If only Goldman, Merrill had been more Japanese

If only Goldman, Merrill had been more Japanese
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First Published: Wed, Oct 08 2008. 11 25 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Oct 08 2008. 11 25 PM IST
It’s known as the apology money shot. Many in the Japanese media seem to live for scenes of corporate executives or government officials bowing in shame before the cameras. Tears are often part of the show as the high and mighty fall on their proverbial swords to take responsibility for some misdeed or scandal.
The practice is meant to break with the past and progress forward. And it’s a lot of bunk. It has become a cynical public-relations tool to offer the perception of contrition and change before returning to business as usual. It’s intriguing, then, that some want Wall Street titans to be more Japanese.
“I’ve suggested it wouldn’t be a bad thing that the leadership of these institutions would take a Japanese-style approach to corporate governance,” US senator Charles Grassley was quoted as saying by the Daily Nonpareil. “And I’m not talking about going out and committing suicide as some Japanese do in these circumstances, but I am talking about scenes I’ve seen on television where in belly-up corporations the CEOs go before the board of directors, before the public, before the stockholders and bow deeply and apologize for their mismanagement.”
It’s hard to decide where to start. First, it’s not going to happen. Wall Street lawyers wouldn’t allow it. Second, Grassley’s faith in the sincerity of apologizing bigwigs is misguided. For Japanese executives at confectionary companies selling tainted food, tyre companies shilling defective treads, or nuclear plants playing loose with safety requirements, bowing publicly is about deflecting blame, not repairing problems. Yet Grassley does have a point about the appalling lack of shame on Wall Street.
The only thing the US can really learn from Japan’s experience during the 1990s and early 2000s is the importance of acting quickly and forcefully. And while Japanese banks avoided the worst of the current credit crisis that began with subprime loans, they were more lucky than right.
The reason Japan hasn’t grown faster during the recovery than began in 2002 is a malfunctioning credit system. Even with short-term interest rates near zero, banks are stingy about making new loans, while businesses and consumers are reluctant to borrow. The result is a Japan that’s too reliant on exports as global growth slides. There’s a triumphal air coursing through Tokyo as banks buy sizeable stakes overseas, a trend highlighted by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.’s $9 billion (Rs43,830 crore) investment in Morgan Stanley. Yet, it misses the point on two fronts.
One, the phenomenon highlights Japan’s desire to have globalization both ways. Just imagine the uproar if the tables were reversed and Morgan Stanley sought to buy a 21% stake in Japan’s biggest bank. The reluctance to welcome foreign investment holds back growth.
Two, Japan’s vulnerabilities are rapidly coming to light. The Bank of Japan remains unwilling to take a step that may be inevitable: cutting short-term rates from the current 0.5% to comfort investors.
The yen’s surge to a three-year high against the euro this week isn’t helping. While deflation isn’t about to return, it’s important to recognize that it took a historic jump in commodity prices to turn Japanese prices positive. The yen’s gains could prove deflationary in the months ahead.
A global recession will be particularly tough for Japan, which lacks monetary- and fiscal-policy latitude. The world’s largest public debt among industrialized economies will limit Prime Minister Taro Aso’s ability to spend his way to growth. A year from now, it may be Aso’s turn to assume the bowing position before an aggrieved public. Americans expecting the same from Wall Street shouldn’t hold their breath.
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First Published: Wed, Oct 08 2008. 11 25 PM IST
More Topics: Goldman | Merrill | Charles Grassley | Japan | Media |