#nissan

Will financial planners bring out a Naomi Osaka ETF?

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Japanese investors can get star-struck with investments. In 2015, popular pop-idol band AKB-48 saw the stocks of companies it was sponsored by surge 136% relative to the market. Aggregate sales of those companies surged 46% and 30% over the following two years. Such is the ‘hayari‘ (boom) culture in Japan. Corporates know this.

Since the US Open win by tennis star Naomi Osaka, sponsors are lining up to sign her. Prior to the win, Nissin Foods, WOWOW & Yonex were already sponsors. Nissan has just signed her. Since the win, the Topix has risen a tad over 6% while Nissan, Nissan & WOWOW have risen 7.5% in aggregate. Yonex has jumped 12.2% Early days to be sure, but the likelihood is that if she is sponsored by some smaller less liquid stock names these stocks could well fly.

Forget fancy models and esoteric investment strategies. Find whatever Osaka will be sponsored by in Japan and outperform through popularity over underlying earnings performance.

Any financial firm that launched a Naomi Osaka basket would likely see massive inflows and be able to charge higher fees on the back of it. Will the marketing departments wake up?

More love for Naomi Osaka

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20yo Naomi Osaka deserves every success she gets. She is without doubt the hottest marketing prospect globally. There is no media spin or polish with her on any level. She is authentic in the extreme. No prima donna antics or bragging. If anything her press conferences since returning have defined her as ‘what you see is what you get.’ Humility and grace. Pray we get more millennials like her. She shows one doesn’t have to beat their chest in ridiculous ways to get attention.

No wonder Adidas want to throw $11.9m per year to sponsor her. As a Nissan ambassador, despite her media appearance in front of the Leaf electric vehicle, when asked Naomi just let her inner petrol head scream her favorite car – the GT-R. Lucky for her she will get one in white.

The world of tennis couldn’t have a better ambassador for the game. Let’s hope that the media don’t pry too deeply into her private life (good luck with that) and her sports manager doesn’t put her on a multi-year roadshow from hell to please sponsors which would put any star to the test.

Is Musk losing it?

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Is Tesla CEO Elon Musk losing it? More senior resignations from accounting and HR this week  reveal more cracks in the automaker. He emailed a journalist, calling him a “mother f*cker”. He went further to say he hoped the cave rescuer he called a “”pedo” sued him because a UK man who is single and spent so much time in Thailand must be a child rapist.

He rattled off he had “secured” funding of $420/share to go private and then all of a sudden he didn’t, prompting the SEC to investigate. He was then on radio with comedian Joe Rogan toking what is reportedly a mixture of tobacco and marijuana. Are these the actions of a man running a $50bn market cap company?

Clearly his board can’t control him.  With the shares collapsing and bond prices falling, refinancing will become problematic. Chief  Accounting Officer Dave Morton quit the company after revealing his concerns about the various obstacles Tesla faces.

Tesla’s Chief People Officer, Gabrielle Toledano, took leave in August and said she wouldn’t be returning to Tesla.

Musk has been a genius and visionary to get Tesla where it is today. Yet he is a direct victim of his own hubris. Sleeping under boxes with Tesla bankrupt written on them to living on the factory roof to rattling off about production hell while accusing families of drivers dead due to over reliance in a system he aggressively promoted.Tesla was technically asking for suppliers to refund a portion of the monies they were paid since 2016 to the EV maker so it could post a profit which is borderline accounting manipulation in an attempt to give the impression of an ongoing concern.

He also complained at the lack of support in the media despite being called out on this nonsense.

Musk’s compensation is also linked to a $650bn market cap, which is effectively saying to the market that his company will be worth more than Daimler, BMW, VW, GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Renault, Fiat-Chrysler, Ferrari and Porsche combined. Just read that last sentence again. Do investors honestly believe that Tesla which consistently misses and is going up against companies that have been in the game for decades, seen brutal cycles, invest multiples more in technology and forgotten more than they remembered will somehow all become slaves to a company which has no technological advantages whatsoever?

The Tesla story is on the ropes. Expect more mega-releases on new products to try to keep the dream alive and the disciples faithful. I guess ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ worked for The Beatles…

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.

Tale of the gold coin chocolate & a warning for Tesla Disciples

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It hadn’t really hit until going back to read the conditions of Musk’s new executive compensation package but the first thing that struck me was the risk of the old adage of paying too much attention to the share price. The collection of all 12 tranches for CEO Elon Musk only kicks in when his company hits $650bn in market cap. The first thing to pop in the head was that of Japanese mobile phone retailer Hikari Tsushin back during the tech bubble. The rather eccentric CEO Yasumitsu Shigeta had gold coin chocolates made embossed with “Hikari Tsushin: Target Market Cap Y100 trillion.” One could only conclude he believed in his own BS.

It was at that moment where the only thing that crossed the mind was ‘this spells trouble’. There were magazines like Forbes touting how Shigeta was one of the richest men in the world and analysts fell hook, line and sinker for this unrealistic dream forecasting he’d be #1 before long. The only rational conclusion for the Contrarian Marketplace was to tell them that “bet he won’t be in the top 100 next year.”  Low and behold the tech bubble collapsed and Hikari Tsushin – that believed it was worth 2x the market cap of then highest valued corporation in the world, General Electric – fell over 95%.

While Musk may not yet have printed target market cap $650bn gold coin chocolates, what the incentives are saying to the market is that his company needs to be worth more than Daimler, BMW, VW, GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Renault, Fiat-Chrysler Ferrari and Porsche combined. Just read that last sentence again. Do investors honestly believe that Tesla which consistently misses and is going up against companies that have been in the game for decades, seen brutal cycles, invest multiples more in technology and forgotten more than they remembered will somehow all become slaves to a company which has no technological advantages whatsoever?

Once again, this compensation package screams of gold coin chocolates in mentality. Instead of running the business and letting the share price do the talking, the mindset is focused on launching convertibles into space and distracting investors from increasingly dreadful financial results which eventually must come full circle if the results continue to miss. Broader Tesla report here.

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.

Alitalia – what is it with airlines and government support?

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Last Friday Italy extended a bridge loan for Alitalia, which is in special administration as plans for it are determined by the state.  Italy’s cabinet has  passed an emergency decree to add a further 300 million euros on top of the 600 million euros it made to the ailing airline in May. It has extended the deadline for the repayment of the loan from November 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018.

Airlines are perhaps one of the worst industries as an investment one can find. High fixed costs, variable fuel prices, volatile economic cycles and intense competition. Yet with all of this, governments see them as national icons. Losing the flag carrier is viewed by some governments as a sign of economic impotence.

Several years ago, Japan Airlines went through a state-funded rehabilitation where the airline was able to overhaul its fleet while its legitimately profitable and unassisted competitor All Nippon Airways (ANA) got nothing. In the reverse poor old ANA was effectively taxed as its biggest rival got free kick after free kick from the government.

Qantas reported a $235 million loss in the last half of 2013 and cut 5000 employees to save the company $2 billion. The government was pressured to give state aid to prop up the airline but then PM Tony Abbott said, “because we do not want to be in the business of subsidising any single enterprise. It’s not sustainable in the long term”. So Qantas didn’t get help in 2014 and the airline has since rebounded and recently compensated its CEO Alan Joyce over $24mn as the shares have stormed 6x since the lows of 3 years ago. Most of the 5,000 let go have been recovered.

Which begs the question of state subsidies. When looking at Australia once again the state spent billions over decades to defend a bloated, inefficient and uncompetitive car industry. Nissan, Mitsubishi Motors, Toyota, GM Holden and Ford all closed local auto making opps. When businesses are subsidized, the necessity to reform is numbed. There is less need to get fit and look for efficiencies to get off the taxpayers’ teat. So even after 20 years and $12 billion spent to protect 45,000 jobs, all makers packed up and went home. Would have been better to write each worker a $250,000 cheque.

Of course some will argue that protecting jobs is a noble quest. Nobody likes seeing people unemployed. However if the rest of the world can make the same products cheaper and more efficiently why should consumers and taxpayers be forced to prop up those who won’t make the effort to reform.

Alitalia is yet another one of these businesses that is in the citizen’s pockets. If KLM and Air France can pair, Lufthansa and Swissair can join why shouldn’t Etihad back the initial investment it made in Italy’s national carrier. Another Loan is Time-warped, All Logic Is Abandoned.