Archive for the ‘Banking & Investment’ Category

In Japan it’s never too late to get in on the ground floor with stocks

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Stock up: Mizuho’s board in Yaesu

New prime minister Shinzo Abe would like you to believe that the recent rise in prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange are his doing, and the start of the rise did coincide with his election as president of the resurgent Liberal Democratic Party. Some economists have dismissed this theory, saying the stock market was due for a cyclical upturn anyway, but we’re willing to give Abe the benefit of the doubt if only because stock markets are so fickle and sensitive that the TSE would probably change if Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa announced he was only going to wear green ties from now on.

Media focus on stock prices has revived the call to get the average person involved in the game. Everyone agrees that if the market improves steadily the general economy will, too. Since the crash of 2008, sparked by the failure of the Lehman Brothers investment house, all the world’s stock markets have gradually regained their footing except for Tokyo’s, which is dominated by foreign investors. The TSE has improved but at a much slower rate, and experts agree it has a lot to do with the fact that the vast majority of Japanese are still wary of stocks as a personal investment. One of the primary reasons for Japan’s long-standing deflationary trend is the huge personal savings stash of ¥1,400 trillion, half of which is estimated to be “dead,” meaning it isn’t even in a bank account. If only 1 percent of this money were invested in stocks, Japan’s fiscal problems would be solved. There would be more money in general circulation, and banks would then relax their loan criteria, allowing more companies to borrow money in response to perceived demand. Atsuto Sawakami of Sawakami Fund, one of Japan’s leading mutual funds, has been traveling the country encouraging retirees to buy stock by pointing out that traditionally company stocks in Japan have been owned by other companies, which are always under pressure to sell, thus stifling the market as a whole. If more individuals bought stocks and kept those stocks for the long-term, prices would automatically go up. The response, according to the Asahi Shimbun, has been positive. Business magazine Diamond Online reports that only 6.6 percent of individual financial assets in Japan are invested in stocks, while in the U.S. the equivalent portion is 30.6 percent. More individuals are gravitating toward mutual funds, but the portion of assets invested in them in Japan is only 3.4 percent, while in the U.S. it’s 11.8 percent. Meanwhile, 55.8 percent of individual assets in Japan are in non-performing bank accounts. The equivalent in the U.S. is 14.7 percent. Continue reading about rising stock prices in Japan →

Backsliding Japan Post broadens its horizons on all fronts

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

While you’re out, drop by the post office to pick up some stamps . . . and a mortgage

On Oct. 1, two divisions of the Nihon Yusei Group, in English known as Japan Post Holdings, or JP, will consolidate. If you were never aware that four separate companies make up the post office service — Yubin Kyoku, Nihon Yubin Jigyo, Yucho Ginko and Kampo Seimei — then you shouldn’t feel embarrassed. The vast majority of Japanese don’t know about it either, so the merger of the two postal-related services, Yubin Kyoku, which manages the post office system, and Nihon Yubin Jigyo, which manages mail delivery, into one entity called Nihon Yubin may hardly qualify as news to most people.

In fact, most people will wonder what actually distinguishes these two entities. Aren’t the business of managing post offices and the business of delivering mail part and parcel of the same general enterprise? Apparently not, though you’d have to actually work in either of those companies to understand why. Perhaps the best way to explain this conundrum is to look at one of the new services that will be offered after the consolidation takes place, something called tsucho azukari.

With this service, a person who has a savings account at Yucho Ginko (Japan Post Bank) can entrust (azukari) his or her passbook (tsucho) to a regular delivery person, who brings it to the bank so that an employee can carry out a desired transaction on the person’s behalf. Logic would say this sounds like a cooperative service between Nihon Yubin Jigyo, the delivery arm of JP, and Yucho Ginko, the banking arm of JP, but all Yucho Ginko are located in JP post offices, which means it’s really a cooperative service betweeh Nihon Yubin and Yubin Kyoku.

Tsucho azukari is actually a traditional service, especially for the elderly in rural areas where it is sometimes difficult to make it to the post office. But in the past, it was an informal service, simply something that a delivery person did for someone on his route as a personal favor. The new service will be implemented initially on a trial basis at only 52 of JP’s 24,000 post offices. The service itself is less important than what it represents, a reversal of the postal decentralization that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his life’s work and which started in 2007.

Continue reading about the birth of Nihon Yubin →

Electronics makers lead the way in killing off lifetime employment system

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

The big domestic economic news this week is the steep slide in stock prices for Sharp Corporation. Japan’s leading liquid crystal display manufacturer has seen its shares fall 73 percent since the beginning of the year due to an oversupply of television sets in a world that no longer thinks Japanese home electronics are the best that money can buy.

If you’re not Takashi Okuda, president of Sharp Corp., you probably don’t have lifetime employment. (Kyoto photo)

The only thing keeping Sharp going at this point is its parts supply business, especially the deal it has with Taiwan-based company Foxconn, which assembles iPhones and iPads for Apple and uses Sharp-manufactured liquid crystal displays. Last week, Sharp announced it was eliminating 5,000 jobs from its worldwide 56,000-person workforce, the biggest employment cut in the company’s history. It is also going to slash management salaries, including the president’s, by 50 percent. Originally, it was only going to be 20 percent.

In terms of pure numbers, Sharp’s cuts are actually modest compared to other electronics makers. Last January, NEC announced it was eliminating 10,000 jobs. Sony also said it would cut 10,000 employees in April. Panasonic, which employs more than 360,000 worldwide, has said it has “targeted” 7,000 positions in its headquarters alone working in office services, R&D and production technology. They will either be transferred to other divisions or subsidiaries, or pressured to take early retirement. And as these companies scale back, affiliated businesses will have to do the same. Renesas, one of Japan’s leading semiconductor makers, which mainly supplied NEC, will have to cut 30 percent of its workforce, the equivalent of 12,000 jobs.

Even the electronics companies that are stable right now, like Toshiba and Hitachi, haven’t escaped the downsizing trend; they just carried out their massive job cutting a few years ago, which is one of the reasons they’re doing relatively well right now and aren’t in the news as much. Another reason is that they’ve moved away from consumer electronics, where the competition is just too fierce.

Not surprisingly, home electronics is no longer a field that young university graduates are interested in. Ten years ago, Sony, Panasonic and others of their size were at the top of the wish lists of college seniors, but according to the online version of the business magazine Diamond, all new graduates care about now is getting a position in the public sector. Though the official unemployment rate in Japan is only 4.5 percent, young people know that securing work does not mean security, at least not in the classic sense, so even getting a job with an “excellent company” doesn’t guarantee a job for life. Only the civil service does. The government never restructures.

A survey was carried out by the employment consulting firm, Leggenda Corp., of students who will enter the workforce in 2013. More than 50 percent say their first choice is to work for the government. The Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training gets more specific. In a survey of 4,000 20-year-old men and women, they found that 87.5 percent will prioritize lifetime employment (shushin koyo) when they look for their first job. These respondents also look forward to “age-based promotions and raises,” another attribute of the old Japanese employment system that has gone the way of the dodo, at least in the private sector. This is the highest percentage on record, which just goes to prove that people really don’t miss their water until the well goes dry.

Banks get tax cut and finally decide to pay up

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

League of Extraordinarily Happy Gentlemen: entrance to Tokyo Bankers Association

On May 15 several major banks announced they would start paying corporate taxes. Mizuho Corporate Bank said it would start paying this year, while Mizuho Bank, Mitsui Sumitomo Bank and Resona Holdings will start next year. According to the Asahi Shimbun, it will be the first time in 15 years that Mitsui Sumitomo will pay any taxes. For Resona, a consolidation of Daiwa Bank, Kinki Osaka Bank, Nara Bank and, later, Asahi Bank, it’s the first time in 18 years.

The Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ financial group started paying corporate taxes last year. Despite the Lehman Brothers-triggered recession, all these banks have been in the black since at latest 2006. However, by law they can carry over cumulative losses from previous years on their books. All the banks suffered huge losses in the 1990s due to bad loans. At its worst point, Mizuho was in the hole by as much as ¥5 trillion; Mitsui Sumitomo ¥2.7 trillion. The three top banks’ total profits for fiscal 2012 is estimated to be ¥1.9 trillion, a 35 percent increase over 2011, even though they don’t lend money any more. All these banks received government bailouts and Resona was actually nationalized for a while. Of the total ¥3.1 trillion that was injected into the banking system by the government, ¥2.3 trillion has been paid back, and it’s assumed that the rest will be reimbursed earlier than originally planned.

Until the cut that went into effect April 1, Japanese companies always complained that corporate tax rates were higher here than in other countries, but 70 percent of them never pay any, including listed companies that pay dividends. More than 80 percent of companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange paid dividends last year. Moreover, before the Diet approved the 5 percent corporate tax reduction (from 40 to 35 percent for the biggest companies), the Japan Communist Party, which opposed any cuts to the corporate tax, revealed that “internal reserves” (naibu ryuho) of Japanese companies amounted to ¥266 trillion. At any rate, the special taxes enacted to pay for reconstruction have reduced the cut slightly, but companies still have a smaller rate than they did last year.

Japan Post would prefer to let sleeping dogs, and accounts, lie

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Sleep tight: Japan Post data center in Chiba

Since last year, the government has talked about tapping so-called kyumin koza to help fund reconstruction in the areas hit by the March 11 disaster. Kyumin koza are “sleeping bank accounts,” meaning savings in financial institutions that have gone untouched for long periods of time. The government says it needs at least ¥50 billion for reconstruction, and every year banks “uncover” about ¥80 billion in unclaimed accounts, 90 percent of which contain less than ¥10,000 each. For banking purposes the definition of a kyumin koza is an account from which no transactions have been carried out for ten years and whose holder the bank has not been able to contact.

Under such circumstances, banks typically move this money into the plus column on their books, which is why the financial industry isn’t too crazy about the government’s plan to commandeer the comatose cash. The banks’ argument is that even though they have taken over this money, if the account holder does show up with proper identification and other pertinent documentation they will happily return it; but they couldn’t do that if the government has taken it first.

It’s a credible argument, though Japanese weekly magazine Gendai points out that ever since the end of the bubble era in the early 1990s, banks have become very strict about closing bank accounts, meaning that someone who had not touched their money for more than 10 years would probably require a lot of paperwork to prove the account was his. It would thus be very difficult for individuals to access accounts of family members who have died, since those individuals would have to produce death certificates, proof of relationship and other documents. Moreover, an account can only be closed at the branch where it was opened. It’s assumed that a large number of sleeping accounts have gone untouched because the account holder died without informing his or her family of its existence.

Why the sudden jump in "sleeping account" proceeds? →

Yearly statistics put recession into slightly better focus

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Here's your money: Bank of Japan

As the fiscal year draws to a close the relevant government ministries and agencies release their statistics for the previous calendar year. This week, the media mostly concentrated on a survey by the Bank of Japan that revealed a steep rise in the percentage of households (two or more people) with absolutely no financial assets, meaning no stocks, bonds, savings or annuities: 28.6 percent, 6.3 points higher than it was in 2010 and the highest it has ever been since 1963, when the BOJ started conducting this particular survey. Among the households that did have financial assets, the average amount per household was ¥11.5 million, or ¥190,000 less than in 2010. The reason cited by the BOJ is a loss of value in securities affected by market performance in response to the March 11 disaster and the European credit crisis. However, one aspect of the survey that tends to get overlooked in most news reports is that 8,000 questionnaires were sent out but only 47.5 percent were returned with responses, which means the number of households represented was less than 4,000.

For a bit more insight into the nation’s economic well-being, there’s the chingin kozo kihon tokei chosa, a survey conducted by the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry to find out the situation with regards to salaries and wages. According to the results the average monthly pay of a full-time worker in Japan in 2011 was ¥296,800, which was 0.2 percent less than it was in 2010. Yearly salaries have been going down since 2008, when the average was ¥299,980. This amount includes basic wage plus any regular allowances but does not include overtime or bonuses. The ministry received responses from 45,818 firms, each of which has at least ten employees. Broken down a bit further, the average yearly pay for men was ¥328,300 (about the same as it was in 2010) and for women it was ¥231,900. That’s about 70 percent of men’s pay, but ten years ago women’s average pay was 60 percent of men’s.

Continue reading about yearly economic statistics →

Economists think about soaking the rich, a little

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

One of the most contentious issues to be argued in the next U.S. presidential election is whether or not to tax wealth. President Barack Obama believes the rich aren’t paying their fair share while Republicans are against any increase in taxes (with certain exceptions). Since Japan’s budget deficit is even worse than America’s, levying higher taxes on the rich would seem to be up for discussion here as well, but all we hear about is the consumption tax. Nevertheless, a number of Japanese economists have proposed a fuyuzei, or wealth tax, modeled on a similar idea that’s been used in Europe. The way the tax has been proposed makes its purpose twofold: while it should be able to generate lots of revenue for the government, it may also have the effect of getting dormant savings into circulation, which is just as important as reducing the national debt.

Even Mickey isn't safe

The proposal was recently explained in Tokyo Shimbun by Hiromichi Shirakawa, the chief economist for Credit Suisse. The basic idea is to tax the money in savings accounts and treasury bonds on an annual basis. Based on surveys conducted by the Financial Information Center, the total amount of money in savings accounts and treasury bonds is about ¥854 trillion, so if the wealth tax rate were set at 1 percent, the government could collect ¥8.5 trillion a year. In 2010, the amount of revenue generated by the consumption tax was ¥10.2 trillion.

Other economists have suggested variations on this theme, such as a graduated tax bracket system, meaning the more money you save, the higher the percentage of tax you would pay. Or, in order to really make it a tax on the rich, set a bottom limit for how much money is being saved, so that only people who fall above those lines pay the wealth tax. Of the ¥854 trillion mentioned above, 52 percent is controlled by persons with cash assets of ¥30 million or more.

According to the Bank of Japan, as of December 2011, individual cash assets in Japan amounted to ¥1,471 trillion, at least half of which is money in near zero-interest savings accounts. The wealth tax would not be levied on money invested in securities or insurance. As it stands, the government levies a flat 10 percent tax on capital gains from stocks, while it withholds 20 percent from interest income. Stock profits used to be taxed at 20 percent as well, but the government reduced it to spur investment with the aim of eventually returning it to 20 percent. The increase has been continually postponed, however, presumably because people still aren’t buying enough stock.

Shirakawa has advanced his idea on several TV shows and received numerous complaints from older people, whom the wealth tax would affect more since they have more savings than do younger people. In Tokyo Shimbun he said older people should think of their grandchildren, who will inherit this massive debt. But the main hurdle to introducing such a tax is lack of bureaucratic resources rather than political will. Because so many individuals keep the money in various accounts and/or invest them in various instruments, it is difficult for the Tax Bureau to determine exactly how much each citizen has in terms of assets. In fact, one of the arguments in favor of the controversial taxpayer ID number system currently under discussion is that it would make such calculations much easier, since all accounts and investments would be tied together through a personal ID number. (In fact, the government introduced the same sort of tax in 1950 but cancelled it after three years because it couldn’t get a bead on people’s assets.)

But what about so-called tansu yokin (savings in the wardrobe), meaning cash that is simply stuffed under a mattress or crammed behind the cookie jar, without any record that it even exists? No one has ever estimated how much cash is held secretly in Japan, though every once in a while you get some idea when an old house is torn down and a worker finds a stash of ¥10,000 bills; or an elderly person is swindled over the telephone by someone pretending to be his or her relative needing money right away to solve a problem. Last week, an old woman in Gifu handed over ¥60 million in cash to someone who said he was representing her son. Apparently, she had most if not all of this money on hand.

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