Bowing Sumitomo boss dismisses all criticism

PETER RODGERS

Financial Editor

Tomiichi Akiyama, chairman of Sumitomo Corporation, and his 43 directors bowed low to shareholders at yesterday's annual meeting in Osaka, in an apology for the company's losses of pounds 1.2bn in the copper market. "We have caused a lot of trouble to our shareholders and we deeply regret this," Mr Akiyama said.

But that was as far as he was prepared to go. During a tightly controlled 40-minute long meeting, Mr Akiyama offered not a word of explanation of the predicament in which Sumitomo has found itself as a result of the activities of its rogue trader, Yasuo Yamanaka.

The meeting was held on the same day as 2,200 other Japanese company AGMs, part of a strategy devised years ago to defeat gangs of extortionists who were deliberately disrupting meetings until they were paid off.

The Sumitomo meeting was held with high security, open only to shareholders with special invitations, with the press two floors away watching on closed circuit television. Japanese journalists said it was the first time a Sumitomo annual meeting had been open to the press, even electronically.

One lone questioner in a side room - where the individual shareholders were sent - dared to tackle the chairman.

Kazuyoshi Yuoka, owner of a fabric shop, asked how Mr Akiyama could not have known about a trader who lost so much over such a long period, and whether he would take responsibility for the losses.

Mr Akiyama refused to comment and brushed him aside. When Mr Yuoka persisted, other shareholders shouted him down. "The directors are avoiding their responsibility. They are treating shareholders with contempt, " Mr Yuoka told reporters afterwards.

Far from resigning, as the chairman of Barings did last year, Mr Akiyama was elevated from president to chairman by a shareholder vote during the meeting, which also unanimously approved all the other proposed changes in personnel, including the reappointment of several executives in the copper trading division.

Speaking on the day investigators from the Serious Fraud Office and the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission arrived in Tokyo for talks with their Japanese counterparts, Mr Akiyama insisted that company officials did not know about the losses until Mr Hamanaka told them, and that he was a lone trader who had no inside help. He also refused to give any information about the copper stocks still held by Sumitomo.

Wildly varying guesses about how much copper Sumitomo has to sell have led to big fluctuations in the copper market, with some traders claiming the company faces losses of pounds 2.6bn rather than the pounds 1.2bn to which it has admitted.

In London, copper prices shot up after a bad week.

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