Scandal

Scandal-less or Scandalous?

President Obama is often hailed by the left as having a blemish free record. No scandals. Good, clean and wholesome. However a CNN poll has revealed that,

69% think Congress ought to investigate the origins of the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including 76% of Democrats, 69% of independents and 62% of Republicans.

Should we be surprised that the American people want answers to the Steele dossier? The FISA court approval of the wiretap? Did Obama know? If so, when did he know it? Many are questioning the spying conducted on the Trump 2016 campaign.

How ironic that 2020 hopeful Joe Biden is not asking for an endorsement from Obama, his former bromance partner. Maybe he feels he will be tainted by an investigation which involves his old boss.

Netanyahu heads for 5th term

It looks as though Bibi Netanyahu is set to take a 5th term as Israel’s PM. Despite a gallant charge from the centre left’s Blue & White Party leader Benny Gantz, Netanyahu managed to put all of the scandals behind him to win.

Perhaps more telling in his victory is that despite the relentless negative media coverage (where have we seen this before) pointing to corruption he has still managed to retain power.

Whatever one might think of Netanyahu’s character or ethics, voters have made their decision with all of that knowledge in mind. Clearly many think his policy platform is better for the country even with the (alleged) scandals than the opposition without.

Scheer to Trudeau – “Get on with it”

Canadian Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer has told PM Justin Trudeau to “get on with it” with regards to threatening to sue over the SNC-Lavalin PMO scandal. Scheer has accused the PM of interfering with the investigation carried out by the Independent Prosecution Service.

Scheer said

“I stand by every single criticism I have made of Justin Trudeau’s behaviour in this scandal. If Trudeau intends to sue me, if he believes he has a case against me, he should get on with it…

…Why do I welcome Justin Trudeau’s lawsuit? 1) Because he will finally be forced to testify under oath. 2) He will not be able to shut down the proceedings like he has in Parliament. Canadians will finally get the answers they deserve.

In the latest April CBC poll, the Conservatives under Scheer are at 36.2% and Trudeau’s Liberals at 31.7%. In November, it was 31.3% and 37.7% respectively. A slight reversal in fortune.

Trudeau is a darling of the left. Sadly his legacy is a disaster. From telling Canadians that returning ISIS fighters could be rehabilitated by reciting poetry and haiku, to dressing up in local garb on a visit to India (to the point where Indian officials said most don’t wear such clothing), wearing Star Wars socks, introducing compelled speech legislation and meddling with the ethics committee over his holidays with Aga Khan, Trudeau has proved completely out of his depth. His speech in front of the UNGA exposed his unpopularity as did waving to an empty airfield.

The peoplekind of Canada surely have buyers remorse. Luckily a general election is not far away.

 

Stupid is as stupid does

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That’s one small backward step for man. One giant backward step for women. What a foreign concept that some women might be smarter than men? Surely pursuing best in class healthcare means striving to grade students based on merit. Not so in Japan. The Tokyo Medical University was found to have deliberately marked down women in entrance exams to limit their numbers.

The scandal broke during an investigation into the admission of a ministry official’s son, who essentially bought his way in. He was given 20 extra points after failing the exam multiple times so he could pass. What a proud moment to know one has to buy influence to make up for a lack of ability.

It has been revealed that the share of female doctors passing Japan’s national medical exam has remained at about 30% for the last two decades.

Sadly class actions don’t produce much other than a token slap on the wrist. Of course all Japanese women just want to marry, become housewives and raise kids for their salarymen husbands. None should have ambition other than to serve their men. No wonder maid cafes do so well in Japan  – the girls say, “yes, my master!” in order to allow men with inferiority complexes to have fantasies of being dominant.

Playing down a mass suicide note

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With the release of the Nunes memo, do top Democrats honestly believe that such collusion by the DNC with the nation’s judiciary and intelligence services doesn’t expose the hypocrisy of a party which proclaims its platform is all about equality and liberal ideals? Does it not expose that these politicians are only in it for themselves? Is it any wonder the Democrats are proclaiming this memo is ‘misleading’ or worse that Americans are too stupid to understand the memo? On reflection they probably had wished they’d stood and applauded during the SOTU address instead of childish frowns of bitterness and playing Candy Crush on their smartphones.

While many Americans probably suspected corruption (so brilliantly conveyed in ‘House of Cards’) for decades, they have had it transparently confirmed.  The DNC hope was that the illegal and doctored FISA application would sink Trump as a candidate and lock in a Clinton White House. By then the scam could be lost as easily as 33,000 emails. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Who could forget Bill Clinton’s chance meeting on a Phoenix tarmac with Attorney General Loretta Lynch the day before her testimony on Hillary’s email scandal? Did anyone honestly believe they just talked about grand children? Lynch downplayed the severity of the private server as ‘careless’. Conservative watchdog Judicial Watch has found 30 pages related to the encounter at the FBI, after being caught for hiding them in another lawsuit.

Obama was front and centre of the Clinton campaign. Hillary caught the jump seat on Air Force One numerous times. Are we to believe that this dossier was never discussed on board? That Obama, so obsessed with protecting his legacy,was in no way complicit in making sure Trump wouldn’t get in the Oval Office?

If we go back to mid 2006, news broke that the NSA was tracking the calls and emails of tens of millions of Americans to create  the “largest and most comprehensive database ever assembled in the world.” In the summer of 2007, the Bush administration pushed FISA amendments known as the “Protect America Act” through Congress which authorized the surveillance of any phone call or email by any American suspected of ‘suspicious dealings’ with ‘foreigners’.

As a presidential candidate in the 2008 election, Senator Barack Obama pledged that there would be “no more illegal wiretapping of Americans”. Post the election win, Obama reversed his position and continued the Bush-era surveillance via FISA. Obama’s Department of Justice aggressively defended court challenges from anyone who suspected their phone calls or emails had been illegally traced.

In his last days as president, Obama authorized the NSA to share its volumous databank on Americans with other federal agencies, opening a can of worms for politicians to dig up dirt. Talk about muddying waters in an already dirty swamp. This seems like a move that could badly backfire if a cleaning house of the FBI and DOJ is undertaken. What option has the president but to do it? What better way to talk of transparency to the American people than lop heads of such duplicitous people.

Therein lies the problem. When the state’s own intelligence services are working so closely hand-in-hand with political parties to keep dynasties alive one has to question democracy. Despite Wasserman-Schulz stabbing Sanders in the back, a mainstream media overwhelmingly behind Clinton, a p*ssy grabbing opponent, we now learn that not even a dossier paid for by the DNC in cahoots with the FBI and DOJ to cheat FISA got Democrats across the line – what a hatchet job.

Even Turkish President Erdogan would blush at the level of ‘duplicity’ of this scandal. This is abuse of power on an industrial scale.  One wonders whether the often made claim that the ‘Obama administration was one without scandal’ maybe tarnished with one of the worst. We haven’t heard the last of this.

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.

Tokyo Gov Koike shows powerful ad spurning the old guard

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has released a powerful video which will likely capture the mood of what is going on in Japan’s political sphere. The cigarette chugging old men in the ad are screaming along the lines of “you wanna rise against us?”, “you wanna spurn our organizations?” and “if you change things it will be so problematic”. The model designed to look like Koike strides past ignoring them. With the stench in national politics (a long stream of scandals and corruption) her message is indeed powerful. It is still very early days and her success will rely on how ready some politicians are ready to defect. Koike is getting massive airtime and even if she chooses not to run it will be pitched as a Koike vs Abe campaign. Remember the hugely popular former PM Junichiro Koizumi was a backer of Koike. Let the games begin. This video will resonate.