While Abenomics has been an unmitigated disaster for Japan's ordinary population, where the soaring stock market has benefited the top decile of the population while everyone has been slammed by a record 25 consecutive months of declining real wages and soaring input costs, there had been one bright spot: corporate earnings, which unlike in Europe or even the US, have been growing at a steady double-digit clip. What was surprising is that Japan was perhaps the one place where currency debasement was leading to an immediate flow through to rising EPS.
Then on Friday, a report out of Reuters caught our attention when news hit that 140 year old electronics conglomerate, and "pillar of Japan Inc", Toshiba had inflated profits by a stunning $1.2 billion for a whopping 7 years, with fabricated figures amounting to 30% of the company's "profits" since 2008!
Suddenly we saw Japan's profitability "renaissance" in a very different light as Toshiba's scandal suggested that, if endemic, Japan Inc's house of soaring profits was built on nothing more than fabricated foundations.
And while we await to see which other companies will admit they too had been cooking their books in the past few years, we will have to do it without Toshiba's CEO Hisao Tanaka, who together with five members of his senior staff, resigned earlier today.
According to the FT, "Tanaka said on Tuesday at a news conference, following a 15-second bow of contrition, that he “felt the need to carry out a major overhaul in our management team in order to build anew our company." “We have suffered what could be the biggest erosion of our brand image in our 140-year history."
Tanaka et al: "Sorry we got caught"
Of course, the only reason Mr. Tanaka apologized and resigned is not because he was actually cooking books the for an unprecedented 7 years, a period during which the CEO most certainly received tens if not hundreds of millions in equity and profit-linked compensation, but because he was caught.
We very much doubt he will have much if any of his generous bonuses clawed back even as "a panel of external lawyers and accountants said on Monday there was a “systematic” and “deliberate” attempt to inflate profit figures amid a corporate culture in which employees were afraid to speak out against bosses’ pushes for unrealistic earnings targets."
The panel said Mr Tanaka, who joined Toshiba four decades ago, and vice-chairman Norio Sasaki were aware that profits were being overstated and did not take any action to end the improper accounting.
The only action he did was bow down to suckers, aka investors, and offer a 15 second apology after which he was most likely on a one-way chartered flight out of Tokyo to some non-extradition island where his millions in ill-gotten comp will buy a lifetime supply of Mai-Tais.
As FT adds, the panel said Toshiba, which makes laptops, memory chips and nuclear reactors, "needed to revise its pre-tax profit figures by Y152bn ($1.2bn) over a seven-year period beginning in 2008, in addition to Y4.4bn in inflated profits estimated by Toshiba for three quarters of the 2014 financial year. The Y152bn accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the total pre-tax profit during the period."
Taro Aso, finance minister, said the scandal highlighted the need for corporate governance reform in corporate Japan. “We could lose trust in Japanese markets and the Tokyo Stock Exchange unless true corporate governance is in place,” he told reporters.
This is not the first massive accounting scandal involving a Japanese corporations: "the government has been seeking to improve investor confidence in Japanese corporate governance since 2011 when Michael Woodford, then Olympus chief executive, blew the whistle on Y117.7bn of covered up losses at the company dating back to the 1990s."
It won't be the last. In the meantime, investors are cautioned to take any numbers out of a country where cooking the books appears to be a daily occurrence with a huge grain of radioactive salt. Take the following example example of "dubious practices" as the company: during a meeting in December 2008 ahead of the third-quarter results for the financial year, the execs were told the operating profit forecast was a Y18.4bn loss, to which Mr Nishida said: “The figure is so embarrassing that we cannot announce it this coming January”. Accountants were forced to manipulate the figures to turn the forecast into a Y0.5bn profit.
The other executives who resigned are vice-presidents Hidejiro Shimomitsu, Masahiko Fukakushi, Kiyoshi Kobayashi and Toshio Masaki, and Keizo Maeda, representative executive officer. All were board members.
Yet despite the changes at the top nothing will change as the same culture of fraud and corruption that tainted the current executive team will persist in the future. The only question is who is next to admit that the only "working" aspect of Abenomics has also been a total fabrication.