the curious case of Toshiba and the Mitsui keiretsu

The Financial Times, now owned by the Nihon Keisai Shimbun (the Nikkei newspaper)–and which should therefore have a particularly sharp insight into goings on in corporate Japan, had an interesting article the other day about Toshiba.

Toshiba is facing possible bankruptcy and potential delisting from the Tokyo Stock Exchange as a result of the disastrous performance of its nuclear power business.  To avoid this fate, it has decided to sell its flash memory business, which is a world leader in this important class of semiconductor devices and owns essential intellectual property for their manufacture.

The Japanese government is intervening in the matter, with the aim of ensuring that this important asset remains in Japanese hands.  What is distinctly not happening, as pointed out in an FT article two days ago, is any aid being offered by other members of the Mitsui industrial group.  This is very unusual.

background

At the core of Japanese economy in the first half of the twentieth century stood a number of powerful industrial conglomerates, called zaibatsu, which emerged from the samurai culture of shogun-era Tokyo.  The zaibatsu were outlawed after WWII for their role in Japan’s participation in that conflict.  But their dissolution was in name only.  The groups continue to exist in substance but were referred to as keiretsu.

One of the principal features of the keiretsu is mutual assistance in times of trouble.

For example,

Some years ago, Mistubishi Motors tried to buy its way into the US car market with a “0-0-0” financing campaign.  That meant zero down, a zero interest rate on 100% financing, and no loan repayment for the first year.  As it turned out, there was also a fourth zero–no credit checks.  And very large number of buyers (if you can call them that) simply made no payments when the time came.  They continued to drive the cars until they were repossessed.  Mitsubishi Motors as a whole, not just the US subsidiary, was faced with financial failure as a result.

What happened?

The other members of the Mitsubishi group injected hundreds of billions of yen into the auto company so that it remained afloat.  I remember speaking about this at the time with the chairman of Mitsubishi Corp, the group’s trading company.  He was deeply unhappy about having to invest in the auto arm of the group, and knew that this made no economic sense, but felt that his honor demanded that he do so.

today

Fast-forwarding to today and Toshiba     …not a peep from other Mitsui group members.

There may be something unusual about Toshiba.  More likely, the zaibatsu concept, a vital aspect of the samurai culture, may have finally passed its best-by date.  Interesting, too, that this should come while a descendant of the samurai is the prime minister.

current Japanese inflation? ..there is none

Deflation means that prices in general are falling.  If this is the case, it’s better to put off buying new things for as long as possible, until they’re 100% absolutely needed.  That’s because anything you buy today will be cheaper tomorrow.

After a while, non-consumption becomes a habit, and an economy stagnates.

Conversely, in an inflationary environment, everything is more expensive tomorrow than it is today.  So consumers buy in advance.  In addition to things they need, they may also purchase items they have no intention of consuming.  They may think that keeping physical objects which they can later resell is a better way of preserving or enhancing purchasing power than keeping savings in the bank.

Japan has been in a deflationary economic funk for over a quarter century.   When Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister of Japan in late 2012, he decided to attack deflation as a way of boosting economic growth.  He had a plan that has become famous for its three “arrows”:  a massive depreciation of the yen, large-scale government deficit spending, and corporate/regulatory reform.  Each of the three should have been enough by itself to spark inflation.

The expense of the plan has been enormous, both in terms of the loss of international purchasing power of yen-denominated assets and in increased national debt.

The result after close to four years?   ….as the Tokyo government reported last week, no inflation at all.

How can this be?

From its outset, I’ve believed that Abenomics would be unsuccessful.  I thought the stumbling block would be corporate reform.  The earliest evidence that would indicate I would be wrong would, I thought/think, take the form of an effort to remove the legislative barriers to reform that the Liberal Democrats in the Diet had installed after the deflationary crisis had already begun.  So far, for all practical purposes there’s been nada.  So I continue to be convinced that corporate leaders will resist any changes to the status quo, aided as they are by the Diet’s removal of any levers to force reform from the outside.

Of course, any inflation-induced oomph to consumption won’t last forever.  People and institutions adjust. If nothing else, consumers run out of storage space for the extra stuff they’ve bought.  They then have to throttle back their spending   …or rent a storage unit  …or contemplate a McMansion.

What’s surprising to me, however, is that the same reluctance to spend–although perhaps not to the same degree–is evident in both the US and in Europe.  We might figure that the austerity approach of EU countries wouldn’t exactly spur consumers on.  But the lack of inflation and the paucity of mall-storming or website-crashing consumption in the US after eight years of extraordinary stimulus seem to argue that the overarching economic theories about how to induce inflation are incorrect.

Demographics as the cause?

 

Emperor Akihito and abdication

On the same weekend that Alex Rodriguez, 41, announced his retirement from baseball, Japanese Emperor Akihito, 82, made an address to the Japanese nation in which he indicated his desire to abdicate–a wish current Japanese law has no provision to grant.

an (incredibly) short history

Japan was ruled by an hereditary line of emperors until the late 12th century, when it was removed from power by the royal family’s chief military adviser, the Shogun.

The shogunate persisted until Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853, forcing Japan to end a long period of isolation.  In the turmoil that followed, the shogun was deposed and the emperor restored to the throne as a semi-figurehead.

In the post-WWII Japanese constitution, the emperor was allowed to remain, in a purely symbolic political role. He (the constitution requires a male emperor) confirms the Prime Minister, for example, but he can only anoint the candidate that the legislature presents to him.

a cultural/religious role

I began studying the Japanese economy and stock market in 1986.  To fight jet lag, every morning I would run from my hotel to the Imperial Palace, around the palace (two miles?) and back.  Unlike the situation today, back then there were no Japanese runners for company, only one or two other odd foreigners.  But at 6:30am there were always a dozen, sometimes many more Japanese citizens kneeling facing the palace and praying.

That’s because of the religious/cultural belief that when the emperor is crowned he mates with the sun god Amaterasu.  His communion with the source of light makes him semi-divine; it also assures the good will of Amaterasu–and Japan’s exceptionalism as the land/race on earth that maintains a uniquely harmonious balance between dark and light.

the calendar, too

When he ascends to the throne, the emperor chooses a name for his reign.  The traditional Japanese calendar is reset to be Year 1 of that era.  Emperor Akihito chose “Heisei” (peace everywhere) in 1989.  So 2016 = Heisei 28.  His father, Hirohito, was the Showa (enlightened harmony) emperor.

Akihito and abdication

Twenty-five years ago, a speech like Akihito’s would have sent shock waves through Japan, and would doubtless have had a negative effect on the stock market.  But while visitors to Tokyo still seek out the Palace Hotel because it’s the closest one can physically get to the Imperial Palace grounds, the morning worshipers have long since disappeared.  Japanese citizens appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of changing the law to allow Akihito to abdicate.  Bhe move will likely create as few economic ripples as the resignation of Pope Benedict did three years ago.

Nintendo (TYO:7974) and Pokemon Go

Nintendo in a nutshell

Nintendo is a non-establishment Japanese company that started out making playing cards but became a worldwide sensation early in the videogame era.  It’s the creator of the Nintendo console and Gameboy handheld machines, plus proprietary games and characters like Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda.

When gaming shifted from consoles to mobile, Nintendo pretty much disappeared.   Its stock has languished since, despite the company’s extensive intellectual property.

That’s the main reason, I think, that the stock took such a huge leap–it came close to doubled in two weeks on 20x normal volume–when Pokemon Go was released.  Not only is that game a smash hit, but its success underlines the continuing relevance and therefore the still enormous profit potential from Nintendo’s extensive intellectual property.  Of course, this potential can most likely only be realized through mobile games, something Nintendo has, in a fashion bewildering to those not familiar with the company or with Japan, so far avoided as a matter of long-term corporate strategy.

 

Friday’s press release

After the close of business in Japan last Friday, Nintendo issued a short press release about Pokemon Go.

The release starts out with stuff anyone could have found out on Wikipedia. Pokemon Go was developed by Niantic, a spinoff from Google, not Nintendo.  Nintendo participates in the game’s success, however, through its 32% ownership in The Pokemon Company (PC).  PC will  receive a licensing fee from Niantic, as well as compensation for continuing collaboration in Pokemon Go’s development.  (Nintendo also owns an undisclosed (12%?) interest in Niantic, which might turn out to be much more valuable than any one game–but that’s not mentioned.)

brass tacks

The heart of the release is in the next-to-last sentence, which reads:

“Taking the current situation into consideration, the Company is not modifying the consolidated financial forecast for now.”

Monday trading

On Monday in Tokyo, short-term traders frightened by the press release quickly pushed Nintendo shares down by the maximum allowable daily amount (that percentage varies for each stock but in Nintendo’s case it’s 18%), where the stock stayed all day.  Today the stock rose slightly.

my thoughts

I don’t view Nintendo’s press release as containing much news at all.  I think it’s a response to an official inquiry from the stock exchange (Tokyo or Osaka) about whether there’s any reason for the unusual trading in Nintendo shares.  The inquiry will have been very specific:  whether Nintendo has any reason to revise up the earnings forecast for the fiscal year ending in March 2017 that it has on file with the exchange. (Note: publicly traded Japanese companies are required to revise their forecasts if/when they know earnings will be +/- 25% from what’s on file.)

Nintendo’s answer:  No, not at this time.

In my experience, this is a very Nintendo-like answer.  It’s also typical of mid-sized Japanese companies in general.  It responds narrowly to the question, and volunteers nothing more.  If a revision is warranted, it will most likely only come in February.  In this case, though, it probably is way too early to tell the significance of the new game.

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Softbank and ARM Holdings

a brief history of Softbank

Softbank is a Japanese company incorporated in 1981.  It has a non-establishment CEO, Masayoshi Son, notoriously opaque financials and a reputation as a maverick in its home country.  The company’s earliest successes came as an investor partnering with international internet companies entering Japan, like Yahoo and eTrade.  It was also an early supporter of now-huge Chinese internet businesses.

In 2006, it became an active business owner, entering the Japanese cellphone market by acquiring Vodafone’s network.  It revolutionized that business in Japan by rebranding as Softbank Mobile and launching a very successful discount cellphone service.

In 2012 it decided to employ the same strategy in the US, buying a controlling interest in Sprint.  Softbank appears to me tohave made the bold $21+ billion commitment thinking it could build a viable nationwide network by merging Sprint with T-Mobile.  Anti-trust regulators prevented that from happening, however, leaving Sprint in its current weak position and Softbank with a mess.

About a year ago, perhaps chastened by his Sprint error, Mr. Son announced he was stepping down as CEO and hired his apparent successor, Google executive Nikesh Arora.

Late last month Mr. Arora, who had been working to reduce Softbank’s financial leverage through asset sales, announced he was leaving the company, and Mr. Son that he was now planning to remain as CEO for perehaps ten more years.

This weekend we learned why–Softbank announced that Arm Holdings, the UK-based chip design firm, had accepted its all-cash bid of £24 billion ($32 billion), a 40%+ premium to its Friday close in London.

which Son is making this purchase?

Is it the prescient buyer of Alibaba and Vodafone Japan?    …or is it the sorely disappointed purchaser of Sprint?  Mr. Son is apparently arguing that development of the Internet of Things will generate a surprisingly large explosion of licensing fees and royalties for Arm.

More tomorrow.

the EU today: structural adjustment needed

Let’s assume that my description of the EU ex the UK is correct–that beneficiaries of the traditional order (the elites) are, and will continue to be, successful at thwarting structural change that would rock tradition but produce higher economic growth.

How should an equity investor proceed?

There are two schools of thought, not necessarily mutually incompatible:

–the first is that in an area where there is little growth, companies with strong fundamentals will stand out even more from the crowd.  This lucky few will therefore gain much of the local investor interest, plus the vast majority of foreign investor attention.  If so, in places like continental Europe or Japan one should look for fast-growing mid-cap companies with global sales potential for their products and services.  These will almost certainly outperform the market.

The more important question for an equity investor is whether they will do as well as similar companies domiciled and traded elsewhere.

–my personal observation is that the general malaise that affects stock markets in low-growth areas like Japan or the EU infects the fast growers as well.  The result is that they don’t do as well as similar companies elsewhere.  I haven’t tried to quantify the difference, but it’s what I’ve observed over the years.

It may be that the local market is offended by brash upstarts.  It may be that local portfolio managers deal only in book value and dividend yield as metrics.  It may simply be the fact that local laws prevent owners from eventually selling to the highest bidder, thereby damping down the ultimate upside for the stock.  One other effect of a situation like this is, of course, that entrepreneurs leave and set their companies up elsewhere.

 

The bottom line for a growth investor like me is that these areas become markets for the occasional special situation, not places where I want to be fully invested most of the time.  Because of this, and because of Brexit, the UK assumes greater importance for me.  So, too, Hong Kong, as an avenue into mainland China.  And to the degree I want to have direct international exposure–which means I want to avoid the US for whatever reason–emerging markets also come into play.

 

A final thought:  one could argue that the lack of investment appeal I perceive in Japan and continental Europe has nothing to do with political or cultural choices.  Both areas have relatively old populations.  If it’s simply demographics, signs of similar trouble should be appearing in the US within a decade.  I don’t think this is correct, but as investors we should all be attentive to possible signs.

 

unrest in the Land of Wa

Contrary to market expectations, the Bank of Japan, that country’s equivalent of the US Federal Reserve, declined today to add to its already super-extraordinarily loose monetary policy.

Reaction in financial markets was in its own way extraordinary.  The yen rose by 3% against the dollar and Japanese stocks fell by three percent.  Not only that but ripples from the Tokyo decline have spread outward to Europe, and to the US in futures trading.

I can understand domestic Japanese distress.

Conventional economic theory says that if a country weakens its currency, lowers interest rates and ups government spending, all three forms of stimulus will act together to rev up consumer and corporate spending and thereby increase GDP.  Upward wage pressure will ultimately emerge, however.  This will create inflation, causing the economy in the end to settle back to its old, slower rate of real economic expansion.  But the nominal figures will be higher because of the now-higher inflation rate.

Abenomics has done all the stimulus stuff, adding to already huge government debt and substantially reducing the purchasing power of ordinary citizens in the process.  But there’s no sign of the economic growth or of the inflation (which Japan would love to swap for the deflation now plaguing it) that theory promises.  Worse than that, the recent upward movement in the yen, helped along by today’s surge, has undone about a third of the currency weakening the government engineered a few years ago.

There are lots of possible reasons why Abenomics has not worked–aging population; resistance to immigration; entrenched, incompetent corporate managements; two political parties (one = pro-farming, the other = pro-North Korea, pro-pachinko, anti-nuclear weapons) with little relevance for modern Japanese life.

None of this is new.  After all, Japan is more than halfway through its third decade of deflationary economic stagnation.

But why the flow-through to other markets?

Maybe this is just day traders’ reflexes and the weakness outside Japan will begin to dissipate once trading in New York begins.  On the other hand, the EU has more than a passing resemblance to Japan.  It’s just not quite as old.  Maybe that’s what the world is starting to be worried about.