WASHINGTON – The WSJ commented in an editorial, (Japan’s Sharp Turn, March 31, 2016), that the Foxconn (Taiwanese electronics giant) acquisition of the beleaguered Japanese consumer electronics icon Sharp may represent a turning point for Japan.
No help from the state
Sharp was in deep financial trouble. But the company decided not to seek help from the state backed Innovation Corporation of Japan, so that it could arrange a merger with another Japanese electronics manufacturer, this was probably getting to an honorable settlement, while hiding its awful conditions. Sharp decided instead to seek a foreign buyer.
This however created problems. When Foxconn gave a second look at Sharp’s books, huge additional (and previously undisclosed) losses were exposed. Foxconn demanded and obtained a deep discount on the original price in order to go ahead with the purchase.
A turning point?
The WSJ argues that Sharp did something that most Japanese companies would not do. It went abroad with the hope that a foreign buyer would be able to inject not just capital but a different corporate culture and managerial style that would revitalize the electronics company. The editorial argues that this may be a turning point for insular Japan whose under performing economy is in part the outcome of its secretive and opaque way of conducting business.
Do not tell the truth
I would not be so sure. Indeed, reading between the lines of this WSJ editorial we get a positively unflattering, in fact alarming picture of Japanese big business. This is a world in which essentially the truth is never told.
As the editorial itself puts it, the Japanese economy is an elaborate system of cross-shareholding structures designed to prevent real outside control on corporate activities. This system in which all the big companies have investments in other corporations created a web of shared interests. The net outcome is that no one has any real incentive in revealing other companies embarrassing secrets. “I cover you, because I know that will you cover me”
This “discretion” may be a wonderful recipe for the survival of the Japanese corporate elites. But it is also a perfect tool for hiding poor management and worse. For example, there was a huge scandal involving Toshiba last year when it was revealed that the company had engaged in a major $ 2 billion accounting fraud that had gone on for quite a long time, undetected. With adequate corporate governance control systems in place, along with internationally recognized disclosure standards, keeping this massive fraud secret for so long would have been impossible.
The WSJ argues that Sharp’s decision to let everything out in the open, exposing its own bad management and huge losses before being taken over by a foreign firm, shows courage and therefore a major transformation in Japan’s corporate culture. This means that from now on there will be more openness, more transparency, while more foreign investors will be welcomed.
Sharp is the exception
I wish this were true. I really do. But I suspect that Sharp is an exception, may be a big one; but not the beginning of a new trend. Sadly, Japan is an ossified society run mostly by old people afraid of change. Corporate leaders know one another very well, and instinctively cover for one another.
I do praise the courage of Sharp’s managers who in fact took a bold new direction. But they were also desperate. Others who may not be in such dire straits probably see nothing wrong in cooking the books and hiding their tracks with the help of complicit boards all composed of other corporate managers who also have something to hide.
This is the root of Japan’s decline
if you want to know what is at the root of Japan’s economic decline, it is right here: a risk averse corporate culture in which lying is actually considered good manners, because the truth may be too embarrassing. This approach may be good for smoother social relations. But it is a lousy way to run a profit based capitalistic economy.
Real capitalism needs true numbers. Hard to get those in Japan.