Terrie's Take 451 -- 2007 Wrap-up, ebiz news from Japan
terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Sun Dec 23 21:06:42 JST 2007
* * * * * * * * * T E R R I E 'S T A K E * * * * * * *
A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd.
General Edition Sunday, December 23, 2007 Issue No. 451
- What's new
- Candidate roundup/Vacancies
- Upcoming events
- News credits
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+++ WHAT'S NEW
Terrie's Picks of Ten Notable Events/Trends for 2007
Here we are at the last issue of Terrie's Take for 2007,
our tenth anniversary of producing the newsletter. As we
look back on the year, we have tried to identify ten
events/trends that we think typify 2007 and indicate the
trends for those of us living as foreign "guests" of Japan
for the coming 2-3 years.
2007 started out with promise and economic confidence, and
as the major Asian economies started to hit top gear, many
analysts started commenting on how Asia was becoming its
own best customer and how it had the opportunity to become
an independent trading bloc, decoupling from its dependence
on US trade.
However, as we moved into the second half of the year, the
full extent of the seriousness of the US subprime problem
became clear. Events have since highlighted that Japan and
the rest of Asia are indeed still very much tied at the hip
to the US economy. Not just because most of their finished
products are consumed there, but also because of the
mountains of US dollars that they have saved up and trade
The ongoing financial problems in the US don't have to mean
impending doom for Japan, however. While there is no doubt
that reduced consumer spending in Toledo will affect
salaries and corporate profits in Tokyo, we see enough
breakthrough products and technologies coming up that in
fact we see Japan's star continuing to shine brightly for
a while to come. Indeed, so long as people continue to want
"gadgets" both for practical reasons or for entertainment,
then there would be few environments more suited to create
and improve those products than the Japan of 2007.
Yep, there's still life in the old girl yet.
Now for our top ten events -- listed in the chronological
order we mentioned them in Terrie's Take (TT) throughout
1. Citigroup buys Nikko Cordial (TT410, February 25, 2007)
Following an accounting scandal at Nikko Cordial late last
year, Japan's second largest brokerage was left rudderless
and leaderless for about 6 months and many were betting
that the company might wind up being broken up, much the
same way as Yamaichi was in 1997. However, while the
Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission (SESC)
wanted to call Nikko Cordial to book for its fraudulent
accounting (window dressing of a greater order than
Livedoor's Horie), it didn't want the chaos of dismantling
such a major financial company. Instead they suffered "a
momentary lapse of judgment" by letting the markets take
care of the situation and opened the way for Citigroup to
exercise its connections and take over the business.
Citigroup now owns 100% of Nikko Cordial, which it paid
somewhere around JPY1.5trn (US$13.6bn) for. We think it is
quite remarkable how despite Citi's own travails with its
subprime loans and forced departure of CEO Charles Prince,
here in Japan the deal was nonetheless shepherded through
by a persistent Doug Peterson and his team. As it turns
out, their confidence in the Nikko Cordial business was
was well founded. With renewed purpose, Nikko Cordial just
recently declared a 20% increase in profits for the period
April through December 2007. Profit rose from JPY53.45bn a
year ago to JPY64bn this year. Peterson and his new US
boss should be happy.
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2. Tamiflu blamed for deaths (TT414, March 26th, 2007)
On February 28th, the Health Ministry took a historic stand
and issued instructions to doctors to stop dispensing
Tamiflu to teenagers aged 10 to 19. The Ministry conducted
an investigation after it came to light that an alleged 22
teen suicides had occurred shortly after administration of
the drug. After the investigation, the Ministry stated that
it suspected at least 54 people had died since 2000 under
circumstances closely related to taking the drug.
This was a significant event because it first of all showed
that the Japanese Health Ministry really can take
independent action when it wants to, and secondly because
it made a clear delineation of financial versus health
interests. We thought the Ministry took a brave stand,
especially in light of the fact that it had earlier bought
more than 25m doses of the drug as insurance against bird
flu, about 70% of the world's entire production volume, and
which have been channeled into fighting regular flu.
3. Land prices rise first time in 16 years
(TT414, March 26th, 2007)
On March 23rd, the Ministry of Land announced that property
prices in Tokyo rose 9.4% in fiscal 2005, the first rise in
the median price in 14 years. The announcement officially
marked the end of the "lost decade" for consumers in the
capital city (if not yet for the regions), and raised hopes
for homeowners that their patience in waiting out huge
valuation losses would start to pay off.
Alas, events since March have proved that this is not to
be. While it is true that some of the corporate profits of
2004-2006 are finally starting to trickle down into the
consumer marketplace, it is mainly through those in senior
management positions, shareholders, and the lucky few
working in publicly listed exporting firms such as Toyota.
Instead, the increases in land prices have been very
localized and are mainly due to speculation by
investor-fueled REITS. The REITS have been focusing on
inner city locations with high-density development
potential and for these types of properties, indeed the
price of land has soared. Regular small-lot parcels and
locations more than 30 minutes from the city centers,
however, are still very much under water.
4. English schools go belly-up (TT416, April 08, 2007)
In early April, a small but high-profile English school
called Lado International College of Japan declared its
bankruptcy in the Tokyo District Court and subsequently
shut down. The Asahi newspaper quoted Teikoku Databank as
saying that Lado left debts of somewhere between JPY1.8bn
(US$15.23m) and JPY3.3bn (US$28.2m), as well as 4,000
unhappy paid-up students, behind. The newspaper speculated
that the cause for bankruptcy was overspending on its
Spiderman commercial. This turned out to be same reason
8 months later when the nation's largest English school,
Nova, collapsed -- for overspending on marketing. In Nova's
case the debts are estimated at more than JPY40bn (US$360m)
and up to 400,000 pre-paid students have lost their money.
Clearly there is something very wrong with the English
teaching industry in Japan. The business sector is mature
and dominated by a few major players crowding out
innovators and fresh business methods. When Spiderman and
a cute pink rabbit are the main means of pulling in new
students, something has to give. Companies need to
systemise, management methods need to modernize, and
students need to start getting measurable results. One
major benefactor of the Nova collapse will be some of the
foreign-run chain schools. Just like the felling of a tall
forest tree, these smaller firms need to take a chance and
grab some of the sunlight before another major shades them
out. Only trouble is, there is a credit squeeze on right
5. Mitsubishi Motors announces alliance on batteries
(TT421, May 20, 2007)
Mitsubishi Motors, not Toyota, looks like it will be the
first major Japanese auto manufacturer to produce a plug-in
(AC power rechargeable) car, with its announcement last
year that it would produce a K-car called the MiEV. The
factor preventing companies from bringing electric plug-in
cars to the market quicker are the batteries. Right now the
only technology capable of holding sufficient charge and
which can be produced in sufficient volumes is the
Lithium-ion battery, which of course has a nasty habit of
exploding. It was therefore of some interest when
Mitsubishi Motors announced that it would tie up with
Japan's producer of large-size Lithium-ion batteries, GS
Yuasa. GSY has a strong safety track record so far.
Why is everyone so excited about a genuine plug-in, versus
the hybrid petrol-internal electric charge versions
epitomized by the Toyota Prius? Quite simply, the MiEV is
expected to cost less than 3 yen (read that again!) per
kilometer, including daily charging and the 5-yearly
battery changes, to run. Needless to say, all the other
major auto makers have also aligned themselves with
electronics companies capable of producing batteries. But
Mitsubishi is way ahead and has already started working on
a major production line able to churn out more than
200,000 auto power cells a year.
6. Record corporate earnings, negative salary growth
(TT430, July 22, 2007)
Readers will know that we've been saying it all along:
Japanese companies are hanging on to their windfall
profits, rather than sharing with their employees -- with
the possible exception of Toyota, Canon, and some other
leading listed exporters. May 2007 figures released by the
Ministry of Labor show that the average cash earnings of
regular employees, including overtime and bonuses, were
JPY275,148, DOWN 0.2% over the year before. Further, the
average take-home pay was down 0.6% for the same period.
While international readers may not find it so unusual
that companies don't want to share their profits with
employees, we think the fact that this is happening in
Japan AND is being allowed to happen by the authorities and
the unions is due to a very clear reason. The captains of
industry, the unions, and the bureaucrats all believe that
the current global boom (Ok, with the exception of the
USA) won't last and that companies have to be
well-cushioned when the going gets tough again.
7. TEPCO power station shutdown (TT430, July 22, 2007)
A July 17th earthquake in Niigata of magnitude 6.8 forced
a shut down of Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO)
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. The plant, Japan's
largest, was damaged in a quake that exceeded TEPCO's
calculations for a maximum quake strike. What is
unbelievable is that the plant was built nearly on top of
a major undersea fault and TEPCO knew this back in 2003 but
chose to hide the data. The gods were on the side of the
Japanese public when the full extent of the damage was
limited to a burned out transformer and some minor
radioactive leakage. By rights, it should have been another
3-mile island. The plant is still closed pending a new
survey of the fault next March.
The knock-on effects of the plant's closure have been
negative on the cost of living. Last year 31% of Japan's
power came from nuclear facilities, and for TEPCO the
ratio is even higher. As a result, TEPCO usage of
oil-fired power soared 165% for crude oil and 136% for fuel
oil -- at a time when oil prices are at their peak. The
situation this summer following the quake was so severe
that the government warned that there might have to be
power rationing -- the first in decades. This was avoided,
but may recur this winter if temperatures drop significantly
in January-February as expected.
8. Subprime tail wags the dog (TT431, July 29, 2007)
As the US subprime mess started to hit the media radar in
June and July, the head of the Japanese Banker's
Association almost gleefully (or perhaps relievedly) said
on July 24th that he didn't believe the subprime meltdown
would have much direct impact on Japanese banks. His
rationale was that Japanese banks had only JPY1trn
(US$8.4bn) invested in such securities, a small percentage
of their overall foreign investments.
As it turns out he was right and wrong. He was right in
that not only did banks not suffer direct losses, but also
the Japanese central bank authorities agreed to coordinate
their cash pump priming operations with other central
banks in Europe and in the US. This has turned out to be a
good thing in that it has kept the global economy up for
yet another few months despite the odds of there being a
global monetary crisis.
However, he was wrong in thinking that the subprime
problems end at the emigration pier of San Francisco
airport. The situation in the US has triggered a fear
reaction by both consumers and investors worldwide, and
this will hurt Japan economically over the coming months.
Already M&As and risk credit for smaller firms is being
9. Anti-foreigner murmurings (TT441, November 12, 2007)
On November 20th, the Japanese government showed how much
it really appreciates its foreign residents, by arbitrarily
consigning them to tourist level and making them undergo
fingerprinting once again, after a hiatus on the practice
of more than 8 years. Remember that Japan only fingerprints
criminals domestically. The truth is that foreigners are an
irritation to the government, although sometimes they are
a handy source of unencumbered tax revenue (no one
seriously expects the hundred thousand expats paying high
pension premiums to actually stay the 25 years it takes to
draw these pensions, do they?).
As it turns out the actual process of giving your
fingerprints is pretty painless and quick. Indeed, we've
heard that the Japanese-only lines have got longer as
immigration makes sure there is enough manpower for the
foreign lines. No, the main pain of the new system is to
one's self esteem, as you realize that even after decades
of living among and contributing to Japanese society,
you're still considered a potential terrorist -- the main
rationale for the fingerprinting. It's irrelevant to the
authorities that all provable terrorism committed on
Japanese soil over the last 50 years has been by Japanese
As an isolated incident, the fingerprinting is just
annoying. However, looking at the many other small
foreigner-focused restrictions introduced into law
recently, one wonders if Japan isn't turning xenophobic.
Or, putting a positive spin on it, are they getting ready
to open up the doors to foreign workers? Time will tell.
In the meantime, a new law introduced in September requires
all employers to report their foreign workers on a regular
basis to the Immigration Bureau. Again, on the face of it,
the government has every right to try to catch illegal
foreign workers -- but the method being used to do so is
insensitive -- especially for those of us who have to put
up with it.
10. Abe resigns, mediocrity reigns (TT449, Dec 9, 2007)
When Shinzo Abe became Japan's youngest Prime Minister
since WWII, in September 2006, everyone hoped that he would
be able to carry on the reform fight that Junichiro Koizumi
started. Early on, it became clear that this wasn't to be,
and Abe's lowest point was when he allowed former Koizumi
reform foes back in to the LDP after just a year of being
ejected by Koizumi. The public was justifiably disgusted
with the reappearance of the old guard -- the same crowd
that borrowed against Japan's future and turned it into
concrete bridges and roads to nowhere. And so in July they
voted the bums out and the opposition DPJ into a historic
majority position in the upper house.
Abe resigned abruptly in September and Mr "Let's-be-nice"
Fukuda took over as PM. Reform has literally become
road-kill since. In November, the government backed down in
a fight with pro-roading politicians, allowing them to
continue using more than 90% of road taxes for roads only.
While this may sound like a good thing if you're a
motorist, the fact is that a much lower percentage of the
tax take from fuel and road usage is actually needed to
maintain Japan's roading infrastructure. The Ministry of
Finance was hoping to use the rest to pay for the nation's
Pork barrel politics appears to be making a reappearance
and Fukuda's pressuring the Tokyo government to give
JPY300bn (US$2.72bn) of local tax money to rural prefectures
is a thinly disguised bid by the LDP to buy back its
disenchanted farming voter base. Very disappointing...
...Well, that's our lot for 2007. We'll be back on January
13th with our predictions for 2008. In case you're
wondering how we did for 2007, see the list at:
http://www.japaninc.com/tt405. Turns out that we didn't do
...The information janitors/
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- Individuals losing interest in local shares
- Are major firms really upgrading offices?
- Advantage Partners to bid Tokyo Star Bank
- Wheat price to increase up to 30%
- Tourists come for the food
Individuals losing interest in local shares
Bank of Japan (BoJ) data shows that individual ownership of
stock market shares dropped to JPY99.76trn (US$906bn) in
September for the first time in two years. Stocks now
account for 6.5% of household assets. In contrast, the
ownership of investment trusts has increased, and those
trusts targeting overseas stocks and bonds have seen
investment levels soar 76% in the last 12 months. (Source:
TT commentary from nikkei.co.jp, Dec 21, 2007)
-> Are major firms really upgrading offices?
According to a survey made by Mori Building, 24% of major
firms plan to rent additional office space in 2008. The
number planning such expansion is up 5% over 2006, and
Mori says that just over half of the survey respondents
said that the degree of expansion was more important than
the cost of the space being sought. ***Ed: We've said
already this year that the commercial market has topped
out. There are indeed some hundreds of successful exporting
major firms earning huge profits, and who don't mind
sky-high rents. But these account for a tiny fraction
(perhaps less than 0.1%) of the overall number of medium to
large companies in this country. The fact is that the other
99% of companies are extremely resistant to increasing
rental costs, and indeed most of them are hunkering down
for an possibly very ugly 2008. Further, the survey came
from who? Mori Building???! We'd have thought that the
Nikkei could do better than start quoting the very
parties who benefit the most from spreading this type of
propaganda."** (Source: TT commentary from nikkei.co.jp,
Dec 21, 2007)
-> Advantage Partners to bid Tokyo Star Bank
Advantage Partners is at it again, doing the Don Quixote
second act in making a takeover bid of a major listed firm.
They're good at it, too, as the recent returns earned on
their Daiei investment have proved. AP is now said to be
bidding for a majority stake in the Tokyo Star Bank for
around JPY252bn (US$2.2bn), buying the shares from Lone
Star. The deal will allow Lone Star to finally exit its
6-year investment in Tokyo Star, from which it has made
about 700% profit. ***Ed: We wouldn't be surprised to see
AP stick with the bank for a while, rather than flipping
it, and using it as a vehicle to fund a lot more growth
-- in the same way that Shinsei Bank has done.** (Source:
guardian.co.uk, Dec 21, 2007)
-> Wheat price to increase up to 30%
The government, in the form of the Ministry of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), has said that it will start
lifting the price of wheat sold to domestic millers.
Japanese wheat prices are controlled and currently are far
below market prices. The government will decide in February
just how much of the price increases to pass along to
consumers, but rumor has it that it may be by as much as
30% -- which is then expected to pump up inflation next
year. ***Ed: About 5.74m tons of wheat is consumed in Japan
annually, of which just 820K tons are grown
domestically.** (Source: TT commentary from bloomberg.com,
Dec 19, 2007)
-> Tourists come for the food
One thing you don't need Japanese language for much these
days when you're a tourist is food. Thanks to globalisation
and wax figures in the window, foreign tourists are
gobbling up Japanese dishes while in Japan, at a prodigious
pace. According to a Japan National Tourist Organization
(JNTO) poll, the majority of foreign tourists, 71%, said
that a primary motive for coming to Japan was the food.
Much further down in the list of travel purposes were
traditional Japanese architecture at 49%, traditional
gardens at 46%, onsen at 36%, and traditional Ryokan inns
at 29%. ***Ed: No mention of what percentage came
specifically for whale meat...!** (Dec. 19, 2007)
NOTE: Broken links
Many online news sources remove their articles after just a
few days of posting them, thus breaking our links -- we
apologize for the inconvenience.
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In this section we run comments and corrections submitted
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-> No corrections or feedback this week.
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+++ ABOUT US
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