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Toshiba underlines why Abenomics is failing

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Barron's

Sixteen Airbus A380 jets, 263 Sanlorenzo yachts, 11,250 Hong Kong apartments, 31,500 Mar-a-Lago Club memberships, 1.2 million Rolex Submariner watches. All purchases you could make with the mountain of cash Toshiba just blew.

In fact, the $6.3 billion the Japan Inc. icon with roots dating back to 1875 and telegraphs wrote down equates to Kosovo’s annual gross domestic product. Really, you almost have to be trying to win an award for worst CEO to do that. Like a dutiful corporate samurai, Shigenori Shiga is stepping down from the conglomerate.

The only thing the once-proud Toshiba is telegraphing these days is how little headway the government has made in modernizing corporate governance practices.

In what’s become a pattern for the Tokyo-based also-ran, Toshiba management on Tuesday missed a deadline for disclosing earnings, detailing losses in its nuclear business and proving it’s a “going concern.” Its stock is down more than 17 percent since Jan. 1 and, frankly, it should have fallen far more than that. Toshiba has been ricocheting from scandal to scandal — cooking the books, massive unexplained losses, opaque decision-making — for nearly two years now, and still many shareholders are holding its stock.

Why the tolerance? It wasn’t supposed to be this way more than four years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rolled out his grand Abenomics vision. A key pillar was dragging corporate chieftains into the 21st century. Greater innovation, efficiency and profits, Abe argued, would return Japan Inc. to its 1980s greatness to create jobs, boost incomes and end deflation. Only, Tokyo messed up the endgame.

In 2014, Abe introduced a United Kingdom-like stewardship code to empower investors to prod underperforming CEOs to do better. Tokyo also introduced an index of 400 Japanese companies deemed serious about returns on investment. In 2015, it devised a corporate code of conduct for chieftains, asking boards to at least try to include two or more outside directors. Nice ideas, but too little, too late and too voluntary to work.

Toshiba, remember, already had outside directors when it was fiddling numbers. It was even among the initial JPX-Nikkei Index 400 of corporate names making “efficient use of capital and investor-focused management perspectives.” Nor have shareholders meetings been besieged by angry investors demanding management eschew 19th-century telegraph-period practices in favor for 21st.

That’s one of the great ironies of Abe’s visit to the Mar-a-Lago Club, or White House South to those following Donald Trump’s newest reality show. The president made his bones hosting “The Apprentice,” but his new gig features a bevy of business magnates and foreign leaders vying for his affections. Contestant Toyota, for example, is lavishing $10 billion on U.S. investments. Abe had reportedly prepared plans to create some 700,000 U.S. jobs and perhaps even use public pension funds to bankroll Trump projects. All just to stop Trump from bashing Japanese companies or the yen on Twitter.

Rather than buy Trump’s silence, Abe should act boldly to give investors a greater voice at home. Why not use the bully pulpit to name and shame CEOs tarnishing the “New Japan” Abenomics seeks to build? Where Trump tweets, Abe should give a speech to publicly criticize Toshiba for the drip, drip, drip of awful disclosures with which it constantly fills the financial pages. He should slap the numbskulls at Takata, whose deadly air bag scandal generates hearings in Washington. He should call out Sharp for waiting until the last second in talks with Foxconn Technology to say oh, by the way, we have $3 billion-plus of contingent liabilities — you know, just FYI.

With majorities in both Diet chambers, Abe should do the following: curb cross-shareholdings between friendly companies; address poison-pill provisions aimed at avoiding foreign acquisitions; disincentivize the productivity-killing seniority-based promotion system; announce quotas for female senior management positions; ban amakudari, a corrupting practice whereby bureaucrats get cushy post-retirement gigs at companies they’re supposed to be regulating.

Along with the compliant Japanese media, these conventions brought us the $1.7 billion Olympus accounting scandal in 2011. They enable Tokyo Electric Power Co. to act opaquely nearly six years after its reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant melted down. They allow Toshiba to delay telling investors how close it is to bankruptcy. It’s high time Tokyo acted assertively to increase not just corporate profits, but accountability. Abenomics has been 90 percent Bank of Japan easing and 10 percent structural reform, at best. The weaker yen has helped Japan Inc. steer through a volatile global scene, but myriad barriers to greater ROI persist.

Perhaps Abe could invite Masayoshi Son along to his naming-and-shaming speech. The same day Toshiba was highlighting old Japan’s insular ways, the SoftBank billionaire pivoted toward new growth markets with a $3.3 billion purchase of U.S. private equity giant Fortress Investments. It’s the kind of bold, international strategy Abenomics hoped to inspire more of. It’s time Abe telegraphed a new era of Japanese dynamism.

William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia and writes on Asian issues. www.barronsasia.com