#corporategovernance

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.

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.

Corporate Governance in Japan & our talks with the FSA & JPX on changes for 2017

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2017 Report

In our report of August 2015 it was made clear that “NO corporate governance code is perfect.” However, the emphasis was that corporates needed to focus on the quality of independent directors rather than submit to a quantitative box ticking exercise when it came to complying with the new corporate governance code (The Code). While the Tokyo Stock Exchange (JPX) can be rightfully pleased with the progress of compliance by listed entities, when looking through the data, there appears a concerted effort by corporates to employ independent directors with a bent on not upsetting the status quo. That would appear at odds with the spirit of The Code.

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We made clear that the introduction of the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX) and other corporate governance codes – which pushed for more independence on boards to ensure fiduciary duty to shareholders – did not prevent investor losses hitting all-time records. Good corporate governance is about building a culture of trust (both inside and outside the boardroom). We have been fortunate to spend ample time with the Financial Services Agency (FSA) and JPX discussing the potential revisions to The Code. We have put forward three suggestions to increase transparency and achieve the slated goals of the document:

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One, we have always suggested that the quality of independent directors is imperative. Forget SOX as a prerequisite. A well-managed company should never feel threatened by the number of independent directors challenging consensus in the boardroom. Good governance is being open to constructive criticism. If a company has lacked strategic direction for years, a fresh perspective from independent minds is invaluable. Our greatest criticism gleaned from the published data is the high concentration of the three A’s (attorneys, accountants and academics) as independent directors which is more acute the smaller the company. Diversity (of opinion) on boards is imperative but the figures suggest a group think mentality (Kintaro-ame) approach skewed to such a narrow field of professions limits innovation as no two companies are alike. How do authorities change it?

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Simply, secondly, and more importantly we think that companies need to introduce proper incentive structures for executives. Our studies show that companies tend to perform better when board members (insiders) have a higher proportion of their remuneration linked to stock performance. Stock incentives, especially in larger corporations, are often a minuscule part of total compensation for leaders. So much so that there is little incentive to focus on chasing real returns through more aggressive strategy. Fix this and independent director selection will be more serious.

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Third and finally, we think that the authorities should encourage corporates to adopt English language financial materials. A growing number are but the pace is slow. By doing so would invite more eyes from investors in markets where shareholder returns are prioritised. This would create an environment that would encourage Japanese corporates to unlock shareholder value. The JPX would accrue large upside. Not only would it gain more status as a proper global exchange, it would invite higher activity which would improve liquidity which is a virtuous circle for a financial exchange.

In short, Japan remains by and large a masterclass in risk avoidance. Until company executives have performance linked remuneration structures we believe independent directors will do little to help drive shareholder returns. Kintaro-ame independent director selection is not the way forward. By prioritising the linkage of remuneration, driven by higher disclosure via English language we think the ultimate aims of The Code can be achieved and the soft corporate governance approaches we have seen to date with the failures of Toshiba, Sharp and Olympus can be consigned to history.

2017 Full report

Fujitsu shows its low quality corporate governance by docking the CEO’s pay 30% for 3 mths for bid rigging

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My (relatively positive) update on corporate governance in Japan will be out tomorrow but how on God’s earth can Fujitsu think docking the CEO and Chairman 30% of their salary for 3 months is an appropriate remedial action for consistent bid rigging? 5 other directors will take a 10-20% haircut for 3 months too. Did the independent directors think this was appropriate?

Fujitsu, along with NEC and Oi Electric, announced that it had repeatedly been involved in bid-rigging with TEPCO in July last year and on the delivery of communication equipment for Chubu Electric Power Co., Ltd this February.

Whether the CEO and Chairman were complicit is not the point. They’d show investors a far cleaner set of heels to sack those involved in nefarious activity as a show of proper corporate governance. I very much doubt a 10-30% cut in salary for 3 months will affect those on the board. Perhaps cutting the use of the Toyota Century company car for 3 months might have been more of a deterrent. A CEO of a multinational Japanese tech company forced to ride the subway – the shame of it!

Toshiba, NEC, Panasonic & Sharp lost a combined ¥1.9tn over the last 25 years

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I am putting together a piece on corporate governance in Japan and stumbled over some interesting charts. The one above shows the aggregate net income of Intel and 20 of Japan’s tech juggernauts over 25 years. Sadly, Intel on its own made 41% more net income (currency adjusted) than all of the Japanese 20 combined. Toshiba, NEC, Panasonic & Sharp lost a combined ¥1.9tn ($18bn) over the last 25 years.

I’ve been speaking to the Financial Services Agency (FSA) about how to improve corporate governance as they look to tweak the code.

Is it any surprise that companies tend to perform better when board members (insiders) have a higher proportion of their remuneration linked to stock performance? Shareholders have traditionally been well down the list of priorities of Japanese companies, much to the chagrin of foreign investors. Stock incentives, especially in larger corporations, are often a minuscule part of total compensation for leaders. So much so that there is little incentive to focus on chasing real returns through more aggressive strategy. Many leaders in Japan would prefer to see out their tenure as CEO without blemish or scandal to avoid the risk of failure and the shame it would inevitably bring.

In hindsight looking at Sharp’s (6753) desperate long term need for crisis management could we have honestly expected any substantial restructuring when the CEO had $33,000 in stock despite being at the company 36 years? Had Sharp’s board held more skin in the game they might have defended shareholders much better against Terry Gou’s constant renegotiations. Perhaps if Sharp had learnt from Carlos Ghosn style performance based compensation structures, they might have been able to defend their turf from Gou. As it stands now Sharp were mere whipping boys of Hon Hai.

When I looked at insider (executive) ownership of Japanese corporations over 10yrs mapped against total returns, surprise surprise, there was strong correlation.

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More to follow but there is actually a lot of longer term hope here. Japan licks the world in most areas of technology. If they managed to connect those dots to shareholder returns then this market would re-rate substantially. Looks as though a growing number of corporations are working more performance linked pay.

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I think that the authorities should encourage corporates to adopt English language financial materials. By doing so would invite more eyes from investors in markets where shareholder returns are prioritised. This would create an environment that would encourage Japanese corporates to unlock more value.

The JPX would accrue large upside. Not only would it gain more status as a proper global exchange, it would invite higher activity which would improve liquidity which is a virtuous circle for a financial exchange.  This is the number of Japanese corporates where CEO/Chairman engagement with foreign shareholders -a little over  10% of listed entities.

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So some interesting trends and maybe something to look forward to if Japan accelerates the pace of corporate governance application. They can start by hiring fewer lawyers, accountants and academics as independent directors too!

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