Japan

85-yo shoe shiner endorses RM Williams

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85yo Kin-chan has been shining shoes at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo for over 50 years. He first started out in his trade polishing GI boots after the war in Fukuoka as an 18yo. He forgets how many pairs he’s polished but noticed my 18 year old  pair of RM Williams, the boots almost every Aussie has.  He says the quality of the leather is superior to pretty much every other shoe brand out there which is a pretty decent endorsement. No plans to retire. Talk about dedication to a job.

The repeated folly of the 外人 boss in Japan

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Several weeks back a foreign private equity firm asked what was CM’s opinion on gaijin (foreign) bosses in Japan. The answer was along the lines that an overwhelming majority end up failing for two main reasons:

1) failure to speak the language/understand the culture to a sufficient level and

2) thinking what has worked overseas will automatically apply in the domestic market.

Carlos Ghosn of Nissan-Renault fame could probably go down as one of the few that got it right. In his case Nissan was out of ideas, options and was prepared to listen to its new masters. Michael Woodford of Olympus fame was the other stand out gaijin CEO whose fate was cut short by a board coup after the Englishman uncovered massive fraud.

Sony under Sir Howard Stringer was different. Sony was not a cash strapped basket case on life support like Nissan was so the internal feudal structures could comfortably survive. The urgency to implement drastic change was not deemed an imperative. Stringer had no real command of culture or language and as such the machine below him functioned more or less as it wished. It is no surprise to see the man under Stringer is now the CEO and one can be sure almost all of the staff hitched their trailers to Hirai.

A chat with one of the Japanese dealers of a European auto marque last week highlighted the problems of gaijin bosses without sufficient cultural cut through. The company is struggling to compete with rivals who are simply leaving it for dust. The OEM has had 4 sales heads in the space of 2 years, For a country that prides itself on long term service, promotions based on tenure and stability, it was not a surprise to see the local staff keep their heads down. Why bother engaging with the new boss on what problems exist. Best stay silent. With any luck he’ll be gone and the next person will arrive and we can restart the game.

Yet these foreign bosses ask, “why don’t the local staff engage?” To the locals it is a simple matter of surviving til the next gaijin boss lands. Many gaijin bosses wonder why the Japanese staff spend a lot of time in glass rooms without them. They’re formulating the group responses which they think the boss wants to hear. Many seek to buy time. It is collective rationing on a life-raft.

The Japanese staff invariably prefer security over risk taking, So there is little incentive to be risk takers, even if some staff are bilingual. It isn’t a criticism but an acknowledgment that they don’t trust gaijin bosses. It isn’t even a reflection on the gaijin boss per se. Culture matters. If a gaijin boss can’t converse in a tongue that shows a commitment to understand cultural norms the likelihood of the message being conveyed (not withstanding another layer of translation) is almost pointless.

Another dealer mentioned that it has had the dealer margins recently slashed in favour of volumetric targets before bigger incentives kick in. While such strategies may excite the hungry salespeople outside Japan, the local sales teams here openly admitted the strategy change has had the opposite impact in terms of motivation. One sales member said, “dame, dame, dame!” (Dame = bad). He said it will more than likely mean that they push for selling cheap, low-end, low-margin product just to eat.

The irony is that if the OEM raised the initial margins for the dealers they would feel a margin of safety which would be seen as a way to sell even more bikes because they like the idea of predictability. The added pressure sedates not seduces. The dealer will likely struggle to the point of bankruptcy before trying radical maneuvers. The problem for the OEM is that reversing the strategy will create even less trust between dealer and OEM because it will highlight the lack of understanding. Gaijin strategies don’t apply.

The CEO of one American auto brand here has been crushing it for almost a decade. A gaijin with a mastery of language, culture and an understanding of the marketplace. In a decade, sales have quintupled and likely go up another 20% this year. Why? The dealer relationships are rock solid. They are treated as family. There is dialogue and communication and there is a shared sense of responsibility. If times get a little tight, the HQ makes accommodations so both end up in a win-win situation. In short – Trust!

The aforementioned European make effectively says that “you better make space for all the new cars coming your way next month” The dealers feel there is no relationship. The OEM seems totally dismissive of dealer issues. No matter how tough the market the OEM has no sense of loyalty to the dealers. That makes them feel uncomfortable about leveraging up or taking risk. They balk at buying too much stock because there is little to no flexibility.

Many gaijin CEOs need to know that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Yet too many foreign bosses come in with the mentality they can swing the locals to their way of thinking. Usually that learning process occurs after realizing that hiring natives who speak their language doesn’t necessarily buy the skills they thought would help ram home the strategies that have worked in other countries.

While all the efficiency, profitability and success metrics make sense from a shareholders perspective, the local staff want security, longevity and shared accountability. The gaijin bosses that try to force Western norms before addressing the concerns of staff will find that both parties will have less of both desired outcomes.

A wise fund manager once said about Japan – “it isn’t capitalism with warts, but communism with beauty spots!” The sooner gaijin bosses understand that they will benefit from the collective strengths of the land of the rising sun.

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

Sinto Beer

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On a business trip to Mie Predecture. This is the local lager. Japanese rarely do bad beer. This is a fruity type lager. Well worth a try. The other thing well worth a try is Amanemu Resort.

Butterfly Island

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38,000ft somewhere over the Pacific Ocean today.

Living life to the max (when he could)

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It is hard not to get a bit misty eyes reading my grandfather’s letters. I only wish I had done it earlier. From New Guinea he wrote about how much he grew to appreciate life. Then again he knew he, like his mates, could be offed at any moment. Lt Peterson wrote on 16 March 1943,

”Next time I go home – when God only knows – I will profit from previous mistakes of my previous leavein that this time I’m going to have a hell of a fling in case it’s my last! I have 108 pounds in my paybook and it will be none by the time I get home – I mean you can’t help but save in an operational area because there is nothing to buy, not even a stamp. Our tobacco is issued by the Comfort Fund. Our recreations  -nil. Except talk and letter writing and I pine for the bright lights and life and gaiety. – the flick, – children, -trams, – shops, a pot of beer, – electric light, – steak, fish and chips. I am going to by some civvy clothes this leave to get the feel of them again. We take life’s amenities for granted too much I think. At least the army has taught me to place a value on things I never gave a thought for…

…At the moment I’m in tip top condition. Lean as a rake as usual but feel extra well. I suppose its the air. Old Nippon is a bit quiet here at the moment- but I guess the big news will break shortly – you’ll know when and are we ready and rarin’ to go?…

…you have no idea how eagerly mail is looked forward to by the boys. As soon as it comes up the track the cry goes up, “Mail’s in!” And you get knocked down in the stampede…

…excuse me for a moment. I’m about to partake in half a huge succulent pawpaw with lemon all for nothing…like some? It was delicious indeed…

a lot of blokes to save razor blades are sporting mutton chops and side levers with waxed moustaches – it gives ‘em something to do. Crimes some of ‘em look funny…

…Sgt Wilcox is now telling me about his past girlfriends- all virgins of course-but it is going in one ear and out the other as I write. Capt “Doggy” Reid after having been staring into a hurricane lamp for the last past hour just made us laugh. Usually the quiet type, he hasn’t said a word since meal time, but just stood up and said , “Japanese Bastards!!”and went straight to bed. It sounded funny as hell. He has been daydreaming about his missus and leave – it’s a moral

tell Jim to lay in a stock of plonk and we’ll down it like nobody’s business!”

It would appear from reading all the other letters that the troops were feeling far more confident they’d win against the Japanese. This is perhaps his cheeriest letter with battle hardened experience behind him. It reads much like the pre battle stationing in Palestine. Truly powerful stuff.