Corporate Japan Answers to Nobody

by William Pesek for Bloomberg View

It’s been a dreadful week for Japanese corporations. Toshiba is facing questions about its accounting practices, Sharp is asking lenders for another bailout and Takata can’t escape bad news about its airbags.

Each of these problems is bad enough on its own. Together, they raise serious questions about the state of Japan’s corporate governance. And at a time when the Nikkei stock exchange has been rising (it’s up 36 percent over the past year), those questions are in urgent need of answers. If Japan’s leading companies are managed as poorly as this past week’s events suggest, there’s little reason to believe the country’s stock market surge is sustainable.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has certainly tried to improve Japan’s corporate governance. Last year, Tokyo introduced a stewardship code encouraging investors to pressure underperforming CEOs, and launched an index of 400 domestic companies that regulators believe use their cash stockpiles well. Next month it will release a national code of conduct for executives: Companies will be asked to include at least two outside directors on their boards or explain why they shouldn’t have to. Abe is also asking companies to invite more women into the executive suite. Diversity in the boardroom, the government hopes, will enhance oversight.

In theory, says Nicholas Smith, Tokyo-based strategist at CLSA, “this should trigger a flurry of fevered business and balance sheet restructuring.” In practice, corporate Japan has barely budged in response to Abe’s reforms — after decades of running their affairs free of outside interference, their inertia has proven too powerful. Read more here.

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