Business / Corporate

Toshiba's latest confusion could complicate path to revival

by Tomoyuki Tachikawa

Kyodo

Another scandal, revealed by a whistleblower, has hit already-embattled Toshiba Corp., further eroding the market credibility of its corporate governance.

At noon Tuesday, the 140-year-old company, which has been working to put an accounting scandal behind it, missed a deadline to release an earnings report for the April to December period, citing alleged “inappropriate pressure” at its U.S. unit over the purchase of another American firm.

In an extremely rare move, Toshiba later released its unaudited estimates of earnings for the nine months through December and its full-year outlook at 5:10 p.m., stunning market participants.

“I’ve never seen such confusion before,” a stock trader at a Japanese bank said. “Investors have been disappointed with Toshiba’s corporate governance. Banks may have become more cautious about lending money to Toshiba.”

Shares in Toshiba skidded on Wednesday to ¥209.7, an 8.75 percent fall, after the conglomerate said it would book a $6.3 billion hit to its U.S. nuclear unit and may sell a majority stake in its prized flash-memory chip business as it scrambles for cash to keep its head above water.

Toshiba’s management ability has been called into question since an accounting scandal came to light in 2015, as it delayed the release of its annual earnings for fiscal 2014 twice.

When the company announced late last year that it would book an asset impairment loss of several billion dollars due to cost overruns in its U.S. nuclear power business, the atomic and electronics conglomerate was criticized for a lack of corporate governance.

“A potential large loss from the nuclear power systems business appears to stem mainly from the magnitude of the risk associated with this business overseas and the malfunction of Toshiba’s management of its group companies,” Rating and Investment Information Inc. said in December.

The latest fiasco, however, has given the impression that Toshiba has not changed at all, investors say.

Weeks before Tuesday’s earnings results release, Toshiba received a report from a whistleblower claiming a deficiency in internal controls at its U.S. nuclear unit, Westinghouse Electric Co., over the acquisition of CB&I Stone & Webster.

Toshiba was then asked by its auditor to look into the allegation and assess the impact, if true, on its earnings of the alleged “inappropriate” pressure by part of Westinghouse’s management. The manufacturer gave up on the release of a formal earnings report Tuesday.

But without notice, Toshiba posted its estimated earnings results on its website, including a loss of ¥712.5 billion ($6.2 billion) from a write-down of its U.S. nuclear operations.

This fanned fears that Toshiba may fail to eliminate net liabilities at the end of the current fiscal year through March 31 after falling into negative net worth at the end of December.

If the company fails to avoid excessive debt at the end of the current business year, it will be downgraded to the second section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. If the situation continues for another year, Toshiba would be delisted.

Toshiba President Satoshi Tsunakawa told a news conference Tuesday that his company is looking to bolster its capital base by selling a majority or even the entire stake in its chip operations, but it is uncertain whether the deal can help Toshiba weather the worst of the crisis.

The firm initially sought to sell only about 20 percent.

The change of direction has prompted investors to question whether the company would have a long-term future without control of the unit and could well shake up the bevy of suitors interested in a piece of the world’s biggest NAND chip producer after Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

“Usually in a corporate turnaround plan, the company would keep its most competitive business after selling nonperforming businesses,” said Masayuki Kubota, chief strategist at Rakuten Securities.

“This turnaround plan gives no hope for Toshiba’s future,” he said.

The ultimate way for Toshiba to boost its capital may be to seek financial aid from a government-sponsored fund, analysts say. Toshiba executives met its bank representatives Wednesday and the main banks told Toshiba that they would keep supporting the firm.

“Toshiba has nuclear technology. Given that promoting nuclear energy is one of the pillars of (Japan’s) economic policies, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the government will support Toshiba,” a credit analyst at a major Japanese brokerage firm said.

Economy minister Hiroshige Seko echoed this sentiment earlier Tuesday, noting that “there are strong hopes for Japan’s nuclear technology.”

But three major heavy industry companies — Toshiba, Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. — have struggled to secure orders as demand for nuclear power plants has slowed since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, even though they had hoped atomic power would be a growth driver.

Hitachi President Toshiaki Higashihara has even called the nuclear business “unprofitable.”

Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), said at a news conference Tuesday that there is skepticism “whether such a business can be managed by one private company.”

Toshiba’s Tsunakawa also said at the news conference that the company will exit operations for nuclear plant construction but will continue with those in other sectors in its nuclear business including maintenance and decommissioning.

Information from Reuters added.