Blood seems thicker than water


18 months ago CM wrote on Theranos (which was set to rule the blood analysis world) saying its biggest problem was gaining trust – not of the company itself but the switching costs for medical professionals to use it. It turns out it was really about a lack of trust, not with doctors but investors. Theranos swindled $700m over three years from investors yet the punishment will be that its founder Elizabeth Holmes pays a $500,000 fine, return 18.9m shares and face a ban from public companies for 10 years after the SEC charged her with “massive” securities fraud. Why no jail? Allen Stanford received 110 years for his $7bn Ponzi scheme. Fraud is fraud. Shouldn’t 1/10th the fraud lead to 1/10th the jail time?  Enron’s former CEO Jeff Skilling was fined $45mn with the $11bn failure of the company. Seems like not all fraud was created equal in the eyes of the law.

That’s the retirement sorted then


I guess the brilliance of these scams is that the people who don’t respond can be eliminated and those that do can get gouged for what pittances they probably possess. How could one not fall for the impeccable qualities of Mrs Grace Innocent?

Truly sickening US Public Pensions data


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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Madoff wasn’t so long ago


It was just over 9 years ago that Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to a Ponzi scheme that cost investors over $65bn. While many happily point fingers at greedy banksters we tend to forget that despite Harry Markopolos, handing the SEC (the US regulator) the details of the case in 1999 on a platter it failed to act. His testimony points directly to the kind of problem that exists with government regulators – no track record in the fields they legislate. In the 9 years prior to Madoff pleading guilty, Markopolos caught him at the $6bn stage. The SEC after multiple investigations turned nothing even with a treasure map provided by Markopolos that someone with markets experience would have discovered in 30 minutes. Throw on all the other scandals (ratings agencies etc) that the SEC failed to capture and it cost taxpayers $700bn.

Willful negligence? I gave a speech at the Japanese financial regulator (FSA) on fraud and insider trading  at the time of the Kobe Steel data scandal. When presented with comparable data with other exchanges the blind eye is no less scandalous. So before hanging the financiers out to dry perhaps people ought to question the regulators whose incompetence and inaction is at fault. If you give a child a box of matches unsupervised then don’t be surprised if the whole house burns down.

Kobe Steel scandal may make Takata look like a picnic by comparison


Actually this could be so much worse than the Takata scandal. Kobe Steel’s data falsification on its products – especially to Subaru Corp – could raise the risk of insolvency of the former. Subaru is responsible for the MOST crucial part of the Boeing 787 – the centre wing box (CWB). While Boeing has assured us that there is no imminent safety risk, the question is one of determining the fatigue of the substandard materials supplied to Subaru by Kobe are part of the CWB. What many fail to realize is that commercial aircraft approval by the regulators makes getting drugs approved by the FDA as easy as shelling peanuts. Every time a plane is in the air it has to be as near as makes no difference 100% safe. Drugs that give you a side effect of drowsiness is not a big deal to the FDA. In fact for aircraft it gives “do not operate heavy machinery” a whole new meaning.

The CWB effectively is the piece that connects the wings to the body. It is without doubt the most important structural piece on the plane. Worse, it is perhaps the most difficult part to replace in terms of man hours. Effectively the plane would have to be broken apart and reassembled. The sheer logistics of this would also be mind boggling. The retrofit (if even feasible) would be a $20-30mn per job including the parts, labour and time out of service (compensation to airlines) and recertification. That’s per aircraft. So that would cost around $10-15bn.

The question then becomes of the 500 odd 787s in service what the FAA decides to do. Perhaps the planes’ useful 25 year life are reduced to 15 years. That would smack residual values and airlines would demand compensation for the gap and the potential for lost revenues. So were 500 aircraft to lose 40% of the serviceable life at $150mn a copy that is $75bn.

While this is worst case scenario analysis for Kobe Steel which would be liable for the lot, we are staring at the risk of a wipe out. Kobe Steel has $1.8bn in cash. Somehow it’s $8bn market cap may fall much further.

Hardly any of this is priced because the FAA doesn’t take things lightly until it has all the facts.

This article is not intended to be sensational rather highlight the potential for a huge weight from the US (not Japanese) regulator to push for a safety recall of epic proportions. We won’t know yet but buyer on dips beware.

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


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.


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.


Kobe ‘Steal’ – why this scandal could get much uglier


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.