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The year ahead.

And the supporting cast is a jaded generation too comfortable to get passionate about anything. Takenaka's bad-loan drama, starring the Gatekeeper of Hell, plays out on center stage. The third wave of buyouts lurks behind the curtains.

BAD LOANS LOOM ON the horizon like Mount Fuji. One brokerage, HSBC Securities (Japan), estimates that they equal 15 percent of Japan's gross domestic product. But the figures are numbing. The reality is that tackling these bad loans could result in a surge of bankruptcies, the collapse of one or more of Japan's main banks and soaring unemployment. In a word, solving the bad-loan problem means "pain." And Heizo Takenaka, the minister of economic and fiscal policy, has unleashed a plan that would bring plenty of pain and, he believes, forge a path through that mountain of bad loans.


The government unveiled an anti-deflation package on October 30 that would slash in half the ratio of nonperforming loans held by Japan's 13 major banks by fiscal 2004. On the same day, the Financial Services Agency (FSA), also headed by Takenaka, said it would use stricter standards when evaluating bank loans. This day, more than any other in recent memory, set the tone for 2003.

Although the anti-deflation package "diminished the risk of a hard landing" for the economy, says Yasuhide Yajima, a researcher at Nissei Research Institute, "deflationary pressures such as an increase in bankruptcies and the unemployed are unavoidable."

Yajima calculated several scenarios that may play out this year. If Japan succeeds in disposing of [yen]1 5.4 trillion worth of debts classified by the FSA as "bankruptcies or bankruptcies in the real term," GDP would be pushed downwards by 0.5 percent and the unemployment rate would rise by 0.4 percent. If Japan fails in its attempt, GDP will be pushed downwards by 0.7 percent, and the unemployment rate would rise by 0.7 percent. According to his calculation, at least 650,000 people would leave their jobs in the latter scenario.

What's more troubling to many businesses on the brink of collapse is that they may soon have their fates decided by "the Gatekeeper of Hell." At least, that's what the Japanese media are calling the future chairman of the industrial revitalization agency, because that person would have the final say on whether certain companies live or die.

The public-private agency, to be set up this spring, would focus on loans from borrowers that are to be rehabilitated, Sadakazu Tanigaki, the minister in charge of overseeing the agency reportedly said. Its counterpart, the Resolution and Collection Corp. (RCC), is focused on bad loans from borrowers that are to be liquidated. Thus, the person who decides whether a company's loans are sent to the RCC or to the planned industrial revitalization agency has the power of life or death over a company. This Gatekeeper of Hell should come from the private sector, says Tanigaki, according to reports in the Japanese media.

Will the gatekeeper plan work? Analyst assessments are mixed. Darrel Whitten, author of J@pan Inc's weekly email newsletter Money Watch, offers this assessment: "The one flash of hope is that the Koizumi Administration stumbles toward a 'good account,' 'bad account' solution. This solution was used immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II to clear the decks of nonperforming loans by having all the players -- companies, financial institutions, shareholders, corporate depositors and the government -- share the burden. However, neither Heizo Takenaka nor Junichiro Koizumi are a Douglas MacArthur, who had the luxury of a totalitarian occupation regime to impose such a solution."

Lists of companies on the verge of bankruptcy have been circulating through elite business and political circles for months now, beginning with the so-called "dirty 30" list and more recently followed up by a list of 51 companies widely reported in the Japanese media. But as one financial expert put it, you could give two people copies of the Kaisha Shikoho (the biannual book of financial data from listed companies), send one to the South Pole and another to the North Pole, and both would come back with pretty much the same list.


The government's anti-deflation package also calls for the government to inject more public money into banks if their capital adequacy ratios decline. One point being debated as 2002 came to an end was whether the government should purchase preferred shares, as it did in 1998 and 1999, or whether it should opt for common shares, giving it a vote and a voice in the way the banks are run. If the government elects to buy common shares, it raises the specter of nationalized banks.

Technically, preferred stock -- which does not carry voting rights but is at the front of the line when it comes to collecting dividends or funds from a collapsed company -- can be converted into common stock after a certain period of time.

UFJ Holdings, for example, has issued [yen]1.4 trillion worth of preferred shares to the government, out of which [yen]1.1 trillion is already due for conversion. But no preferred stock bought with public money injections has ever been converted.

Should the government buy common stock in Japan's major banks and make its voice heard when the banks make key management decisions? If it converted preferred shares it already holds, the government would have an average holding of 25 percent in every major bank but Tokyo-Mitsubishi, which has repaid all the public funds it borrowed, according to the Nihon Keizai Shim bun, Japan's leading economic newspaper. With further injections, the paper posits, the government could end up owning one-third of the outstanding shares in some of the banks, giving it veto power in strategic decisions like mergers and acquisitions in shareholders meetings.

But some economists doubt that the government is likely to take control of the nation's banks. "They would probably avoid that as much as they can," says Peter Morgan, chief economist at HSBC Securities (Japan). "They may well buy more shares, but they would probably stop short of nationalization unless it's absolutely necessary."

First of all, the government would have to find a new management team capable of running the nationalized banks. "Where are the new management teams going to come from?" Morgan asks. "Where are all these bankers who have different ways of doing things? There is no other management team available to take them over. It's slightly pointless to nationalize the banks."

Of course, the government could sell the nationalized banks to foreigners, like it did with the former Long Term Credit Bank, bought by US private equity fund Ripplewood Holdings and turned into Shinsei Bank. But Morgan says that option is politically unacceptable.''

"The government really didn't like that experience," he says. "Shinsei Bank is now more of a Western style bank; it doesn't play by the Japanese rules. The government, to a certain extent, regrets that and doesn't really want to repeat that experience."


As the government debates what to do with the banks, private equity funds are quietly debating their next moves. Last year, "buyouts" was a buzzword in Japan, but many in the industry say that the hype preceded the action. This year will be a more active one for buyout funds looking to invest in distressed assets or noncore assets of troubled companies, sources say.

One reason for the activity is that several Japanese funds are up and running. Traditionally, these buyout funds have been foreign players with names like Ripplewood and Lonestar. Early entrants have been in Japan since the late 1990s, buying up troubled golf courses and buildings built in the bubble period of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Industry sources say Lonestar, Cerberus, and Goldman Sachs, among others, have already bought up a major portion of the real estate used as collateral during the bubble era.

Phase two of buyout funds began at the turn of the century as the government sold two troubled banks -- Shinsei and Kansai Sawayaka Bank -- to foreign buyout funds.

In 2003, the industry is poised to accelerate purchases as the government shows signs of getting serious about its nonperforming-loan problem. And this time around, Japanese funds will be part of the picture. For example, Tokyo-based Phoenix Capital has launched two funds this year to "revitalize" Japanese businesses, including a [yen]47 billion "Nippon Revival Fund," financed by domestic banks such as Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Sumitomo Mitsui, and several regional banks. In the meantime, Mizuho Securities and NTT DATA, in collaboration with Bain & Copmany Japan, established Japan Industrial Partners Inc in November, to support Japan's "business reorganization, restructuring and reform." Other Japanese funds are emerging as well, although they tend to be smaller than the foreign funds -- domestic funds tend to be tens of billions of yen, while foreign funds are a full digit larger. As the market becomes more crowded, there's a good chance that some of the funds in play now won't be around to ring in 2004.


China's role in the world economy will force change in Japan during 2003, analysts say. "As China becomes the world's factory, there is even less necessity to accumulate capital in high-cost countries like Japan," writes Pascal Nguyen, a managing partner of the Tokyo-based financial services firm WEP, in a memo to J@pan inc. "However, China's build-up effort requires the kind of capital goods produced in Japan."

Look for Japan's manufacturers to concentrate more this year on high-end production and capital-intensive new technologies such as fuel cells. Also, companies will be reviewing their intellectual property strategies to see if they can sell off dormant patents or pick up patents on the cheap from other companies. Japan will become less of a manufacturing powerhouse and more of a knowledge society during the next 12 months.


Any discussion of Japan's economy would be remiss if it didn't mention the [yen]l,400 trillion in savings the Japanese people hold. This is the giant nest egg that soothes Japanese households in the face of media predictions of economic doom and gloom. And it's what gives Japan's economic downturn its peculiar twist -- the world's second largest economy struggles for more than a decade to right itself, but visitors still exclaim at all the money being spent on the streets. "I don't care what you say -- there's a lot of discretionary money out there," says David Matsumoto, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University and the author of The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural Stereotypes (see page 4 for a review).

He's right, of course. But then, so are the doomsayers -- at least to a point. That's the conundrum of present day Japan: large macroeconomic problems coupled with individual wealth. Nguyen of WBP says the average Japanese household will have to learn to handle more risk in the near future. "Households have been mostly insulated from financial risk-taking," he writes. "They were also insulated from economic risk-taking given the traditional lifetime-employment system." But that's all about to change, he says, with the [yen]10 million insurance cap on bank deposits, expected April 2003. "Households will have to learn to manage their assets."

This is not exactly causing panic in the populace, however. "The average kid on the street is not going to change too much until there's a need to change," says Matsumoto, who lectured at the University of Tokyo in December. "Things are going to kind of be the same as long as they have cash in the pocket."

Cash is not a problem. But dreams are, argues Matsumoto. "Ask a young Japanese kid today what his dreams are, and I'll bet you bottom dollar he doesn't know what to say." He says modern Japan is in the midst of a spiritual and cultural crisis. "Japan has lost itself in the transition of the last 30 or 40 years. It has lost touch with those things that make it singularly unique and wonderful."

Matsumoto sees an opportunity for companies amid this spiritual, cultural and economic malaise. "Organizations can look at their roles as educators. Part of their business is to reinforce or create a culture. They could make that aspect of their function equal in importance to making a buck." Companies that pay more attention to their educational role may just be able to stir something inside the directionless youth of Japan, he says.

"There are very bright individuals who are not being tapped," Matsumoto says of recent university graduates. "They have great potential, but you have to foster them."

RELATED ARTICLE: The Koizumi Cabinet Sheep To The Slaughter

writer, lecturer and former president of Tama University

WHEN THE KOIZUMI PEOPLE told us they could revive Japan's economy by privatizing the Highway Corporation or the post offices, we knew they were into rearranging Titanic deckchairs. Now, with the boat taking in water furiously, we are told that the answer is something called the Industrial Revival Agency, which will rescue enterprises bankrupted by Koiztmi policies. In other words, from arranging the deckchairs they are now into organizing the lifeboats. And they still think they are rescuing the ship.

The mistakes made in the handling of the Japanese economy in recent years have been monstrous. To any impartial observer, it should be obvious that a nation with abnormally high household savings and [yen]1,400 trillion in personal financial assets is going to suffer a massive demand gap unless everything is done to push that money back into the economy. But instead of trying to close that demand gap, the planners have been doing their best to widen it with their bank purging and fiscal stringency policies. When they should have been pressing the accelerator, they were slamming on the brakes. When they should have been going forward, they were trying to go backward. Or to go back to the Titanic analogy, when they should have been pumping water out, they were busily pumping it in.

Only an economy as strong and resilient as Japan's could have stayed afloat as long as it has. But now it too is in danger of sinking. Much the same mistakes were made in the US in 1929, with consequences we all know about. And since the names and mistakes of the guilty then have been recorded for posterity, maybe it is time to start doing the same for Japan, if only to help prevent the tragedy from happening again next time -- assuming there will be a next time.

Heading the guilty list is none other than the prime minister himself. From the beginning it should have been obvious that he was ignorant of economics. In speech after speech, he would rail on semi-hysterically about the official deficit problem with no hint of realizing how or why it was there and what could realistically be done about it. Inevitably, he would have to leave policy details to the darling of the TV talk shows -- the garrulous and unflinchingly dogmatic Keio University economist Heizo Takenaka.

Koizumi's main aim has been to hit back at some of his factional enemies by abolishing the entities they used as sources of corrupt funds. That has some political benefits. But it does nothing for the economy.

Next on the guilty list comes the Japanese public with its unthinking and emotional weakness for the word kaikaku (reform). For a while it was "political reform" (now shown up to be a shambles). Then it was admimstrative reform, then education reform. All ended with negligible results. But at the time, everyone had a nice warm feeling that things were being done. Now we have Junichiro Koizumi with something called "structural reform." Before him came Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1997 with his promises of fiscal reform (i.e. the fiscal stringency policies that sent this economy into its first tailspin and which are now being repeated by the Koizumi reforms).

True, if I were a citizen of these islands fed up with the never-ending revelations of waste, corruption, political scheming, big business collusion and bureaucratic empire building, I too would probably welcome anything that promised reform. But I would first check out the details. A promise to change the world by cutting fiscal spending in an economy suffering a severe demand gap was a formula for disaster right from the beginning. Yet only a few brief years after the Hashimoto disaster, the Japanese public let itself get lured into yet another disaster.

Third on my guilty list come the theoretical economists headed by Heizo Takenaka and based mainly at Keio and Hitotsubashi universities. I know these people. They are immature men. Few have any real contact with the outside world of business. Their simplistic textbook market fundamentalist theories are their psychological props.

Until recently these people were infatuated with the seeming success of the US economy. Time and time again, I had to share discussion platforms with them where they would rave on about how the coming IT revolution would propel us all into a nirvana of perpetual economic progress. "Buy into Yahoo and Softbank before it is too late," was the very nonacademic advice from one of them.

Within Japan, the only economists to get it consistently right have been Richard Koo of Nomura Research and the gentle female economist, Fumiko Konya. Needless to say, their calls for fiscal stimulus are generally drowned out, though they do get to appear in talk shows where some opposing voice is needed.

Western economists have not done much better. Paul Krugman of the US has long realized the need to fill the demand gap before embarking on so-called reforms. So, too, has Andrew Smithers of the UK, though his focus on the exchange rate seems too narrow. Most of the rest seem blindly to have endorsed the Koizumi/Takenaka line, and not just because they too embrace market fundamentalism.

What they don't realize is that the many seeming faults in the system are marginal to Japan's economic problems. Indeed, many of those "faults" -- lack of labor mobility; close bank-enterprise ties; contempt for shareholders; bias to manufacturing rather than services, et cetera -- were once hailed as the keys to Japan's success.

The gaijin economic gurus employed by the Western securities companies and other think tanks here have not done better, even if some have begun to temper their words lately. One of the more prominent has gone from enthusiastic approval for Koizumi policies to deep warnings of impending deflation without even seeming to realize the connection between the two. In between, he praised Tokyo for eliminating financial socialism at precisely the same moment that the authorities were talking of having to nationalize the banks and were relying on semi-official banks like Shoko Chukin to rescue companies denied funds by private banks. Now with the planned industrial revival agency, we are deep into economic communism.

Then we have the Western media, which have been unrelentingly wrong in their diagnoses and remedies for the

Japanese economies. Guiltiest has been the Financial Times of the UK and the Wall Street Journal of the US, both heavily caught up in the same free-market, supply-side fundamentalism that also did so much damage to the Russian and many other economies around the world. The International Herald Tr bone has not been much better. The influential Foreign Affairs has run a constant barrage of articles sounding off about Japan's many structural imperfections. None are interested in running contrary opinions.

Within Japan, the situation has been confused, with the normally right-wing Yomiuri Shimbun stable pushing a solitary campaign for controlled inflation and Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies, while the rest have gone along with the tide favoring Koizumi. The progressive Asahi Shimbun, which should know better, remains enthralled by the word "reform."

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun's position has been interesting. As the main economic newspaper, it has clout. For a while it went overboard for the Hashlimoto and then Koizumi policies, making little effort to disguise its fundamentalist and tightwing bias. Keynesian policies were denounced as outdated left-wingism. I used to get a good run in its pages, but was put firmly on its blacklist after I came out in open criticism of its fundamentalist line.

But starting about two years ago, the Nikkei seems to have suffered a sea change. It began to challenge the Koizumi line occasionally. A year ago, when Takenaka came out with yet another of his typically arrogant White Papers condemning "outdated Keynesian theories," it asked gruffly how an economy clearly lacking demand could recover by further reducing demand. Good question. Just wish it had been asked earlier.

The ECONOMY Contraction, Rise in Unemployment Ahead.

Peter J. Morgan, Ph.D, and chief economist of HSBC Securities (Japan)

THE JAPANESE ECONOMY ENJOYED a modest recovery in 2001 due to a sharp rebound in global growth and exports, but exports now show signs of peaking out. Although the global economy is expected to show sluggish growth next year, this may not be enough to prevent the economy from tipping back into recession. As a result, the economy is likely to shrink for the third year in a row on a calendar year basis, and the unemployment rate will start to rise again.

The economy suffers from numerous problems. First, HSBC estimates that the output gap -- the difference between actual and full-employment (potential) GDP -- is about 5 percent, by far the largest for developed countries. This is the primary reason for the persistent deflation that the economy has experienced over the past four years. In order to end deflation, the gap would have to be reduced by about 3 percentage points of GDP.

Second, private debt levels remain very high by international comparison, mainly a legacy of the binge of borrowing during the bubble period. Although the ratio of corporate debt to GDP has fallen dramatically from 151 percent of GDP in 1995 to about 115 percent currently, this still compares unfavorably with ratios of about 70 percent for the US and major European countries. The steady reduction of debt by the corporate sector and the accompanying decline of private capital investment have been key reasons for weak demand for credit. Household debt has been more stable at about 67 percent of GDP, but debt-servicing costs have tended to depress consumer spending and borrowing as well.

Third, Japan suffers from poor capital allocation, due to inadequate corporate governance and excessive protection of weak companies. In the face of increased competition from low-cost producers such as China, the share of manufacturing in total output needs to shrink, and capital and labor need to shift to higher productivity areas, mainly in services. The main winner in the Japanese economy over the past decade has been miscellaneous services. Corporate restructuring has continued to shrink employment in construction and manufacturing, and this trend is likely to continue.

Fourth, the combination of high debt levels and a weak economy has led to high levels of bad loans, estimated by HSBC at roughly 15 percent of GDP, far higher than the 4 percent of GDP experienced by the US during the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s. This has impaired the ability of banks to lend to creditworthy customers and has undermined confidence in the financial system.

As a result, the economy has fallen into a "liquidity trap" type situation, where monetary policy is relatively ineffective. Although the Bank of Japan has cut rates to zero and base money is growing strongly, this has had no observable impact on bank lending or growth. Loan demand will only recover when debt levels have fallen enough and the capital position of the banking sector has been strengthened.

We have not cited government debt as a problem, despite its high level of 140 percent of GDP and climbing. As long as Japan maintains a current account surplus, the debt is domestically held and hence not a net burden on the economy. Moreover, there is no limit on the ability of the Bank of Japan to buy (monetize) the debt. In this case, the classical prescription is to expand fiscal policy to reduce the output gap, either by raising expenditures or cutting taxes, and to accommodate this monetarily by having the BOJ buy the debt. Unfortunately, the government has maintained a policy of fiscal consolidation in the past three years, which has simply added to deflationary pressures.

Society future imperfect

-Kenji Kwakami, Chindogu Inventor

I'M SITTING ACROSS FROM gadget god Kenji Kawakami in a Shimbashi cafe quaffing latte when he whips out a plastic container holding what he says has captivated his attention for an entire year: mud.

More precisely, pond sludge, which he proceeds to dollop into a liter of water. Stirring, the man who blasted reason out of inventing with his anarchic, mind-bender Chindogu gizmos chucides and apologizes for having created his first "real invention" -- something that can actually be put to practical use and sold.

This is heresy in the Church of Chindogu. Kawakami's cult following was built on his art of "unuseless" analog devices like Self-Lighting Cigarettes, whose sole value lies in their very lack of value in making life easier. But so far all I'm seeing is a dirty whirlpool.

"Environment," the swami of the absurd says cryptically. He then produces a packet of metallic grey powder and sprinkles it into the mire, in a minute, the water is clear, the black slime condensed at the bottom. It's also drinkable after a boil, says Kawakami, describing visions of cleaning Osaka's Dotombori River and Bangkok's Klong Toey canal with his moondust.

Kawakami, who has dreamed up hundreds of mad doodads since he conceived Chindogu in 1985, hopes the powder lands him his first patent, as well as clients looking to purify industrial sewage. He defends his defection to usefulness by saying part of sales proceeds will go to help clear some of the world's 50 million land mines.

But fear not, Chindogu fans. Kawakami hasn't forsaken his fatuous craft. He wants to publish a new book of contraptions in 2003, among which will be his Corner Sleeping Hat, enabling harried 21st-century stiffs to stick themselves to a building comer and catnap.

The future looks a lot darker than the water treated with his secret snow, unless you're living in China. Business in the Middle Kingdom will continue to boom, he says, while Japan will be content to sink deeper into its deflationary quicksand.

"In Japan and America, everyone just thinks about themselves," he sighs. "But China's different. They think of the group, the movement. Japan used to have that, but now people just think about going out, money, Luis Vuitton bags. Their own affairs.

"They have no awareness of the problem, and our society can't go on like that. The economy will get worse, but it serves us right."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will carry on in his aimless leadership charade, and the United States will start to regret its "childish" foreign policies and its belief that justice only means justice for Americans, according to Kawakami.

He likens the necessity of seeing things in a new light to concocting Chindogn, or bothering to wonder why, for instance, one can always see fish being sliced up on cooking shows but never cows.

"Old-fashioned thinking is the easiest way," the radical inventor stresses. "Adopting a new point of view requires effort."

-- Written by Tim Horn yak

THE WEB Standing at the Crossroads

-- Adam Greenfield lead information architect Frontage Razorfish in Tokyo

CORPORATE JAPAN IS AT a bifurcation point regarding its use of the Web. Not "approaching," but "at."

Hopefully, 2003 will be the year when Japanese companies finally discover that the Web is good for something other than animated mascots, long lists of mind-numbing press releases and content-free messages from the shacho. Those that do will harness all the benefits of genuine two-way communication with their customers: increased goodwill, more precise targeting of marketing efforts, enhanced customer loyalty and so on.

In order for this to happen, though, firms are going to have to invest time, money and intellectual effort in offering quality Web products and services that are simultaneously useful, usable and desirable.

The year's winners will start by rejecting the received wisdom regarding what Japanese Web users prefer. They'll rededicate themselves to understanding not what users are believed to want, or even what they say they want, but what they are observed to need. Design proceeding from this insight will allow the brave few to reach customers and markets they had thought saturated, simultaneously executing a graceful withdrawal from the cul de sac of pointlessness and mediocrity in which the Japanese Web is currently mired.

Those companies that fail to move decisively away from the intellectually lazy will reap a harvest of uninspired and soon-forgotten offerings. It's their choice.

HEALTH CARE A Year of Smoke and Mirrors

John Wocher, executive vice president of administration at Kameda Medical Center

THE YEAR 2003 WILL most likely be a transitional one for health-care reform in Japan, as diagnostic related groups (DRGs), mandatory internships and specialty certification for physicians loom on the horizon in 2004 and beyond. With the deregulation initiatives (iryo tokku) solicited in October of this year getting severely watered down, I don't expect any major breakthroughs to occur, It seems clear that the issues of for-profit healthcare delivery, emergence of a competitive private health insurance market and the commingling of charges between patient and national health insurance have a chance between slim and none. Giving the nonprofit health-care sector a modified tax exempt status seems to be impossible.

I also see very little meaningful deregulation efforts to allow hospitals to import medical supplies and devices directly from the country of origin. The current practice of sole source f exclusive distribution) for most key medical equipment made abroad is still monopolistic and will probably continue.

I anticipate no changes to physicians being licensed for life, no mandating of a third-party accreditation of hospitals based on an evaluation system, no mandatory continuing medical or nursing education requirement (except for an initiative to be introduced in 2004), no widespread adoption of giving medical staff credentials and privileges (except in progressive hospitals), and little legislative support for letting patients have mostly unrestricted access to their medical records.

However, the good news might be in the IT sector. Electronic medical systems are proliferating, helping to prevent medical errors. But in short, 2003 will be a year with more bark than bite, and a year of more uncertainty regarding health-care reform. Hoping to be wrong on all counts.
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Title Annotation:Japan
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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