Japan in recession …again

Assuming we take the simple, but commonly accepted, definition of recession as two consecutive quarters of negative real GDP growth as our measure–and there’s no real reason not to, I think–Japan slipped back into recession during its last fiscal quarter.  The reason:  in Groundhog Day-like fashion, the Tokyo government tightened fiscal policy prematurely earlier in the year, producing the same negative result for the third time in recent memory.

Three observations:

–the Japan experience is the reason Janet Yellen is so wishy-washy about raising interest rates in the US

–in a certain sense, technical recession isn’t as bad a thing for Japan as it wold be for, say, the US or China.

How so?

GDP growth comes from two sources:  having more people working, or having existing workers perform their jobs more efficiently.  Unlike the view (often) expressed by one of my Depression-era former bosses, productivity increases don’t come from imposing sweat shop working conditions.  They come from investment in education, training and productivity-enhancing equipment.

In Japan’s case, the domestic working population peaked around 1995 and has been falling by about 0.5% per year since.  One obvious solution to this problem would be to allow foreign workers to immigrate.  But, although there has been some slight movement lately, Japan’s borders remain rigidly closed to outsiders.

Productivity?   From 1950 – 19980, Japan was a productivity wonder.  However, Japan has struggled to keep up with the more intensive pace of change since then.  Why?  I think the rigidly hierarchical nature of company social interaction in traditional Japanese companies stifles the voice of innovation from younger employees.

Let’s say, though, that somehow Japan achieves productivity increases of +1% annually despite the “no comments; just follow orders” attitude of top managements.  I think that’s too much, but let’s go with it.  If so, the overall economy needs half that figure to overcome the decline in the workforce.  Real GDP growth has a trend ceiling of +0.5%.

So, the maximum sustainable rate of GDP expansion in Japan is barely north of zero.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if that figure spends considerable time south of breakeven.  As long as the numbers don’t get too negative, Japan will continue to stumble along on its journey to economic insignificance.

–what makes Japan important, interesting …and scary for the US and the EU is that we’re seeing a possible future for us in the Japan of today.

More on this tomorrow.

Toshiba and the Japanese business establishment

First there was the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, where nuclear power plants were installed incorrectly and both the utility and government regulators falsified inspection reports to cover this up.

Then there was Olympus Optical, whose tip management lost billions in stock market speculation because it was unwilling to restructure loss-making operations and covered up the fact for over a decade by fabricating its financial statements.

Now there’s Toshiba, which falsified results for years, under pressure from unrealistic profit goals set by a series of CEOs  (shades of Jack Welsh at GE).


Not that surprising, in my view, given the Japanese corporate world’s widespread adherence to a samurai-like code of absolute, unquestioning obedience to instructions given by older/more senior managers in one’s company.  After all, many of these enterprises have their origin in samurai cast adrift as regional warlords were marginalized during the early shogun days.

This mindset is also a reason why a lot of Japanese business is still stuck in the 1980s–that the world is changing at a fast clip, but you pretty much have to have white hair before anyone will listen to what you have to say.  To be clear, I don’t think this samurai-ness is a universal attitude in Japan as a whole.  Unfortunately,it thrives in the Tokyo/Osaka-based, export-oriented industrial sector which is the primarily beneficiary of the deep depreciation of the yen engineered by PM Abe.

Why don’t out-of-date sixty- and seventy-somethings just retire and let a younger generation take the reins?

For one thing, speaking as a sixty-something myself, it’s hard to go from being king of the world to being just another nameless retiree.

I think, however,that there may also be a deeper, more damaging reason than the ego problems of the people in charge:

One of the first companies I followed as an analyst was a small copier manufacturer/distributor.  The firm was in enough financial trouble that it bought breathing room by selling a large chunk of its plant and equipment and leasing it back from a bank.  That netted $50 million or so in cash.

Soon afterward, Carl Icahn bought  5%-10% of the company’s stock and threatened to make a hostile bid for the rest.  The firm quickly bought back Icahn’s shares for, as I recall, about a 30% premium.  I was shocked.  I didn’t get it at all.

Only when the firm subsequently went into Chapter 11 did I learn the CEO, a former accountant, had been fiddling with the books for years.  That fact was the real leverage Icahn had over his target, whether he knew it or not.  The CEO couldn’t let an outsider in, because the accounting shenanigans would be discovered and he would be disgraced.

I don’t know, but I suspect–because I’ve seen the same pattern in numerous smaller firms in Japan that Olympus and Toshiba are only the tip of the iceberg in Tokyo.  If I’m correct, Abenomics is even more problematic than I’ve been writing.







Abenomics and outside corporate directors

The original plan—and, in my opinion, fatal flaw—of Abenomics regarding reform of industry in Japan to make it more profitable was to depreciate the yen in a significant way that would supposedly compel now-more-profitable corporation to invest in expansion.  That would increase the number of employed and boost wages for all.  This would, in turn, generate a positive, self-reinforcing spiral of economic activity.

The depreciation has happened.  The hoped-for wage increases, employment gains and new investment haven’t.  This has been devastating for ordinary Japanese citizens, for whom a sharp decline in the currency has only meant an increase in the cost of living and a tremendous loss of wealth.

Tokyo has recently decided to try to force recalcitrant firms to use the increasing piles of cash that depreciation has brought them.  The vehicle is new legislation that mandates that publicly traded concerns install board members who are not insiders—that is, who have no connection with the firm.

The idea is that these fresh eyes and new voices will somehow compel companies to change their ways.  The initiative has received lots of praise from brokerage firms and the financial press.  For Japan’s sake, I hope they’re right.  Unfortunately for the country, my guess is that this enthusiasm is misplaced.

My son-in-law and I were talking about this the other day.  He immediately said what I have been thinking from the start—“What about Olympus?”

The Olympus in question if Olympus Optical (8831).

Several years ago, the head of that company’s European operations was made CEO of the entire company.  An outsider but an accomplished businessman, the new CEO found that he was not given the full access to corporate information he (justifiably) expected.  His requests for certain data were routinely deflected by the rest of the board.  Through a combination of whistleblower information and forensic accounting he conducted in secret, the CEO discovered a massive accounting fraud Olympus had been perpetrating since the early 1990s.  (The company hit hard times in the late 1980s.  Embarrassed, and unwilling to restructure, Olympus decided to supplement profits with stock market speculation.  The company, of course, experienced massive losses and covered the whole mess up.)  After confronting key board members, he ended up resigning and fleeing the country, saying that he feared for his life.

I’m not contending that the introduction of outside board members it going to create a whole raft of new Olympus-like incidents (although if there were a way to wager a small amount that there would be at least one, I’d be willing to bet).

am saying that I think the culture of protecting the status quo and of regarding any sort of restructuring as meaning creating/enduring life-shattering shame is still pervasive in Japan–and that simply adding a few outside directors won’t be enough to change that.

To my mind, the obvious thing to do is to dismantle the legislation enacted in the 1990s to protect Japanese companies from potential foreign acquirers–and therefore from activists.  But I don;t see that as on the cards any time soon.

inheritance tax changes as a lever for structural change in Japan

value investing and corporate change…

One of the basic tenets of value investing in the US is that when a company is performing badly, one of two favorable events will occur:  either the board of directors will make changes to improve results; or if the board is unwilling or incapable of doing so, a third party will seize control and force improvements to be made.

…hasn’t worked in Japan

Not so in Japan, as many Westerners have learned to their sorrow over the thirty years I have been watching the Japanese economy/market.

Two reasons for this:

culturally it’s abhorrent for any person of low status (e.g., a younger person, a woman or a foreigner) to interfere in any way with–or even to comment less than 100% favorably on–a person of high status.  So change from within isn’t a real possibility.

–in the early 1990s, as the sun was setting on Japanese industry, the Diet passed laws that make it impossible for a foreign firm to buy a large Japanese company without the latter’s consent–which is rarely, if ever, given.

The resulting enshrinement of the status quo circa 1980 has resulted in a quarter century of economic stagnation.

Abenomics to the rescue?

Abenomics, which intends to raise Japan from its torpor, consists of three “arrows”–massive currency devaluation, substantial deficit government spending and radical reform of business practices.

Now more than two years in, the devaluation and spending arrows have been fired, at great cost to Japan’s national wealth–and great benefit to old-style Japanese export companies.  But there’s been no progress on reform.  The laws preventing change of control remain in place.  And there’s zero sign that corporations–many of whose pockets have been filled to the brim by arrows 1 and 2, are voluntarily modernizing their businesses.  Mr. Abe’s failure to make any more than the most cosmetic changes in corporate governance in Japan is behind my belief that Abenomics will end in tears.

One ray of sunshine, though.

Japan raised its inheritance tax laws at the end of last year, as the Financial Times reported yesterday.  The change affects three million small and medium-sized companies.

The top rate for inheritance tax is 55%, with payment due by the heir ten months after the death of the former holder.   This development is prompting small business owners to consider how to improve their operations to make their firms salable in the event the owner dies.  More important, it’s making them open to overtures from Western private equity firms for the first time.  Increasing competition from small firms may well force their larger brethren to reform as well.

For Japan’s sake, let’s hope this is the thin edge of the wedge.



overnight: sharp drop in the yen, global stock market rally

what’s going on

A month or so ago–I don’t remember the exact timing–the Japanese central bank expressed concern that its weak yen policy was great for export-oriented companies but was hurting ordinary citizens, since food, fuel and other daily necessities are generally priced in dollars.  So these items cost a quarter or a third more today than they did before Abenomics kicked in.  The Bank of Japan intimated strongly that, because of the deterioration in citizens’ living standards, it was no longer interested in further yen weakness.

This morning in Tokyo the Bank reversed course and voted 5 – 4 to increase the amount of extra money it’s pumping into the economy, in what is now an all-out effort to create 2% inflation.

The yen has dropped by about 2.5% against the dollar, as I’m writing this just at the NY open.  The Japanese stock market rose by about 5% on the announcement.  Europe and US stock index futures are up as well.

my take

As I’ve written, probably too many times, I think Abenomics will end in tears.  Continuing currency weakness will just make the ultimate bad outcome worse.  That’s because I believe the root cause of Japan’s quarter-century economic malaise is that the country has chosen to defend its traditional way of life at the expense of economic progress.  One result has been to perpetuate a culture of covering up industrial/manufacturing mistakes.  Fukushima Daiichi is a terrible example; Takata airbags are the latest.  Impossible legal and cultural bars, many erected in the 1990s, still exist to removing from power people at the top of the pagoda, so to speak.

Continuing currency weakness will, in theory, buy more time for change to occur.  Admittedly, I’m no longer in close contact with the Japanese economy, but I don’t see any signs that effective change is happening.  Without it, the depreciation of the yen will mostly mean a massive loss of national wealth–and more time in power for incompetent industrialists.

(In my view, France and Italy have almost exactly the same issues.)

So, while the new tide of central bank money into the world will likely make markets move higher for a while, its main effect will probably be to smooth over economic bumps in the road for the US and China.  We should enjoy the ride.  But we’ve also got to think about how to defend ourselves from the ultimate negative consequences for Japan–and anyone who does business with/in the Land of Wa.




crunch time for Abenomics in Japan

The economic program of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revitalize a Japanese economy that has been dormant for a quarter century has three main points, or “arrows”:

–increased deficit spending by a national government already very deeply in debt,

–loose money policy to weaken the currency, making Japanese industry more competitive while supporting the dismantling of a raft of protective practices that have debilitated a once-powerful industrial base, and

–the corporate overhaul itself–the elimination of a nexus of laws and policies that have perpetuated now-outmoded industrial practices from the 1960s-1980s, and which have  also made it virtually impossible to replace the incompetent top managements that have run many Japanese companies into the ground.

Arrows #1 and #2 have been fired successfully.

To my mind, however, Abenomics has always been about the government’s ability to fire arrow #3.

That’s not going so well.  More than that, almost thirty years of watching the Japanese economy and Japanese politics have made me skeptical that meaningful structural change is possible.  The forces of the status quo are just too strong.  That’s also despite the will of Japanese citizens that such reform take place.  (In many ways, too, I see Japan today as like the Ghost of Christmas Future for the US.)

the Kuroda message

Late last week, an interesting thing happened in Tokyo.  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Haruhiko Kuroda, a career politician who is currently the head of the Bank of Japan (the equivalent of the Fed in the US), urged Mr. Abe to get going on structural reform.  “Implementation is key,” he’s quoted by the WSJ as saying, “and implementation should be swift…The major work to be done is by the government and the private sector.”  Bad things will happen to the economy otherwise.

Mr. Kuroda’s bluntness contrasts sharply with the wishy-washy statements en Bernanke has made before the US Congress about the need for supportive fiscal policy–none of which has been forthcoming–to aid the recovery in the US.

Of course, the stakes are much higher in Japan, where currency depreciation has caused a loss so far of about a quarter of the nation’s wealth, and a corresponding reduction in living standards for average citizens.  This enormous cost can only be justified if it results in structural reform.  But so far just about nothing has happened.

what needs to be done

Yes, Mr. Abe pointed out to the Journal in a response to Mr. Kuroda that electricity prices have come down and that protection of domestic rice farmers has been reduced a bit.

On the other hand, all the legislation enacted in the 1990s to prevent foreign companies from having any influence in the running of Japanese firms (takeovers of any size are virtually impossible) is still on the books.  Shareholder activists, foreign or domestic, are as unwelcome as ever.  Major Japanese investment institutions, presumably with government “guidance,” continue to take a hands-off attitude toward the companies whose stock they hold.  And companies themselves, other than perhaps the autos, seem to be in no rush to modernize the industrial practices that have caused so much economic hardship since the 1990s.

And, as Mr. Kuroda observes, time is running out for Japan.  The kind of positive jolt that deficit spending/currency devaluation/uslta-loose money give to an economy only lasts for a few years.  Without other changes, an economy gradually settles back into its former lower-growth state, only with higher inflation.  In other words, the economy in question is worse off than it was before.

For the sake of Japanese citizens, I hope Mr. Abe starts working on arrow #3 before it’s too late.  Unfortunately, almost thirty years of watching Japan tells me he’ll end up posturing a lot but doing nothing.  The only chance I see for a better outcome is if other politicians follow Mr. Kuroda’s lead and begin to speak out.  Unless/until this happens, I think the Tokyo market will continue to be an unpleasant place to be.






gambling stock arbitrage

on a winning streak

Macau gambling stocks have been on a tear recently.

During the past three months, the S&P 500 is up by 4.5%, the Hang Seng down by 1.8%

Over the same time span, Galaxy Entertainment (HK: 0027) is up by 24.4%; MGM China (2282) is up by 30.3%; Sands China (1928) has gained 32.8%; and the current star of Hong Kong (although a severe laggard until the current run), Wynn Macau (1128) is up by 40%.

The three months have seen advances by the US parents of the Macau gambling stocks, as well, but of a lesser magnitude.  MGM is up by 12.5%. LVS by 21.5% and WYNN by 21.9%.  MPEL, an unusual situation, is ahead by 25%.

arbitrage situation?

This performance differential has created an unusual valuation situation:

WYNN, for the first time I can remember, is trading at a slight discount to the value of its interest in Wynn Macau, meaning the company’s US holdings–the brand name, royalty/management fees from 1128, and the Las Vegas operations–are being valued on Wall Street at right around zero.

LVS is a less clear case, since its valuable Singapore gambling subsidiary is 100%-owned, and therefore not publicly traded.  Still, LVS’s interest in 1928 represents about 3/4 of the parent’s market cap.  Even if we valued Marina Sands at 40% of the worth of Sands China, a figure I think is too low, the total of the two subsidiaries represents about 115% of LVS’s worth on Wall Street.

MGM, in my view still by far the weakest of the Las Vegas Big Three, doesn’t get my hands racing to fill out a “buy” ticket.  But MGM does look far less risky than it has seemed to me in the past.  That’s because the value of its holding in MGM China now represents over 70% of the parent’s market cap.

why the strength in Hong Kong?

…and why should 1128 be leading the pack?  After all, Wynn Macau is presently capacity constrained, and its new casino complex won’t open until 2015.

I think the ongoing rebound in the Macau gambling market is part of the reason the stocks are strong.  Wynn Macau has been getting attention because it has been a severe laggard among the Macau casino companies in Hong Kong trading over the past year.  But I think there’s another important reason as well:

To my mind, the Hong Kong market has already understood the enormous potential size of the mainland gambling market in a way it failed to do initially.  I think it also has come to appreciate the earning power of the Las Vegas gambling model, which it woefully underestimated at first.  Now, the mind of the market, realizing that Macau has a superior product, is turning to the possibility that the Macau gambling companies can duplicate their success in other areas.  The catalyst for this is the introduction of a bill in the Japanese Diet to legalize casino gambling in that country.

What I think we’re seeing now is an anticipatory reaction to the possibility that one or more of the Macau gambling companies will get a Japanese casino license.

buy the parent or the subsidiary?

This is an age-old question–the pure play or the place where the brains of the operation have their own money.

The standard answer is that the safer place is with the parent, but the greater initial sizzle is with the subsidiary.

this situation is a little different

1.  It isn’t clear that everyone in Macau has the money or the inclination to apply for a license in Japan.

2.  It’s not a lock that everyone who applies will pass the local “suitability” tests.

3.  It isn’t clear what part of some of the various companies would hold a Japanese license.  A lot probably depends on the tax regime, but my initial thoughts are:

–for Galaxy Entertainment (0027) there’s no issue

–for WYNN, I presume a license would be held in 1128

–in the case of MGM, having a license inside 2282 means holders of the parent only have a half interest

–for LVS, it’s harder to say, since the company already has two completely unconnected Asian subsidiaries.  It could easily establish a third, meaning that Sands China holders would be left out in the cold.