What Warren Buffett sees in Japanese trading giants
巴菲特看中了日本贸易巨头什么

点燃日本公司 Lighting up Japan Inc-书迷号 shumihao.com

TO UNDERSTAND WHY it was a shock in August when Berkshire Hathaway invested $6.5bn in five Japanese trading houses that have been around for far longer even than its 90-year-old chairman, go back to a talk Warren Buffett gave to business students in Florida in 1998. As a sprightly sexagenarian with his sleeves rolled up, the Sage of Omaha was at his witty—and wicked—best.
八月,伯克希尔·哈撒韦公司(Berkshire Hathaway)向五家日本贸易公司投资了65亿美元,这些公司历史悠久,岁数甚至远高过伯克希尔90岁的董事长沃伦·巴菲特。这让人大感意外。为何?可以回看一下巴菲特1998年在佛罗里达对商学院学生的讲话。那时的他尚在花甲之年,袖管卷起,精神矍铄,“奥马哈圣人”的风趣——还有顽皮——都在巅峰期。

The first question he fielded was about investing in Japan. He replied that the country’s 1% interest rates made it look attractive. Nonetheless, he considered Japanese firms poor bets because of their lousy returns. Low-profit businesses could be worth buying based on what he called the “cigar-butt” approach. “You walk down the street and you look around for a cigar butt someplace. Finally you see one and it is soggy and kind of repulsive, but there is one puff left in it. So you pick it up and the puff is free.” But not even this theory would draw him to Japan Inc, the pride of the country’s post-war revival, he explained. It is hard to think of an analogy more distasteful in a spick-and-span country like Japan.
当时他回答的第一个问题就与在日本投资有关。他说,日本1%的利率让它看上去很有吸引力。但是,他认为日本公司不是好的投资选择,因为回报不佳。按他所说的“烟屁股”投资法,低利润企业可能值得一买。“你走在街上,满地找雪茄烟屁股。终于看到一个,潮乎乎的有点恶心,但还能抽最后一口。于是你捡起来,抽了口免费烟。”不过,他解释说,即便这种投资理论也不会吸引他去投资日本公司这一日本战后复兴的骄傲成就。在日本这样干净卫生的国家里,很难想到比烟屁股更让人倒胃口的比喻了。

Some 22 years of rock-bottom interest rates later, Mr Buffett has finally overcome his stogy-phobia. Berkshire’s investment in 5% each of Itochu, Marubeni, Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo, though small relative to his investment firm’s $140bn mound of cash, was its biggest outside America. It said its stakes could increase to as much as 9.9% over time. But the acquisitions were a head-scratcher. What, if anything, had changed over the past few decades to make the trading houses appealing all of a sudden? Or had Mr Buffett simply succumbed to the temptation of a few cheap puffs because money was burning a hole in his pocket?
经过约22年的超低利率之后,巴菲特终于克服了烟屁股恐惧症。伯克希尔收购了伊藤忠、丸红、三菱、三井和住友各5%的股份,尽管这相对于该投资公司1400亿美元的现金储备而言不算什么,却是它在美国以外最大的投资。伯克希尔表示可能会逐渐增持到9.9%。但这些收购让人摸不着头脑。难道过去几十年中发生了什么变化,让贸易公司突然变得有吸引力了?还是只是因为巴菲特钱太多了烧得慌,因而没顶住几口廉价烟的诱惑?

At first glance, the acquisitions make it look like he has lost the plot. The trading houses, or sogo shosha, make a mockery of many of the investment principles he has stuck to all his life. He says he likes easy-to-understand businesses like Coca-Cola and Apple. He argues that companies should not just be cheap but have reliable returns—and, ideally, “moats” to keep competitors at a safe distance. On each count the trading houses fail dismally.
乍看之下,这些收购让他看起来已经丧失了判断力。在日本被称为综合商社的贸易公司让他毕生坚持的许多投资原则都沦为了玩笑。他说他喜欢可口可乐和苹果这样好懂的企业。他认为,公司不能只是便宜,还要有可靠的回报,最好还要有“护城河”,从而能对竞争对手保持足够的优势。从哪一方面来看贸易公司都远不达标。

Start with simplicity. In Western eyes no Japanese company is a model of Anglo-American shareholder capitalism. But few seem as far-removed from it as the trading houses. They are shaped by history, which dates back to the 19th-century zaibatsu and post-war keiretsu system of corporate loyalties and cross-shareholdings. In the modern era their business models have twisted and turned. From the 1950s to the 1980s they acted as go-betweens, scouring the world for energy, metals and minerals, helping to underpin Japan’s economic miracle. Then they invested in mines and hydrocarbons to feed the China-led commodities boom before shifting “downstream”, buying everything from convenience stores to cable companies. In the process they accumulated assets faster than they sold them. The results are unwieldy. Mitsubishi peddles everything from coking coal to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Itochu, the most profitable, calls its consumer division the 8th Company, implying it has run out of names after seven other units.
先来看好懂这一点。在西方人眼中,没有一家日本公司是英美股东资本主义的典范。但与之相去最远的似乎就是贸易公司了。它们由历史塑造而成,可以追溯到19世纪的财阀和战后的经连会,彼此之间保持忠诚,并交叉持股。它们的商业模式在现代经历了一些曲折变化。上世纪50年代到80年代,它们充当中间人,在世界各地搜寻能源、金属和矿产,帮助撑起了日本的经济奇迹。后来它们投资矿山和碳氢化合物,满足中国主导的大宗商品繁荣的需求。之后它们转入“下游”,从便利店到有线电视公司,什么都买。在此过程中,它们积累资产的速度快于出售资产的速度。结果企业变得庞大而笨拙。三菱销售的产品从焦煤到肯德基快餐无所不有。利润最高的伊藤忠管自己的消费者部门叫“第八公司”,可见在命名了七个部门之后都没名字可用了。

What about returns and value? Undoubtedly, the trading companies are cheap. Of the five, only Itochu trades at a market price higher than the book value of the net assets on its balance-sheet. That is not to say they are a bargain, though. Kikkawa Tatsuya of JPMorgan Chase, a bank, says their low-return legacy assets, which sometimes suffer big write-downs, increase investors’ perception of risk. Their complexity raises their cost of equity, which is higher than for more focused commodities producers, such as ExxonMobil or Rio Tinto.
回报和价值又如何呢?这些贸易公司无疑都不贵。五家公司中,只有伊藤忠的市值高于其资产负债表上净资产的账面价值。但这并不是说它们就物美价廉。摩根大通的吉川龙也表示,这些公司低回报的传统资产(有时会被大量减记)增加了投资者对风险的感知。它们的复杂性增加了其股本成本,高于埃克森美孚或力拓等业务更专注的大宗商品生产商。

And then there is the traders’ competitive position. Perhaps Mr Buffett is betting that as a venerated corporate species in Japan, the sogo shosha’s survival is safe. But as individual companies, their returns suggest they have nothing like the moats of other Berkshire stalwarts. If anything, they are each other’s bitterest rivals.
最后就是这些贸易公司的竞争力。也许巴菲特认为,综合商社这类企业在日本受到尊敬,其生存是有保障的。但从单个公司来看,它们的回报表明它们没有伯克希尔投资的其他公司那样的护城河。事实上,它们彼此互为劲敌。

Look below the surface, though, and there may be a method in Mr Buffett’s madness. As he admitted in 1998, his view on Japan could change if managers became “more shareholder responsive”. In recent years they have, even in the trading houses, which once viewed corporate governance with disdain. Zuhair Khan of Union Bancaire Privée, a Swiss bank, says views started to change as a result of shareholder-friendly reforms promoted from about 2014 by Abe Shinzo, who stepped down as prime minister earlier this month. In some trading houses, executives bought large quantities of shares to align their interests with those of other shareholders. Pay became more performance-based. The focus moved from investing to generating cash and beefing up dividends. The pandemic is expected to slow but not derail the trend. Suga Yoshihide, Mr Abe’s successor, looks keen on further measures to empower shareholders, Mr Khan says.
不过,深入来看,巴菲特的失常中也许有某种条理。正如他在1998年承认的那样,他对日本的看法可能会改变,如果管理层变得“对股东利益更敏感”的话。近年来管理层确实发生了一些转变,即使是在曾经对公司治理不屑一顾的贸易公司。瑞士瑞联银行(Union Bancaire Privée)的祖海尔·可汗(Zuhair Khan)表示,9月初卸任首相的安倍晋三自2014年左右推动了股东友好的改革,从那时起观念开始转变。在一些贸易公司中,高管购买了大量股票,使自身利益与其他股东保持一致。薪酬变得更多与绩效挂钩。关注重点从投资转移到了产生现金和增加股息。预计这一趋势将因疫情而放缓,但不会被阻断。安倍晋三的继任者菅义伟看来希望采取进一步措施赋权股东,可汗说。

Mr Buffett may see other attractions. He likes energy firms, and all the trading houses, particularly Mitsui and Mitsubishi, have big energy businesses. They stand to benefit from a post-pandemic economic rebound that boosts demand for power. The companies are also wellsprings of talent. Jeremy White of Baker McKenzie, a law firm, says they maintain a tradition of recruiting from the best Japanese universities, and rival investment banks and tech firms as the most prestigious companies to work for. And if anyone can find their way around bewildering corporate organigrams and balance-sheets, it must be the people behind Berkshire Hathaway, America’s biggest financial conglomerate.
巴菲特可能还看到了其他亮点。他喜欢能源公司,而这五家贸易公司都有大规模的能源业务,尤其是三井和三菱。疫情后的经济反弹将增加对电力的需求,让它们从中受益。这些公司也是人才的源泉。贝克·麦坚时律师事务所(Baker McKenzie)的杰里米·怀特(Jeremy White)说,它们保持了从日本顶尖大学招募人才的传统,与投资银行和科技公司同为最负盛名的热门就业选择。而且,要说有谁能理清令人头晕眼花的公司组织结构和资产负债表,那一定是美国最大的金融企业集团伯克希尔·哈撒韦背后的人。

Stogy? Or just stodgy?
只是廉价雪茄吗?还是会消化不良?

It is no sure bet. History is littered with fortunes lost to the belief that Japanese firms can become more Anglo-Saxon. If that is the case, Berkshire’s shareholders will rue Mr Buffett’s nonagenarian adventure. If, by contrast, his investments reinforce a view taking root in Japan that shareholders, domestic and foreign, are a constituency worth fighting for, he will deserve a fat Cohiba. ■
这些投资没有十足的把握。因为相信日本企业能变得更接近盎格鲁-撒克逊模式而赔钱的例子在历史上比比皆是。如果巴菲特的投资也是这样,伯克希尔的股东就要对他在耄耋之年的冒险感到懊恼了。但如果他的投资巩固了国内外股东都是值得争夺的支持者这种正在日本扎根的观点,那么该递给他一支大号科伊巴雪茄了。