Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Flash! Crossholdings Unwound

In a research report dated 21st of August, 2006, K. Nishiyama of Nomura Securities says: The final figure makes it clear to us companies have finished unwinding their cross-shareholdings. The final figure is the approximately 11% of oustanding market cap (excluding listed subsidiaries/affiliates and the holdings of life & non-life insurance companies) that has held steady at this level (again) as it has for the past calendar years. This is from a peak in 1990 of 50% of outstanding market capitalization (including insurance co's holdings) and 33% which is the amount sympahtetic to the current constant 11%. It took more than a decade and a half, but it's finally done!

So can investors rest easier now? Or even better, can they look forward to the time when managers try to please them, above their affections to other constituents (i.e. management themselves!), as well as non-executive employees, suppliers, customers, and government ministry officialdom? That is an interesting question, for one must remember that there is much overlap here. For while the companies may have shed their holdings, one would be premature to say these holdings have found themselves homes in the hands of stable (or for that matter unstable market-oriented investors. This is because "Government" has not finished intermediating the "great unwinding". Through the DIC (Deposit Insurance Corporation, the BoJ and its affiliates, and Daiko Henjo pension giveback share acquisitions programs, the Government (and thus the people) own quadruple-digit billions of yen worth of shares.

Why should we care about this technical distinction? Investors should care for several reasons. First, these shares are in purgatory. An institutional half-way house, so to speak. Some must be unwound within the next several years. Second, the State of Japan was nearly downgraded by Moody's not long ago, and they've continued to run > 6% per annum fiscal deficits. So although they may not want to sell the proverbial family silver, their accumulated Debt-to-GDP ratio may cause them to sell against their wishes. And remember: these are no small lines of stock, but a vast amount of shares in virtually every enterprise in Japan. Mind you, this is not a prognostication that Japanese shares will be going lower any time soon (though I do not preclude this from happening), but rather to take such "All Clear!!" proclaimations with a touch of skepticism.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Enigma of Martin Armstrong

Some memories fade, but are not forgotten. The same holds true for certain personalities, particularly the bizarrre and eccentric. One such notorious individual is Martin Armstrong a.k.a. Princeton Economics a.k.a. self-professed expert in the history of money and things gold, and of course, true to my theme of things Japanese. He was accused of Ponzi fraud and the purveyor of the notoriously unvaluable "Cresvale Bonds" that besotted Japanese corporate investors and populated their portfolios, much to their eventual chagrin. Coincidentally, in a bout of synchronicity, I was wondering only a few weeks ago what's become of him and was preparing a post, so it is timely indeed that after languishing for six and a half years in a Manhattan jail cell, he finally pleaded guilty to charges fo Fraud on Thursday, August 17th 2006.

In a nutshell, Martin Armstrong was a confidence trickster, if not a fraudster for which he was accused. Martin Armstrong was also a bad trader. A very very bad and inept trader. And Martin Armstrong committed fraud to cover up his bad trades. And then he committed more trades to cover up his fraud. Most in Nikkei and Gold. Despite the laughable ineptitude with which he implemented his "strategies", by most accounts he was smooth, suave and authoritative, in a way that encouraged people to entrust to him their money. Which he duly lost. Many many hundred of millions of US doillars. Perhaps billions. The official court dockets (available on-line) from his 1999 indictment in the Manhattan district of US Federal Court read like a Shakespearean comedy. The more he traded, the more he lost. So much and so bad were his trades that his colleagues, and brokers mercilessly joked about it behind his back. He was so consistently wrong-footed in his bets that he would have done far better flipping a coin to decide whether or not to be long or short. Or use the infamous "8-Ball" method. Or consult Nancy Reagan's financial astrologer, or ask the advice of Paul Wolfowitz. Anything but use his own judgement.

Though his company, Princeton Economics, had head offices in the US, he traded from Tokyo in an office overlooking the gardens of the Imperial Palace. For Japan has a special place in his scheme. You see, the Japanese too, in undertaking their own form of speculation known as Zaitech, had lost billions in late 80's and early 90's on dubiously-thought-out wrong-footed speculation and investment. Like Martin Armstrong, and other agent-trader victims shell-shocked by large lossess, they were too ashamed and emabrassed to tell their shareholders that they had punted wrongly, or in UK football vernacular, scored an "own-goal". Not willing to "come clean, they found themselves with a serious problem and yearned for a clever and tidy solution that would absolve them of the thing they feared most, which was NOT the losing of the money itself, but accepting responsibility, a dilemma not unlike that faced by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Enter Martin Armstrong and the almost forgotten Cresvale Securities. He too had a problem since his golden-tongued investment plans, proved rather less robust than hoped [and promised] and resulted in large trading losses for his clients. It seems that he was able to continue his scheme and make payments to the clients who redeemed by using the proceeds from new investors. This, however was proving more difficult as losses mounted, and so he need new clients. Big clients. Well-heeled clients who wouldn't be asking for their money back any time soon. Like money from a dead persons trust. A better yet, a dead-pet trust. Or even better: a Japanese corporate client that themselves had a dirty big secret to hide.

And so they found each other: the companies, like an inveterate gambler, desperate for an investment saviour who would, over time, regain their previous losses, rescuing them from humiliation and shame they most dreaded (not to mention a demotion to the Corporate Travel Office, or Janitorial Services Dept.) and Armstrong, now with a fresh load of clients, and more importantly, their cash. In between them stood Cresvale Japan, the securities firm who brought them together, gave legitamacy to both their pursuits, and took nice fees out of the middle in the process, and in so doing torpedoed themselves out of existence.

The scheme worked something like this: Japanese Corporate 'Y' perhaps lost $100,000,000 speculating through a subsidiary, selling Nikkei Put Options or buying boatloads of overvalued shares after consulting with Madame Inoue's Buddhist toad. They were able to hide this for a while by playing "pass the parcel". perhaps between offshore subsidiaries with different year-ends. Thus their consolidated accounts still showed these losses as assets at their full value on their balance sheets. So Armstrong/Cresvale prposed they swap $50,000,000 of new money for a "repair bond" with a maturity value equal to the full $150,000,000 ($100mm of losses + $50mm of new money) and then let Magic Martin do his thing. If things went right, they would make their money back and everyone wins. If something goes wrong, well they can blame the investment losses on Armstrong, call it fraud, and take write-offs, without having to take responsibility in the first instance. (note: this is sketch of the essence, not the actual details).

This is all interesting, but what really fascinated about this story is that in the mid-90s, certain un-named American value investors had eyed a number of Japanese companies that they believed "cheap" because they seemed to have large amounts of cash & marketable securities on their balance sheets, relative to their now-diminished market capitalizations. In some cases it was in excess of their entire market capitalization. Many reasons were put forth explaining the phenomena such as: "empire building"; "saving for a rainy day"; "deflation"; "management conservativeness"; "investor pessimism"; "adverse taxes upon large distributions"; "legal inability to conduct share buy-backs" etc. All seemed somewhat plausible. Conspicuous by its absence, except as speculated by the most hardened, battle weary cynical gaijin observers was: "because it doesn't exist".

But clearly some people HAD to know about their losses. For other foreign banks were in the repair bond business. And many of the companies themselves were household names. Maybe their businesses were not as fraudulent as Armstrong's, but nonetheless their audited accounts and actions were meant to deceive shareholders by masking losses and allowing them be amortized over many years.

Annd since we are writing it, we all now know that things didn't go according to planned. When the Armstrong fraud broke, many of the guilty Japanese Corporates had to come clean. Sort of. They said they were victims of fraud (and some truly were unsuspecting purchasers of Cresvale Bonds), but the "repair Bond" concept and angle was often lost on most observers. Yakult Honsha (TSE#2267) was said to have $1bn of losses, as well as engineering firm Chudenko (#1941); specialty chemcial maker Gun-Ei Co. (#4229) pharma co's. Kissei (#4547), and Towa Pharm (#4553), machine-tool giant Amada Corp (#6113), pneumatic specialist SMC (#6273), eletronic parts mfgr Alps Electric (#6770) advertising agency Asatsu (#9747), office furniture maker Itoki Crebio (#7972) and more than 50 other firms were deemed to be "stung". Yakult's losses were so big that they couldn't blame Armstrong, but many other co.s did, and were "absolved" of culpability for their original sins.

The epilogue was that Armstrong, accused of Fraud, sat in jail for contempt of court, not brought forth to trial for failure to turnover evidence and in particular, tell authorities the whereabouts of $15mm of gold and silver coins and bronze statues he'd squirreled away. It was the longest such languishment for contempt in United States history. All the while, he's claimed that he was innocent of the fraud. I make no judgement here, but it seems likely from the court documents and testimony that he did commit fraud in the form of the ponzi that used new proceeds to pay old losses. His brokers, Republic Bank, (now the behemoth HSBC) coughed up nearly USD$600mm for their part of not alerting autorities to the potential wrong-doing, whichh court documents alledge, they were well aware. But most of the losses were not "embezzlement" or "theft", per se, as the newspapers and Japanese Corporates would have readers believe, but out-and-out ineptitude and shitty trading, for which is no crime, excepting one's sensibilities of the good, the bad, the random and the ugly.

His guilty plea may reflect that Armostrong the man met Armstrong the fraudster. Or it may reflect Armstrong's understanding that having spent six years in jail, an admission of guilt might allow him to squeeze a few years of freedom in his (no pun intended) "Golden Years".

For investors, the only the protection they can afford themselves is doing appropriate due diligence and being highly skeptical of anything that purports to be "too good to be true", or turn base metals or paper into errrrr gold.