Hinomaru Hard Drive proves Japan Inc’s memory is too short

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It seems the Japanese government is trying in earnest to launch a local based consortium to fend off foreign attempts to buy Toshiba’s memory business. Taiwan’s Hon Hai, which recently acquired Sharp, is in the running to buy it. It begs the question that if the technology that resides inside Toshiba’s memory division is so state of the art (Hon Hai seems to think so), why aren’t Japanese corporations lining up to buy it? Affordability may be one argument but why isn’t there a Softbank Masayoshi Son styled mega-scale leveraged buy out? Where is the risk taking corproation that can see the future value? Why does the government require an orchestrated syndicate to launch a group bid? We only need to look at the long history of failure of this type of consortium formation.

Exhibit #1. Elpida Memory. Originally the love child of the failed DRAM businesses of Hitachi & NEC in 1999, it adopted Mitsubishi Electric’s struggling DRAM operation in 2003. It listed in 2004 and went bankrupt in 2012. Put simply Japan’s DRAM business, already buried by foreign manufacturers with lower costs, required regular capital raisings which dfailed to deliver the rosy future painted by the charismatic CEO Sakamoto. Hinomaru DRAM died.

Exhibit #2: Japan Display (JDI) which is the listed LCD JV of Sony, Hitachi & Toshiba is yet another mish mash of companies that is trying to keep an uncompetitive product on life support. While it might have Apple as a customer it has margins which scream lap dog. JDI’s market capitalization is 1/3rd of its listing value. Once again Hinomaru Display shows signs of remaining an uncompetitive sloth. Yes, tech analysts will tell me it has best in class technologies. Sad thing is they aren’t getting paid a fair rent for it.

Exhibit #3: Renesas Electronics was formed as the rejected love-child of NEC Electronics which was bought by Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi. The lack of profitability saw the government’s Incubation Network Corporation of Japan take a c.70% stake in the group to help revitalize it. The shares have performed well in the last 12 months but remain 90% below the peak when it was conceived. Much of the performance is weighing on the expectation of automotive electronic systems requiring more of their chips.

Minister of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) Hiroshige Seko said recently that Toshiba’s memory chip technology could be used to wage destructive cyberattacks if installed in corporate data centers. National security issues should always be entertained as they are in many countries but corporate data centre vulnerability is a much broader problem. Protecting memory chips won’t necessarily stop hackers – in individual, underworld and state sponsored forms – from carrying out cyber attacks.

What we are dealing with here is yet another last ditched attempt to save face in an industry which has lost its competitive edge. Instead of being an IP owner that outsources production it insists on keeping the entire model in a state that can’t compete. Ultimately market economics is a tough judge and jury. Putting together such Hinomaru structures only leads to inefficient capital allocation that hopes to survive as two drowning men trying to make one swimmer. It misses all of the points of making it competitive. Instead of taking hard decisions, it wants the board of Toshiba to accept a lower bid from national interests as preferable to a better bid from a foreigner. How that plays into Japan’s wish to foster best in class corporate governance one will never know? Like Daiko Henjo, such rearguard actions only support the idea that running businesses inefficiently is OK because eventually government backed bailouts are there to save them.

That doesn’t foster risk taking so desperately needed to turn the tech industry’s in Japan around. Is it any wonder that Intel made 50% more net income over the last 25 years than all of Japan’s largest 20 tech companies combined?…

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