#sec

Musk flips the ‘bird’ at the SEC

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Tesla shareholders must wish Elon Musk would be as silent as his products. It seems the Tesla CEO has learnt nothing from his $20mn fine. Given that Tesla is still under investigation for other reporting  matters, it seems unprofessional to bait the SEC when shareholders want to see stability at the helm. Musk tweeted,

Just want to that the Shortseller Enrichment Commission is doing incredible work. And the name change is so on point!,”

Just further evidence this CEO has no wish to listen to his board or interact with them in a way that promotes best practice corporate governance. It’s still a one man band. The irony of the tweet is that the SEC’s leniency allowed him to stay at the top causing a 17% jump on the settlement.

Even worse Paragraph 13 of his settlement with the SEC requires him to seek board oversight of any public communications although has yet to be officially signed off by a judge.

In a twist or irony one shareholder tweeted back that he wasn’t just attacking the stock shorters  but the long only owners as well.

Tesla shares closed down 4.4% and indicated at $273 in the after market, a fitter 3% fall. At the start of the SEC decision last week the shares had traded as low as $267. In a sense Musk has been the Shortsellers Enrichment CEO not the SEC.

Musk to recover $1.2bn based on pre-market

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Musk stands to recover $1.25bn in wealth if the pre-market indications of Tesla prove correct. A $20mn fine from the SEC which effectively wiped $1.3bn of wealth will all but be restored. Is it just that investors think that nothing will change even if he isn’t chairman? Did the SEC fold to his star power or did they receive a free flame thrower to lighten the charge? While $20mn looked like a proper slap on the wrist he can shrug off the incident like it didn’t happen. All in all pretty impressive. He lives to fight another day.

Musk’s $20mn fine covered if Tesla shares jump 59 cents

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$20mn sounds like a lot. It is a lot. The SEC has struck a deal with Tesla’s Elon Musk which demands he steps down as chairman and hires two independent directors. Musk owns 33.7mn shares. Technically he would only require a 59c share price rise to cover his fine. Make it a dollar to cover taxes and transaction costs plus legal fees. In any event the fine is peanuts in the grand scheme of things.

To be honest, Tesla disciples will breathe a sigh of relief that their king still remains in the company and more importantly as the figure head. The question remains is whether a new chairman (from outside?) will see to it that the company is not just a one man band which has been painfully obvious with so many senior level defections. Too often the board has seemed to be an onerous burden for Musk in that his intergalactic brilliance shouldn’t require checks and balances.

Will a new chairman demand a thorough audit into business practices to date? It is likely that the SEC will expect a new chairman to lift the standards of the board to make sure that shareholders interests are properly decided with all directors heard. An independent audit should be viewed as the bare minimum. What would that unearth?

Tesla shares should bounce on this news and in aftermarket trading it is up. The question is how a new structure changes dynamics which reveal the short cuts and internal processes which have created so many reporting inconsistencies.

Musk channels the Black Knight?

It has become apparent that the SEC & Musk had a deal which would see him removed from Tesla yet his lawyers have rejected it at the last minute because he’d rather fight the charges. One could argue in favour of his bravery to appeal against what looks to be a very open and shut case about breaching probably the most basic of errors in standard reporting to the exchange to ensure fairness.

Maybe he feels that he is only going to get a slap on the wrist? In the 63 odd charges laid out against individuals by the SEC for reporting violations in 2018, the average fine has been $75,000. Hardly a ripple to Musk’s net worth.

The bigger risk for Tesla shareholders if Musk loses in court against the SEC and is forced out (to be honest his board should demand it) will be losing a figurehead who at the very least has managed to make a company with no profits, monster debts and questionable actions worth more than Ford, FCA & GM combined. Betting against Musk has been a dangerous game. He may well be teflon coated but it remains questionable whether he can strap himself to his reusable rockets and escape the fraud charges.

Musk charged with securities violations

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been accused by the SEC of violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) [15 U.S.C. § 78j(b)] and Rule 10b-5 [17 C.F.R. § 240.10b-5]. The SEC claimed,

“Musk’s false and misleading public statements and omissions caused significant confusion and disruption in the market for Tesla’s stock and resulting harm to investors…Musk knew or was reckless in not knowing that each of these statements was false and/or misleading because he did not have an adequate basis in fact for his assertions. When he made these statements, Musk knew that he had never discussed a going-private transaction at $420 per share with any potential funding source, had done nothing to investigate whether it would be possible for all current investors to remain with Tesla as a private company via a “special purpose fund,” and had not confirmed support of Tesla’s investors for a potential going private transaction. He also knew that he had not satisfied numerous additional contingencies, the resolution of which was highly uncertain, when he unequivocally declared, ‘Only reason why this is not certain is that it’s contingent on a shareholder vote.’ Musk’s public statements and omissions created the misleading impression that taking Tesla private was subject only to Musk choosing to do so and a shareholder vote.”

The eccentric and maverick CEO responded,

This unjustified action by the SEC leaves me deeply saddened and disappointed. I have always taken action in the best interests of truth, transparency and investors. Integrity is the most important value in my life and the facts will show I never compromised this in any way.”

It is common knowledge to corporates that the exchange is the first port of call for all public releases to be openly documented for consistency and equal access. It is irrelevant whether a social media feed might be deemed as “in the spirit” of open disclosure to Musk’s personal opinions. The SEC rules are the rules. There aren’t soft interpretations. A listing requirement is to follow the rules of fair disclosure. Whether Musk was or wasn’t aware is irrelevant – as the CEO of a $50bn company he should know better or at least sought the advice from those that do.

In any event if he was true to the spirit of good corporate governance he would have the good sense to realise his position as CEO has become untenable. How the board can have confidence in him is beyond CM? The multiple senior resignations give an insight but for all of Musk’s instellar cosmic brilliance as a salesman, unfortunately laws are there to provide safety for investors. The shares are offered 13% lower in the aftermarket.

A court will ultimately decide his fate but the $420 a share with secured funding unraveled so quickly as to question his judgement.

Investors, even the die hard believers, don’t need a CEO already under the pump to be distracted anymore than he already is. It is a shame because he is undoubtedly a brilliant mind. Unfortunately that would seemingly make him feel he’s somewhat untouchable leading him to make knee jerk decisions such is what he’s been charged over.

Musk to be investigated by SEC over tweets

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CM has always thought that Elon Musk is the ultimate salesman. CM has also wrote that the biggest risk to being a short seller was then”cult” status of the company. On any rational investment grounds the stock is ridiculously priced but as the old adage goes, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can remain solvent!

Tesla is a car company that is worth more than GM, Ford & FiatChrysler combined. One that trades at 5x Daimler in valuation terms, a luxury competitor that is in the sweet spot of its product line up and rudely profitable.

Back in June, Musk bought $35mn worth of shares in Tesla. The whole idea that someone is willing to fork out $75bn on a whim seems somewhat implausible. Is it safe to assume that all of 100s of lawyers, bankers and brokers would need a little bit of time to prepare the necessary documentation to cement such a ridiculous sum? Or is money now just so free and easy that a billionaire deploys a vault full of cash loaded full of Zero Halliburtons into a private jet after a few phone calls?

SEC enforcement attorneys had already been gathering general information about Tesla’s public statements on manufacturing goals and sales targets. Now SEC attorneys are investigating whether his tweets about securing funding were factual.

CM is not accusing Musk of insider trading albeit as a matter of course the SEC should investigate when he knew about his mega financier. One wonders how it is that we know so little about the buyer, the term sheet, the question of shareholder approval and how “secure” it is? Taking it private will remove the lens of quarterly reporting but it doesn’t remove the fact of how dreadfully the company is run or how amateur production is. Even if public scrutiny is removed, the problems of profitability don’t disappear and the need for funds, credit ratings etc if he taps public markets for debt capital remain.

If Musk pulls it all off and the company becomes a roaring success then CM will gladly eat a whole humble pie and openly admit it was wrong.

As to the SEC investigation let’s hope it has learnt the lessons of its bumbling incompetency over Bernie Madoff and doesn’t miss anything that might be bleeding obvious.

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.