Like many others, I became aware of John Brooks’ Business Adventures after the recent WSJ essay by Bill Gates wherein Gates said the book was his favorite of the business genre and that it was Warren Buffett’s recommendation to him in 1991 when he asked Buffett for his best business read (the story goes that Buffett mailed Gates his personal copy and Gates has kept it to this day). I’m in the middle of chapter three (about the U.S. federal income tax) but wanted to share a few notes from the first chapter, “The Fluctuation: The Little Crash in ’62” [chapter two is a 50-page entry about the failed Ford Edsel, a rather quick, enjoyable and informative read].
In a recent article by IBD about the attractiveness of foreign stocks, Dennis Stattman (a manager of the $60 billion BlackRock Global Allocation — ticker: MDLOX), commented that there is a lot to like in Japan. Dennis cited upward earnings revisions; corporate managers starting shareholder-friendly policies; and attractive valuations. He believes Japan is in the very early stages of a multi-year bull market.
For many investors, dyed-in-the-wool value investors especially, buying a stock is not as simple as inputting a buy order — as in value investors need to have done their research and fundamental analysis, the company ought to have for instance some sort of moat (and be a compounder whose shares are priced reasonably if not cheaply) or be trading at a discount to x variable(s) [e.g. margin of safety via current or tangible assets; resource conversion opportunity], and one must have the capital available to establish a position. Further, how much stock does one buy at first; how much of an order will get filled for a smaller cap company? Although, once a position is established and fully-invested, it ought to be more of an auto-pilot mode in the sense of turn off the “quote machine” and let the company work for you.
Nomura’s (NYSE: NMR) (TYO: 8604) monthly “Individual Investor Survey” was released yesterday. (Here’s my walk-through for May). Japanese investors are slightly more bullish, while they remain concerned about international affairs with a particular interest in forex developments, naturally. Their top sector focus (most appealing/unappealing) was unchanged: they like capital goods and autos, somewhat surprisingly in my opinion; bearish on transportation and utilities, unsurprisingly. Japanese investors seem to always have a place in their heart for higher yielding currencies, hence their fondness for the Australian dollar, though they also like the yen, which is interesting because 65% of respondents see a weaker yen on the horizon. So what investment do Japanese investors like most?
Sanrio (TYO: 8136) (OTC: SNROF) shares have taken a beating the past several months and really got hammered last week — “blame” Goldman Sachs for the latter, as it appears that its post-earnings report casting undue pessimism and uncertainty on Sanrio’s business model fueled the selloff and compelled Morgan Stanley-MUFG Securities to publish a copycat note. (Sanrio’s statement emphasizing profit-focus and no plans to abandon lucrative licensing business.) Attracted to Sanrio’s high ROE, a weakening yen, and “Cool Japan” marketing in overseas markets that only solidifies the popularity and brand recognition of flagship character, Hello Kitty, I had the fortunate timing of building a position in Sanrio’s ordinary shares in Q4’12 ahead of a sizable run up in 2013. Following are some lessons learned from that profitable investment and the intraday 23% drop Sanrio’s shares suffered last Thursday.
Value investors will still find excellent valuations in Japan despite the market’s gains over the past several weeks. As I say again, in my latest exclusive at Seeking Alpha, “Investing in Japan Beyond the Platitudes,” the most interesting opportunities are in domestic-demand small/mid-cap companies. I’ve received a number of messages asking about WisdomTree’s hedged Japan Equity fund (DXJ). Yes, DXJ has done well, much better than iShares Japan (EWJ), in this rally. However, I’m not a big fan of DXJ for some of the same reasons I don’t like EWJ. Over 270 portfolio holdings for DXJ and 300 for EWJ mean outside of the top-few positions no one stock is really going to move the needle; the top holdings are not dissimilar from the benchmark indexes nor the one-trick pony mutual fund managers. Exporters are already cyclical and the demand/supply (selling) of their shares only makes them more cyclical — this is even more a concern should positions get closed en masse in DXJ given its smaller asset base that has surged only recently.
Finally, I don’t see the yen “blowing up” — it’s not as simple as some may wish or have been led to believe to see a currency like the yen or a country like Japan “blow up” in a straight line. Beware macro pontification coattailing. The great 2005 Nikkei rally saw a roughly 10% weakening of the yen. Overnight, Economy Minister Akira Amari warned excessive yen appreciation may benefit exporters but would hurt people’s livelihoods. The business press is concluding Minister Amari as having suggested the yen has weakened enough. In fact, too weak of a yen begins to hurt exporters if materials costs don’t start to decrease. In this sense, the input environment is quite different than ’05; ditto the strength of the global economy now vs. then.
I recently wrote an article published exclusively on Seeking Alpha, entitled, “Why GE’s Buyback is a Raw Deal for Shareholders.” Share repurchase programs are trumpeted out and rarely questioned. I believe that many, but not enough, investors understand that buybacks can be largely self-serving and hardly in shareowners’ best interests. I encourage you to read the above linked story (link visible in full article view) on GE and note the fact that the impact of share buybacks when looking at shares outstanding is very dismal; stock price performance is equally unimpressive.
Barron’s Kopin Tan writes about the Nikkei’s reversal this year in the International Trader – Asia section (first half discusses Prada’s valuation) of this week’s edition. After being the best-performing market in Q1, the Nikkei has slid 16% since its peak in late March. The vicissitudes of the market should not weigh on value investors. In a phone conversation I told Tan that the rallying and retreating is a recurring theme for Japan. I am thankful for the cheaper stocks and see excellent opportunity in domestic demand stocks, yes, the debt-ridden, deflation defatigued, and demographically doomed domestic economy. I’m being facetious of course. But as I watched fiscal year-end March earnings and the next fiscal year forecasts come in, there were more and more companies reporting and/or forecasting record earnings. The persistently strong yen is far from ideal, but take a moment and think about the fact that the majority of Japanese companies have remained profitable despite the horrible aftermath of 3/11, the severe flooding in Thailand only a few months later (manufacturing facilities impacted), and of course the ongoing uncertainty in the EU and elsewhere.
To learn all about investing in Japan (comprehensive A-Z overview of the nuts and bolts of the market and its players, as well as key idiosyncrasies and enigmas explained) including why the debt, deflation, and demographic fears are overblown, see my book, Investing in Japan. If you are currently investing in Japan by way of the iShares Japan ETF (EWJ) or another Japan-focused ETF or a mutual fund, you’ll definitely want to see how your money is actually being managed. Japan’s broadly undervalued market (0.9-times reported book value among large caps and significantly cheaper for smaller caps) and abundance of deeply undervalued (net-nets) and very attractively valued (“GARP”) stocks means there are multiple viable investment approaches. Don’t be misled by tunnel-visioned macro opinion jockeying at one extreme and pedantic fault-finding on the other. Shares of Unicharm (Tokyo: 8113), a leading Japanese diaper and hygiene product maker, rose four-fold last decade.
General Electric’s (GE) annual shareowner meeting is tomorrow (Weds.) in Detroit. I urge those that haven’t voted to do so as soon as possible today to ensure votes are counted. To help make readers better informed and to generate discussion, I prepared two write-ups surrounding GE’s annual meeting: (1) a review of each item for vote on its proxy, and (2) a look at why GE is undervalued. [Hyperlinks visible in full article view.] It’s unmistakable to me the market has been efficient in valuing GE shares when considering GE’s deficient corporate governance and management. Please continue reading even if you have read the above two linked articles.
I have heard from fellow value investor Jacob Wolinsky (of ValueWalk) that Paul Sonkin, manager of the Hummingbird Value hedge fund, believes proxy statements are the most underrated of statements; Wolinsky perhaps inspired by that says rather than refer to the 3 key financial statements it really should be “4.” I couldn’t agree more. As I have been doing since 2010, I prepared an in-depth review of GE’s 2012 proxy statement. It really is imperative that investors read their companies’ proxies and not only vote more often but of course vote better informed.
Furthermore, with more governance and shareowner-rights minded investors gathering at sites like the United States Proxy Exchange, MoxyVote, Proxy Democracy, as well as TheShareholderActivist, we may gain enough critical mass to do more reviews like mine of GE, and light a fire under the large institutional holders that too often vote with management. Please see my review of GE, which appears exclusively on Seeking Alpha (dot-com). The comments there show that investors do care and are voting. The future is bright with Seeking Alpha recently hitting 1 million registered readers and Moxy Vote hitting the 100,000 mark.