S&P downgrades Japan: a cautionary tale?

the S&P downgrade

Last week Standard & Poors downgraded the sovereign debt of Japan, reducing its rating on the Tokyo government’s bonds by one notch, to AA- from AA.  In doing so, S&P cited:

–high government debt ratios

–persistent deflation

–an aging population and shrinking workforce

–social security expenses at almost a third of the government budget, and rising

–the lack of a coherent plan to address the growing debt problem, and

–the global recession, which has worsened the situation.

With the possible exception of the last point, none of this is exactly news.  S&P could have cited all the other factors five years–or even ten years–ago.

What’s going on?

Two things, in my opinion:

1.  The Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant force in Japanese politics for the past fifty years, was tossed out of office in a landslide victory for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in August 2009.  This happened once before, in the late 1980s, when the Socialist Party, from which the DPJ springs, did the same thing.  On both occasions, the transfer of power was followed by heavy-duty partisan infighting within the winning party, stunning ministerial ineptitude and legislative paralysis.  The past eighteen months have demonstrated that chances of another charismatic leader like Prime Minister Koizumi of the LDP emerging from the current fray are pretty remote.

2.  There’s a business cycle pattern to changes in the credit agencies’ ratings.  While the globe is expanding, the agencies’ ratings lag the economic reality.  They end up being too bullish for way too long.  In contrast, after having been castigated by the regulatory authorities and the markets for this behavior, the agencies become excessively cautious.  They downgrade aggressively and actively search for high-profile instances to do so, in order to tout their new-found conservatism.  Once the economic cycle turns up, of course, the rating agencies have tended to quickly forget this prudence and resume their former generosity to client bond issues.

no market reaction, but lots of expert commentary

Since the ratings downgrade contains no new insights into Japan’s malaise, the reaction from financial markets has been ho-hum.  But pundits have seized on this chance to air their views.  Internal commentators have been beating the drum again for economic reform.  External ones have reiterated their stance that Japan today is a look into the future for the US if we don’t mend our ways.

my thoughts, too

Since everyone else is doing it, I thought I’d also give my views about Japan (yet again), based on my twenty-five years of experience in the Japanese equity market.  Here goes:

1.  Reform just isn’t going to happen.  For decades, Japan has followed a policy of preserving the status quo, even at the cost of no economic growth.  The result has been that creative destruction, where a new generation of firms rises from the ashes of the old, isn’t allowed to happen.  Weak and inefficient entrants in an industry aren’t compelled either to change their ways or fail.  They receive explicit and implicit social protection instead.  So they drag down the strong.

2.  Perversely, the economic stagnation and mild deflation that result from this policy help perpetuate the system.  Lack of economic growth keeps interest rates low. Domestic investors have few viable investment alternatives, so they continue to put their savings into government bonds.    Therefore, Tokyo can fund continuing deficits easily and at low cost.  In a funny sense, the worst thing that could happen to Japan over the next several years would be for the economy to spontaneously (it would take a miracle, though) begin to grow.  Alternatives to government bonds would arise for investors.  And interest rates would likely go up, raising Tokyo’s financing costs.  Voilà, government debt crisis.

3.  There is a point of similarity, I think, between the Japanese situation and the American that is something to worry about.

It’s not in the industrial base, which is much more dynamic and much less hide-bound in the US than in Japan.

It’s not in the politics, either, though both the Capitol and Nagatacho are to my mind similarly dysfunctional.  But the Japanese electorate has put up with legislative failure for over twenty years.  I think, however, as Americans work out that Washington is not meeting its needs, change will come swiftly and dramatically.  We’ve already seen some of this twice within a little more than two years.

One of the most striking aspects of Japan to me as an investor is the strongly held belief in that country of its cultural and economic superiority over everyone else.  The fact of this belief isn’t so surprising.  Every major power seems to think more or less the same thing about itself.  Certainly, the US does, too. But in Japan, sort of like in France, its intensity stands out.  Neither seems to me to have a sense of perspective/humor about itself. (I’ve been told, for example, by a Japanese CEO in a face-to-face interview that he didn’t want foreigners like me holding stock in his company.  Why?  …we’re subhuman, that’s why.  Actually, he told my translator, who skipped over that part–both unaware that a “subhuman” might actually understand a little Japanese.)

If you think it’s a priori impossible for a foreigner to have anything to teach you, you can be blind to the objective situation–meaning that a sense of national pride that’s out of control will act as a barrier to beneficial change.

Although the US may have prominent individuals who believe as intensely as the Japanese/French that anything domestic is superior to anything foreign, I think most of us have a little more common sense.  Again, however, only time will tell.

brokers and standards of care: the SEC study

the report

Last Wednesday the SEC published the results of a study on the differing legal obligations of brokers and investment advisers to their clients.

The SEC’s bottom line:

–while customers are generally satisfied with the investment advice they receive, they don’t really know what standards of conduct their brokers or investment advisers are legally held to.  In addition, they sometimes mistakenly think brokers are required to perform to the same high standard as investment advisers.

–the standard of conduct for brokers should be raised to match that for investment advisers, “when providing investment advice about securities to retail customers.”

why the study?

One might think that it was driven by the realization that millions of Baby Boomers will be retiring in the US over the next decade or so.  The vast majority–government workers are the biggest exception–will not have the security of defined benefit pension plans backed by their former employers. Instead, they have the money they’ve saved in IRAs or 401ks, for which they will have investment responsibility, to support them in retirement.

That’s not the reason, though.  The SEC did the study because it was ordered to in the recently-passed Dodd-Frank Act.

broker or investment adviser:  what’s the difference?

in law…

Investment advisers are regulated by the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.

Broker-dealers are regulated under the anti-fraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Act of 1934.

Broker-dealers are specifically excluded from regulation under the Investment Advisers Act.

…and in practice

Investment advisers are fiduciaries.  In practical terms, this means three things:

–the adviser must do what’s best for the client

–the adviser must put the client’s interests ahead of his own, and

–the adviser has to make extensive disclosure of possible conflicts of interest.

Broker-dealers are not fiduciaries.  As a result,

–although brokers aren’t permitted to act in a way that harms their clients,

–they can recommend an investment that is less good than another but which provides a higher profit to the broker.

I’m not sure what the technical requirements for disclosure of conflicts of interest are for a broker.  My experience is that such disclosures are, at best, buried in the middle of large amounts of fine print and couched in language that only a specialist would understand. Goldman’s trading “huddles,” exposed in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, are a recent example of differential treatment of institutional clients, not retail, but it’s still a good illustration of the broker mindset.

The huddles are weekly meetings of analysts and traders that ended up generating ideas, some of which go against Goldman’s official stock recommendations.  These trading ideas are communicated only to a few of the firm’s highest revenue-generating clients.  The official recommendations aren’t changed, so most clients continue to be told the opposite story.  (I just looked at a recent Goldman research report.  This practice is described in paragraph 25 of 30 paragraphs of fine print, covering three pages of the report’s total length of seven.).

if brokers are required to become fiduciaries, what changes?

It may be an exaggeration to say that this would radically change the fundamentals of the retail brokerage industry…but, on second thought, that may not be so far from the truth.  For example,

quality of fund recommendations

1.  Some retail-oriented brokerage houses have their own in-house fund management groups.  In many cases, the records of such proprietary funds is mediocre at best.  Yet brokers are encouraged to sell these funds to clients.  In my view, the main factor–other than the underperformance clients experience–is their greater profitability of in-house funds to the firm. If brokers were fiduciaries, presumably they would have to point out that third-party funds have better track records, or to disclose their financial interest.

2.  Brokers might have to disclose that in general no-load funds sold by Vanguard or Fidelity are a better deal that the load funds brokers sell.

3.  When you go into a brokerage office to have an asset allocation analysis done, it may be that the mutual fund recommendations that the computer spits out come only from fund groups that have paid to have their names displayed to customers–or who have agreed to rebate to the brokerage a portion of the management fee earned on shares sold.  Fund groups that decline to pay get no exposure. In other words, the fund recommendations aren’t the objective assessment they appear to be.

A fiduciary couldn’t do this without clear disclosure.  Actually, I think a fiduciary who tried to do this would be run out of town.

4.  If an individual broker does enough business with a given fund group, he may qualify to bring himself and a guest to  an all expense-paid educational seminar (including nightly entertainment),  in, say, Las Vegas, or San Diego or Disneyworld.  Has any broker ever mentioned that possibility when recommending a fund to you?

quality of stock recommendations

5.  Institutional Investor magazine publishes a yearly ranking of brokerage house research and a list of All-American analysts in each industry.  If brokers were fiduciaries, I think they’d have to tell you if, as many have, they’ve laid off most of their experienced researchers during the recession.  So they have no ranked analysts anymore.  And the report you’ve just been handed recommending XYZ Corp as a “buy” was written by a replacement who only has six months experience, no formal training in securities analysis, and is learning to do research on the fly.

All of this would be a little like watching your meal being prepared in the kitchen of a restaurant that probably won’t pass health inspection.  Certainly, brokers don’t want to be forced to allow you this peek under the covers.

are any changes likely, based on the SEC findings?

I doubt it.  Opposition from “full service” brokerage houses would be too great.  It’s also interesting to note that, while the study was done by the staff of the SEC as Dodd-Frank mandated, its conclusions weren’t endorsed by the SEC.

But this did give me another chance to write about some of the less obvious practices of the retail brokerage industry.  So at least that’s something.

subscription services: good or bad as stocks?

subscription services

Everyday life is filled with examples of subscription services.  They range from newspapers and magazines, where one pays in advance for copies that are delivered over, say, the subsequent year; to monitoring services that guard against burglary or fire; to cellphones, where the network operator offers a handset at a subsidized price in return for the customer signing a long-term contract; to cloud computing, where a customer “rents” storage space or other hardware, or software tools to run his enterprise.

All these kinds of companies have common characteristics.  Apart from the cost of setting up or participating in a delivery system (from coaxial/fiber optic cables to the postal or telephone service), the key variables are:

–the number of customers

–changes in that number as time progresses

–per customer revenue

–per customer operating costs

–customer acquisition costs, and

–the length of time the average customer retains the service.

These are the bare bones.  Of course, there can be other considerations, like a company’s ability to sell add-on services after the initial customer relationship is established, or the fact of general, administrative and (possibly) financing costs.  But let’s put them to the side.

my point

The point I want to make in this post is that these companies sometimes exhibit earnings patterns that equity markets find difficult to understand and value.  In some cases, this has meant that companies are ultimately taken private after their stocks have languished in price in the public markets for an extended period of time.

An example:

Consider a company that provides burglar and fire alarm monitoring to residential customers.  Typically, the firm will offer “free” installation of monitoring equipment in return for a two-year monitoring contract.

Let’s say installation expenses are 300, that the customer pays 20 per month in fees and that the average customer remains with the monitoring company for a long as he owns his house.  Assume that’s 10 years–but it could be a lot longer.  Let’s also assume that the cost of setting up the remote monitoring station is trivial, but that manning it costs 100,000 a year.

the company take on its business

The company probably does a present value calculation to evaluate how much it gains by adding a customer.  Ten years of revenues at 240 per year = 2400.  Subtract installation costs of 300 and the customer’s share of monitoring costs, say, 250.  Then the net value of a new addition is 1850.  Present value is lower, but the possibility of rate increases and operating leverage in expenses mitigates this to some degree.  Yes, I could have done a “real” calculation on a spreadsheet that would be much more sophisticated (though perhaps not much more accurate), but this is the basic idea.

the stock market’s view

Here’s what the income statement for the first five years of such a company’s existence might look like:

 

year
1 2 3 4 5
new subs% 50% 50% 20% 10%
total subs 1000 1500 2250 2700 2970
total revs 240000 360000 540000 648000 712800
op costs -100000 -100000 -100000 -100000 -100000
startup cost -300000 -150000 -225000 -135000 -81000
net profit -160000 110000 215000 413000 531800

In year 1, the company is unprofitable, even though on a present value  or “asset” basis it has added 1,850,000 in value.

In year 2, the company becomes profitable on a financial reporting basis, but still has negative net worth.

In year 3, earnings explode, even though the firm is adding less asset value than it did in year 1.

Year 4 is the really interesting one.  Reported earnings continue to rise at an astronomical clip.  Yes, profits are only up 92%, vs 94% in the year earlier.  But is this something to really be concerned about?

Actually, yes.  The concern isn’t about profits but about revenues.  In year 4, subscriber additions show a sharp drop, from 750 in the year prior to 450 in the current period.  There are two reasons the earnings are still so strong, and don’t reflect this falloff:  lower expense for new installations (startup costs) and positive operating leverage from monitoring costs being spread over a larger number of customers.

How does the stock market treat a case like this?  In my experience, the answer is “badly.”  Investors are accustomed to looking at earnings per share or at cash flow per share and this kind of company doesn’t fit either template.  While the company is expanding rapidly, the costs of linking up new customers depresses eps, and cash flow may be negative.  Paradoxically, the profit numbers look their best only when the firm begins to show signs of maturing.  But investors will begin to take fright when they see that revenue growth is slowing.

This situation is a big reason that most monitoring companies have either been taken private or are divisions of larger companies, where the unusual earnings pattern isn’t so evident.

One other observation.

This concerns accounting technique.  In the example above, the installation costs have been expensed in the year incurred.  What would the financials look like if those costs had been capitalized and depreciated over ten years.  Take a look.

 

year
1 2 3 4 5
new subs% 50% 50% 20% 10%
total subs 1000 1500 2250 2700 2970
total revs 240000 360000 540000 648000 712800
op costs -100000 -100000 -100000 -100000 -100000
startup cost -30000 -45000 -67500 -81000 -89100
net profit 110000 215000 372500 467000 523700

In the first four years, the company now looks a lot more profitable and cash flow looks better.  In other words, the monitoring company looks like a conventional firm that equity investors would have no trouble evaluating.  Expense deferral only starts to catch up with the company in year 5, when the growth rate drops off significantly.

why expense instead of capitalize/depreciate?

For one thing, expensing is the more conservative technique.  For another, in the case of a monitoring company, there’s no capital equipment.  The sensors being installed are all low-cost items that are normally expensed.  Labor cost is probably the biggest factor in the installation.

relevance for cloud computing?

As this industry develops, it will be important, I think, to distinguish between companies that rent hardware (which can be depreciated) and those that rent software (whose costs may be expensed as R&D).  Their income statements may look very different, as the monitoring case illustrates.

There may also be wide company to company differences in accounting technique for basically the same services.  More speculative firms may capitalize all the customer acquisition costs they can–and maybe some that they aren’t supposed to.  Others may have a much more conservative bent.  It’s not clear that brokerage house analysts will appreciate the differences, or flag them in their reports.

In addition, there may be firms whose financials will mimic those of the security monitoring industry.  Absent considerable shareholder education, such firms may have less positive experience for their stocks than the company performance merits.

cash flow per share and earnings per share as valuation metrics (ll): cash flow per share

investor preferences

A large number of investors in the US want to buy stocks where the underlying companies are growing profits rapidly.  The same is true in many other stock markets of the world.  For such investors, earnings per share growth is the main metric they look for when transacting.

This isn’t an immutable law of equity investing, however.  To a large degree, the search for growth is also a question of investor preferences.  In the US, the market I have the longest experience with, I’ve seen the mix of price and growth that investors prefer change dramatically several times.  This has been not so much because the macroeconomic environment has changed, but because the personal circumstances of investors (their age and wealth) did.

Also, I’ve seen other markets where preferences are quite different, where a “good” stock is one that pays a high dividend and where the company is mature enough that it has little need to spend capital on expansion.  These are markets where the search is for income, not for growth.  Taiwan in the 1980s is the first strong example I’ve encountered personally (technology stocks there couldn’t list unless they were willing to pay a 5% yield!).   But the US in the pre-WWII era seems to me to have been another.

the search for income

Not every company can grow at a rapid clip of a long time.  As well, some companies temporarily experience declining profits, either because the economy has turned against them cyclically, or because they’ve just lost their way.  In any of these cases, the large group of investors I’ve mentioned above lose interest in the stocks and more or less consign them to the equity junk pile.

There’s a whole set of other professional investors–in fact, in the US they are arguably in the majority–who evaluate stocks not on their earnings growth potential but on the companies’ ability to generate cash from operations.  There are many variations on this approach.  But all use cash flow per share as their main tool.  Such investors calculate an absolute worth for the company (usually a present value of cash flows over, say, ten years) and compare that with the share price.  They buy what they hope are the most undervalued stocks.

Around the globe, such value investors expect that at some point either the company’s fortunes will take a cyclical turn for the better, or that other investors will realize the undervaluation they see, or (in the US at least) that pressure will be brought to bear on the company to improve its operations.

[By the way, about two years ago, I wrote a series of posts on growth investing vs. value investing that you might want to read.  Take the test (which of two stocks would you buy) to see if you’ve got more growth or value tendencies.]

the stock as a quasi-bond

The key to this approach, viewing it through my growth investor eyes, is to regard the stock as a quasi-bond.

Let’s say the firm is now generating $1 a share in cash from profits and $2 a share in cash from depreciation and amortization.  That’s $3 a share in yearly cash flow.  Taking a ten-year investing horizon, the company will generate a total of $30, even with no growth at all–if the firm can get away without serious new capital investments.  If we were to assume that the company could achieve an inflation-matching rise in cash flow, then the present value of the stream of cash flow is $30.  (Yes, this is a vast oversimplification, but it is the thought process.  Remember, too, we’re also figuring there’s nothing left after ten years.)

What would a company like this sell for on Wall Street?  $20 a share?  …less?

We do have a yardstick, since if we reverse the profit and depreciation figures the description in the last paragraph is a rough approximation of INTC.  The value investor’s explanation for serious undervaluation is that people are so worried about the possibility that processors using designs from ARM Holdings will gradually eat in to INTC’s markets that they are overlooking the latter’s substantial cash generating power.

happy vs. unhappy shareholders

Another way of putting the difference between looking at earnings per share and cash flow per share–

–investors look at eps to gauge a firm’s value when they’re happy with the way the company is performing;

–they look at cash flow per share when they’re not, when they’re trying to figure out how much the company would be worth with different management, or in private hands, or after being acquired by a competitor.

The risk the first group takes is that all good things eventually come to an end.  The worry of the second group is that they’ve be unable to pry the company out of the hands of current management.

cash flow per share and earnings per share as valuation metrics (l): earnings per share

two types of investors, two toolboxes

In the US and increasingly in the rest of the world, investors tend to fall into two psychological types:

growth investors (like me) are dreamers.  We buy stocks based on the belief that future profit growth will be strong enough to make the stock rise in price.  Our mantra is:  better eps than expected for longer than expected.  We typically buy stock in well-managed, industry-leading companies and use projected future eps as our main tool.

value investors (the more venerable [read: older] school)are pragmatists.  They buy stocks on the idea that they are undervalued based on what one can see in the here and now–the earning power of today’s well-understood businesses + the value of assets on the balance sheets.  They are happy to buy a mediocre company whose stock is trading on the mistaken belief that the firm is truly wretched.  They often have an eye to change of control.  They use both cash flow per share and eps as tools.

eps

Looking at earnings per share growth is, I think, pretty straightforward conceptually.  Earnings go up, the stock goes along for the ride.  The problem is that forecasting earnings with a reasonable degree of accuracy  even twelve months ahead is much more difficult than you’d imagine.  The evidence is that as a group even professional securities analysts, with lots of information at their fingertips and unparalleled access to company managements, fail at doing this.

One issue is that company managements understand the Wall Street game:  show surprisingly strong earnings and you’ll look like a genius and your stock (your stock options, too) will go up a lot.  So they pressure analysts to understate earnings.  Analysts, too, since their livelihood depends on investor interest in the stocks they cover, sometimes become like home town radio announcers for “their” industry and fail to notice trouble developing.

For growth investors, cash flow per share doesn’t come up in discussion very much.  For me–and I spent a little more than half my career in value shops)–three instances where  cash flow is important stand out:

–An emerging company has spent a lot on creating the infrastructure it needs to launch its products/ services, but they haven’t caught on yet.  The firm is showing small profits, or maybe losses at present.  This situation often creates the opportunity for significant operating leverage (large profit increases from small increases in sales).  So if you can find a convincing reason that the company will be successful, it is probably a very interesting investment.

–A more established company has persistently high cash flow but small profits.  This means cash flow consists mostly of depreciation.  Put another way, the company continues to make capital investments but then spends most of its time just trying to recover its (poorly conceived) outlays.  Value investors are drawn to this kind of firm like moths to a flame–thinking that either the board of directors, shareholders or activist investors will force changes.  Growth investors, in contrast, run away as fast as they can.

–A company has two divisions, one of which provides all the growth.  This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, WYNN (which I own) is in just this position.  Macau operations provide all the profits.  To my (growth investor) mind, a situation like this can provide very good performance.  That’s provided you can convince yourself that the second division–Las Vegas, in this case–won’t turn into a black hole of losses that devours the profitable division. This is where cash flow comes in as analytic tool.

As an investor, it’s not good but it is acceptable that the second division is losing money.  But it’s a great comfort if the division is in the black on a cash flow basis, as WYNN is in Nevada.  Operating leverage can be a worry if there’s a significant chance it can turn negative.  But it can be a longer-term plus, if you think there’s a bigger chance operating leverage can eventually turn positive.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow, cash flow per share and value investors.