Panasonic has had a rough 15 years. Founded in 1918, the Japan Inc. icon long stood tall with Canon, Hitachi and Sony. By the time the 2000s arrived, its televisions, radios and bicycles seemed obsolete. Panasonic’s Osaka-based leadership, more out of desperation than prescience, shifted to housing and batteries.
Then came a phone call from Elon Musk. When the Tesla Motors guru began building his $5 billion lithium-ion gigafactory in Nevada in 2014, he turned to Panasonic and its decades of research and development on next-generation battery technology. Now, Tesla is deepening its collaboration with Panasonic to dream up a solar-energy revolution that could enliven not just these two companies, but Japan’s economy.
For Musk, tapping Panasonic is a shrewd way to fuel his SolarCity game plan. He’s both chief executive of Tesla and chairman of SolarCity and sought to combine them to offer the world one-stop shopping for vehicles and the renewables on which they’ll run. Shareholders are less enamored with a marriage they see as fraught with corporate-governance risks. Collaborating with Panasonic may help Musk close the deal and placate analysts who see him more as a cash-burning charlatan than visionary changing the concept of energy forever.
Panasonic gets a halo effect at an ideal moment from a man who’s as idolized as any in technology-disruptor circles. It’s not a slam dunk, of course, as Silicon Valley frets over Musk’s recent stumbles: Tesla’s autopilot cars recently had their first casualty, erratic production rates for vehicles, another SpaceX rocket explosion, Wall Street analysts questioning how he holds his financial universe together. At the same time, attracting the esteem of one of our time’s true visionaries could awaken Panasonic shares, which are down 15 percent this year.
What’s more, the Tesla halo could catalyze Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, one proving to be more old economy gas guzzler than futuristic roadster. Nearly four years in, Abe’s team has doubled down on the yen devaluations and white elephant projects of the past to support growth. Nowhere on the horizon are moves to enliven innovation, support startups or encourage a renewable energy boom.
Abe’s slavish devotion to nuclear power means Japan is ignoring its greatest opportunity: devising ways for China, India and Indonesia to develop their economies without choking on growth. The real profits aren’t in Toyota making cars, but in inventing clean and cheap ways to revolutionize transportation and business and consumer energy solutions.
So powerful is Japan’s nuclear village — the nexus of pro-reactor politicians, academics and investors — that visionaries who step forward get swatted down. Take SoftBank ‘s Masayoshi Son, who’s proposed spending billions on giant solar panel farms. Sadly, bureaucrats have thrown up all kinds of barriers to Son storing the energy he creates in national power grids, making his initiatives a wash.
The gubernatorial election Oct. 16 in Niigata Prefecture should remind Abe his pro-nuclear stance has little public support. Voters chose anti-reactor candidate Ryuichi Yoneyama, dealing a blow to plans to restart the world’s biggest nuclear power station (virtually all of Japan’s reactors are offline in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis).
Will Musk’s interest capture Abe’s imagination? The odds aren’t great. As his Abenomics revival scheme fizzles, though, Abe would be wise to confer with his mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Now 74, Koizumi is spending his twilight-influence years pushing for a nuclear-free Japan, perhaps the most seismically active nation in the world. Last month, for example, he accused Abe of an “outright lie” in telling the International Olympic Committee that radiation leaks at the Fukushima No. 1 facility are under control to win the 2020 Tokyo games.
“The nuclear power industry says safety is their top priority, but profit is in fact what comes first,” Koizumi said. “Japan can grow if the country relies more on renewable energy.” And that’s exactly the opportunity Musk is serving up at an opportune moment as deflation deepens, wages stagnate and Japan Inc. clings to antiquated growth engines amid China’s rise.
Koizumi’s economic argument, by contrast, is state of the art. Investing in new energy sources and the means of storing, transporting and trading them, is the ultimate boom industry. It could create millions of high-paying engineering and service jobs, trillions of dollars of new wealth, boost Tokyo’s tax receipts and act as an organic growth engine to enable Japan to pay down debt. It’s Japan’s best chance to close the gap with China’s 6.7 percent third-quarter growth rate and reclaim the global relevance Tokyo craves.
Tesla’s bet on Panasonic’s photovoltaic cells and other advances is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg, not just for Japan Inc. but for a nation keen on rediscovering its technological mojo. As Abenomics looks to recharge its batteries, Panasonic is offering a timely case study.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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