A shareholder submitting a proposal for shareholder vote at an annual shareholder meeting (or via proxy) faces a litany of requirements. Very kind of corporations and the SEC to allow shareholders to submit proposals, but how convenient that boards of directors and executives are insulated from most proposals in more ways than one. Continue reading to see my “proposal” to GE.
“China poised to pass Japan as world’s No. 2 economy,” reports CNN.com. Q2 GDP figures from Japan and China show the latter exceeding the former, $1.34 trillion vs. $1.29 trillion. In 2009, it was Japan ahead for the full year, at $5.07 trillion compared to China at $4.91 trillion, according to the IMF. Given the two lost decades now in Japan, this was only a matter of time. Jesper Koll’s (veteran Japan economy expert now with JP Morgan in Tokyo) simple forecast (see quote below) represents a real and substantial opportunity for Japan. This is not a new idea or sudden realization by any means, but it is far more tangible now than ever before; it is becoming more palpable given recent developments such as the Japanese government actively courting Chinese tourists.
About 3 ½ months have passed since I sent my first letter and shareowner proposals in late-February to the Board of Directors of Internet Initiative Japan (IIJI) (JP: 3774), a leading ISP and related services (cloud computing, systems integration, etc.) in Japan. As a longtime shareholder (since 2006), my concerns included the company’s level of capital spending, its corresponding levels of depreciation, and its deteriorating returns on assets/equity/etc., the latter being partially suppressed by a large, low-yielding cash position. And my proposals involved items that a Board of Directors typically has more direct influence over (as opposed to my aforementioned concerns) such as stock splits, share repurchases, dividends, and shareholder say in significant non-core business investments.
Internet Initiative Japan (IIJI) (JP: 3774) is not a household name in the U.S., but it has carved out a niche in Japan in internet connectivity and related system services and outsourcing (essentially it is a high-tech ISP catering to businesses and government with growing potential in cloud computing and mobile access). Overnight in Tokyo it reported better-than-expected full-year earnings, forecast top and bottom-line growth in the current fiscal year ending next March (albeit on the soft/conservative side), hiked its dividend for the fiscal-year ended in March by 11% and is targeting an 11% hike for the current year’s dividend. IIJ surged in the afternoon session in Tokyo following its earnings release, reaching limit-up at ¥259,300 (ADR equivalent of $7.00) and closing at ¥245,000 ($6.61), compared its Nasdaq close $5.68 on Thursday. This is all good news, but it will likely get even better, much better, because IT investments in Japan have been largely held back, and IIJ’s board can take more of an initiative to enhance shareholder value, something for which I hope to be a catalyst.
More often than not, it is overseas factors that have the largest influence on trading in Japan. However, from time to time there is enough commotion domestically that also warrants the attention of investors. Unfortunately, the cacophony coming out of the government these days is more concerning than usual (e.g. Japan Post management/reform, debt moratorium, JAL, etc). But let’s not forget earnings season is here.
Following is a market summary of last week’s action courtesy of the Tokyo Stock Exchange:
Despite the decline in the American exchanges reflecting weak corporate financial statements, the market continued with slight gains from the previous week backed by the strong tone of the Asian stock market. Further into the week, rising prices of oil and other commodities in the commodities market led to buying centered around resource stocks as the market strenghtened. Heading into the weekend, while there were positives with the yen falling to the 91 yen-per-dollar level, easing concerns over deterioration in corporate export estimates, many uncertainties such as the reconstruction of JAL and the direction on the moratorium remained. In addition, a wait-and-see sentiment grew amongst investors as they chose to wait for the announcement of July-September period financial statements by domestic corporations. As a result, the market struggled to make any headway.
For Japan, the 1990s are commonly referred to as the “lost decade.” Those that know me are aware that I look beyond that and actually regard a quarter-century as the appropriate “lost” duration. However, if one really thinks about what has transpired and where we are today, it is rather impressive that Japan continues to function in much the same way. Similar to Jesper Koll, who is now head of Tantallon Research, I find promise in Japan’s sustained, and comparatively large, investment in capex.
The problem for equity investors is one of procyclicality. And unfortunately, the global recession has displayed all the things that could go wrong and did (among them, the velocity of capital fleeing; widespread asset correlation; and the lack of sovereign unity towards a concerted acknowledgment and solution). Meanwhile, interestingly, Japanese companies keep plugging away, while both domestic and overseas consumers, and investors, alike, keep shying away. Unsurprisingly, I see no change in the procyclical behavior of people, whether in government, the markets, or among consumers. It almost seems like a catch-22 to be publicly traded.
In closing, as we rapidly approach the extended Golden Week holiday, let’s remember that the economic situation could be far worse than what it is. A decent chunk of companies will report earnings prior to GW, while a majority will be reporting after. The mood seems to be one of deflated expectations that go hand-in-hand with deflated results and outlooks. Although deflated does not mean dead, it means for the time being a misguided cap on the promise of what could come out of all the capex. The reality is that the best way to play Japan is either to be a trader, or to look for dividend yield supported by stable cash flows. In all likelihood, the Nikkei remains range bound: 7,000 at the bottom and 9,000 to the upside.
Pricey, and Japanese stocks, are typically not heard together in the same sentence. However, since last September’s market rout, earnings have deteriorated to the point that the Nikkei 225 is trading at over 175x forward earnings; 10.1x on a trailing basis. No doubt the ratio will swell some more, potentially going negative for a quarter, before it begins to ease. For some time now, I have believed that Japanese stocks are being priced fairly by the market. Still, it remains true that money managers the world over see deep value in Japan.
In order to prevent this article from getting long winded I will summarize my position as follows: (1) Recent trading has been ostensibly positive given the strong rally in percentage terms off the bottom, but the action has been quite thin; which leads me to point (2) in that the 9,000 level has proven pretty elusive due it being right about the middle point of last year’s finish and this year’s high (remember the N225 flirted with 6,000 a month ago); and (3) buying up headline exporters and bank stocks is the easy and obvious way to play, but lack of participation and depth in this rally will surely create a situation of more range bound trading between 7,000 and 9,000. Therefore, with all eyes on the U.S., and with the country’s financial magicians seemingly running out of rabbits, I would exercise caution at current levels. Aside from media cheerleading, last check the economic negatives far outweighed the positives.
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What to watch: Monday, 3/31: February Industrial Production; Tuesday, 4/1: Tankan (watch capex spending outlook and yen/dollar predictions — the FY07 second-half ¥/$ prediction for the December survey was 113.79 compared to 114.23-33 in the Sept. and Mar. surveys and a most recent quote of about ¥99).