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Japan then and now
By Advisor Perspectives
Late in 2006, Matthews Asia was wrapping up a special report titled “Japan Reawakens.” The timing of that AsiaNow publication, just ahead of the Global Financial Crisis, was unfortunate to say the least. With the ensuing economic turmoil, Japan fell asleep again, sliding off the radar screens of many investors. But as interest in Japan has more recently re-emerged, I thought it would be important for us to take a look back and consider what we previously published. Has Japan evolved the way we had envisioned? What’s changed and what hasn’t? And most importantly, where do we go from here?
Governance at Japan Inc.
A major theme in that issue of AsiaNow was “Restructuring of Japan Inc.” We discussed topics such as shareholder-friendly governance, the shakeup of cross shareholdings, using catchy phrases like “this is not your father’s Japan” and “from stakeholders to shareholders.” We spoke too soon. Japan’s corporate governance made little improvement in the years that followed. The Global Financial Crisis ushered many companies back into their cocoons, where they found comfort in cash-hoarding practices that shielded them during tough times. I recall a steel company executive telling me, “We survived because we had this cash, why should we pay it out?” Only recently, have the tides begun to shift again.
Japan’s Stewardship Code of 2014 and its Corporate Governance Code in 2015 are measures that reflect the strong determination of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to bring Japan’s corporate governance practices further in line with global practices. In reality, the code itself still falls short of global best practices, and needs continued improvements. For instance, it does not mandate a majority independent board, there are few repercussions for non-compliance and it lacks a regular monitor-and-review process.
Still, we’ve observed a noticeable change in how corporate managers interact with investors and the market in general—some more than others. That changing mindset is evidenced by the increase in shareholder returns in the form of both dividends and share buybacks. On the back of strong earnings, dividend payouts for firms on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s 1st section have reached a historical high. Note that the figures in the chart below reflect only dividends and buybacks that have already been executed. There are even more buybacks announced but yet to be executed.
However, improving corporate governance isn’t simply about paying out excess cash. Ultimately, Japanese corporate managers need to become better stewards of capital. That means improving capital returns by unwinding unproductive cross shareholdings and investing for growth. Already, several major financial institutions have announced plans to comprehensively review their cross shareholdings. Japanese firms have also been active in cross border acquisitions with more than US$50 billion spent year-to-date as they invest for growth.
These developments give me some hope that progress will be made over the next several years. Remember, change in Japan rarely happens quickly. There may even be times when it looks like it’s taking a step back. Hence, it’s important for investors to temper expectations, have some patience and let the evolution play out.
The Evolving Relationship with Asia
Another major theme from the AsiaNow newsletter, published in 2007, was Japan’s integration with Asia. Back then, the relationship was mo