As Corzine left MF Global Holdings Ltd., all anyone could talk about was $633 million. That’s how much regulators initially said was unaccounted for as the New York futures broker went bust and spooked markets.
In the case of Kikukawa, the former chairman of Tokyo-based Olympus Corp., a similar figure cropped up: $687 million. That’s how much vanished in mysterious fees paid to advisers in an acquisition. Olympus then admitted the money went toward hiding losses going back more than a decade, raising even bigger questions. The comparisons with Enron are already starting.
Corzine’s resignation elicited widespread soul-searching, not to mention a blitz of investigations. How could Wall Street’s biggest bankruptcy since Lehman Brothers have happened? Didn’t bankers learn a thing from 2008? Where did all that client money go? Where were regulators? Who’s next?
In Japan, Kikukawa’s departure was met with a much quieter reaction: Oh well. The ambivalence over the Olympus scandal is one of three signs Japan is at a dangerous crossroads. The other two are futile efforts to weaken the yen and reluctance to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.
The reason this moment is so vital is that big opportunities to embrace change are more critical than ever. As China’s might increases, India’s influence flowers, South Korea grows more competitive and Indonesia booms, Japan’s standing is waning faster than Tokyo realizes.
When we think of Japan’s political paralysis, we often focus on the last eight months. Great expectations for a growth rebound and broad institutional reforms following the March earthquake and tsunami never materialized. Yet let’s think bigger about the lessons from these last two-plus decades of stagnation.
Economists are obsessing over “Japanization,” or the prospect of unending malaise, deflation and waning global relevance. Few risks scare governments in Washington, Berlin and Paris more. What is rarely examined is how well Japan has learned the lessons from Japan.
The Olympus saga suggests it hasn’t. In the 1980s, the “Japanese way” was the rage and best-seller lists were loaded with books on how to emulate it. The trouble with the Japanese way is that it works great in a bubble. Not just the asset kind, but also the closed-borders type. It thrived when Tokyo had its way with export markets; banks offered unlimited loans; shareholder rights was a novel concept; Japan dominated Asia; and globalization was just a theory. It’s no longer possible.
Head in Sand
Not that anyone told Kikukawa. When Olympus President Michael C. Woodford questioned where hundreds of millions of dollars had gone, he was fired. The ouster set off a rout in the shares, which have lost more than half their value. The whole story has a head-in-the-sand dynamic that many investors had hoped was a thing of Japan’s past.
Shenanigans at Olympus warranted a comment from Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is concerned that the episode will damage Japan’s reputation as a well-regulated market economy. It’s too late. Why, it must be asked, did the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation announce an Olympus probe almost 7,000 miles away before authorities in Japan did? Why aren’t Japanese shareholders in front of television cameras demanding change?
Japan has long been plagued by weak corporate board oversight. Look no further than Tokyo Electric Power Co., whose incestuous ties with government bureaucrats brought us the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Part of the problem is an aversion to outsiders. There’s a tinge of irony that when Olympus added its first-ever outside director in 2005 it chose Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Mundell. He’s one of the geniuses who brought us Europe’s single-currency experiment -- the one now failing and threatening to pull the world down with it.
That brings us to the strong yen. Someday, Japan will find a savvy finance minister who truly gets what’s happening in global markets. The latest one, Jun Azumi, clearly isn’t it -- not with him intervening unilaterally. Funny how every currency analyst in the world knows yen-selling won’t work unless the U.S. and Europe are on board.
Such cluelessness sends a signal. Japan needs to convince world markets that it’s modernizing the economy and preparing for another global financial crisis. All Azumi is doing is reminding everyone that Japan is out of ideas.
A similar message can be found in the battle against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the nine nations negotiating an agreement. Whether Japan joins hinges on the whims of farmers, particularly rice producers. They wield disproportionate political power, much like America’s corn growers. And they’re against Japan lowering trade defenses against Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam.
China last week signaled it has an open attitude toward the grouping. If China joins and Japan doesn’t, companies from Sony Corp. to Toyota Motor Corp. to Fast Retailing Co. will pay the price. So will 126 million Japanese as their nation becomes even less competitive in the world’s fastest-growing region.
The time for foot-dragging was over years ago, and yet the dragging continues. For all its problems -- and the blowup of Corzine’s MF Global reminds us there are many -- the U.S. is studying and learning from Japan’s malaise. If only officials in Tokyo were doing the same.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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