Unease over corporate scandal: Olympus

Olympus_head_office_hatagaya_shibuyaLast night we watched documentary screened by the BBC called 1.7 billion dollar fraud: full exposure broadcast under the Storyville series banner. It is the story of an accounting fraud perpetrated over a 10 or so year period by the Board of the company to hide losses. It is an intriguing story told in an engaging way. Or so it seemed on first viewing.

The plot is simple. Successive presidents of the company have hidden losses by a variety of means – offshoring debt, buying shell companies, etc. – in order to keep up the share price and, ultimately, avoid bankruptcy. The knight in shining armour, as it were, was Michael Woodford, a humble Brit from Liverpool who started work for a subsidiary of Olympus 30 years ago and rose to be its president, at least in name. Without him, the scandal would have been ignored in Japan even though the story had been articulated in a small Japanese language financial magazine, FACTA. The story is even more complicated than the film presents.

Now there is no doubt that Olympus perpetrated significant accountancy fraud. And in order to do it, some rather dubious players – Yakuza and various Cayman Island firms – were employed. But it is also clear that the causes were not all they might seem. At first sight, the successive Presidents “instructed” their Finance directors, in particular Hisashi Mori, to move, hide and do whatever else to get rid of the debt for personal gain. Surely, should such losses be reported, they, as the person sat at the top would have to go? But what if the motive was not personal gain but rather the social welfare of employees? The capitalist west – or certainly the USA and the UK – has no real problem with this. Firms fail, employees find new jobs. Or not.

Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and Michael Woodford shake hands over appointment as President in 2011

Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and Michael Woodford shake hands over appointment as President in 2011

But even a cursory knowledge about Japanese firms and Japanese business methods alerts us to the non-universality of this approach. The firm may be bigger than the President (despite what Michael Woodford says about – Tsuyoshi Kikukawa – in the film) with the livelihoods of employees, families and pensions all locked into the success of the firm.

Moreover, the losses have their origins in global capitalist systems. First, the Plaza Accord of 1985 where a group of countries including Japan, the USA, UK, France and West Germany, decreased the value of the Dollar relative to the Yen. The purpose of this was to make the US more competitive and its goods and services cheaper. The downside was that Japanese products became more expensive, including Olympus products. Whilst this was not threatening, Olympus’ profits were affected. In order to keep them up – and this was not unique to Olympus – firms invested in stocks, bonds and other financial “instruments”. When the crash of 2008 came, these companies found their balance sheets compromised. Olympus acted to protect itself from those losses.

In the film, Michael Woodford is portrayed as being a victim. He was badly treated by Kikukawa particularly. For example, he tells the story of how he was invited to a lunch meeting where he saw that he had been served a Tuna sandwich and the other Japanese participants, Sushi, as a way of demonstrating his inferiority vis-a-vis his Japanese counterparts. He also tells of how he feared for his life when on the day he was sacked. But what was also telling is that Michael Woodford did not speak any Japanese. Now I am far from qualified to comment on this, but it seems to me that language is the most important aspect of culture. It is clear that some of the Japanese (writing) signs are made up of concepts of honour, loyalty, etc. To understand the language is to understand the culture. One cannot hope to understand Japanese capitalism in English. Maybe that is the biggest scandal, that Michael Woodford thought that he could. Or that capitalism speaks a universal language?

Picture: Olympus HQ ja:利用者:Kamemaru2000

Kikukawa and Woodford: screengrab from film

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