Japan trembles, but it's business as usual here

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The market apocalypse predicted following the collapse of Japan's fourth-largest stockbroker failed to materialise yesterday. Before share prices fell by 2.3 per cent in the first 15 minutes of trading in Tokyo, Diane Coyle and Lea Paterson saw the ambulance-chasers gather in London to mop up the mess.

Just as the smell of blood draws the sharks, news of the collapse of the Japanese stockbroker Yamaichi Securities had the headhunters gathering outside its City of London office as employees turned up for work yesterday morning.

During a half-hour meeting the 300 staff were told the bad news: their jobs would go as the operation was wound down during the next six months. About 40 got their redundancy notices yesterday.

At least they had the comfort of knowing City recruitment consultants were so keen to them snap up that representatives were already lurking outside, waiting to pounce, on a cold, grey morning. The headhunters were outnumbered only by those other predators, journalists and camera crews, on Yamaichi's steps. A spokesman for one recruitment group, Parallel International, admitted: "We've had a very fruitful morning." Parallel had received "around a dozen calls" from Yamaichi staff.

All Yamaichi's 7,500 employees worldwide will lose their jobs now that it has buckled under the weight of debts thought to be equivalent to about pounds 15bn.

The Japanese staff are unlikely to be as lucky as their English counterparts in finding alternative work, with many of Japan's banks and brokerages in an extremely fragile financial state.

Yamaichi concealed the extent of its difficulties through irregular deals which shifted its losses around different parts of the group, and even clients' accounts. Banking experts reckon other financial institutions will turn out to be on the verge of collapse, and expect the Japanese government to have to close several others before the crisis has run its course.

Yasuo Matsushita, the governor of the Bank of Japan, tried to dampen fears of a financial meltdown by announcing that the government would draft legislation intended to increase the size of bail-out funds for banks, insurance companies and brokerages to protect against future failures.

Meanwhile, the reaction in the financial markets to Japan's biggest post- war business collapse was muted. Shares in London ended lower, but it was certainly not the apocalypse some experts had been predicting at the weekend. The Tokyo stockmarket, closed for a public holiday yesterday, is nevertheless expected to be volatile when it reopens. Shares in South Korea, which has been forced by its own banking crisis to go to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan, plunged to an all-time low yesterday.

As long as other financial markets stay relatively calm, the crisis that has spread from the smaller Asian tigers like Malaysia and Thailand to the far bigger economies of South Korea and Japan is likely to spill over through two channels: trade and direct investment.

There is little doubt that recession in Asia will dent exports to the region by American and European companies. Asia has become an increasingly important export market thanks to its rapid growth.

More worrying for the British economy is the likely impact on direct investment. Korean companies have lately joined the Japanese as significant investors in manufacturing in this country, mainly in the North-east and South Wales. South Korea's LG has made the biggest-ever single investment with its pounds 1.7bn electronics plant in Newport, expected to create 6,000 jobs.

Japanese investments such as those by car giants Nissan, Honda and Toyota are thought not to be vulnerable because they are both mature and profitable. Experts said a question mark could hang over some of the existing South Korean projects. Even if they are all safe, the flood of Japanese and Korean investment to Britain could slow to a trickle for the foreseeable future.

Professor Garel Rhys, head of economics at Cardiff University's business school, said: "It could be that LG came to Wales just in time and it could be some time before we see another major Korean investment."

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