Olympus has way to go before it’s out of the woods

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo

A third-party panel appointed by Olympus Corp. to investigate its loss-hiding scandal this week claimed the company had no ties with organized crime, but its future path hinges on resolving a battle with its former president and remaining listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

While harshly criticizing the company’s top echelon, the findings in the panel’s report fell basically in line with the company’s assertions, saying it found no involvement of “antisocial organizations,” a euphemism for organized crime syndicates.

The panel concluded that the camera and medical equipment maker has no off-the-book liabilities, after concealing ¥117.7 billion in investment losses dating back to the 1990s.

“There was no additional negative news,” said a precision instrument analyst at a Japanese securities firm who asked not to be named. “Fears that the company’s net assets could be impaired significantly have receded,” he said.

A former Olympus board member in his late 60s said he appreciated the report, saying, “The company has proceeded to the next step to remain listed (on the Tokyo Stock Exchange), as involvement of antisocial forces and embezzlement were denied” by the panel.

By announcing the establishment of committees to clarify executives’ responsibilities and discuss management reforms the day after Tuesday’s panel report, the firm now aims to pave the way for its recovery from the scandal.

But it will still have to confront former President and Chief Executive Officer Michael C. Woodford, who said he would fight a proxy battle to retake control of the firm when he resigned from the company’s board Dec. 1. He also earlier criticized the third-party panel’s declaration that the firm had no mob links as a very premature conclusion.

Woodford, who was dismissed in October as president, blew the whistle on the dubious outlays concerning the firm’s acquisitions of companies, including British medical equipment maker Gyrus Group PLC in the latter half of 2000s, which were found to have been used for the coverup.

“I’m doing it because I believe there is an opportunity,” the Briton told reporters in New York after announcing his resignation as a board member. “I’m prepared to go back and lead the company,” he said.

Immediately after his announcement, U.S. investment fund Southeastern Asset Management, which has about a 5 percent stake in Olympus, expressed support for Woodford, while major domestic shareholders remain generally critical of him.

“He cannot hurt his ship (that he once presided over) in order to be successful,” one major bank’s senior official said.

But the chance of Woodford returning to the company presidency may not be as slim as many people in Japan seem to believe, as some domestic institutional investors, including Nippon Life Insurance Co., which had been Olympus’ top shareholder, have sold stock.

The Nippon Life group’s stake in Olympus has been reduced to 5.11 percent from 8.18 percent after massive selloffs as the scandal unfolded, according to a report the insurer submitted Nov. 17 to financial regulators.

“It appears that companies are dumping Olympus shares since the scandal broke, while individual shareholders are now likely to hold many of the shares,” said a securities analyst who declined to be identified, adding it is difficult to find out the company’s current shareholder composition.

The chance of Woodford winning the proxy battle “is not zero,” he added.

The company’s shares traded above ¥1,000 recently, after sinking to ¥424 Nov. 11.

Market analysts say the recent share prices reflect investors’ hope that the company will remain listed on the TSE, though the price level is still far off from ¥2,482 on Oct. 13, the day before Woodford’s dismissal.

Olympus is now working to correct its financial statements for the past five years and to submit its April-September earnings report to the Financial Services Agency by Wednesday, as stipulated by law, in order to remain listed.

Even if the company manages to submit the report by the deadline, it still faces the risk of being delisted if the bourse deems the content of the revised reports to have a significant impact on the market.