Toshiba should be left to rot as a warning to others like Captain Kidd. Sadly Japan Inc is Captain Kidding

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In the olden days, pirates and criminals were left to rot and die as a gruesome warning to others. Japan should adopt the same policy for corporates which no longer reserve the right to function. I once conducted a study that showed that Intel by itself made more net profit over 25 years in aggregate than the largest 20 Japanese technology firms combined over the same period. Yes, that is right Intel made 40% more net profit than Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi Electric, Nidec, Canon, NEC, TDK, Hoya, Nikon, Kyocera, Ricoh, Olympus, Konica Minolta, Sharp, Tokyo Electron, Advantest, Fuji Film, Ibiden, Fujitsu and Brother combined.

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Fuji Film once boasted that it was a better company than Kodak on the announcement of its bankruptcy. The reality is that as a shareholder the decade preceding Kodak’s bankruptcy had higher total returns (dividends, buybacks) than one who held Fuji Film. Not exactly a proud boast to say you’re superior only in terms of survival. That is the problem many corporates face. They do not properly understand the importance of shareholders.

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I have lived in Japan for too long to know that foreign investors remain right to hold such a negative outlook on corporate governance here despite the introduction of the Corporate Governance Code I wrote about in 2015. Toshiba is without a doubt a poorly run company that has become an uncompetitive mess of its own doing. It is decades of poor business decisions that has led to its demise. Not bad luck . The way the government is trying to protect Toshiba and its 200,000 employees is exactly why foreigners will stay away. All such rearguard actions do is send a strong message to all other large Japanese corporates that there is a safety net if they screw up.

Toshiba tried to appeal to investors after the initial accounting scandal that a majority of independent directors would prevent it happening again. Reality is that they were completely ineffective. To that point the Japanese stock exchange (JPX) asked me to fill in a survey on what I thought of corporate governance and whether it should be made mandatory instead of ‘comply or explain’. 98% of listed corporates have volunteered to hire two independent directors so I asked why would you make law what almost all are already in step with? Talk about not understanding what the point of shareholder needs are from the exchange itself. It is embarrassing. I made the point that the “quality” of independent directors was most important. I wrote in the corporate governance report the following,

“Companies must focus on qualitative aspects when hiring independent directors over quantitative parameters. Soft options to meet minimum regulatory requirements to protect the status quo is a recipe for failure. Independent directors should not be viewed as an ‘unavoidable cost’ but as a ‘wise investment’ for firms. Which company would rationally choose inferior staff for its operations? Would an airline actively seek unqualified pilots to fly its passengers? That is not the way of sustaining good reputation in the long run.”

Toshiba is to all intents and purposes insolvent. It bit off way more than it could chew in nuclear. Westinghouse looked a huge boon at the time and many analysts fawned over the Japanese giant becoming a monster player in nuke power. Now the massive costs of building plants, the delays, the requirement for trained personnel to build them etc has become too much to bear,. Yet the government sees the banks propping it up through syndicated convoy support is the way forward.

I wrote in Jan 2016 about Toshiba as its market cap slipped below Y1 trillion.

“I once joked soon after Lehman shock that Apple’s overnight move of 5% was the equivalent of the vanquished Toshiba market cap. Now Apple only needs to move 1.29% to increase / decrease the equivalent amount of Toshiba’s mkt-cap. It shows just how far the Japanese tech giant (?) has slipped. When we look at reality, the accounting scandal, the appointment of 50%+ independent directors on the board and the likelihood of having to write down goodwill, the former tech giant faces further woes. Toshiba is in dire need of a ‘crisis’ manager to restore lost fortunes.”

I also argued in the same note:

“Toshiba may be trimming 16,000 odd staff into next fiscal year. Interestingly the decision to cut 6,800 employees from their overseas businesses highlights once again that domestic social harmony takes a front seat to shareholders. We’re not saying the action is not well intentioned but in a sense it is hardly the thing which will help get the supertanker turned around in the required time. Interestingly Nidec’s Nagamori has offered to hire software, communications and robotics engineers from Sharp and Toshiba to ‘help’. So the best engineers from Toshiba and Sharp will sign up for voluntary redundancy (aka tax effective bonus) and land a job with arguably one of the most profit focused Japanese tech companies, further gutting the ‘best assets’ from the ailing companies.”

Yet look at what Toshiba tried to do with fixing its ailing PC business. It’s independent directors voted to copy what abysmally failed in mobile phones, even worse teaming with an old partner. As I also wrote,

“One would have hoped that the independence of the majority of the board would lead to a heightened sense of urgency and crisis management. The recent news is that Toshiba is in talks with Fujitsu again to merge their loss making PC units where the two share 6% of the global market…There is a lot of precedent suggesting that this is a fruitless exercise. As one of my colleagues put it best, “two drowning men together don’t make a swimmer”. One would hope that Toshiba’s revived sense of corporate governance would see its board seek more severe action…

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“Japanese mobile handset makers have consolidated. Toshiba teamed with Fujitsu (surely a lesson in what a poor decision that has been), NEC with Casio and Hitachi, while Sony (albeit teamed with Ericsson until they merged) has had a rear guard action. Sanyo sold its handset business to Kyocera. Mitsubishi Electric just quit altogether in 2008. I remember a time when Japanese clam-shell phones were amazing. Friends from foreign lands would marvel at the designs, light weight and features versus the clunky Nokia and Motorola offerings of the time. They also were stumped at how these devices could get so much battery life. Alas, Japan kept them largely from overseas markets leaving them without the little scale efficiency from expansion abroad.”

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“As smartphones have caught on, Japanese handset makers have been left further in the dust. Sony has the highest global share among Japanese brands at 1.7% (Q1 2015), however even in the domestic market, Apple and Samsung command the leading shares. Japan’s market share in mobile phones globally has slid from 15% a decade ago to less than 4% in 2012. Japanese maker’s global share of flat screen TVs slump from 45% to around 20% over the same period. What magic can a Toshiba-Fujitsu PC alliance make?”

Alas Toshiba dithered and eventually knew that the government would throw out the emergency airbag to cushion its fall. How does throwing hands in the air and not taking more drastic action (selling cross shareholdings etc) sit with best in practice corporate governance and protecting shareholders’ best interests? Not a chance.

What Japan Inc should do is allow it to fail. Let the free market decide what assets they want. If Westinghouse is worth something to Hitachi or some other maker then so be it. Sharp was sold to a Taiwanese maker.  If Toshiba’s NAND flash business is only worth X to a foreigner or Y to a Japanese then that is reality. The market is there to match buyers and sellers. Somehow I fear that there is a ‘Hinomaru’ type structure that will form to absorb the chip businesses of several Japanese companies to form a burdensome partnership to appeal to social goals.

The government must understand that listed corporates are not there for national service. If that is the wish of the state then it should nationalise Toshiba. I’m sure the BoJ will be glad to add more toxic waste to its massive balance sheet which even dwarfs America. There is no way that foreign investors can glean any hope for true reform if protecting zombified atrophied elephants continues.

Japan is a shame culture. How is it that it doesn’t see that protecting Toshiba is in fact seen as so shameful to foreign investors and increasingly Japanese taxpayers.

Toshiba has till March 14th to find a solution before it gets put on the scheduled for delisting board. That I’d argue is even more embarrassing.

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