Jim Armitage: Whistleblower Woodford warns of Japan's 'collective economic suicide'
This is a Made in Japan problem. It’s cultural... It’s about the way the society functions
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Friday 23 November 2012
In the case of Japan these days, no news is ever good. The third-biggest economy in the world will next week release another set of numbers that will, in all likelihood, paint more detail of an economy laid up on the terminal ward.
In the third quarter of the year, Japan's GDP crashed 0.9 per cent. In the West, we talk about Japan's "lost decade" of zero growth and deflation, but in reality, they've lost two decades and are about to lose the third.
Meanwhile, its politics lurch from one crisis to the next. New parties are now uniting to kick out an old guard of politicians who have brought such listless drift to the country for so long.
But the new parties are of the right, sending worrying signals about how the general population is starting to think about getting itself out of the mire.
Recent days have seen shocking numbers from Panasonic and Sony, whose debt has been downgraded to junk status.
Sharp is like a walking zombie, warning earlier this month that it may not be able to survive, and the country's "megabanks" have declared $6.7bn (£4.2bn) in losses on the value of their equity investments.
Meanwhile, the population is ageing faster than Dorian Gray's portrait. The birth rate is so low that the country's population shrinks each year, while the pensioners live ever longer. National debt as a proportion of GDP is running at 235 per cent – that's even worse than Greece.
This is the compelling narrative of the country told by Michael Woodford, the whistleblower who won The Independent's businessman of the year award last year for his brave exposure of a multibillion-dollar fraud at the heart of the Olympus cameras empire.
As the former chief told The Independent yesterday: "Japan is on an inevitable decline to oblivion."
For Mr Woodford, the situation is simple. For too many years and decades, the Japanese business community has been unhealthily cosy. Shareholders never question company bosses. Banks continue to lend to even the most sickly companies. The staggering, sick firms are never allowed to die.
Take Olympus. A month after Mr Woodford quit, the share price had crashed 81.5 per cent. But, as he says: "Did a single megabank say a single word of support for my action in exposing the corruption? No. Did a single shareholder utter a single criticism of the board that had been overseeing this corruption? No."
Even after an investigatory committee had accused the board of being rotten to the core, no Japanese institutions broke cover to criticise.
Mr Woodford, who's in the Press again because his book is about to hit the shelves, does of course have reason to be bitter.
His stellar career has come juddering to a halt because of his actions. He has been through over a year of fear, peril and unimaginable stress as a result of his treatment by the Japanese establishment.
But Japan should listen to what he has to say.
"It is as if this nation is having a collective economic suicide. The country needs to have a sort of revolution like the French did. They need to clear out the old, broken system and smash their way out of this torpor."
Many Japanese blame the Americans for pretty much everything. America has had a strong military presence in the country since the Second World War. Occasional rapes of local women by US military types don't engender much support for their presence.
Young Japanese I've spoken to say America dictates their country's policy and deliberately suppresses its growth these days. But Mr Woodford says this is paranoid nonsense.
"Yes, I've heard those arguments in Japan too," he says. "They're wrong. This is a Made in Japan problem. It's cultural. It's societal. It's just about the way the society functions."
He was lauded as being the first non-Japanese ever to rise to the top of a Japanese company. The way things are going, he'll be the last. Of the smattering of top Western bosses there in the past decade, only Carlos Ghosn now remains at Nissan.
As Mr Woodford says: "There's no new DNA. Nothing ever changes."
Quite what will happen to Japan is anybody's guess. It has a looming debt crisis that seems utterly terrifying. And many in the City suspect that those recent writedowns by the banks are just the start.
Deep concerns exist about whether the banks really factored in any serious stress testing to their loan agreements and business models. Potential factors like… er… earthquakes or slowing growth in its key trading partner of China for example do not, in many cases, appear to have been taken into consideration.
Mr Woodford cites how terrified the government, the regulators, in fact everyone, seems to be of doing anything serious about the nepotism and close connections between bankers and corporate boards.
Take one example: in December last year, an official committee, stung by the Olympus disaster, put forward plans to force companies to put two – just two – outside directors on their boards. I remember talking on the phone to Mr Woodford about it at the time. He was in Tokyo and said it seemed like a glimmer of realism appearing in the country.
But what happened? In July, the plan had been torpedoed by the finance ministry. Sustained opposition from the Japanese version of the CBI succeeded in killing it off.
Japan's recovery from the Second World War was a mini-miracle of economic planning. Just like Germany, careful investment, cross-shareholdings and a supportive banking infrastructure created the mixture of stability and investment needed to rebuild the country.
But Germany managed to evolve and change as the 20th century went on, gingerly accepting freer market economics and sucking in labour, capital and management techniques from around the world. It internationalised its economy in such a way that makes it arguably one of the most well-balanced countries in the world: both in terms of the spread of its exports and the variety of its business sectors.
Japan has failed to adapt, retaining its insular culture. How many more Michael Woodfords will it take to shock it out of its complacency?
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