Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo yesterday Earlier this month, after nearly three straight years of nasty surprises, one of Japan’s top analysts on Toshiba asked the company to explain a basic issue about the planned sale of its key asset, but received a blunt response.
“We do not proactively disclose that information,” he was told.
The company, a 143-year-old conglomerate at the heart of Japan’s supposedly reforming industrial economy, had apparently learnt nothing from a crisis that was born directly from its culture of non-transparency and led it to the brink of oblivion. For those that look at corporate Japan and see a change-resistant bloc of conservatism and secrecy, Toshiba has provided proof after proof.
The analyst wanted detail on why the company, after the $18bn sale of its crown jewel memory chip business is completed, will retain a 40.2 per cent stake: an important point and surely explicable. Neither he, nor the market, yet has an answer.
It is now one year since Toshiba announced that it was spinning off its prized Nand memory chip business in preparation for a sale — a decision that helped stave off the biggest corporate crisis in Japanese history. A deal to sell to a consortium led by Bain Capital was agreed in September.
But while the worst has been avoided, the intervening year has done little to inspire confidence that Toshiba can resolve the deeper questions raised by its near-death experience. Some shareholders even believe that the sale of the chip business — which has yet to be approved by regulators — is an act of panic that will leave Toshiba irreparably damaged in the long-run.
“Toshiba has not fundamentally changed,” says Atsushi Osanai, a professor at Waseda Business School. “You can’t expect drastic change when the management, even if reshuffled, is born from the same culture that has inherited the traditional way of doing things. I don’t think the possibility is zero that they will once again put off resolving their problems.
”The brush-off given to the analyst hints at that reluctance to reform. Toshiba should have felt compelled to change after a string of problems ranging from its accountancy fraud, to the bankruptcy of its US nuclear business — that left the company with $4.5bn of negative equity — a clash with auditors, a fire sale of its best asset and the departure of 50,000 staff since mid-2015. The refusal to answer suggested that there is little momentum for change. If all that dynamite had left so little a mark, many global fund managers now ask, what hope of governance improvements is there for the rest of Japanese business?