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.

 

 

 

 

 

yen strength a minus for Abenomics

This time a year ago $1 bought about 120 yen.  That figure was 125+ last June.  The rate was 113, however, a week ago–and 108- today.

This amounts about a 10% year-on-year gain in the yen’s purchasing power against the dollar, half of that strength during the past week.

The rise is good for consumers for whom the cost of imported items like food has skyrocketed under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  Not so good, though, for Mr. Abe’s grand plan to resuscitate his country’s still moribund industrial sector through massive currency depreciation.

There’s no particular reason for the yen to strengthen that I can see.  Yes, Mr. Abe did recently observe that aggressive intervention in currency markets is an imprudent strategy.  And, yes, this is the time of year when corporate cash flows back into Japan causes mild currency strength.  But the Bank of Japan recently initiated a negative interest rate policy designed to weaken the yen.  And in my view there’s no sign yet that Mr. Abe’s bet-the-farm gamble on 1980s-era export industries is paying off.

Yet the currency is going up.

This may just be bad luck.

If we assume that the US dollar has peaked, then the question for short-term currency traders is which of the two remaining majors, the yen or the euro, is a better bet.  Given renewed uncertainty about Greece and the upcoming vote in the UK on a referendum to exit the EU, traders may think they have little choice other than to shift their holdings toward yen.

Still, the biggest economic problem for Japan–and the reason Japan is a cautionary tale for the US–is that the political power structure there is totally committed to defending the status quo and retarding structural change.  It’s subsidizing industries whose heyday was in the 1980s, and it’s allowing its workforce to shrink by its anti-immigration stance in the face of an aging domestic population.  A rising currency will only make the circle harder to square.

 

 

Foxconn and Sharp Corp (6753), an update

A month ago, I wrote about the merger proposal for Japanese video screen maker Sharp Corp (6753) made by Taiwan-based Foxconn (aka Hon Hai Precision).  Foxconn had offered to acquire control of Sharp for roughly US$6 billion, or about twice the price that Japanese government-owned Innovation Corporate Network of Japan (ICNJ) was willing to pay for the chronic money-loser.  Nevertheless, before a public uproar over the traditional Japanese solution of hiding a problem in a government-orchestrated bailout rather than fixing it, it appeared that Sharp would opt for the ICNJ offer.  So much for Abenomics.

Three developments since then:

–it is now clear that neither proposal involved buying Sharp shares from existing shareholders.  Both Foxconn and ICNJ intended to purchase new stock from Sharp itself.  On the positive side, that would mean that Sharp would receive all the funds.  On the negative, existing shareholders–meaning the investing public in Japan–would be severely diluted.

–apparently feeling significant public pressure from the disparity between the two offers, the board of directors–surprisingly, to me–chose Foxconn over the ICNJ!

–yesterday, on the eve of the change of control, Foxconn announced it was suspending its offer.  According to Reuters, this was because in the final, official disclosure of financial documents by Sharp, Foxconn learned the company had US$2.7 billion in liabilities it had not known about previously.  

Sharp says the liabilities were properly disclosed in its financial statements.  I interpret as meaning that, yes, Sharp didn’t bring the subject up in negotiations, despite its importance, but that there was a least an oblique hint in its publicly disclosed financial reports that these liabilities might exist.  It also sounds to me as if Sharp had a higher legal disclosure requirement in the case of takeover, which it fulfilled at the last minute, hoping no one would notice.

 

My thoughts:

–Welcome to Japan.

–One Reuters report says the liabilities are “contingent” ones, meaning that in some way future events will determine whether Sharp is on the hook for the $2.7 billion.  These might be guarantees for the borrowings of other companies, like suppliers or customers.  They might be warranties, or guarantees of minimum purchases from suppliers, or guarantees that Sharp products in the hands of merchants can be returned for full refunds if not sold.  In any event, however, there are a whole lot of them.  Foxconn’s action implies it believes the contingencies are pretty likely.

–Foxconn says it still wants to go through with the deal, but presumably at a lower price.

 

the yen and the unraveling of Abenomics

Last week the Tokyo stock market had two days in which the benchmark Topix index fell by more than 5%.  For the week as a whole, the market declined by 12.5% (the quirky Nikkei 225, the Japanese equivalent of the Dow, fell by 11%).

This has little to do with worries about the oil price or about a global economic slowdown, in my view.  This is all about Abenomics.

The three “arrows” rhetoric aside, the idea behind Abenomics has been to create extraordinary short-term economic stimulus in Japan through huge depreciation of the currency, large increases in government deficit spending and a big expansion of the money supply.

It has been clear from the outset that all three of these actions will leave deep permanent scars on the Japanese economic landscape.  However, their purpose has been to buy time and space for export-oriented Japanese industry to restructure and modernize.  That would, in turn, allow these firms to hire more workers and increase wages for all.  In the eyes of Abe boosters, the benefits brought by a revitalized industrial base would more than offset the body blows caused by depreciation, inflation and an increase in already gargantuan outstanding government debt.

It has also been clear that Abenomics can’t take infinite time to work. Shock-and-awe stimulus is temporary; waves of it are progressively less effective.  Theory and practical experience both say that without substantive changes an economy tends to revert to its previous torpid state after a few years   …except there’s higher inflation.

In Japan’s case, industry hasn’t voluntarily restructured.  Government continues to protect recalcitrant corporate managements from outsiders skillful enough, wealthy enough and willing enough to take on the modernizing task.  So far, then, Abenomics has all been jam tomorrow, as Lewis Carroll put it.

Since the beginning of this month, early in the fourth year since the launch of Abenomics, the yen has risen by about 7% against the US$, 8% against the renminbi and about half that against the €.

This strength is a bit surprising, since it comes immediately after further stimulus by the Bank of Japan in the form of negative interest rates.  Investors in Tokyo are reading the currency strength as the first sign that the window of opportunity for Abenomics to succeed is starting to close.

I’m not sure this interpretation is completely correct.  But, having been an Abenomics skeptic from day one, I won’t argue that it’s wrong, either.

For people like me, who continue to watch from the sidelines, Japan is important to the rest of the world as a tourist destination, but mostly as a cautionary tale about the limits of monetary policy and the dangers of special interest politics determined to defend the status quo.