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?

 

the trouble(s) with the luxury goods industry

For most of the past quarter-century, the publicly traded luxury goods industry, both companies based in the EU and in the US, has been a source of almost continual outperformance.

the old pattern

Its appeal rested (and I do mean the past tense) on two major trends:

–the gradual aging of the working population in the US and EU.  A twenty- or thirty-something in either area typically aspires to own a work wardrobe, a car and a house.  A forty- or fifty-something, in contrast, wants to own jewelry and a vacation house, and to go on a cruise.

So the rising affluence of older workers in the US and Europe has meant increasing demand for luxury goods.

–growth in Japan and the development of capitalism in China, beginning with Deng’s turn away from Mao in the late 1970s.  Again, increasing affluence has sparked higher demand for globally recognized luxury goods.  In addition, in China “gifts” (read: bribes) of luxury goods have long greased the wheels of bureaucratic approval of new projects–until the ongoing anti-corruption crackdown there began a few years ago, that is.

What has been less well understood is that the unit profits from selling a given luxury good in either China or Japan has been much, much higher than elsewhere (double would be my first approximation).  This means that if Japan/China accounted for 25% of a company’s sales (and a sales figure would typically be all a luxury goods firm would announce), they would represent half the company’s profits.

the new

–the rise of Millennials (the suit, car, house people) in the US and EU and the gradual retirement–and loss of income–of Boomers are putting a crimp in demand for luxury goods in these areas.

–luxury goods sales in Japan have hit a brick wall in recent years.  This is partly demographics, partly the immense loss in purchasing power that the Abenomics-induced depreciation of the yen has caused.

–the China case is a little more complicated.  The main reason for the falloff in Western luxury goods sales there is, of course, the anti-corruption campaign.  But even before this, there was a clear trend of high-end consumers in China away from foreign luxury brands and toward domestic ones.   It also seems to me that years of economic stagnation in the EU have further undermined the image of European brands as cultural symbols of power and influence.  So my guess is that even as/when the anti-corruption campaign runs its course, the bounceback of traditional European luxury goods sales will be muted.

my bottom line

Studying stock performance patterns of the past twenty or thirty years suggests that major selloffs of luxury goods stocks are always buying opportunities.  I don’t think this will be the case any longer.   This is not to say the stocks won’t go up in market rallies.  They likely will.  Bur they won’t be leaders.   And the best-known names will lag firms that primarily serve Millennials, as well as companies that tap into growing consumption in China.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Japan as a possible future for the US

Japan, in my subjective view

As I wrote yesterday, the Japanese economy continues to limp along at about stall speed, hugging closely to the 0% line between growth and contraction.  There are several reasons for this, in my :

–an aging population

–strong social prejudice against accepting women as working professionals (meaning Japan wastes potentially half its workforce)

–strong aversion to foreigners that manifests itself as an unwillingness to allow immigration

–therefore, a shrinking workforce

–money-based politics that fiercely defends the status quo

–veneration of age as the source of wisdom, meaning that older managers can’t/won’t solicit/accept suggestions from younger, more technically competent, subordinates

–a docile electorate

the US is the same, in…

–an aging population

–lingering discrimination against women

–growing political (shoot-yourself-in-the-foot) pressure to limit immigration overall, and especially by high skilled professionals from Asia

–money-based politics that defends the status quo, seen, among other places, in failure to reform the federal tax code (Japan and the US have the highest rates in the OECD)

the US differs, in…

–having a younger population than Japan, meaning we have time to make changes–and the example of the fate of Japan to motivate us to do so

–a better record on hiring women (not a high bar, though)

–political and cultural embracing of youthful entrepreneurs and disruptive ideas

summing up

The US has younger population tan Japan and a more vigorous economy, but is carrying similar dead-weight in the forces of the status quo, typified by politics in Washington.

In the past 25 years, Japanese voters have voted on two occasions to toss the dominant Liberal Democratic  Party out of office and replace it with the Democrats (formerly the Social Democrats, and the Socialists before that).  Both occasions triggered bitter intra-party warfare about who should receive credit for the victory.  Nothing got done, so voters quickly reselected the LDP, as the lesser of two evils.

Hopefully, we can do better than that.