to help President Rouhani force economic changes he has been prevented from making due to deep seated corruption within the regime itself. Rouhani has tried to make economic changes for years to boost the economy but the regime has kept monopoly power over multiple industries which has impeded his ability to do it.

The Iranian banking system holds 10s of billions of dollars in non-performing loans which is weighing down the economy and undermining the potential for private-sector-led recovery. Given the increasing vulnerability of Iran’s financial system, the government urgently needs to restructure and recapitalize the banks. Iranian banks were weakened by a sluggish economy caused by the sanctions, state interference in lending decisions and lax regulations causing excessive competition with unlicensed financial institutions.

The country’s recovery could well slow since Trump has raised the possibility that sanctions could be reimposed or new sanctions introduced. It should come as no surprise that this has deterred many banks and other foreign companies from operating in Iran.

The Iranian government directly owns and operates hundreds of state-owned enterprises (SoE) and indirectly controls many companies in the private sector. Inflation (9%), price controls (e.g. milk, energy) designed to tame it and rising unemployment (12.4%) are really behind the protests than a direct call to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Still don’t rule out the US State Department rubbing its hands with glee to try to throw a spanner in the works. Easier done by crushing its economy by redeploying sanctions given the financial system is in such a precarious position.

We shouldn’t ignore the timing of the assasination of former Yemeni President Saleh in the last month. His death now gives Saudi Arabia more will to take heavier action against the Iran backed Houthi in Yemen. Now that Saudi Arabia has recently cleaned house with the arrests of royal family members to tighten the inner circle, it almost seems the stars are aligning for the ante to be upped on Iran.

While much has escaped the mainstream media, at the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait separating Yemen and Djibouti/Eritrea, 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. Cargo ships (10% of global trade) make their way up the Red Sea via the Bab al-Mandeb Strait to the Suez Canal, could suffer if tensions rise here.

While many are distracted by the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem as an unnecessary ‘in-the-face’ action, most Gulf States want Israel on their side to help them defend against and ultimately defeat Iran. It is only 7 months ago that the Saudis pushed to expel Qatar from the GCC for keeping cosy relations with Iran and supporting Hamas and the Houthi in Yemen. The South Pars/North Dome Gas Condensate field – the world’s largest natural gas field –  is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar which means divided loyalties between the GCC and Tehran.

Get ready for lots of fake news. Something tells CM that there is something more sinister at play.

Trust in Japan? Strangled by sontaku 忖度

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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.

This can’t wait

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John Mauldin has written an informative piece entitled “this can’t wait” which sums up a lot of pieces I’ve written on the sickening state of public pension unfunded liabilities and the debt super cycle that is facing us. While Mauldin is trying to sell his investment services on the back of this, I wasn’t when I wrote mine. Public service announcement? Maybe but the stats of the black holes we face in pensions and central bank QE which has failed to boost money velocity will bite. Hard. There will be no “I told you so” glory because almost everyone will lose big.

Even if people want to criticize me for being a perma-bear there is no harm in being aware of what is likely coming.